Icons: the game changers of the 20th century

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… Complements a new BBC Two series, Icons: The Story of the 20th Century

The president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt and his staff gathered together in New York to find a solution to the economic crisis. 1935. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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

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”.

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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 Hero-Worship, is rightly seen as elitist, sexist and racist, a sinister foreshadowing of fascism.

Piers Brendon will be discussing Edward VIII at our Kings and Queens weekend event in Oxford on 2–3 March. Find more details here

The BBC History Magazine Kings and Queens Weekend will take place on 2-3 March 2019

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.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, depicted in an undated Communist poster. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

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!”

With his dhoti and his spinning-wheel, symbol of the dignity of labour, Gandhi was, as he himself said, “spinning the destiny of India”. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
With his dhoti and his spinning-wheel, symbol of the dignity of labour, Gandhi was, as he himself said, “spinning the destiny of India”. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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.

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

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”.

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Portrait of Mahatma Gandhi

“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”.

A 1960s poster shows Mao Zedong surrounded by what he regarded as China's greatest asset: the workers. (Image by Alamy)
A 1960s poster shows Mao Zedong surrounded by what he regarded as China’s greatest asset: the workers. (Image by Alamy)

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 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.

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Mao Zedong applauds a parade of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. These young militants followed Mao’s call in early August 1966 to defend the party from a ‘white terror’. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

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”.

Margaret Thatcher meets disabled veterans at the Falklands War victory parade, 1982. The prime minister's "fierce patriotism inflated ideas of national exceptionalism", writes Piers Brendon. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Margaret Thatcher meets disabled veterans at the Falklands War victory parade, 1982. The prime minister’s “fierce patriotism inflated ideas of national exceptionalism”, writes Piers Brendon. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

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


The eight-part series Icons: The Story of the 20th Century begins on BBC Two this month

Piers Brendon will be discussing Edward VIII at our Kings and Queens weekend event in Oxford on 2–3 March. Find more details here.

Do you agree that exceptional women and men drive history? Let us know at facebook.com/HistoryExtra and twitter.com/HistoryExtra

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This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine