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HIS 9 - Elective - Heroes and Villains: Home

Heroes and Villains: why were these people controversial?

Catherine the Great

Ever since Catherine died in 1796, it seems that critics have been lining up to attack her reputation.  Of all the many criticisms levelled against her, four stand out: that she usurped the Russian throne from her husband; that she was irredeemably promiscuous, preying on a succession of ever younger men; that she masqueraded as an enlightened monarch while doing little to ameliorate the suffering of the poor; and that she pursued an aggressive foreign policy.

It’s a damaging charge­ list indeed. But does it stand up to scrutiny? 

Winston Churchill

In the West, Churchill is seen as a freedom fighter, the man who grimly withstood Nazism and helped save Western liberal democracyBut there's another side to Churchill's politics and career that should not be forgotten amid the endless parade of eulogies.  To many outside the West, he remains a grotesque racist and a stubborn imperialist, forever on the wrong side of history.

Genghis Khan

The name “Genghis Khan” often conjures up images of brutality, barbarism, and warmongering.  As a byword for barbarity, Genghis Khan has come down to us 800 years later as the cruellest conqueror of all time. We preserve his name to compare the perpetrators of genocide today to him.  Is this tradition justified?

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon was one of the most problematic and controversial leaders in U.S. history. However, despite Nixon’s many, many flaws, the man nicknamed “Tricky Dick” was a formidable politician and possessed an astute political mind. Nixon was a student of American politics, a lifelong Republican, and vicious and crusading Cold Warrior. Both on the campaign trail and in office, Nixon embodied the stereotypical ethos of a politician: he said and did whatever he needed to do to win. In doing so, Nixon betrayed his supporters in the Republican Party and abused government power to defeat his opponents. Ultimately, his cosiness with big government policies, coupled with his fall from grace following the Watergate scandal,  led to the ascent of former actor‐​turned‐​politician Ronald Reagan to the nation’s highest office.

Herod the Great

Herod the Great (born 73 BCE—died March/April, 4 BCE), was the Roman-appointed king of Judaea (37–4 BCE).  He built many fortresses, aqueducts, theatres, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land.  The New Testament portrays him as a tyrant, into whose kingdom Jesus of Nazareth was born.  Herod the Great was also at the centre of political and family intrigues in his later years.