Gandhi & Churchill
An Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age

Author: Arthur Herman

A Bantam Book, May 2008

The following are selected snippets rather than a full representation of Herman's book. Herman has a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University. His book To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World was nominated for the prestigious Mountbatten Prize in 2005.

The British in India

Herman writes that the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58 "left a permanent stamp of race fear in England," and that Britain's defeat of the uprising "reinforced the lesson that the British were born to rule and the Indians to obey."

The British viewed Hindus as weak and superstitious but also intriguing and cunning. The Muslims of India, writes Herman, "were considered physically strong but intellectually dim, while Sikhs were loyal but unstable." Adds Herman: "On the whole, the average white in India believed that a typical native might make a good servant or a loyal soldier" and considered them "incapable of accomplishing anything without British help." Herman writes that the English believed that Indians "were incapable of self-restraint, self-discipline, or self-help, let alone self-rule." About European women in India he writes:

White women were never to travel, or meet alone, with an Indian man; Indian males were never to speak to a European woman unless spoken to, let alone stare at or touch one. Those who dared to transgress those rules, male or female, became objects of scandal, even physical violence. (p. 31)

Churchill the Young Englishman

Churchill went to India in 1896 at the age of 22 as a young lieutenant. There he played polo and read a lot. He believed in British rule in India. Back in England on July 26, 1997 he spoke in public about "our Empire" being at "the height of its glory and power," and he denounced talk that "now we should decline." It was time, he said, to show the world that "the vigour and vitality of our race is unimpaired."

Churchill's distaste for decline was in part Darwinist. In India the book that had the greatest influence on him was The Martyrdom of Man, by Windword Reade, a book recommended to him by his commanding officer – and a book that impressed a young H.G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle among other notables. Herman describes the book as about "the triumph of modern progress and science over primitive cruelty and superstition." It was, he writes, "an early manifesto of what would later be called Social Darwinism." Herman writes that Churchill was struck by the book's "devastating critique of Christianity and of religious faith as reflections of man's most backward tendencies." Herman continues:

Reade's unabashed atheism left Winston, by his own admission, with "a predominantly secular view" of life and human nature that lasted until his death. More than half a century later he would querulously ask his doctor how any trained physician could possibly believe in an afterlife. (p. 97)

Gandhi the Believer

Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, was immersed in religion – in the spiritual. As Gandhi would see it, Churchill was immersed in the horrors of the materialist world. Gandhi's journey into the spiritual began with a Russian spiritualist, the founder of the Theosophical Society, Madame Blavatsky, who spoke of the hidden truths of Hinduism and Buddhism. Herman writes that Gandhi was uninterested in "the more esoteric side" of Blavatsky's Theosophist system, but that his "native culture was suddenly revealed to him as offering a set of radiant truths relative to all humanity. Finally he was ready to sit down to read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time..." (p. 79)

Herman continues:

Gandhi came to believe that the Gita's "cardinal teaching" was that human beings must resolve to do the right thing without thinking about or considering its fruits or rewards. "He who broods over results," Gandhi would later write, "is ever distracted [and] says goodbye to all scruples ..." (p. 81)

Gandhi described himself as drawn also to Christianity, especially to Jesus Christ. When in London he might "attend Christian services in various London churches."

Herman describes in detail Gandhi's life in South Africa, beginning in 1893, at the age of 23, following his having become a British-trained barrister. In South Africa he began his non-violent campaign of protest against discrimination against his fellow Indians – while believing that his fellow Indians were superior to South Africa's blacks (p. 89). Gandhi was often jailed, and his 23-year struggle in South Africa was painful and largely without success.

Churchill in the First Decade of the 20th Century

Herman writes that Churchill "resolutely believed the economic dealings between Britain and India rested not on imperialist domination but the free exchange of raw goods (mostly Indian) for manufactured ones (mostly British)." Churchill opposed a government plan to impose trade restrictions on India. According to Herman, Churchill was opposed to Britons turning their backs on India for short-term selfish gain. Churchill believed that Britain stood for the welfare of the world. (p. 143)

In 1909, Churchill wrote that there was "little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers." (p. 160) Churchill moved from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party of Lloyd-George. He contributed to the creation of the Old Age Pensions Act and the National Insurance Act of 1911, which, Herman observes, "laid the foundation for the British Welfare state – an astonishing achievement for a man later critics dismissed as a hopeless reactionary." (p. 161)

Churchill's concerns extended to what he called "the unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes." This, Churchill wrote, "constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate." Strong government action, he wrote, was needed to prevent "race suicide." He favored the government preventing the unfit from breeding. (p.161)

Churchill was opposed to socialism. "Socialism." he said, "pulls down wealth" while "liberalism seeks to raise up poverty." Herman writes that the dictatorship of the proletariat and class warfare "horrified him."

Gandhi against Modernity

Gandhi "read and reread the books that mattered most to him." This included Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You. In 1909 Gandhi wrote Confession of Faith, expressing his opposition to modernity for India: its railways, the telegraph, telephone et cetera. "If British rule were replaced tomorrow by Indian rule based on modern methods," he claimed, "India would be none the better." He saw modern cities as a cause of India's trouble. Modernity, as he saw it, had given rise to India's "real plagues spots." India's salvation, he believed, was in "unlearning what she had learned during the past fifty years." (p. 173)

Gandhi rejected modern medicine. "Hospitals," he wrote, "are the instruments of the Devil. "He went on to claim that modern civilization was "the kingdom of Satan." (p. 174)

Churchill in the 1920s and 30s

In 1919, British newspapers cheered Brigadier-General Dyer, the commander in India who had ordered the Amritsar Massacre, describing Dyer as having averted a second Sepoy Mutiny. Churchill bucked the patriotic passions in support of Dyer and in a speech in parliament on July 8, 1920 and helped turn around government opinion concerning Dyer. Churchill called the firing into unarmed crowds "frightfulness." The British, he believed, were supposed to be giving Indians a good impression of British rule.

In the 1920s the British were imposing their rule onto people in what is today Iraq. In place of sending ground forces to control the Iraqis the British employed a more economical tool: air power. Churchill favored this and experimental work of "gas bombs," including mustard gas. "In the end," writes Herman, "the gas was not used. But Royal Air Force planes did regularly bomb Arab villages, killing terrorists [people fighting for independence] and civilians alike." This in Churchill's words, was about teaching "those Arabs on the Lower Euphrates a good lesson." (p. 269)

As Chancellor of the Exchequer (1924 to 1929), Churchill favored cost cutting and "bullied the Admiralty into accepting reduced budgets." Herman describes him as saying that Germany would need decades to become a naval power again, and, in Churchill's words, "war with Japan is not a possibility which any reasonable government need take into account." In December 1924 he said, "Japan is at the other end of the world. She cannot menace our security in any way." (p. 300)

Into the 1930s, Churchill spoke against the Britain's Government of India Act. It passed in 1935 and granted Indian provinces autonomy, provided for establishment of an All India Federation, and introduced direct elections in India for the first time. The right to vote in India was increased from 7 million to 35 million. Churchill, back again with the Conservative Party, had been forecasting doom and destruction if the Government of India Act passed. It would be "a catastrophe that will shake the world," he had predicted. Herman writes that, "Rarely had a politician been proved so hopelessly wrong, after nearly wrecking his own political party in the process." Churchill had damaged the credibility that he could have used in the next few years speaking about the dangers of the Hitler regime in Germany. (p. 417)

Churchill was alarmed about the growth of dictatorships in Europe – in Poland, Yugoslavia, Austria, Italy and Germany. Three quarters of the people of Europe, he noted, were under dictatorships. Civil unrest was erupting in France and Spain. Churchill was no longer an admirer of Hitler's patriotism. Herman writes that "Churchill sensed something chillingly new and modern, but also frighteningly ancient and familiar, about the Nazi movement." In October 1935, Churchill wrote of Hitler's career as "borne onwards, not by a passionate love of Germany, but by currents of hatred so intense as to sear the souls of those who swim upon them." (p. 420)

Gandhi and Hitler

Herman writes that "The rise of fascism had only confirmed [Gandhi's] gloomy assessment of the terrible fate awaiting Western materialism." About the Munich conference, Gandhi wrote that "Peace has been preserved but at the price of honor." (p. 429)

Herman writes: "In 1938, [Gandhi] had urged the Czechs to use nonviolence against the Germans instead of bullets. He urged German Jews to do the same." On November 11, 1938, the day after the Kristallnacht, Gandhi wrote that a "calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women" would turn their "winter of desire" into "a summer of hope." Gandhi believed that such an approach would "score a lasting victory over the German gentiles, in the sense that they will have converted the latter to an appreciation of human dignity." (p. 445)

Gandhi, writes Herman, "urged Jews to disarm their persecutors by praying for Hitler." Herman quotes Gandhi as saying "Even if one Jew acted thus, he would save his self-respect and leave an example which, if it became infectious, would save the whole of Jewry." "Revenge is sweet," said Gandhi, but "forgiveness is divine." (p. 445)

Gandhi believed that if the Jews used his tactics, while they were being slaughtered they could have gotten their message out to the world better than they did. Herman writes that after the war, when the full extent of the Holocaust became known, Gandhi still felt that, in his words, "the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife...They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs." This Gandhi said "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany... As it was they succumbed anyway in their millions." (p. 445)

Additional Online Reading

The Martyrdom of Man, by Windord Reade.

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.