By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 2, 2006
LONDON, Jan. 1 -- British Prime Minister Winston Churchill favored summarily executing German leader Adolf Hitler in an electric chair if captured rather than holding "farce" trials for Hitler and other top Nazis, according to British news media reports describing recently declassified World War II-era documents.
Notes taken during British cabinet meetings from 1942 to 1945 also show that Churchill argued against releasing Indian spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi from prison on compassionate grounds, according to reports from the BBC and other media organizations.
Other ministers argued that Gandhi, jailed in 1942 for speaking out against India's involvement in military action against Nazi Germany, should be released to keep him from dying during a jailhouse hunger strike, according to the reports. But Churchill objected, saying, "I would keep him there and let him do as he likes," the reports said. Gandhi was released in 1944.
The declassified notes, taken by Deputy Cabinet Secretary Norman Brook, provide the first unfiltered look at debates among Churchill and his cabinet members on key issues at the height of World War II. Previously released minutes of cabinet meetings have described discussions in general terms, without providing specific details of debates on matters such as how Britain would deal with any captured members of the senior Nazi leadership.
The documents, made public at the National Archives, also show that Churchill decreed that Britain "mustn't interfere" with racial discrimination practices in the World War II-era U.S. military. At the time, black soldiers in the British army were treated equally, while black and white U.S. soldiers ate and slept in separate areas. The documents show that Churchill and other ministers took a dim view of "U.S. prejudices" but did not want the issue to cause friction between the allies.
In October 1942, Churchill told the cabinet that U.S. views "must be considered." The cabinet agreed to instruct military leaders to respect U.S. policies without allowing them to influence British practices. But it did advise that British troops should show "a great deal of reserve" when dealing with black U.S. troops.
The documents show a particularly hard-line side of Churchill as a wartime leader, including his suggestion that Britain should retaliate for Nazi attacks in Czechoslovakia by destroying three German villages for every Czech village assaulted by the Nazis, according to the reports.
At one war cabinet meeting in December 1942, the records show, Churchill commented, "Contemplate that if Hitler falls into our hands we shall certainly put him to death," describing him as "the mainspring of evil." The prime minister proposed that Hitler should be treated like a "gangster" and executed in an electric chair from the United States. At the time, Britain carried out executions by hanging; capital punishment has since been banned in Britain.
It is unclear whether Churchill was serious or jesting, according to the reports, when he suggested that the United States might provide an electric chair as part of its lend-lease assistance program.
"Instrument -- electric chair, for gangsters no doubt available on Lease Lend," the prime minister was quoted as saying.
At a cabinet meeting on July 7, 1943, Churchill argued that leading Nazis who fell into British hands should be treated as "outlaws" and shot rather than put on trial, according to a report on the declassified documents in the Sunday Telegraph. Churchill proposed drawing up a list of 50 top Nazis and giving military field commanders authority to execute them without trial should they be captured.
At a cabinet meeting in April 1945, according to the notes, Churchill was opposed to war crimes tribunals favored by the United States and said any trial for Hitler would be a "farce."