While browsing the internet yesterday, I stumbled across a blog on the website Tumblr whose owner was asking that people stop making artsy motivational posters with quotes from Coco Chanel on them. The reason for this adversity to Chanel quotes is because Chanel has been linked to the German intelligence services during the Second World War. This got me thinking and after a little research I found that, like a lot of things you find on Tumblr, there were some factual inaccuracies. For one, Chanel had voiced her support of the Nazi regime as early as 1941 but she was never actually linked to any sort of espionage work. The Parisian Police had a file on her which listed her as a ‘suspect’ and when she was interrogated by the Free French in 1944, they were obligated to let her go because they didn’t actually have any non-circumstantial proof that she was an active Nazi agent.
“But Ben!” I hear you cry, “Where are you going with all this?” Well fear not reader, I’m just getting to that. The thing is that there is a disturbing common trend of famous historical figures being slammed over their personal flaws. To be clear, I’m not talking about people who are remembered infamously, like Cecil Rhodes or John C. Calhoun, I am talking about well-known and often well-respected historical figures who are then vilified due to some of their beliefs and practices. For example, I’ve seen George Washington receive such treatment for his ownership of slaves. The thing is that people pick and choose who they put in the spotlight and will conveniently overlook certain individuals. And so, here are just a few famous historical figures who are widely respected who aren’t perfect:
Gandhi: Gandhi is best known for preaching peace and tolerance, passively resistance British rule in India, and being the most likely to nuke you in the Civilisation games. He also famously took a vow of celibacy at the age of 37 but then decided that wasn’t enough and started inviting young women, including his own niece, to sleep naked with him in order to test himself. If that wasn’t bad enough, some of these girls weren’t exactly of legal age. While his family vocally objected to this practice, Gandhi simply stated it was a “spiritual experiment”.
Henry Ford: Ford is remembered as the father of the American automotive industry but he was also hugely anti-Semitic. In 1918, he purchased his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, and then began to use it to warn America about a vast Jewish conspiracy that was infecting America. Ford even received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, a medal given to non-Germans who were sympathetic to the Nazi regime. Even as American grew closer to war with Germany, Ford maintained business with the Nazis. This was especially bad after the German branch of Ford began using French PoWs as slave labour.
To name a few more- Maria Stopes, vehement campaigner for women’s rights and helped set up Britain’s first abortion clinic, was also really into eugenics; Charlie Chaplin, pioneered of the comedy and silent film industry, essentially invented the “casting couch” and threw pies at his naked auditionees; Mother Teresa, champion of the poor and sick, ran an organsiation that kept money from the poor and had its medical care described as “haphazard”.
Here’s the thing, everyone has flaws and some people’s flaws are bigger than others but just because someone is flawed doesn’t diminish their achievements- Gandhi’s spiritual experiment doesn’t take away from the fact that he opposed the most powerful empire on Earth in a non-violent manner; Henry Ford still revolutionized the way we go about industry. In no way am I defending the darker aspects of these individual’s lives, all I’m asking if that we take their flaws into account when we personally judge them, rather than only focusing on the flaws. It’s also important to look at the context of these ‘dark facts’- Henry Ford was an anti-Semite at a time where that was a common view in America and he was far from the only person to not overtly oppose the Nazis- JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was Ambassador to Britain and he told FDR to stay out of the war because the US could do better business with the Nazis if and when Germany won. If a famous figure owned slaves, they most likely did it at a time where that wasn’t considered wrong.
What do you think- how we go about judging the big names in history? Let me know in the comments below