Posted tagged ‘Stalin’

Heroic villains called to judgement?

February 15, 2019

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.


Remembering Uncle Joe

November 8, 2009

During the Second World War, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the configuration of the hostilities changed dramatically, the US media began to refer to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as ‘Uncle Joe’, the image of an avuncular family member. Of course as we all know, Stalin was nothing of the kind, and while Russian resistance to the Nazi invaders was heroic and in some cases highly tragic, it was driven by a leadership which, in the metrics of death, rivalled that of the Third Reich. Though it is hard (and probably not hugely helpful) to try to calculate the number of victims of Stalin’s régime, most put it at upwards of 10 million.

And yet, of course, it is not easy to leave it at that. For many Russians, Stalin secured the position of the Soviet Union as a superpower and ensured that it held the balance of terror with the United States for at least four decades. He created order internally, and secured for Russia a padding of dependent states on the periphery of the country. And so, given the uncertainties and occasional humiliations of the post-Cold War period, it may be understandable that in Russia there is a certain amount of Stalin nostalgia. It’s more than nostalgia: a significant number of Russians now see Stalin as a role model and would welcome a government run on his principles. In December 2008 a poll in Russia revealed that he was seen by Russians as the third most popular figure in history.

How should we see all this? Is it really just misplaced nostalgia in a country that is still rediscovering its national dignity, or is there something more sinister? As has been observed, if there were a similar poll in Germany about Hitler, there would rightly be international outrage. Are these two cases totally different?

It is reassuring therefore that Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has emphasised the horror of the Stalin-era repression and has called for memorials to his victims. If we are to have a balanced European development in which we all have confidence in each other, a tendency to believe that Stalin was somehow right, or even just not totally wrong, would undermine such an aim. I have much sympathy for Russians who want to take something good from their history of the 20th century, but hero-worshipping Stalin should not be the way to do that. I hope that President Medvedev’s approach carries the day.