Book review: Fake Heroes, Otto English

Fake Heroes features 10 notable people from history's pages, and reveals what they were really like.
Fake Heroes. Book cover and picture of author on the left, a man with a red beard and receding hairline.

I was shocked, surprised, annoyed, shamed and delighted while reading Fake Heroes. Shocked at how evil some of the featured heroes were, surprised by happenings of which I had no glimmer of knowledge, annoyed at the people who deliberately falsified records or spread misinformation and shamed by the gaps in my historical education. But I was delighted by the stories of real heroes.

Otto English does not provide a formal definition of a hero, but he is clearly referring to a person who is (or ought to have been) acknowledged and admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great.

English begins the book by telling the story of Wesley Autrey – a “real hero” who saved the life of a complete stranger at great personal risk. That story, like that of so many other heroes, did not end completely happily, but Autrey had his moment of glory in 2007 when he was among those nominated to be Time magazine’s Person of the Year – with an entry penned by none other than Donald Trump. (Autrey was pipped at the post, though, by Vladimir Putin, who Time lauded for his extraordinary rejuvenation of Russia.)

Fake Heroes is not only awash with fascinating anecdotes, but is also rife with details that effectively give the flavour of the times being recounted. This further brings home the point that so much worth remembering is often forgotten, misrepresented or deliberately falsified. For while Thomas Edison may well have said, ‘I have not failed, not once. I have discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work’, there’s little evidence he uttered any of the other pithy quotes attributed to him.

Then there was the image of President Kennedy as a man bursting with good health when in fact it was estimated he ‘was on roughly 12 medications a day including codeine, Demerol, methadone, Ritalin, meprobamate and steroids’.

The subtitle of the book is ‘Ten False Icons and How They Altered the Course of History’. Among those false icons is Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader – a legless flying fighter ace I personally held in high regard for the help he gave to a friend of mine who had also lost both his legs in an aircraft crash.

The reader will discover, as they will learn with the other fake heroes, what the real Bader was actually like, and to some extent the circumstances that moulded him. But of equal or perhaps even greater interest is how and why Bader became so admired and was considered so heroic. English unpacks the way that propaganda, helped by the massive influence of well-made movies such as Reach for the Sky, contributed to Bader’s reputation and subsequent fame.

What surprised me in reading about these people was not just how they did not live up to the hype, but in fact how evil, selfish and nasty some of them were, from Nazi collaborator Coco Chanel to Mother Teresa amassing wealth while people in her care starved. And then there’s Thomas Midgley, who knowingly helped poison the world with lead. The list goes on. In a way you may think of this book as a kind of horror story, and so it is.

Of course, these fake heroes are not always all bad; Bader risked his life to defend England, Kennedy averted a nuclear crisis with Russia (though that crisis may well have arisen because of his earlier miscalculations). Even Adolf Hitler loved his dog.

English admits that he has always been fascinated by the writing of history and it is with obvious enjoyment, and the occasional welcome touch of humour, that he delves into and unravels the writings, the media, the propaganda, the movies and the folklore that have all served to construct the falsehoods that we have come to believe. He is not shy about giving his personal opinion, brilliantly exposing the fake heroes for who they really were and chronicling some of the damage they have done. That on this journey we meet some genuine heroes and some unsung heroes is a bonus.

Read: Book review: Lola in the Mirror, Trent Dalton

There is something especially timely about this book as well; witness the recent fall from heroic grace of Ben Roberts-Smith – a man whose trajectory has gone from preeminent Australian hero to suspected terrifying war criminal. Like English’s earlier book, the excellent Fake HistoryFake Heroes makes a major contribution to combating misinformation and he makes this contribution in a highly readable and informative way.

Fake Heroes by Otto English
Publisher: Welbeck
ISBN: 9781802795905

Hardback: 304pp 
RRP: $32.99
Publication: 12 September 2023

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.