Reputations Deserved or Otherwise

Richard Wilkinson questions the motives of important historical figures, and of historians writing about them.

Tout comprendre est tout pardoner (‘To understand all is to forgive all’). Is it history’s trade, therefore, to understand, to forgive and to rescue reputations from ill-informed malice? Might this suggestion have cheered Captain ‘Bowler Bill’ Turner of the Lusitania as he was fished out of the Irish Sea while 1201 of his passengers and crew drowned (on May 7 1915)? ‘What in God’s name have I done to deserve this?’ demanded poor Turner, who was later crucified by the Mersey inquiry. While Lord Mersey admitted to his daughter that ‘the Lusitania affair was a damned dirty business,’ is it up to the historian to award justice? Or what about the reputation of General Percival, GOC Malaya 1941-2, who remarked to Air-Vice-Marshal Pulsford, his RAF colleague: ‘You and I will be blamed for this mess, but goodness knows we did our best with what we were given.’ So a sympathetic biography of Percival is entitled ‘the Scapegoat.’ On the other hand, have some got away with it? Should ‘de mortuis nil nisi bonum’ (‘about the dead nothing but good’) read ‘de mortuis nil nisi bunkum’? Again, enter the historians who ‘are dangerous people – they upset everything’ (Khrushchev).

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