In 1972, a film starring Simon Ward, Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft was released in cinemas. It focuses on the childhood and young adulthood of a man played by Ward, who, whilst from a background of historical and political privilege, struggles with the challenges that are imposed on him – ranging from the harsh, cold environment of boarding school life to the desperate attempts to impress his father, especially when consistently scoring the lowest in his classes. When his father eventually dies whilst the boy is turning into a man, he realises his purpose in life and joins the military, eventually serving in the Boer War and being interned as a prisoner of war. Despite his circumstances, he dares to make his escape. When he finally sneaks his way out of Boer territory by hiding in a cargo train, he makes himself known – shooting several rounds in the air exclaiming “I’m free! I’m free!”. The man played by Ward is that of a true story, a story belonging to one of Britain’s most famed leaders – Winston Churchill.
The film Young Winston is no doubt a romanticisation of Churchill’s life like most media, bringing little questions as to what misdeeds he may have either conducted or believed in. His order to bomb Dresden; his questionable views on race; his belief in using gas attacks against tribal minorities; and blaming the Indians for the 1943 Bengal famine; it has always been known that Churchill was far from being a saint – some only realising this now. This, along with many other things that Churchill can be criticised for that are racially sensitive or not, elucidates further the importance of understanding history and biography. After all, it was Churchill himself who is often attributed (and mistakenly) to have said “history is written by the victor”.
One’s social consciousness of another’s legacy is important in more ways than one. The most important factor of a legacy’s power believed by those who lead the great purge of statues is that men such as Churchill should be denounced for the wrongs they have committed, despite what contributions they may have made for society. Nevertheless, it has made people question even more the legacies past “great men” have in the present day, especially as the movement of time increasingly distances our links and fidelity to such figures.
However, such remunerations on the past should teach us an ever greater lesson that those ignorant of history will never learn – the simple maxim that nobody is perfect. Our obsession with great historical figures has placed an illusion on our perceptions that causes us to think that such people are omnipotent or were beyond human compulsions. Nor does this fetish for magnificent acts of the past allow us to comprehend how the milieus of different eras may cause one to think differently to those in the past or future – whose lifestyles were or will be very different to our own. Like Amol Rajan quoting Bertrand Russell’s maxim that I myself quoted in my last article, “every opinion now accepted was once eccentric”. It can be assured that the progressiveness the majority of Western society believes in will soon be an anachronism in the future, much like Churchill’s and his own generation’s beliefs are to us.
Above all, it should make those who are dissatisfied students in history realise that all individuals’ legacies, no matter what altruism or progress that is associated with them, eventually expire. Emmeline Pankhurst – one of the head honchos of the women’s rights movement that made their right to vote legal – was known for her questionable views on equality in general. A. J. P. Taylor – one of Britain’s most famed historians and polemicists (and a personal favourite of mine) – was a socialist, yet was also a Germanophobe and a believer in the Sonderweg theory that believes that the Nazification of Germany was inevitable due to the country’s unique history and culture. Should I stop reading Taylor’s books and not learn from his masterful narrative of history just because he held one or two controversial beliefs that I strongly disagree with? Certainly not, for I would remove myself from a source which can give me wisdom and time to reflect on my Weltanschauung, even if I don’t agree with the information it supplies me with. Instead of filling one with hate, it can provide one with a pragmatic mindset that is supported by a greater purview of beliefs and knowledge. Some fail to attain this skill, but that is only through limiting one’s access to the past – no matter how controversial it can be.
The statue purge therefore does not fix anything. Instead it restricts one’s beliefs into an echo chamber where no new knowledge can be accessed. The censorship of anyone with questionable pasts only makes ourselves less cultured and worldly, especially when they made certain actions which are worth commending. If anything, the term “hero” is overstated and it is only now that people are beginning to realise this. But there are some who wish to go one step further by turning perceived heroes into villains. Doing so would be a great generalisation, especially if one is going to compare Churchill with Hitler – the latter being one of the last people on earth to deserve some form of commemoration. Whether someone likes it or not, Churchill led Britain’s war against the evils of Nazism, an effort that should never be forgotten.
And to those who wish to extend their campaign of censorship further, I would advise you to stop reading The Guardian – considering it was founded by a racist. The contradictions of society are well and truly flowing in abundance.
Alex Johnson is a Co-editor of The Jackdaw.
Picture: The Imperial German Army 1890 – 1913 Kaiser Wilhelm II points out an event of interest to the British Junior Minister at the Colonial Office, Winston Churchill, during the summer manoeuvres of the Imperial German Army in 1906. Public domain.