Showing posts with label military leaders. Show all posts
Showing posts with label military leaders. Show all posts

Monday, May 5, 2014

Wilhelm II (1859-1941)


Nearly twenty years ago, I reviewed Young Wilhelm, John Röhl’s extraordinarily detailed book about the early life of Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Now, in the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, perhaps it’s an apt time to revisit this story for this blog.

Born on 27 January 1859, Wilhelm was the eagerly anticipated first grandson of Queen Victoria and equally anxiously awaited heir to the Kingdom of Prussia.  Rejoicing was widespread through England and Germany.  Queen Victoria wrote to a German friend “we are proud and happy that it is our child who has given this son to your country”.

However, the birth itself was highly traumatic for all concerned, because the future Kaiser was in a breech position in the womb.  18 year old Princess Vicky went through terrible suffering for 13 hours before chloroform was applied by Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria’s personal physician who had been sent over to Berlin for the birth.  The Royal baby was turned forcefully, and manipulated by the arms in order to be delivered: he suffered a lack of oxygen for about eight minutes during the end stages of the labour, and after birth had to be revived by a series of slaps from the midwife.

As a child, Wilhelm was hyperactive, and possibly minimally brain damaged.  His left arm was paralyzed as a result of the violence of his birth, and was 15 cm shorter than his right.  Sigmund Freud considered that Princess Vicky had deprived her child of her love because of his affliction, and that this resulted in the Kaiser’s personality problems.    Yet the evidence suggests that Vicky, like many parents of disabled children, had mixed emotions – hope, pride, depression, helplessness and desperation.   Both parents seem to have been loving towards their child.  However, perhaps because of extensive medical treatments, Wilhelm did not form a close bond to his mother and later felt that she had not been sufficiently supportive and loving.

Blaming his English mother may have been a convenient move for later German historians seeking to excuse their militarist monarch.  It was more likely that the blame lay with the corrective treatments that were attempted in order to improve the strength and function of his withered arm.  Röhl concludes that, though administered with the best of intentions, they amounted to child abuse.  One method was to insert the boy’s paralysed arm into a freshly killed hare for a so-called “animal bath”.  Another was to tie up the healthy right arm, to try and force him to use his left arm.  His mother recorded how “fretful and cross and violent and passionate” the two year old would become.  As he neared the age of four, he was noted to have a twist in his neck, as if he was turning away from the impaired arm that was such a source of psychological stress for the whole family.  Now he was put in a machine designed to straighten the neck by force.  At the age of six, the tendon on his neck muscle was cut.  Next, it was noticed that he could not straighten his left arm: another operation was threatened, but instead an “arm-stretching machine” was used, together with exercises.  Another approach was daily electrotherapy, but by the age of ten, Wilhelm was so unhappy about these bouts of treatment that it was discontinued.  In all, the poor boy had twelve years of cruel and ineffective treatment.

Wilhelm’s parents had liberal ideas, and tried to bring him up as an Anglophile.  But the tutor he was given from the age of six seems to have been rather brutal, forcing him to learn to ride, on the instructions of the Crown Princess.   Wilhelm was also shaped by the militarist Prusssian society in which he found himself.  He grew to respect a more autocratic approach than the more consensual English style of constitutional monarchy which his mother tried to impart.  When he joined a Guards regiment at the age of 21, he found his natural home among the society of soldiers.

On the death of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Wilhelm’s father only ruled for 99 days before dying of throat cancer.   In 1888, Wilhelm II acceded to the throne at the age of 29.  He rejected Chancellor Bismark’s cautious approach to foreign policy.  In 1890, he dismissed the old Chancellor completely, considering him a “boorish old killjoy”.  Wilhelm exerted more control himself, rather than leaving policy to his Chancellors.  Some of this was beneficial – such as his reforms to the rather traditional Prussian educational system.  Much of it was not – such as his desire to build up a strong navy.

Wilhelm was insecure, unstable, impatient, and lacked focus and direction.  He was arrogant and obnoxious, particularly with his English relatives.  Though he was related to most of the monarchs of Europe, he did not like them, nor they him.  However, he was anxious for his grandmother’s approval, and went to be at her bedside when Queen Victoria was dying in 1901.

Wilhelm was prone to imperialist rhetoric – such as his speech evoking the memory of Attila the Hun when sending troops off to help suppress the Boxer rebellion in China.  He regularly made diplomatic faux pas, such as a disastrous 1908 interview with the Daily Telegraph in which he managed to alienate not only the English – whom he called “ mad, mad, mad as March hares” - but also the French, Russians and Japanese.

All of this, particularly the German military build-up gives a sense of tragic inevitability to the events leading up to the First World War.  But as recent historical accounts have shown, Austria and other countries were also very much to blame.  After the war started, Wilhelm did not play a leading role in German policy. When it finished with the defeat of German and the loss of ten million lives, Wilhelm abdicated and went into exile in the neutral Netherlands, where he died on 4 June 1941.  He had hoped that Hitler would revive the monarchy.  But the Fuhrer blamed the Kaiser for the humiliations of the First World War and kept him at arm’s length.

Wilhelm was not a terrible monarch because he was disabled.  But his impairment did affect his personality, particularly due to the appalling medical treatment he endured, his strained relationship with his mother and hence his dislike of the English, and the arrogant strain in his personality which resulted from his insecurities.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

Never having received appropriate recognition in life, after death, Harriet Tubman became an African American icon and a hero to later generations of Civil Rights activists. Her concrete achievements in war and peace, and her struggles on behalf of African Americans and women in particular, surely make her someone that disabled people can also call a role model.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, and was originally named Araminta Ross. Her grandmother, Modesty, had been brought from Africa – according to the family legend, she was of Ashanti origin, from what is modern day Ghana. Tubman’s father managed the timber on a plantation; her mother was a cook. She herself was hired out as a nursemaid aged five or six, and was brutally whipped by her employers. As a teenager, she was in a store when a white man asked her to help restrain another slave. She refused, and when the slave ran away, the white man threw a two pound weight. The iron lump missed the other slave but hit Tubman in the head. She survived the resulting injury, but it caused her siezures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Perhaps as a result of the epilepsy, she became very deeply religious, and regularly thereafter had visions and premonitions.

In 1844, Tubman married a freed slave, John Tubman, and changed her name, although remaining enslaved. In 1849, when her owner died, she and her brothers escaped from slavery, only to return. Tubman then escaped again, using the Underground Railway network of abolitionists (including Quakers) to travel north, mainly by night. She later described her feelings on reaching Pennsylvania: "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

Although she was safe in Philadelphia, she said "I was a stranger in a strange land," because her relatives were enslaved in Maryland, “But I was free, and they should be free." Tubman returned to Maryland to help members of her family escape slavery, then other African Americans, including eventually her own parents. In total, she made 13 expeditions, rescuing 70 slaves, and advising many more on how to make their escape. Often disguised, she became known as “Moses”. On one trip, she was able to meet up with her husband, only to find that he had remarried and did not want to come North with her. She reflected later "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."

Harriet Tubman was in touch with other abolitionists, such as John Brown, Thomas Garrett and William SewardIn 1859, Seward sold her land in Auburn, which became a haven for freed slaves and other African Americans.

Tubman was also in touch with African American activists, such as Frederick Douglass. In 1868, Douglass wrote to Tubman to honor her practical achievements and contrast it with his more public advocacy: “You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”

For obvious reasons, Harriet Tubman was a strong supporter of the Union side during the Civil War, although she was frustrated by Abraham Lincoln’s unwillingness to enforce emanacipation in conquered Confederate territory. She went to offer her support in Port Royal, South Carolina, serving as a nurse. More unusually, for the time, she also conducted reconnaissance missions for the Union forces, for example providing information which helped in the capture of Jacksonville, Florida. She became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War during the Combahee River Raid which led to the release of 700 slaves. Despite these efforts, she never received any acknowledgement or pension from the United States government for her service during the conflict.

After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn. More injustice followed when, on a trip to New York, she was roughly handled by a train guard and other white passengers, resulting in her arm being broken. Happily, she also ended up marrying a veteran, Nelson Davis, who was more than twenty years younger than her. They were together for twenty years and adopted a daughter together. But Tubman remained poor and struggled for money, particularly after falling victim to two fraudsters. In her later years, she was an active supporter of women’s suffrage, and in the process of speaking and advocating, her own story became more widely known.

Harriet Tubman suffered increasing symptoms from her head injury in the last decades of her life, undergoing brain surgery to relieve her suffering. In 1903, she donated land to her church to open a home for poor African Americans. It was there that in 1913 she died of pneumonia, being buried with full military honours in Auburn. Booker T.Washington spoke at the inauguration of her memorial.

.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)


“Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason, and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940” (Anthony Storr)

Winston Churchill was born prematurely and looked after by a wet-nurse, as was the aristocratic way in 1874. Throughout his childhood, he endured a continuing lack of unconditional love and affection from both his parents which, according to the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, left Churchill psychologically ill-equipped. His salvation was his nanny, Mrs Everest, on whose death he described as “my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I had lived”. However, it seems likely that Churchill also had an underlying genetic disposition towards depression which, interacting with inadequate parenting, resulted in his mental health vulnerabilities. Indeed, his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough shared his depressive tendencies, as did his own father, Randolph Churchill.

As a child, Churchill was not very impressive: small, thin and with a slight speech impediment, he was bullied at school. In 1893, he wrote from Sandhurst “I am cursed with so feeble a body that I can scarcely support the fatigues of the day; but I suppose I shall get stronger during my stay here.” However, he was determined to be tough, and had no lack of physical courage, having exerted willpower to overcome his fears. He was positively reckless in combat during the Boer War and the First World War.

Churchill was also hugely ambitious: writing from India in 1899, he said “What an awful thing it will be if I don’t come off. It will break my heart for I have nothing else but ambition to cling to…” Storr suggests that he sought recognition as a way of staving off despair. As Churchill said later “We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glow worm”. He had a strong sense that he was being kept for some higher purpose, the cause that finally presented itself when he was sixty-five and his country and the world was in such danger from fascism.

CP Snow described him as having a strong sense of insight, or intuition, rather than relying on insight. This approach sometimes led him astray, as with the disastrous Dardenelles campaign in the First World War (in which my grandfather fought, and nearly died). But his instincts about Hitler and about Stalin eventually proved to be correct. His brilliance was not that of a thorough or rigorous thinker. Famously, he preferred to have ideas presented to him on half a side of paper, because that was how he himself worked. He could also be very insensitive to the feelings of others.

Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, records the Prime Minister in 1944, talking about his depressive tendencies: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible to get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” Yet after the Dardenelles, and in his wilderness years, he may have been deeply depressed, but he was not suicidal. He devised ways of keeping himself going – writing, painting, even bricklaying at his country house at Chartwell.

In his final years, Churchill suffered a recurrence of despair and a sense of his life having been futility, despite all he had achieved for himself and for his country. Hardening of the arteries and possibly Alzheimer’s disease may have contributed. His daughter records him as saying late in life “I have achieved a great deal to achieve nothing in the end”. Storr suggests that, as a result of a lack of parental affection, “he had a void at the heart of his being which no achievement or honour could ever completely fill”.

I am not sure how much I like, as opposed to admire, Churchill. His achievements in diverse fields were extraordinary, even though he hardly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature: I have an early memory of my grandfather, who was in government with him from 1939-1942, reading to me out of his History of the English Speaking Peoples. Churchill started his career as a liberal, but was more right wing than this might imply. He was a vigorous advocate of eugenics in the first decades of the twentieth century; he was a supporter of Edward VIII (and Mussolini, at the beginning); he opposed Indian Home Rule and should be assigned some of the blame for the Bengal famine of 1943; he was ultimately responsible for the saturation bombing of German cities in the first half of 1945; his post war term as prime minister was not distinguished. Yet despite this and other failures, he was a larger than life man, of ferocious appetites, powerful personality and immense inner drive. Small wonder that he topped a BBC Poll of “One Hundred Greatest Britons” in 2002: to many people, he was not only correct in describing the Second World War as “our finest hour”, he was also the architect of Allied victory. With his recurrent depression, his speech impediment, not to mention the physical and mental decline of his last years, Winston Churchill can also be counted, unquestionably, as a person with disability.

Further reading

Anthony Storr, Churchill’s Black Dog

Friday, August 26, 2011

Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)

Who is the greatest British military leader of all time? Which disabled person prevented the invasion of England? Who was the most heroic naval commander in our history? The answer could only be Nelson, the man of contrasts: a man of high ideals, who abandoned his wife for a floozy; a person of supreme courage, who was also insecure and vulnerable. As his contemporary Lord Minto said, "He is in many points a great man, in others a baby."


Horatio Nelson - or Horace as he was known - was son of a country parson in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, one of five boy and five girls . From his father, he inherited or learned a strong sense of piety. He was a small and delicate child, but full of fire. He learned to sail in nearby Burnham Overy (as did I, with less success, two centuries later). His mother died when he was nine, and four years later Horace was off to sea as a midshipman, thanks to his Uncle Maurice Suckling, a naval hero and later a man of influence at the Admiralty. Typically, Nelson suffered chronic sea-sickness throughout his career.

His famous injuries mainly came on land, rather than at sea. In 1794, bombarding the French at Calvi, on Corsica, a cannon ball struck the bastion behind which he was standing, and a splinter resulted in an injury, probably a detached retina, which left him blind in his right eye. Towards the end of his life he wrote "A few years must, as I have always predicted, render me blind. I have often heard that blind people are cheerful, but I think I shall take it to heart."

Nelson's bravery and lust for glory was evident at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, when his 74 gun ship engaged with three much bigger Spanish ships. Nelson boarded the first, then leaped across to another ship, shouting "Westminster Abbey! Or, glorious victory!" and forcing their surrender. Later the same year, attacking the harbour of Santa Cruz on Tenerife, grapeshot shattered his right elbow, leading to an amputation. Nelson complained at the cold knife, recommending the surgeon in future to warm the blade first. Afterwards in despair, Nelson wrote to his commander, Admiral St Vincent with his unfamiliar left hand:

"I am become a burthen to my friends and useless to my country. When I leave your command I become dead to the world. I go home and am no more seen... I hope you will give me a frigate to convey the remains of my carcass to England... A left-handed admiral will never be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better and make room for a better man to serve the state."

For a naval hero like Nelson to be so mutilated was unusual. While destitute and injured sailors were familiar sights begging in the streets of England, their social betters usually avoided the thick of the fighting. But not Nelson, who both led from the front, but also showed great concern for the well being of his men, and advocated for them to have state pensions.

Nelson's status as a national hero was confirmed by his brilliant victory over the French at Aboukir Bay in 1798 after Napoleon had landed his army in Egypt. By sailing his smaller vessels between the French line of battle and the shore, Nelson was able to achieve a devestating victory. All but two of the French ships of the line were destroyed, marooning Napoleon in North Africa. Needless to say, Nelson was wounded again, when a shot fragment gashed open his forehead. Refusing to take precedence in the queue for the surgeon, he exclaimed "No, I will take my turns with my brave fellows." Such gallantry appears typical of the time. For example, the French Admiral De Breys had his legs shot away during the battle. He ordered tourniquets to be tied round the stumps and sat in an armchair on deck commanding the action until another cannon shot tore him in two.

Back home, there was patriotic rejoicing at the British triumph. The First Lord of the Admiralty fainted when he received the news, while Nelson's grateful monarch awarded him a Barony. In Naples, where he had begun an affair with Lady Hamilton, the ambassador's wife, a great ball was held in Nelson's honour. Among his many awards and presents was a clockwork revolving diamond plume for his hat, sent by the Sultan of Turkey.

Yet a German described meeting Nelson at Dresden, on his way home overland with the Hamiltons, writing "One of the most insignificant-looking fellows I ever saw in my life. His weight cannot be more than seventy pounds, and a more miserable collection of bones and wizened frame I have never yet come across." But landing at Yarmouth, Nelson was heralded as the Norfolk hero, and much celebration continued back in London.

Private life was rather more difficult. His wife Fanny was anxious and solicitous, whereas his mistress Emma was gushing and admiring. The affair was a scandal, and the king publicly snubbed Lord Nelson at court. Fanny wrote to him "I am sick of hearing of dear Lady Hamilton, and am resolved that you shall either give up her or me". When a baby, Horatia, was born to Emma in 1801, Nelson finally split with Fanny, and went off on another naval expedition to the Baltic, perhaps partly to escape his domestic problems

It was at the resulting battle of Copenhagen, where he felt his commander was being too cautious, that Nelson famously ignored the signal to discontinue action. Nelson said to his colleague "You know, Foley, I have only one eye - I have a right to be blind sometimes." He mimed putting the telescope to the wrong eye, saying "I really do not see the signal". His bold disobedience again triumphed, as 17 out of 18 Danish ships were captured, burned or sunk.

It was in 1803, now as Vice Admiral Viscount Nelson, that he was appointed to command the Mediterranean fleet, tasked with resisting the combined French-Spanish fleet. Napoleon was seeking naval supremacy, in order to safely invade England with his army.

The final battle came on 21 October 1805, off Cape Trafalgar. Nelson's plan was again bold: to sail his 27 ships in two lines directly at the enemy fleet of 33 French and Spanish first-rates. Having composed his final prayer - "I commit my life to Him who made me" - Nelson went up to stand on the quarter deck in dress uniform, complete with his decorations and the diamond plume on his hat, an obvious target for snipers. When his old friend Captain Hardy suggested he change to a plain coat. Nelson responded "he was aware that he might be seen, but it was now too late to be shifting a coat".

Soon after combat was joined, Nelson was hit by snipers on the Redoubtable, exclaiming "They have done for me at last, Hardy. My backbone is shot through". Nelson was taken below, covering his face with a handkerchief so as not to demoralise his men. As he lay dying, Hardy came down to share the news of total victory. Two thirds of the enemy fleet destroyed or captured, and not one British ship lost. Nelson said "Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty". Famously, Hardy kissed him farewell as he died, Nelson's final thoughts being for his mistress and daughter.

Joy at the naval success of Trafalgar was mingled with grief throughout the fleet. One sailor wrote "chaps that fought like the Devil sit down and cry like a wench". Back in England, Coleridge noted "When Nelson died, it seemd as if no man was stranger to another: for all were made acquaintances in the rights of common anguish". It was an event like the assassination of J F Kennedy or the death of Princess Diana, which united the nation.

As an eighteen year old in 1775, languishing with malaria after a voyage to India, Nelson had resolved "Well then, I will be a hero, and confiding in providence, I will brave every danger." He alway had a passionate belief in his own destiny. Three decades later, he more than fulfilled his ambition, through his charisma, boldness and what became known as "The Nelson touch". Now every October 21, the British navy drinks a toast to "The Immortal Memory". Countless pubs in Norfolk are named for their hero, including in Nelson's home village of Burnham Thorpe, where my own father is buried. It seems noteworthy to me that two of Britain's most celebrated military commanders - Nelson and Churchill - were disabled people. As Nelson wrote in 1804, "I really believe that my shatter'd carcass is in the worst plight of the whole fleet".

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967)



"The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary who does not have this quality."






Ernesto "Che" Guevara Lynch was born in Misiones, a remote jungle backwater in Argentina to aristocratic but radical parents: his father said "in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels". Ernesto was diagnosed asthmatic at the age of two. Whereas his condition was chronic in Buenos Aires, when they moved to Alta Gracia, a dry highland province, it stabilised. His parents monitored his health, the humidity, his clothing and diet in an attempt to reduce the severity of the symptoms. Even as a child, it is said that he "showed an unusually strong self discipline by adhering to his asthma diets".

Often his parents made him stay at home, for fear of an attack. He became a precocious reader, as this was one of the only things he could do when asthma struck. The family home contained more than 3,000 books and Guevara read very widely in world literature, politics and poetry. He would make handwritten notebooks of notes and quotations from his favourite authors. Later, he was a prolific writer and diarist.

At school, he displayed a fiercely competitive personality, perhaps as compensation for his sickliness. Despite his illness, Guevara was an excellent sportsman - rugby, athletics, cycling, shooting were all activities into which he poured all of his energies.

In 1948, he began to study medicine at Buenos Aires University. In his vacations, he made his famous trips by motorcycle through Argentina, Chile and Peru. On these journeys, he encountered the poor and dispossessed - lepers, workers, peasants - with whom he identified and whose cause he subsequently passionately espoused. By 1953 he had graduated as Dr Ernesto Guevara.

In 1954 in Guatemala, he experienced the overthrow of the Arbenz regime by the CIA on behalf of the United Fruit Company, and this contributed to his hatred of American imperialism. At this time also, Guevara came into contact with Fidel Castro and other Cuban exiles. Subsequently, Guevara trained in guerilla warfare in Mexico, prior to the 1956 assault on Cuba with the band of revolutionaries who embarked aboard the Granma.

Commandante Guevara was second only to Castro in the revolutionary movement, and played a major role in the Cuban revolution. In the guerilla campaign in the mountains, the two contradictory sides of Guevara's personality were demonstrated: his love and care for his fighters, whom he helped to educate and entertain, but also his ruthlessness, for example in shooting informers, deserters and spies. As a military leader, he was intelligent and brave, with a tendency towards foolhardiness, according to his leader Castro. By 1959, the dictator Batista had fled and the Castro regime took over. In the following months, Guevara commanded the La Cabana prison, and was responsible for exacting revolutionary justice against the war criminals and others from the old regime. Commandate Guevara told the tribunals

“Don’t drag out the process. This is a revolution. Don’t use bourgeois legal methods, the proof is secondary. We must act through conviction. We’re dealing with a bunch of criminals and assassins.”

Several hundred prisoners were shot as Guevara watched from on top of a wall, lying on his back, cigar in mouth, to encourage the firing squads.

Che Guevara proved to be less effective as an economic leader than a military one. He became president of the Cuban national bank, with his signature "Che" on the bank notes signalling his distaste for money. However, he had more success with the Cuban Literacy Campaign, which taught more than 700,000 people to read and write. In 1962, he was one of the main architects of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he was seemingly unconcerned at the risk of "millions of atomic war victims". Speaking at the United Nations in 1964, Guevara denounced apartheid, imperialism and the poverty of the Latin American masses. However, he rejected the pro-Soviet tendency in global and Cuban politics, and his thinking had moved towards a Maoist approach. Perhaps partly for that reason, he decided to leave Cuba

First, Che Guevara travelled to Congo, unsuccessfully trying to promote resistance to Mobutu. He blamed incompetence and in-fighting for the failure. After that, he offered his services to FRELIMO in Mozambique, but they were declined. In 1966, following his disappointments in Africa, Guevara disguised himself, and went to promote revolution in Bolivia. But perhaps because he favoured conflict to compromise, he was unable to develop good relations with local leaders. In addition, he was now up against the CIA and US Special Forces, his men lacked training and equipment, and his radio communications had failed. In the jungle, he became increasingly ill with asthma, having to make guerilla raids just to obtain medicine. Finally, he was taken captive by Bolivian special forces. On October 9, 1969 he was executed on orders of the Bolivian President. A half-drunken sergeant shot him nine times, so that the authorities could say that Guevara had been killed trying to escape. CIA men were in close attendance.

In death, Guevara became a hero. The photographs of his bearded corpse made him appear Christlike. Jean Paul-Sartre, Susan Sontag, Nelson Mandela and many others have regarded him as a hero and an inspiration, a man who was prepared to die for his beliefs. Thanks to the 1968 image by Jim Fitzpatrick, he became an icon of teenage rebellion and fashion chic. Reminiscent of his adolescent reading of Jack London, he was the epitome of the macho adventurer.

I became a schoolboy communist after reading Lenin and the Bolsheviks by Adam B Ulam, trying, like Ernesto, to cast off my bourgeois origins and express solidarity with the dispossessed. As an activist, it felt as if Guevara could be reclaimed as a disabled hero, a symbol for a movement with transformative aspirations and revolutionary rhetoric. Later, the darker side of Che Guevara's personality and actions became repugnant to me, just as the binaries of leftism and disability radicalism had become unconvincing.

In his last letter to his children, Guevara had written "Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary." In such quotations, Che Guevara indeed comes across as a symbol of freedom and compassion. Yet in practice, he was also a brutal man, capable of executing one individual or many in cold blood, without any qualms. An early fan of Nietszche, he embraced death and despised weakness. Some have suggested that his brutality may partly have been related to his disability. Because he had fought against his asthma, suppressed his own needs and triumphed through an act of will, Guevara showed no patience or forgiveness for the frailty of others. The man who trained as a doctor ended up as a ruthless killer.