The Crack-Up: Winston Churchill & the Geopolitics of 1919, with Andrew Roberts

April 8, 2019

Winston Churchill, watching the march of the 47th Division, Grande Place, Lille, France, 1918.
CREDIT: Aitken, Thomas Keith (Second Lieutenant)/Public Domain

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, an occasional series of podcasts about the year 1919, and I'm so happy to welcome in person today Andrew Roberts, the distinguished biographer of Winston Churchill, who just wrote a piece in The New York Times about how Churchill experienced the ups and downs of 1919.

Welcome, Andrew. So nice to be with you today.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Thank you, Ted. It's so great to be on the show.

TED WIDMER: What is Winston Churchill's job at the beginning of 1919?

ANDREW ROBERTS: In January of 1919 he became minister of war and also of air. In those days they had the two together. The Royal Air Force was about to be founded in April 1919, and so he was going to be the air minister as well as the person whose job it was to demobilize well over 3 million soldiers.

TED WIDMER: One might think that being minister of war after the war is over would be an easier job, but as you explain very well in your piece it was extraordinarily complicated.

ANDREW ROBERTS: It really was because there was a terrible economic situation in Britain at the end of the First World War, and so the demobilization process was highly complicated because people feared that if they were demobilized out of the army last, there wouldn't be a job for them to go to, and so they wanted to be demobilized as soon as possible.

The drawback with that was the Britain still had very extensive imperial and other responsibilities. So we couldn't just demobilize the whole army as soon as possible.

TED WIDMER: What is Churchill's reputation as the year 1919 is beginning? He has had a bit of a choppy war experience to that point.

ANDREW ROBERTS: To say the least of it. Absolutely.

Well, he started the war very well indeed. He had the Royal Navy ready for the outbreak of the Great War, and that was something that could never be taken away from him.

Then, in 1915 he had a spectacular crash of his career, where he was forced to resign over the catastrophic Dardanelles expedition, a brilliant idea in its concept, which was to try to get the Royal Navy from the Eastern Mediterranean and to anchor it off Istanbul, then called Constantinople, and thereby take the Turks out of the First World War, which simply didn't come off. Nothing to do with Winston Churchill, but operationally it was a disaster, and it cost the Allies 147,000 killed and wounded. That was very much blamed on Churchill. He became the scapegoat for it.

Then he went off to fight in the trenches, and he spent six months in the Royal Scots Fusiliers as a battalion commander, lieutenant colonel, and had many very close brushes with death at that time.

He was brought back in 1917 to become minister of munitions, and he was put in charge of 2.5 million people working in the munitions factories, and that was somewhere that he was able to really save his reputation. So in the opening days of 1919 he was still minister of munitions.

TED WIDMER: And that's not in the cabinet, is that right?

ANDREW ROBERTS: That was not in the cabinet. But he was then promoted by David Lloyd George, the prime minister, to the cabinet as secretary of state for war and air.

TED WIDMER: Is he giving advice to Lloyd George on other matters, on foreign policy matters, also?

ANDREW ROBERTS: The whole time, Winston Churchill being Winston Churchill.

TED WIDMER: Right. Of course.

ANDREW ROBERTS: He certainly didn't confine himself to his own brief ever. Even as a junior cabinet minister he would opine in cabinet on all issues.

TED WIDMER: So what is he thinking? It's an extraordinarily complicated world picture. The war has ended. Everyone is happy about that, but problems seem to be multiplying.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Huge problems, problems of course with regard to demobilization as I mentioned, riots, a near mutiny in the army within days of him becoming secretary of state and being responsible for it, which he puts down in a commendable way in that he's tough on the mutineers, but at the same time he then changes all of the criteria by which men were demobilized and made sure that the wounded men got demobilized first and then the people who had been in the trenches for the longest period. That was considered to be fair by the army, and so they put up with that.

The next great crisis as he saw it was Bolshevism, the Russian Revolution having taken place in 1917. He very much was out to try to "strangle it in its cradle" in his phrase. He wanted to crush it. But nobody was interested in doing that after such a long and debilitating and expensive war, certainly not David Lloyd George or your president, Woodrow Wilson.

Then you also have major problems with regard to what's going to happen in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire having collapsed by 1918 and the victorious powers basically slicing up the Middle East between them as mandates for the League of Nations. That also presented a series of imperial headaches that Churchill wanted to be involved in.

TED WIDMER: The Middle East obviously has never stopped being a headache since then. Where is Churchill on questions like a Jewish homeland, Arab sovereignty, all these very complicated topics?

ANDREW ROBERTS: He was very much a Zionist, and he was a supporter of the Balfour Declaration. He was not in the cabinet at the time that it was passed, but he was in the government, and he had been a Zionist all his life. 

This is slightly unusual for upper-class Englishmen of those days. If anything, anti-Semitism was much more likely from somebody of his age and class and background. But Churchill had grown up with Jews, he'd been friendly with them, he went on holiday with them, his father was philo-Semitic. And he also admired them and admired Judaism. He thought it gave Western civilization its ethics. As a result, he had a very different attitude to Jews and Zionism and the national homeland than pretty much everybody else of his generation.

TED WIDMER: Here in America, we of course remember Churchill for the Second World War and also for his role defining the Iron Curtain at the beginning of the Cold War. You can almost draw a connection from his activities in 1919 identifying the threat of Bolshevism with the later Churchill as a stalwart Cold Warrior. Is he always anti-Russia throughout that whole period?

ANDREW ROBERTS: No, not at all. It's very interesting. Throughout his life his stance on Russia changed five or six times. He started off—it's a very good question, and actually, of course, it also led in the 1930s to him being accused of lacking judgment because he kept changing his mind so many times. He had already by that stage crossed the floor of the House of Commons not once but twice. As he joked, "Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat."

With regard to Russia he started off, of course, being very pro-Russian when Russia was in the war. One of the reasons he undertook the Dardanelles expedition was because the Russians had asked him to.

Then, at the time of the Revolution, where he spotted very early on the totalitarian nature of Bolshevism, he became very anti-Russian. Then, in the 1930s, when he saw the Soviet Union as a bulwark against the Nazis, he became pro-Russian.

Then, when the Russians entered into the Nazi-Soviet pact in August of 1939 he became anti-Russian. Then, when Hitler invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 he became pro-Russian.

Then he became anti-Russian by March 1946 when he made the great speech that you were referring to, the "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri, in March of that year.

And then, after Stalin detonated the first Soviet nuclear device in April 1949, he became not so much pro-Russian but at least pro-appeasing Russia in the nuclear sense. So yes, if you could have ever accused a politician of flip-flopping, that would be it.

However, one can see in each of those changes of stance, changes of policy, the one single thread running through it all, which is the pursuit of British national interest.

TED WIDMER: That's right.

As minister of war he must have been deeply involved in the curious military expeditions into Russia in 1919, and American troops are also there. I think most Americans don't even know that we had troops in Russia in 1919.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Yes, you certainly did, Vladivostok on that side. You also have a huge Czech legion of around 100,000 men that are beyond the Urals.

TED WIDMER: That's a lot.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Yes, exactly, cut off by hundreds and hundreds of miles of Russian territory.

But the British really were first of all up in Murmansk and Archangel, where they were essentially guarding huge amounts of stores there. Also, they were supporting the White Russian armies of Denikin down in the Caucasus and the Crimea. And we had naval vessels also of course involved.

But they weren't huge numbers of men, certainly nothing like the size of the Czech legion, and they were already there in 1918 before Churchill became minister of war, so he inherited this situation.

He wanted to go on the offensive. He certainly wanted to give Denikin as much help as possible, and indeed the British did give Denikin £100 million, vast amounts of money in those days, of technical support and arms and ammunition and blankets and medical supplies and everything else you need for a war.

But David Lloyd George didn't want to send extra troops out there to try to overthrow Lenin and Trotsky in Moscow. You only have to look at what happened to Napoleon and later of course to Hitler to realize that that's pretty much a fool's errand. However, Churchill did think it was very important to help the Whites as much as possible.

Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, at the Versailles Peace Conference, when he met Churchill, actually denounced the Whites as reactionaries, which many of them were. There was a lot of anti-Semitism, for example, in the White armies. They conducted pogroms with just as much alacrity as the Bolsheviks did. So Wilson also didn't want to get any more involved than he was already.

TED WIDMER: You mentioned Versailles. Those negotiations are happening throughout the spring of 1919. Churchill is not there, but of course he's thinking about it.

ANDREW ROBERTS: He goes there occasionally. He goes to Paris to brief ministers and stays at the Hotel Majestic, the head of the British Empire delegation, and has a few meetings, including this one with Colonel House and Woodrow Wilson. But as you say, yes, he's not a permanent delegate.

TED WIDMER: What are his hopes for the postwar settlement?

ANDREW ROBERTS: Well, he summed it up rather wonderfully with the aphorism, "Kiss the Hun, kill the Bolshie." His plan really was to be as nice as possible to the Germans. He didn't want us to be beastly to the Germans in the Versailles settlement because he did see that this could cause problems in the way that obviously it did. So he was in favor of us being as pro-German as possible and of course also as anti-Bolshevik as possible.

TED WIDMER: Right. Did that create problems for him within his own government, or was he roughly where the other senior leaders of the British delegation were?

ANDREW ROBERTS: He was with a few of them. Basically, the Conservatives, in what was a national coalition, did agree with trying to oppose Bolshevism. But also, especially on the right of the Conservative Party, they wanted to hang the kaiser, and that was a completely impossible policy anyway because Holland, where the kaiser was at the time, where he was residing, was a neutral power. So you couldn't hang the kaiser.

But nonetheless, it was a potent election cry, and there had been an election in late 1918, and a lot of politicians had done very well on this "be as tough as possible against the Germans."

TED WIDMER: One tension we've been exploring in our series is the uncontrollable effect of words about liberation, freedom, democracy, self-determination, all these sweeping Wilsonian concepts that Wilson spoke very enthusiastically but didn't always think through the next stages.

We had a piece recently about Egyptian nationalism unleashed by hearing both the phrase "self-determination," Korean, Irish earlier in the year, and it's a year of many aspirations for something like freedom, most of which are frustrated.

Churchill is such a complicated figure because we revere him for his words about freedom at the height of the British struggle with the Nazis in 1940, and yet he was also a champion of the British Empire. So where is he in this year of swirling rhetoric?

ANDREW ROBERTS: As you say, President Wilson with his Fourteen Points did unleash a whirlwind with the phraseology about self-determination of peoples. To give Wilson his due, it had been around since Gladstone's time, but when one looked at the patchwork of different ethnicities within just the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires themselves, in order to give meaning to the concept of self-determination you basically had to not only just break up those two empires but somehow to draw lines in Europe that in different and competing religions and languages and nationalities go back to the Middle Ages and beyond.

So every ethnic breakdown that you have, if you wanted to, you could break it down a little bit further and find that there are irredentist movements therefore in pretty much any new country that you want to set up, such as Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia or so on.

You see this also as you mentioned in Egypt and in India, where of course the Indian National Congress had been around since the 1880s. They very much latched onto the concept of self-determination and of freedom, and this obviously couldn't happen without the breakup of the Raj, the British rule in India, which Churchill vehemently opposed. In many ways he wasn't a Christian, Winston Churchill, but he did have a faith, and that was the British Empire.

In order to give any kind of meaning to Wilson's grand words you had to somehow get the British out of India, which Winston Churchill was absolutely opposed to. He was somebody who when he was in his early 20s had served on the Northwest Frontier and spent his time as a subaltern in India. He had seen many things that the British had done in India that made him a true believer in the Empire.

He also, as one would have expected, of course, from somebody who was born and grew up at the time that Charles Darwin was still alive, did believe in the hierarchy of races. Although obviously we today know that to be ludicrous and obscene, at the time it was considered scientific fact. So he was not somebody who looked at all kindly on the activities of people like Mahatma Gandhi.

TED WIDMER: Is there any pattern to deciphering which peoples he wanted to support—you mentioned the Kurds in your piece—and which he wanted to suppress?

ANDREW ROBERTS: Yes. I mentioned Mahatma Gandhi. He certainly was no friend of the Hindu race or people or religion. If India was going to be partitioned, which he was very much against, he was in favor of there being a Pakistan, where the Muslims were not going to be persecuted by the Hindus.

He was a great admirer of the Sikhs, of course, because of their fighting qualities. He admired the princes, who ruled about one-third of British India directly, and also he had a great deal of sympathy for the untouchables, who he considered to be horribly oppressed by the Hindus.

It's very easy I think sometimes, especially here in America, for people to say, "Freedom for India." But what does that actually mean when it comes on the ground to the relationship between the Hindu minority and minorities such as the Muslims, the Sikhs, the untouchables, and indeed the princes?

TED WIDMER: Right.

ANDREW ROBERTS: It's so much more complicated than it seems.

And then in April of 1919 we have the horror of the Amritsar massacre, which brings this whole question to a head. Churchill denounced the general who was responsible for killing 379 Indians and wounding many more on that terrible day in April.

It almost threatened to break up the coalition. The House of Commons censured General Dyer, and he was cashiered from the army. This was very unpopular with a large number of British Conservatives, who actually donated to a fund set up by The Morning Post, the Conservative newspaper, and the Sikhs themselves in fact honored General Dyer the day after the massacre, which of course also probably didn't help terribly much with regard to communal wellbeing in the Punjab.

TED WIDMER: Later this year in September we will have a piece on Hitler's first political speech and the rise of German fury at the conditions of life after the Versailles peace treaty and the beginnings of Nazism. When does Churchill begin to sense that the treaty isn't working and that the postwar will be much more difficult than anyone anticipated?

ANDREW ROBERTS: It's really not until the Ruhr issues that raised their heads in 1923 and 1924 that it dawns on Churchill that this treaty is fundamentally flawed. And he is not opposed to—it seems strange to say it, but it's true—appeasing German sensibilities over it. Even really, extraordinarily up until 1937, after Adolf Hitler had come to power, he was still willing to give Germany back her First World War colonies in Africa, for example, if it could be a final settlement of the European issue.

He didn't believe that Hitler would go for it, and he didn't necessarily believe that Hitler could be trusted even if he did go for it. However, he was not so completely opposed to every form of appeasement of Germany that sometimes in the public imagination we think that he might have been.

It was after the fall of the coalition government in October 1922 that he started to think critically about Versailles.

TED WIDMER: Your one-volume Churchill biography did brilliantly well, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Will you stay with Churchill for your next book?

ANDREW ROBERTS: No, no, no. I've written a thousand-page book on Churchill. It has done wonderfully, and I'm thrilled that it should have been in The New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks and so on. All of this is utterly great as far as I'm concerned, but I don't want to go back to Winston Churchill now for a very long time.

My next book is a biography of—actually, talking about self-determination and freedom—your last king, King George III.

TED WIDMER: Wonderful.

ANDREW ROBERTS: He was a Renaissance man. He was an enlightened monarch. He was extremely unlucky as well in America and unfortunate, and he certainly wasn't the tyrant of the Declaration of Independence and indeed your musical Hamilton.

TED WIDMER: Isn't it true some of his papers have recently been released to scholars in a way that they weren't previously?

ANDREW ROBERTS: They've all been digitized, and this is going to be one of the reasons that I'm doing it. The whole of the Georgian papers the royal archives have now digitized at great time and great expense, and it's going to allow a new look, I think, at this king.

TED WIDMER: In a way he's such an odious but also fascinating figure in the play that it sets it up perfectly for a real historian to come along and tell the story.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Also, the other thing is that his madness didn't descend on him until long after the American Revolution was over.

TED WIDMER: Right.

Well, thank you, Andrew. It has been a great pleasure to talk with you today.

ANDREW ROBERTS: I've enjoyed it hugely, Ted. Thank you very much indeed.

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