BBC History Magazine

Piers Brendon

- Piers Brendon is a former keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre and a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. His latest book is Churchill’s Bestiary: His Life Through Animals, recently published by Michael O’Mara Books

My feature on 20th-century leaders reflects themes in my most ambitious book, The Dark Valley: A Panorama

of the 1930s. This opens up the age through mini-studies of key figures such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Mao Zedong.

Piers reappraise­s the Great Man theory of history

The Great Man theory of history has come under fire over recent decades. Neverthele­ss, argues Piers Brendon, the extraordin­ary contributi­ons of some extraordin­ary people to 20th-century history suggest that it is often individual­s, not just great impersonal forces, that shape the ages

It is impossible to understand the 20th century without giving due weight to the parts played by major figures

One of the highest profile historical dramas of recent times was Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. The film conjures up vividly the most crucial achievemen­t of any 20th-century British leader: Winston Churchill’s insistence on continuing the war against Hitler and the Nazis even if the Dunkirk evacuation, as seemed likely at the time, should prove to be a disaster. The film, to be sure, is drama rather than history, but Gary Oldman, who won an Oscar for his performanc­e, vigorously conveys Churchill’s bulldog determinat­ion in the face of adversity at home as well as abroad. Without a secure parliament­ary base, the new prime minister had to use all his eloquence, energy and courage to prevent the champions of appeasemen­t in his five-man war cabinet, Neville Chamberlai­n and Lord Halifax, from seeking a negotiated settlement with Germany. On 28 May 1940, he rallied the entire cabinet, some 25 ministers assembled in his room in the House of Commons, to the cause of resistance.

If Britain made peace, Churchill said, it would become a slave state. It would be disarmed and ruled by a Nazi puppet such as Oswald Mosley. So the fight must go on. “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” His colleagues responded with shouts of approval, jumping up and patting him on the back. They were probably expressing the essential sentiments of the British people, as Churchill himself famously claimed in the second volume of his history of the war, Their Finest Hour: “There was a white glow, overpoweri­ng, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.” Yet had Churchill not been at the helm, embodying the national will and giving the lion’s roar, there was a real chance that terms might have been agreed to allow Hitler’s Germany to dominate Europe. Churchill’s interventi­on occurred at a critical moment in the nation’s story – and it occupies a unique place in the national consciousn­ess, as the success of Darkest Hour, a film released 77 years after the events it portrays, proves.

Pressure from one strong leader turned the hinge of fate. Despite the spread of democracy, comparable events occurred quite often in the last century; and it is salutary to look back on them from the age of Donald Trump, whose capacity to upset the global order is not limited by normal political inhibition­s. This is not to deny that deep impersonal forces – climate, geography, demography, economic evolution and so on – play a fundamenta­l role in determinin­g the course of history. Nor is it to suggest that individual­s, among them Churchill himself, can be seen apart from the conditions in which they were formed and under which they operated. Individual­s, however, are not mere creatures of their zeitgeist. They are not bubbles afloat on the ocean of time, at the mercy of wind and tide, unable to direct their own course. To represent them as such is to ignore the force of human agency as well as the sway of “master spirits” imbued with what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the will to power”.

Foreshadow­ing of fascism

Of course, the ideal of the Nietzschea­n superman, the übermensch who dominates the masses and becomes the incarnatio­n of the nation, is now exploded. The heroic interpreta­tion of the past, best expressed by

the Scottish essayist, historian and philosophe­r Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), is dead. Carlyle maintained that Great Men (his capitals) were the “modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain”. They were “the soul of the whole world’s history”. This notion, put forward in Carlyle’s oracular lectures, On Heroes and HeroWorshi­p, is rightly seen as elitist, sexist and racist, a sinister foreshadow­ing of fascism.

History today, by contrast, embraces social, gender, ethnic and other studies, and the whole subject is vastly enriched by being examined from the bottom up rather than the top down. Yet, for all that, it is impossible to understand the history of the 20th century without giving due weight to the parts played by remarkable personalit­ies – figures like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Without their unique contributi­ons to the past century, the world we live in today would look very different indeed. A few examples of extraordin­ary people having an extraordin­ary impact on the world around them suffice to make the case – and few people would have a greater impact than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

As war-torn Russia descended into chaos in 1917, the profession­al revolution­ary Lenin returned home from Swiss exile, crossing Germany in the famous ‘sealed train’ as though, said Winston Churchill, he were a plague bacillus. On 16 April, Bolsheviks gave Lenin a rapturous welcome at St Petersburg’s Finland station. Far from basking in its glow, he rebuked them for compromisi­ng with the provisiona­l government. Eyes blazing with messianic fervour, he demanded blood-red revolution. The foreign war must give way to the class war. The bourgeoisi­e must be smashed. Land must go to the peasants and all power to the soviets (workers’ councils). A dictatorsh­ip of the proletaria­t in Russia would be a prelude to the overthrow of the internatio­nal capitalist order. Thanks to his demonic personalit­y and the skill with which he rode the Russian maelstrom, Lenin accomplish­ed much of this programme. Communism, whether in the shape of state power or subversive ideology, thus became a salient factor in 20th-century history.

Hail the deliverer

On 6 April 1930, a slight, bald, toothless man strode across the mud flats near the fishing village of Dandi (in western India) to the Arabian Sea and picked up a handful of natural salt. He was Mohandas Gandhi and, as a huge crowd looked on, one of his followers, the poet Sarojini Naidu, exclaimed: “Hail, Deliverer!”

This was the culminatio­n of Gandhi’s 240-mile Salt March from Ahmedabad, an act of brilliantl­y calculated defiance against the British Raj. The authoritie­s had imposed a tax on salt, which Gandhi called “the only condiment of the poor”. By freely availing himself of this gift of God, the Mahatma (‘Great Soul’) crystallis­ed Indian opposition to alien rule and set an inspiring example of the efficacy of satyagraha or ‘soul force’. As the nationalis­t leader Gokhale said, Gandhi was “capable of turning heroes out of clay”.

Actually, passive resistance often led to active resistance and disturbanc­es across the subcontine­nt resulted in more than 60,000 arrests, including that of Gandhi himself. But the apostle of non-violence pursued his course unflinchin­gly towards the goal of Indian independen­ce. With his dhoti and his spinning-wheel, symbol of the dignity of labour, the Mahatma struck sophistica­ted compatriot­s, including his ally Jawaharlal Nehru (the first prime minister of India), as an anachronis­m. But this was part of his appeal. Gandhi was, as he himself said, “spinning the destiny of India”. And it wasn’t just India that was transforme­d. The destiny of other countries shaking off the imperial

yoke was woven from the thread he made.

As Gandhi set off on his salt march, one of the world’s major powers was staring into the economic abyss. According to John Maynard Keynes, the slump of 1929 and resulting Great Depression threatened to plunge the United States into a new dark age that might last for a thousand years. The influentia­l journalist Edmund Wilson likened the economic crisis to “the rending of the Earth in preparatio­n for the Day of Judgment”. By 1933, 15 million Americans were out of work, industrial production had halved and hundreds of banks were failing. But on 4 March new hope dawned. In Washington, Franklin D Roosevelt, whose charismati­c personalit­y transcende­d his physical disability, was inaugurate­d as president. Roosevelt glowed with self-assurance as though, said actor Lillian Gish, he had been “dipped in phosphorus”.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, Roosevelt pronounced, promising to make war against the emergency as though the country had been invaded by a foreign foe. His New Deal was by no means completely successful. But Roosevelt’s great achievemen­t was to restore the confidence of a traumatise­d nation. He was thus able to win three more elections; to lead the US to victory in the Second World War; and, as a result of huge state investment, to end the Depression.

Roosevelt was undoubtedl­y a titan of modern history. But his impact on the course of the 20th century was arguably eclipsed by that of Mao Zedong. In May 1958, Mao, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, inaugurate­d the Great Leap Forward, and the shockwaves from that policy are still being felt today. Having emerged triumphant from the country’s civil and foreign war, forged the People’s Republic into a totalitari­an monolith and begun to transform the economy and society along socialist lines, Mao had long put his faith in the revolution­ary potential of the nation’s supreme asset, its huge population. The peasantry was an irresistib­le force, he believed, “like a tornado or tempest”.

The Great Helmsman now harnessed this energy, employing coercion on a gigantic scale, in an effort to modernise China and overtake the capitalist west. Peasants were stripped of their private plots and herded into communes. Collective farms were forced to produce grain for the state at fixed prices, and an enormous programme of industrial­isation was initiated. This involved attempting to manufactur­e steel in millions of village furnaces, which resulted in deforestat­ion, the production of useless lumps of metal, the neglect of crops and the worst manmade

Roosevelt glowed with self-assurance as though, said the actor Lilian Gish, he had been “dipped in phosphorus”

famine in history. More than 20 million people perished. Yet like Stalin during the 1932–33 Ukraine famine, Mao continued to export grain, thus partially concealing the catastroph­e from the rest of the world.

According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, whose biography presents Mao in satanic terms, he said that corpses helped to “fertilise the ground”. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s–70s, he augmented their number, further rooting the red dictatorsh­ip in blood. Yet it was Mao’s unique achievemen­t to sow the seed of the present superpower.

The Iron Lady’s triumph

On 12 October 1982, Margaret Thatcher, wearing an outfit reminiscen­t of a senior service uniform (navy blue suit, white gloves and broad-brimmed white hat with blue ribbon), took the salute at a Falklands War victory parade in the City of London. The 300,000-strong crowd sang ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and Thatcher finished her Guildhall speech with the mantra that the British people were “proud to be British”.

The nation’s first female prime minister was criticised for excluding members of the royal family from this patriotic celebratio­n and for vainglorio­usly referring to “my troops” rather than those of Her Majesty the Queen. But the Iron Lady’s resolute response to the Argentine invasion seemed to justify her claim to be making Britain great again – as it had been, she said, when it “built an empire and ruled a quarter of the world”.

Thatcher’s martial triumph also appeared to vindicate her other tough policies: the privatisat­ion of state enterprise­s, the selling of council houses, the emasculati­on of trade unions, financial deregulati­on and alienation from the European Community. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Thatcher went as far as to assert that, just as Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt had destroyed fascism, she and Ronald Reagan had destroyed communism. This may be an illusion, as are many of the claims made for the so-called Thatcher Revolution, but there’s little doubt that the prime minister’s fierce patriotism did inflate ideas of national exceptiona­lism – ideas that are still having consequenc­es today.

Thanks to Thatcher’s achievemen­ts – not to mention those of Cleopatra, Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great – Thomas Carlyle was doubly wrong in asserting that universal history was the biography of Great Men. Where he was right, though, was in focussing on the particular. It was to this that Aristotle was referring when he said that history is, for example, “what [the leading Athenian statesman] Alcibiades did and suffered”. Individual­s are no more symptoms of their time than events are incidental to history. By definition, outstandin­g men and women accomplish more than others. The measure of their significan­ce is that they do not leave the world as they found it.

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 ??  ?? LEFT, FROM TOP: Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Mao Zedong, Franklin D Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher all had a profound influence on 20th-century history
LEFT, FROM TOP: Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Mao Zedong, Franklin D Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher all had a profound influence on 20th-century history
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 ??  ?? Complement­s a new BBC Two series, Icons: The Story of the 20th Century
Complement­s a new BBC Two series, Icons: The Story of the 20th Century
 ??  ?? Winston Churchill’s defiance was inspired by the prospect of Britain becoming a Nazi slave state led by Oswald Mosley, pictured here saluting members of his British Union of Fascists in c1934
Winston Churchill’s defiance was inspired by the prospect of Britain becoming a Nazi slave state led by Oswald Mosley, pictured here saluting members of his British Union of Fascists in c1934
 ??  ?? Margaret Thatcher at the Falklands War victory parade, London, 1982. The prime minister’s “fierce patriotism inflated ideas of national exceptiona­lism”, writes Piers Brendon
Margaret Thatcher at the Falklands War victory parade, London, 1982. The prime minister’s “fierce patriotism inflated ideas of national exceptiona­lism”, writes Piers Brendon
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 ??  ?? Charismati­c and self-assured, President Franklin D Roosevelt throws the first pitch at a World Series baseball game in 1933
Charismati­c and self-assured, President Franklin D Roosevelt throws the first pitch at a World Series baseball game in 1933
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 ??  ?? LEFT: A 1960s poster shows Mao Zedong surrounded by what he regarded as China’s greatest asset: the workersBEL­OW: A detail from a piece of homespun khadi cloth, which Gandhi urged his followers to wear
LEFT: A 1960s poster shows Mao Zedong surrounded by what he regarded as China’s greatest asset: the workersBEL­OW: A detail from a piece of homespun khadi cloth, which Gandhi urged his followers to wear
 ??  ?? Labourers work on a collective farm during the 1950s, the decade when China, under Mao Zedong’s iron rule, made its ‘Great Leap Forward’. Mao’s vast economic programme would result in the deaths of more than 20 million people
Labourers work on a collective farm during the 1950s, the decade when China, under Mao Zedong’s iron rule, made its ‘Great Leap Forward’. Mao’s vast economic programme would result in the deaths of more than 20 million people

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