Global Affairs

Churchill to de Gaulle - it's the people who decide how to remember

A people's need for heroes impels them to seek ways to remember their nation's great leaders

LONDON • Many nations have grappled with the question of how best to honour their founders or outstanding leaders.  Singaporeans could be forgiven for thinking that they are facing this difficult new question , and are on their own.

But they are not, for many other developed nations have had to contend with similar challenges, including how to strike a balance between the need to commemorate a leader and what he stood for, and avoiding the rise of a personality cult.

There is no doubt that the cult of personality - the elevation of an individual to the status of an all-powerful divine - has led to some of the ugliest episodes of the 20th century.  We are haunted to this day by the black-and-white newsreel footage from the 1930s or 1940s, with their images of the serried ranks of hundreds of thousands of people marching like robots to praise their "Dear Leader", be that the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin or Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler.

So, whenever the legacy of a leader attracts intense national or international admiration, someone, somewhere immediately brands it as a "cult of personality". But often, such accusations turn out to be groundless, and are based on a poor or selective understanding of history.

From the USSR's Stalin to China's Mao Zedong, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh and North Korea's ruling Kim family, these personality cults were not the outcome of a spontaneous, popular desire to venerate leaders; they were the result of a conscious decision ordered by the rulers themselves and during their lifetime. There was, therefore, a direct connection between the personality cult and the exercise of raw power.

The cults were also ridiculous. Idolised leaders were supposedly capable of offering instant "guidance" on any topic, from planting rice to constructing a nuclear bomb, and were portrayed as a cross between saints and human beings. It is doubtful that many of those forced to engage in such ritual cults believed in what they were saying in public, even at that time.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

But, with the notable exception of North Korea, all these personality cults were discarded soon after the leaders behind them died.

There is little doubt that the respect which open societies bestow on those leaders they consider exceptional is an altogether different phenomenon. The admiration showered on leaders who created nations from scratch or saved their nations from disaster - think of Nelson Mandela or Charles de Gaulle - may start during their lifetime, but is usually evident only after they die. Their image is seldom manipulated by governments, but grows organically from below. And this usually develops despite the wishes of the leaders themselves, or those of their families.

Take the example of General de Gaulle, the man who created modern France, and who explicitly asked not to be remembered in any public manner. So intense was his family's desire for privacy that France was not told about de Gaulle's death for almost a full day after it had happened. And so basic was his funeral in the remote village where he lived that de Gaulle's widow was confronted by the local undertakers with a demand for an extra payment equivalent to $15, since the man who led France from disaster to glory was taller than the average Frenchman, and therefore required a longer casket.

Still, despite de Gaulle's desire not to be fussed over, there was a parallel state "funeral" in Paris at the same time as his village funeral. That was attended by no fewer than 63 heads of states and governments. Precisely four years after that, the main airport in Paris was named after him, as were thousands of streets and public buildings.

Even his explicit wish not to have a statue or memorial was set aside. First, a monument to the general was built in the heart of London opposite the building from where he ran the Free French resistance during World War II, and then there was the erection of a huge bronze statue on the Champs Elysees boulevard in the heart of the French capital. Meanwhile, both the house where he was born and the house in which he lived until his death became museums.

The same happened to David Ben Gurion, the founder of Israel. He cared nothing for modern fripperies and retired to a kibbutz in the country's southern desert. Yet a mere few months after his death Israel's biggest airport was named after him. And in a country where the Jewish faith frowns upon statues or pictures of human beings, Ben Gurion's busts and photographs are on public display in government buildings and schools.

The reason why the wishes of many leaders about how they should be remembered after their departure are so often set aside is that the act of national remembrance is not only about them, but also about their nations. Remembrance, in other words, is not primarily about those departed, but about the living.

Then, there is Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime leader. He was the only non-royal to get a state funeral in the entire 20th century. However, the most impressive sight during that funeral - the largest such event in world history at that time - was not the tens of thousands of troops lining the streets of London on that foggy day in January 1965 but, rather, the cranes of the Port of London which were slowly lowered as a mark of respect as the boat carrying Churchill's coffin sailed past on the Thames river. The gesture was felt to be spontaneous and almost anti- establishment; it came from port workers who probably never voted for Churchill when he was alive.

Churchill's monumental and by now iconic statue outside the British Parliament's buildings in London went up in 1973, just eight years after his death. And Churchill would have hardly approved of it. He hated to be depicted as a grumpy old man, but that's how the statue immortalises him, complete with a walking stick.

The reason why the wishes of many leaders about how they should be remembered after their departure are so often set aside is that the act of national remembrance is not only about them, but also about their nations. Remembrance, in other words, is not primarily about those departed, but about the living.

People invariably want to associate their fate with that of their past notable leaders mainly because the achievements of individuals are tangible and easily understood, unlike more abstract concepts such as loyalty to nations, Constitutions or states.

That is why biographies of leaders often sell better than general history books. Nations are also eager to show their collective gratitude to those who did so much for them. That is why just about the first thing the former communist countries of Eastern Europe did after shaking off their communist regimes was to repatriate the bodies of their historic leaders who were forced to languish in exile.

Unsurprisingly, people want to decide for themselves how they honour their nation's most distinguished role models. And technological changes, such as the advent of social websites and instant online video streaming, mean that people are more ready to share their pain and sense of loss in public. It's striking how the habit of creating spontaneous street shrines, where people lay flowers to the memory of leaders or tragic events, is now a growing global phenomenon.

But revering a leader does not mean turning a blind eye to their mistakes. Britons remember Churchill's determination to hang on to the British empire, notwithstanding the demands for freedom from most of the country's colonies. Frenchmen remember with embarrassment the petulant, spoilt child-like antics of de Gaulle. And many Israelis acknowledge that the same Ben Gurion they revere also authorised or at least turned a blind eye to the mass expulsion of Palestinians.

Still, nations believe that these errors don't detract from their leaders' overall historic contributions. For, to quote one of Churchill's lesser-known sayings: "Success often consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."

Be that as it is, efforts to control or restrict the desire of ordinary citizens to honour their past great leaders often prove futile. The people will decide what they want to feel and how they wish to express it.

And nobody understood this better than de Gaulle who, one year before his death in 1970, was asked whether he worried about his legacy. "What matters to me," retorted the old general, "is what people will think of me in two generations."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Churchill to de Gaulle - it's the people who decide how to remember'. Print Edition | Subscribe