Anyone who has written for or about media, politics, or in fields like history know the power of the ellipsis to shave away important context. I came across this today when assembling some quotes on Churchill’s evolving views on employing terror as a matter of military strategic policy. Among them, one in particular is yet another demonstration of this.
I started with this quote, condemning terror polices, taken from a speech of his in parliament, as Secretary of State for War in the aftermath of the Amritsar Massacre in British colonial India:
“There is surely one general prohibition which we can make. I mean a prohibition against what is called ‘frightfulness.’ What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country.” (1920)
I skipped his 1940 “and now set Europe ablaze” directive when establishing the British wartime SOE since it is a more complex case and made note of his often quoted 1942 statement:
“All the same, it would be a mistake to cast aside our original thought which, it may be mentioned, is also strong in American minds, namely, that the severe, ruthless bombing of Germany on an ever-increasing scale will not only cripple her war effort, including U-boat and aircraft production, but will create conditions intolerable to the mass of the German population.” (1942)
I then moved on to his famous post-Dresden 1945 statement in a draft letter he wrote:
“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” (1945)
Now, almost every version of this quote I have seen online or in books, places an ellipsis before “The destruction of Dresden” and thus leaves us with the impression that Churchill was shocked at the scale of terror and that this is what lies at the heart of the justification for the “serious query” against terror bombing.
Now, let us fill in that quote with what has been removed:
“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because of some temporary provisions would have to be made for the Germans themselves. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” (1945)
I would argue that this radically changes our interpretation of this quote. Churchill here points to the practical difficulties of running an occupation in a “ruined land” and the need to devote much needed provisions for the Germans – not an ounce of sympathy is shown in this full quote for the suffering of civilians or doubt shown for the moral underpinnings of terror bombing.
On a side note: am I missing other important quotes by Churchill for this little collection (related, for example, to 1920s Iraq, India, or during WWII with respect to bombing etc.?).