Heroic villains called to judgement?

I know a thing or two about defending historical figures generally held to be villains. As a boy I once borrowed a book from a library on Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, about whom at the time I knew little or nothing. I was aware of my own German heritage, and perhaps because of that I became irritated at the tone of the book, which painted Wilhelm as a cartoon villain with no redeeming features. I started to read other books, in German as well as in English, and began to defend Wilhelm, particularly in the presence of those who I suspected would be horrified at my attempts. In my circle of Anglophone juvenile friends, and some adults too, I became quite notorious for my Wilhelmine attachment.

In 1940, as the Netherlands (where Wilhelm was in exile since his abdication) were about to be overrun by Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill offered the Kaiser sanctuary in Britain. He refused. He died a year later, having spent the final months of his life under house arrest.

Kaiser Wilhelm might be a little less the subject of popular vilification these days, but what about Churchill? Last month the Scottish Green politician, Ross Greer MSP, expressed the view that Winston Churchill was a white supremacist and mass murderer. It was certainly a good way of attracting attention, and soon enough others got into the game. The British Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, when asked to say whether Churchill was a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’, judged him to be the latter. This might be seen alongside the attempts in some British political circles of the left to argue that Churchill’s some time ally, Stalin, was an heroic historical figure.

What do we take away from all this? First, it would be good advice to anyone asked to offer a summary judgement on political leaders of any generation to hesitate. Most people, whatever their significance or role, are not cartoon characters, and good and bad traits are not rarely discoverable together in the same person. Secondly, history is complex, just as our present circumstances are also. Kaiser Wilhelm was not a hero, but neither was he necessarily a villain. Winston Churchill may have been (and actually was) a white supremacist, but his being so made little impact on history, while his decision to stand firm against Hitler indisputably did.

Finally, we do well to remember that what matters more than your evaluation or mine of Great Men is what happened to the millions of men and women whose names we do not know and whose lives were made better or worse by what these leaders did. That judgement too will never be easy.

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One Comment on “Heroic villains called to judgement?”

  1. Vince Says:

    Well, I’d suggest going back to the Gold Standard and it’s protection of the propertied wasn’t a great move in 1924. But then the moves by the Fed and the bank of England to shore up the banks paper fulfilled the same result in the late insanity.
    On the Kaisar. I would argue he was very unlucky. Had the house of lords not had their teeth pulled in 1911… .


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