Addressing the Binary Characterisation of Historical Figures

During the Second World War, there existed a leader who so perfectly characterised the actions of his nation that he has become not only a symbol for his side, but for the entire war. He is a leader who was willing, to do anything necessary to win; someone whose pre-war political guile was so effective that it put him in a position of almost unchallenged power. During the war itself, he took decisions that had disastrous consequences for his people, and were barbaric in nature. He used his citizens as a meat-shield to protect the military. People were allowed to starve to death to enhance his war effort. And of course he was directly responsible for the deaths of two to three million people in a single year alone. He stood proudly amongst the ruins of his bomb-ravaged cities, whilst enemy aeroplanes flew overhead, proclaiming that the sacrifice of the civilian population was necessary for the war effort. As the war drew to a close, he even stood by and allowed the Holocaust to continue, ensuring that the grotesque and evil genocide taking place would continue until the very end of the conflict.

Yet to the electorate, he was a hero. He appeared to the public as a sole voice of reason against a sea of political insanity. Whilst his rivals wound themselves up in knots, attempting to politic their way out of national crisis, his voice cut through the nonsense, and appealed directly to the people.

Of course, you know of whom I am speaking.

Over the last few days and weeks, there has rightfully begun a debate about the esteem in which we hold our historical, national heroes. Much has been said about them, and much has been ignored. As a historian, what saddens me the most is that people are unwilling to see the nuances of humanity; nobody who ever lived had an exclusively good or evil nature. Every human has elements of both. Yet I have observed over recent days historians who have for years been my own academic heroes drawn in to this black hole of binary conflict, and joined in the rhetoric of absolutist argument.

I will not be detailing the individual actions and atrocities undertaken at the behest of Winston Churchill whom, if you had not guessed was the subject of the opening paragraphs. He directed some actions the morality of which is absolutely unforgivable. So, why then do we overlook the evil within the man and celebrate him as a national treasure?

Imbued within the man lies not only the decisions that he took, rightly or wrongly, that brought about British victory in the Second World War, but also a metaphor for Britain at that time. In his image lies not only his successes and failures, his kindness and his evil, but the actions of every soldier who stormed the beaches at Normandy, protected the skies in the Battle of Britain, and who sacrificed his life so that we might be free to criticise Churchill today.

His image is not simply the representation of one man, but it is the encapsulation of millions upon millions of human beings who died in those horrific years. We must learn to accept the flawed man – and he most certainly was flawed; the perfect human does not unnecessarily sacrifice the lives of three million Bengalis, or set a Howitzer upon democratic protesters.

So why maintain his image at all? Well, for better or for worse, he was the one chosen to lead Britain at that time. And amongst all debate, that fact will never change.

We must acknowledge all of the triumphs, inadequacies and evils of the man but at the same time, understand that his image has transcended the simple likeness of a singular human, to become an embodiment of the millions who gave their lives in that terrible time.

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