Afua Hirsch’s Channel 4 documentary The Battle for Britain’s Heroes this week made the plea that we need to discuss those sides of our history we have previously tried to conceal. To Hirsch, we have an untold, suppressed story, including the involvement of national heroes such as Nelson and Churchill in the crimes of imperialism, the brutalities of war and the slave trade. Our country has guilty secrets.
I’m incredulous. Perhaps Ms Hirsch might be unaware of much of our history herself, but she should not confuse her own lack of knowledge with an attempt to conceal. I could take her into any good bookshop and pull dozens upon dozens of titles off the shelves detailing the things she thinks we have suppressed.
Hirsch considers there’s a whole side to Churchill’s story that we ‘haven’t been talking about’. She repeats the allegation that Churchill allowed German cities to be bombed in 1945 simply to kill civilians. Not a new claim. Is she not aware of the hundreds of books, articles and documentaries that have discussed our wartime bombing policy to exhaustion? And that without re-starting the argument, many serious historians would completely reject claims that Churchill acted out of callousness rather than military necessity?
There are also fleeting references to Churchill’s jingoism as a young cavalry officer and his all-too-cheerful involvement in colonial wars. Again, not a secret. I read Churchill’s own extensive accounts in cheap paperback editions nearly forty years ago. His youthful violent exploits were even made into films. I would recommend Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston but there are others.
Then there’s Churchill’s alleged indifference to the terrible Bengal famine. Again, not new, having been extensively explored and written about, and many historians might take issue with the brief, simplistic discussion offered by the programme. Churchill’s racism (already well known) towards Africans and Indians was indefensible when seen through modern eyes, but unremarkable for a man born in 1874. In fact his attitudes would still be unremarkable in much of the world today. Humans (not just white people) are sadly riddled with prejudice, and more so now than then.
There is no ‘untold’ story about Churchill, whatever Hirsch thinks. If his story is something we have been concealing, it’s the worst cover-up ever. Perhaps Hirsch should just read a bit more.
Her other main target (amongst some lesser ones) was Horatio Nelson. She makes the startling discovery that an admiral whose ships (sadly) once helped guard the Atlantic slave trade actually supported slavery – a common view at the time. Who would ever have guessed this closely guarded secret?
Whatever his sins, Nelson was still a hero who saved us from a powerful foreign threat. Any nation would be proud of him. It does not mean we condone or have forgotten slavery, just that our heroes, like those of most other nations, might carry flaws.
The Mongolians fiercely defend Genghis Khan, a bloody genocidal monster. Modern Zulus venerate Shaka, the Idi Amin of his age, whose conquering army caused catastrophic levels of death and destruction over much of Africa. Simon Bolivar, the celebrated heroic South American liberator, was a brutal, murderous war criminal. Knocking down national heroes is a parlour game you could play for hours.
Nothing should be off limits when we study history but we shouldn’t isolate the unfortunate attitudes or even crimes of historical characters without seeing them in the context of their times. Past attitudes are often deeply embarrassing and much of history is vile; a catalogue of war, expropriation and hatred.
There are very few human societies who if they have had the wherewithal have not attacked, bullied, enslaved or exploited their neighbours. The innocent nations have often simply been the weaker ones. We are no worse and our choice of heroes does not mark us out for any special level of condemnation. Churchill, Nelson and many of our other great leaders have been complex people who have reflected their times, but that does not lessen their achievements. We can still be proud of them.
We should never try to bury unpleasant aspects of the past, but whatever Ms Hirsch’s flimsy programme claimed, we don’t. Post-colonial guilt, slavery and war are all major themes in our history, whether it is the curriculums of our schools, universities, the output of our broadcasters or our public libraries.
It does not mean that you are defending crimes or atrocities if you understand that you cannot always judge people, including our long-dead leaders, by the standards of the present. I would not defend for a moment Nelson’s belief in slavery or Churchill’s undoubted racism, and of course some crimes are truly evil in any age, but whatever our historical revisionists might think, I still wouldn’t knock over either Churchill’s statue or Nelson’s column.