Fifty years ago, Time magazine selected Winston Churchill as its "Man of the Half Century." As the millennium and the century come to an end (or rather, as their end is celebrated), Time has selected Albert Einstein as the Person of the Century, with honorable mentions going to Franklin Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi. Churchill is specifically excluded from the first or second ranks, largely because of his opinions about Home Rule for India.
First among the three criteria by which Time has made its selections is the following: "The grand struggle between totalitarianism and democracy."
Pertinent to this criteria is the following quotation: "I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed."
This was written by Mohandas Gandhi in May of 1940, the same month in which Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain, the same month in which Hitler launched his attack upon Belgium, the Low Countries, and France. Within a month of this statement by Gandhi, Hitler would be in control of all Western Europe. And of course, the murders of civilians, the destruction of millions because of their race or their political views or their nationality, would begin in France as it had begun already in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, and wherever the writ of the Fuehrer ran.
May 1940 is a late date for a respected world leader to be writing such a thing. In fact Gandhi, a great man in some respects, did not understand Hitler nor the totalitarianism of which Hitler is one of the two supreme representatives. Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolence would have met with different results, had he been applying that doctrine against such a man and such a regime as Hitler and Nazi Germany. In November 1938, Gandhi went so far as to advise the Jews of Europe to offer only nonviolent resistance to Hitler. As he gave this advice, he also advised Britain, France, and America not to declare war upon Germany.
The situation in Europe was a little different than the situation in British India. In Europe, teams of German soldiers were already touring about the countryside, murdering groups of Jews. Later, larger groups would be loaded onto railway cars, then transported to factories that had been constructed for their murder and cremation. The aim was not to persecute or humble the Jews. It was simply to destroy them all, whether they resisted or no. It was parallel to the policy deployed against certain insects and other sub-human pests in Europe today. It did not matter whether they complained or failed to complain, resisted or submitted.
The Jews who lived in Europe came therefore in closer contact with the phenomenon of Hitler than did Gandhi. Most of those few Jews who survived and who later founded the state of Israel drew precisely the opposite lesson from the war, than the lesson recommended by Gandhi. They resolved never again to be in a position in which they could not shoot back. They understood the simple fact that their survival had been won for them by the heroes sent from the Allied powers to conquer Hitler. They wished, next time, to be able to make a larger contribution to their own safety.
That brings us back to Churchill. It happens that Churchill and Gandhi had a confrontation of sorts. Churchill was an opponent of home rule for India, and Gandhi was the leader of the movement that won home rule. Churchill's views on this matter are not today well-known. His opinion was that the people of India were entitled to self-government. He had said years earlier in a speech in honor of the Fourth of July that the British Empire must stand for the principles of the Declaration of Independence. He meant this. At the same time, he believed that the people of India were incapable of self-government at that time. That was because India was not so much a country as a "geographic expression." It was divided among peoples of different tribes, languages, and religions, and some of these peoples meant violence upon others. And so he predicted that Home Rule or independence would mean a civil war and massive casualties. Moreover, Churchill's views continued, Britain carried a responsibility in India. Partly by accident, and partly by policy it had come to exercise sovereignty there, and because of its actions over many decades the population of India had greatly increased. Those people alive because of British rule could rightly blame Britain if they were subjected to violence or oppression.
In the event, there was a civil war, and India and Pakistan, enemies and both nuclear powers today, separated. At least several hundred thousand, and perhaps several millions, of Indians and Pakistanis were killed in the strife that accompanied their division into separate countries. Gandhi was deeply disappointed by these events. He said to a journalist in 1947: "Madame, you may write in your paper that India has never followed my way." Gandhi was finally murdered by people who did not like his policy of fair-dealing with Pakistan and with Muslims generally.
One word about the contemporary situation: India is now a great nation, operating democratically, with fair if also incomplete protections for civil rights. Long a friend of the Soviet Union, which is no good thing to be, it has more recently made overtures of friendship to the United States. Of course we should consider these, and we should wish India and every nation well. Especially should we do this of nations that seek to be responsive to the will of their citizens.
As for Gandhi, we should praise him because he did not wish the death or suffering of anyone, Muslim or Jew, Hindu or Christian. That is greatly to his credit. Churchill was a different sort of man with different principles. He, like Gandhi, wished the good of the people of India and of every nation and every faith. But he was prepared to raise an army in defense of right and justice. He was prepared to fight for freedom and to give his life in that cause if necessary. And he possessed that prudence which could see into the future and predict destruction before it came.
And so if we are picking a man who in this century has played the central part in the defense of liberty against totalitarian force, there is a man to choose. He is not Gandhi. In the next century, as in all that have come before, we will need such men as Churchill. Let us hope we deserve them, and that they come when they are needed. Happy New Year.