Re-examining The Legacy Of Celebrated Historical Figures

Holly Aldridge

Society tends to celebrate and idolise popular figures whilst ignoring the negative aspects of their legacy. Many individuals are revered for their positive achievements which have left an enduring legacy of popular support.

This blind adoration needs to be called into question regarding several individuals as it has led to their problematic actions and views to be erased from historical memory. Whilst the perspective of various individuals is slowly starting to change as their problematic views are being brought into national discussion, more needs to be done to articulate the complexities of their legacies.

Winston Churchill:

Winston Churchill is celebrated throughout the UK for leading us to victory in World War II, however, this narrative has grossly overshadowed his extreme racial attitudes and subsequent discriminatory actions.

Churchill’s responsibility in the 1943 Bengal Famine in India is highly problematic and rarely discussed when analysing his legacy. During the famine, approximately three million people died, and Churchill did nothing in the way of substantial aid. When asked to provide some relief he said that it was their own fault that they were suffering as ‘they breed like rabbits’.

he not only refused aid in the crisis, but he was also a key aspect of its creation

Economist Amartya Sen has rightly asserted that the Bengal Famine was a result of Churchill’s imperialist policies, highlighting that he not only refused aid in the crisis, but he was also a key aspect of its creation.

The racial and pro-imperialist attitudes of Churchill can also be seen in his treatment of the Kikuyu people in Kenya. During the 1950s, 150,000 Kikuyu were forced into detention camps as a result of them fighting for independence from England, which led to a huge loss of life.

Very few works on Churchill include a critical assessment of his racial and colonial policies, instead they celebrate him. The Guardian has reported that there is an attitude that nothing can be allowed to damage the ‘national myth of a flawless hero’ that surrounds him, however, this ‘national myth’ needs to be called into question.

Coco Chanel:

Coco Chanel founded her renowned fashion house in 1910, and it remains as one of the most prominent luxury brands today. Chanel has been credited with transforming the fashion world during the 20th century, and for this reason, she is celebrated throughout the world. However, revelations have come to light that Chanel had a much darker history.

After the Nazis took over Paris in 1940, Chanel began an affair with Baron Hans Gunther von Dinklage, an officer with the Nazi intelligence. As a result of this, Chanel became involved with covert work for the Nazi Party during the Second World War, with the promise that they would release her nephew, who was imprisoned in Germany.

Chanel was responsible for the transfer of political information from Madrid back to the Nazi officers

She was given the agent number F-7124 in 1941 and the code name ‘Westminster’. Chanel was responsible for the transfer of political information from Madrid back to the Nazi officers.

Allegations were brought to light after the war, however, Chanel never fully admitted the extent of her involvement with German forces. The 2009 biopic, Coco Before Chanel, does not include any reference to her affiliations with the Nazi party, adding to the illusion surrounding her image.

Forbes has emphasised that this history needs to be recognised more broadly as it ‘married one of the most glorified fashion icons of all time and one of the most abhorrent political ideologies of all time’.

Hugo Boss:

Similarly, Hugo Boss is renowned for his fashion brand, which was established in 1924. The Hugo Boss fashion label is still highly regarded today, however, unlike Chanel, the problematic legacy of Boss himself has been more prominent in public discussion. Boss was heavily involved with the Nazi Party during the 1930s and throughout the Second World War.

Boss used 140 forced labourers and 40 French prisoners of war in his factory

During the 1930s, the company began making uniforms for the Nazi Party, which continued until the end of the war. His son, Siegfried Boss has stated that ‘of course’ his father was a Nazi, as ‘the whole industry worked for the Nazi Party’ back then. However, Roman Koester was employed by the company to investigate its Nazi past, and he concluded that Boss did not just join the party for economic benefit, but rather that he was a ‘convinced Nazi’.

Between 1940 and 1941, Boss used 140 forced labourers and 40 French prisoners of war in his factory. It has since been reported by Koester that their ‘hygiene levels and food supplies were extremely uncertain at times.’

After the war, Boss was fined, stripped of his voting rights and banned from running a business in Germany. The company today has no ties with the Boss family and has made a formal apology. Whilst Boss himself does not have as great a celebrated legacy, his brand lives on and it is important to acknowledge his deep affiliations with the Nazi ideology.

Walt Disney:

Walt Disney arguably has one of the most celebrated legacies in the world. His films and theme parks are enjoyed by millions every year. However, conversations constantly resurface throughout Hollywood which address his alleged racist and anti-Semitic attitudes.

In the 1930s, Disney attended meetings of the pro-Nazi organisation, the German American Bund. He also hosted the Nazi filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl in 1938 whilst she was promoting a film in Hollywood. Disney’s reception of Riefenstahl came one month after Kristallnacht, where Jews were killed and had their property and businesses destroyed by the Nazis. During the war, Disney did make anti-German propaganda films, however, they did not go nearly far enough in criticizing the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Nazi Party.

they are rife with racial stereotyping, with one character in Dumbo even being called Jim Crow

Additionally, many earlier Disney films have come under scrutiny and now have a sensitivity warning on Disney Plus as they are rife with racial stereotyping, with one character in Dumbo even being called Jim Crow, which is a reference to the set of laws which operated in the Southern states that enforced racial segregation until 1965.

Disney’s problematic views were complex, however, his persistent involvement with Nazi sympathisers is evident. The Guardian has stated that these facts need to be publicised in order to strip away the illusion that surrounds Disney.

There is constant debate about his alleged discrimination and racism to this day, but it is important for people to be aware of this conversation as it breaks down his enduring image as a manifestation of magic and perfection.

Roald Dahl:

Like Disney, Roald Dahl’s stories are enjoyed by millions each year, as he is one of the most successful children’s writers. However, Dahl was openly anti-Semitic, and made some abhorrent comments about the Jewish community on public platforms. These attitudes are not broadly discussed when talking about Dahl’s legacy.

In 1983, Dahl stated in an interview that there is a ‘trait in Jewish character that does provoke animosity’ and then went on to state that ‘even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’. These comments are some of many which he made about Jews. The Dahl family apologised last year for the ‘lasting and understandable hurt caused’ by his comments. However, many have rightly asserted that this apology was thirty years too late.

‘he may have been a great children’s writer but he was also a racist and this should be remembered’

Children continue to enjoy Dahl’s books, however, it is important to acknowledge his anti-Semitism as a central part of his legacy. The vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Amanda Bowman, has stated that ‘he may have been a great children’s writer but he was also a racist and this should be remembered’. Bowman’s comments provide a perfect analysis of his legacy, and emphasises the problem of blindly celebrating him for his work.

P T Barnum:

P T Barnum established the traditional circus culture that we are familiar with today. He is celebrated in the 2017 film The Greatest Showman as being a hero and someone who gave a voice to the downtrodden. However, this image of Barnum could not be further from the truth.

At the start of his career he bought the right to rent an aged black woman named Joice Heth, and paraded her around Philadelphia claiming that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. This was a highly exploitative activity, and far from the character we seen in The Greatest Showman.

Upon Heth’s death in 1836, Barnum hosted a live autopsy where 1500 people paid to see her cut up. Heth’s story follows the trend of racial othering that was common in Barnum’s shows. He also described an African American man who was part of his show as a ‘creature, found in the wilds of Africa’ who was a ‘kind of man-monkey’, and called the act ‘what is it?’.

it is not an accurate description of his values or legacy

Hugh Jackman, who played Barnum in the 2017 musical stated that ‘his belief was what makes you different makes you special’. However, this statement obscures the truth, as in reality, Barnum exploited vulnerable people rather than empowered them. Therefore, it is important to watch the fictional depiction of Barnum with an open mind, as it is not an accurate description of his values or legacy.

Re-examining the legacy of these figures does not mean that the more positive aspects of their legacy should be lost, and it is not calling for a mass boycott or rampage against their names. What we need to do is alter the public perception of these individuals as popular culture has allowed them to become shaped in a false image.

This information needs to be at the centre of public discussion and understanding of these people. It is our responsibility as society to engage with historical figures truthfully, and to stop portraying them as ‘heroes’ through a set of rose-tinted glasses.

Holly Aldridge

Featured image courtesy of Marcos Pena Jr via Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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