Uncomfortable Truths: Confronting the Reality of Our National Heroes

by Christian O’Connell

The way nations remember, commemorate, and celebrate their national heroes and historical figures is a subject on which I have reflected a lot recently. Ever since the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia over the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee back in August 2017, historians, politicians and numerous other categories of individuals have debated – often fiercely – the manner in which national histories are channelled and mediated through monuments, commemorative ceremonies, and even popular culture. I even taught a class this semester on the debate in New York over the possible removal of a statue of Columbus.


The clashes between white supremacist groups and anti-fascist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017

The author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging and columnist for The Guardian Afua Hirsch sparked a controversy in the aftermath of Charlottesville by suggesting that if we took a closer look at the lives of some of our national heroes, we could even consider bringing down major landmarks of our own, such as Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square (see her article here).

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, London

Hirsch was questioning the often narrow and blinkered way in which many of our historical icons are remembered and represented. Nelson for instance, was a staunch defender of the British Empire’s commercial interests in the Caribbean, which essentially translates to slavery, from which British traders and plantation owners profited on an enormous scale. In her recent television documentary on Channel 4 entitled ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes’, Hirsch returned to this debate by also focusing on Winston Churchill (among others), regularly voted Britain’s number one in polls such as the BBC’s The Greatest Ever Briton in 2002. As the show highlighted, and other historians have frequently shown, representations of Churchill rarely ever feature his less than favourable view of Indians, his methods for dealing humanely with ‘savage’ African tribes (gassing them), or even his handling of striking (and starving) Welsh miners during the 1930s.

Afua Hirsch, ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes,’ Channel 4, Tuesday 29th May 9pm

Despite the fact that Hirsch (and she is by no means the first) was not denying the achievements for which figures like Nelson and Churchill are so fondly remembered (the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and defeating Nazi Germany in WWII), she has often been accused of attempting to erase history in suggesting monuments of these men could be taken down, when in fact, she has merely attempted to provoke a more open discussion about what they did beyond these famous feats, including that for which there is less to celebrate. At the extreme end of this, Hirsch has been the subject of vile racist, misogynist and nationalist abuse on social media. Indeed, one wonders whether a white male historian making similar claims would have received the same response. I have my doubts.

In her documentary, she suggested Britain could take a lead from Germany in the way the nation has had to come to terms with its past. This is an interesting suggestion (speaking to a German academic a few years ago, I learned that very often Germans find the concept of open patriotism unsettling and problematic as a consequence of their history). However, the difference between the two countries is that Germany was essentially forced into a reckoning with its recent past at the end of WWII. By contrast, in Britain we do not even discuss our past honestly. The British Empire is a very rarely feature in an ever-shrinking history curricula in schools, and we are too blinkered by the wives of Henry VIII and Churchill’s cry that ‘we shall never surrender’ to really care.

Winston Churchill

The problem is that I cannot see how we might be forced to come to terms with the darker aspects of our own history, especially if we keep ignoring them. Due to this collective process of forgetting, the Empire lives in in blurry images of former glory, conquest, and on blue plaque’s that acknowledge the bravery of British officers in the colonies. These images seem to resurface whenever there is a collective sense of threat to British identity, just browse through the posters and imagery from the EU referendum, particularly the Leave campaign.

The reality may be that a nuanced and more balanced historical appreciation of national heroes is not possible. What is evident, however, is the large sense of threat felt by many at the mere suggestion that we rethink the lives of people like Nelson and Churchill. This reaction may be a refusal to acknowledge historical reality when it comes to national heroes. It may be because the closer we look, the less they look like heroes, consequently, the past becomes much less reassuring or comforting. In many ways, this – like history more broadly – tell us more about ourselves than it does our past.


Neil Wynn says:

It is a fascinating and endless debate – Robert E. Lee is an interesting example – an undoubtedly great general and apparently honourable person who seemed motivated by identification with the South, but not with slavery; he even argued against the raising of memorials himself because of the problems they would cause in terms of bringing the nation back together. All heroes are problematic when considered fully – see Martin Luther King and his human failings (womaniser, drinker), etc etc. Perhaps we should avoid hero worship altogether?

coconnell says:

It’s clear from the reaction to Hirsch that national heroes like narratives are shaped to reassure and comfort people who need them. In that sense I’m not sure it’s something that can be abandoned

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