Hannah Gal

The People Profiles – History Through the Biography Prism

George Orwell. Courtesy of The People Profiles

What is the best way to understand history? Is history a chronological series of events driven by a multitude of factors? Could decision makers’ personal journey deepen our understanding of  their actions and our past? 

Image courtesy of The People Profiles

“If we are to truly understand the events that shaped history, we must understand the people who put them into being” argues The People Profiles founder Edwin Elliott, “and if we are to understand those people, the best place to look is their childhood and upbringing.”

With over one million subscribers, the People Profiles is one of a wave of history-focused channels bringing mainstream media’s bias to light. Here, Elliott speaks of the pivotal importance of political neutrality,  the making of The People Profiles and mainstream media’s role in spreading misinformation.

HG How did the People Profiles come about?

JE I started The People Profiles in my spare time back in 2018. History has always been my greatest interest, but I didn’t think there was a career or any money in it, which is why I did a degree in Television Production and not history. Around 2010 YouTube really caught fire, it started off with short videos, but people gradually realised that you can have lectures on the platform and slowly more and more factual content started to be made.

It was when watching a lecture by Jordan Peterson in 2017, that I realised there was an audience for long form factual content, and being a fan of old fashioned historical documentaries, I decided to combine my two greatest loves and start making independent biographical documentaries from scratch on YouTube, with the aim of emulating the old style documentaries you used to see on the history channel, like the BBC’s World at War or Ken Burns’ work. 

At the time, it was unheard of for content creators to produce videos of anything over 15 minutes in length, we broke that mould with our documentaries and were the first channel on YouTube to do this. I’m very proud of that fact.

I started the channel when I was working full-time night shifts and to my surprise people seemed to like what I was doing. Over time I gradually started to employ people, increasing the quality and the rate of production and to my surprise the channel grew and grew, which I still find amazing. To have millions of fans and people around the world like your work is such a humbling thing, although my wife and I made a conscious decision early on not to appear in person, as fame isn’t really something we want. 

Image courtesy of The People Profiles

You say you gained inspiration from Jordan Peterson, what about him inspired you exactly?

I’ve been a fan of his since he first started to gain traction on YouTube in 2016. His talks and lectures gave me encouragement and confidence, which is not something I’ve been given by many people in my life.

I met Jordan in February 2018, he was at the Emmanuel Centre in London, which strangely was the day before the infamous Kathy Newman Channel 4 interview. There were hundreds of people there, I spoke to him, shook his hand and got my book signed. 

His strongest message is one of self-help, I think of all the things he says this is what is of particular relevance to people, including myself, especially in how we can improve our lives, by accepting suffering as a fact of life, taking responsibility and working harder. I applied what he was saying to my own life, which along with my mother dying in 2016 really made me grow up and start fighting, because when your parents die you’ve got to really sort yourself out quickly.

In short, I owe him a lot and his work and words have done nothing but make my life better. He’s a hero and I find it very difficult to accept why people are hostile to him. He’s helped millions of people live better lives, who else in the modern world has done that?

Why Biography? Why not wars or battles?

Given that every event in history is shaped by people, biography is naturally the best way we have of understanding why those people made the decisions they did.

People like Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler’s personalities were shaped during their childhoods. Churchill largely spent his childhood trying to impress his distant parents for example and this need to please and prove himself could be said to explain is colossal work ethic and ambition. 

Hitler on the other hand was beaten by his father and doted over by his mother, which could be said to have laid the foundations of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Stalin was a middle class Georgian child, again doted over by his mother and abused by his father, given a relatively good education, but who rebelled and ended up becoming a hardened criminal conducting bank robberies and doubtless killing people in the process. He, like Hitler was probably highly egotistical and Narcissistic, with no empathy for peoples suffering.

George Orwell. Image courtesy of The People Profiles

Franklin Roosevelt, was paralysed by polio when he was a relatively young man and the strength of character and resolve he showed after this to not only become President, but one of the greatest Presidents in American history, has to be looked at as one of the most colossal achievements of any recent historical figure. You may disagree with his politics, but the strength of character he showed was truly awe inspiring. He could have given up when he was paralysed, but he chose to fight. In my view he was one of the great men of the 20th century for this alone.

The point is, both heroes and monsters aren’t born, they are shaped and forged. It’s true that history has been shaped by great people, but they were in turn shaped by their upbringings and the circumstances of the times and places of their births.

Thus, if we are to truly understand the events that shaped history, we must understand the people who put them into being and if we are to understand those people, the best place to look is their childhood and upbringing.

I think in the modern world, historical events and people are often placed on a good to evil spectrum. This is possibly due to the ever-increasing influence of Hollywood on people’s minds, as we seem to look at historical figures in a low-resolution good versus evil manner. Hitler was mad, Stalin was bad etc.

It needs to be remembered that all these dictators, didn’t see themselves as evil. They saw others as evil and were prepared to win against their perceived enemies at any cost. This belief was the motivation for their appalling crimes.

If we are to prevent history from repeating and the 20th century coming back to bite us with a vengeance, we have to understand those we are afraid of and ask ourselves, what kind of personality and external circumstances could allow these people to wreak the havoc on humanity that they did.

In short, without biography we are lost in the dark and will never truly understand anything about the darkest times in our history and will stumble blindly into those times once again if we do not open our eyes.

HG how do you decide whom to feature?

JE We try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, of course you want to generate views, that’s the name of the game on YouTube, or any video-based media. So, you try to tread a fine line between covering well known figures and people who may be less well known, but interesting none the less. We try to cover as many people from different geographical areas and historical periods as possible. 

HG The profiles themselves are engaging and are very well written. 

JE Thanks, we only employ people with Masters degrees or above in history to write our videos, Historians in short, they hale from all around the world from all walks of life. These guys are the real back bone of what we do, as writing is an art form, you can write a series of bullet points about someone’s life, but as you know to do biography or tell any story properly you need to have an interweaving narrative and you need to set the context of the person’s life. What was going on in the world when they were young for example and then interweave that with their own story, how they were manoeuvring through the historical landscape, through their childhood to their adulthood.

HG Context is something that is often overlooked or ignored completely. The context of the time when the person lived, sometimes you have to state it to people, take Dickens for example, you have to actually explain that most people were illiterate at the time he wrote his masterpieces.

EE I agree, context is so important. Evolutionary Psychology states that the success of any life form, animal or human, depends on the successful adaptation to the environment they live in. Look at Hitler again for example, he had an abusive upbringing by modern standards and was doubtless traumatised and de-sensitised by his experiences in World War One and this shaped him into a narcissistic, non-empathetic man who was able to do the horrific things he did later in life.

You could say that he was just a mad man and people do, but to really understand him and the evil, terrible things he did, we need to understand the context of his early life, how that environment shaped him, as well as how he responded to it. An interesting thought is that Hitler is the only person in history that I know of, who went from being a tramp to become the most powerful man in the world in 1940, an extraordinary thought. 

Look at Napoleon – he was of minor Corsican aristocracy and became, arguably the most powerful man in the world in 1805. I am not comparing the two of course – Napoleon was extremely talented, but flawed, I suppose an enlightened or benevolent dictator, whilst Hitler was a much more sinister breed of man to say the least, along with Stalin, who is arguably the most successful dictator in history, as no one ever defeated him, he was only defeated by his own death.

At the end of the day, we can have a low-resolution view of these people or a high resolution one. Although we may simply want to explain peoples actions as mad or evil, even though these figures did evil things, they didn’t think of themselves as evil, they thought of themselves as righteous and doing the right thing, add to that a lack of empathy and this is how you cause a great deal of suffering in the world. 

Image courtesy of The People Profiles

HG Ideology is blinding isn’t it?

JE Yes, the most dangerous people in this world are idealists I think, people who see this imaginary utopia over the horizon. It is narcissistic basically, they essentially say ‘I know better than you, if you listen to me and do as I say, everything will be better in the future’. However, what they really mean is things are going to be better if you submit to them. 

HG You seem to try and be impartial in your videos? Was this a conscious decision?

JE Yes. There was a school of thought a few decades ago in which history was presented to people in a non-partisan manner and people were trusted enough to make up their own minds, that doesn’t really happen anymore I feel, as a lot of history is skewed through a certain political point of view and in recent times a victim – oppressor narrative. 

In the modern media for example, the point is often made that women suffered more than men. Granted there’s no denying that women were treated badly in many societies around the world in history and in many countries still are, but then again so were men. In the majority of places, there was often a non-accountable aristocracy in charge, who would stop at nothing to defend their positions, thus those below them, both male and female, often lived in conditions we today would find appalling. 

For example, my great-great grandfather died blind in a workhouse near Newcastle after spending 35 years down a coal mine. There can’t be many jobs in human history worse than a Victorian coal miner. Imagine winter in England, it’s dark at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, so he’d get up, go to work in the dark, then go down the coal mine and work in terrible conditions until 6 or 7pm, then go home when it was dark. So apart from Sundays they never saw the sun for half the year. In short, everyone suffered in history to some extent and I think it would be much healthier if we celebrated our ancestors strength in the face of suffering, instead of pointing blame at those who we might feel oppressed them.

People think of the workhouse as a bad place to be, that’s certainly the impression Dickens gives. That may be true, at least compared to what we have now, but it was actually an early form of social welfare, as it gave people a roof over their heads and a hot meal. Yes, it was grim, but it’s relative to what else was grim at the time, so a roof over your head and a blanket, and a bed, and a bowl of porridge was better than nothing. Again, as we have said, context is important.

In short, yes women suffered, but so did everyone else and instead of pointing out that fact, many modern historians try to pitch one group against another, men against women, one nation, religion or race against another, perceived oppressor against oppressed. Instead we should accept that no human being is perfect, that the majority of human beings in history suffered and we should celebrate our ancestors triumph over that suffering, instead of endlessly looking for ways to vilify other people, divide societies and turn them against one and other, which sadly is what is happening today.

It’s bad history at the end of the day, and is skewed by confirmation bias and is intended to manipulate the audience to a certain point of view, whilst we on the other hand just want to present people with facts and let them make up their own minds about things as we trust their intelligence.

Image courtesy of The People Profiles

HG Going by feedback do you think you manage to be unbiased?

EE At the end of the day, we have a very responsible job as we are teaching people and we want to be honourable teachers. We have good intentions. It brings to my mind what Peterson once said regarding plumbers, I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “if you’re going to be a plumber, be a good plumber, the world doesn’t need bad plumbers.”

HG The media is responsible for a great deal of misinformation which in turn leads to a skewed sense of proportion.

JE Yes, look at Covid for example, it seemed like the be all and end all at the time, but when you look at historical pandemics you realise that it was relatively small. The Black Death for example, didn’t just occur in 1348, it came in about three or four waves over 50 years, and in England half the people born between 1300 and 1400 were killed by the plague over that time period, that’s half the population dead, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

This illustrates that without a good grasp of history, current affairs can’t be properly put into context and you can see that how, without a knowledge of the Black Death, people would be mistaken into thinking that Covid was much worse than it really was. 

This isn’t to diminish the suffering of those who died of Covid or their families pain, it’s just to illustrate that in history there have been semi-apocalyptic events, which very nearly brought human civilization to its knees.

HG You mentioned heroes earlier, do you think our culture’s heroes have changed over the years too?

JE There’s a deep human need to elevate heroic people above ourselves, to believe in something or someone greater, I think it’s the religious urge we have to believe that there’s a figure up there that’s superior to us and that knows better. Historically, we used to venerate the Gods, then later the one God or the Monarch, but in the modern western world, where religion has become less important, we gradually began to venerate people like Churchill, but now worship pop and film stars, football players and the like. So yes, humans need heroes and those heroes have changed over time, for better or for worse.

Image courtesy of The People Profiles

HG have you discovered either a facet to a person, or to history that you were not aware of? 

JE There’s so many. I think the best thing about learning history is that it’s a jigsaw puzzle. You learn and in doing so, you gradually put together a picture of how the world around you was formed. After all, if you don’t know anything about history, then you don’t know how human civilization came about and therefore, how can you form intelligent political opinions? It’s based on thin air otherwise.

For example, if you look at England and the history of English common law and Parliament, or in other words people having a say in how they live and how their country is run, you should ask, if you have any intelligence, how did this come about? You then piece the jigsaw together, and learn about the Magna Carta and King John, then later how Kings like Edward I and Edward III used Parliament as a mechanism to raise taxes for their wars, and that gave Parliament gradually over time more say in things. Then you move onto Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution and all the people involved. It’s an amazing, beautiful story, better than any work of fiction and it’s ours to be proud of.

The people who really inspire me most though are my family, my great-great grandfather in the workhouse for example, or my great-grandfather who died at the battle of the Somme, or my grandfather Jack Elliott, who fought at the battles of El-Alamein and helped stop the Nazis from over running the Middle East. If Rommel had won that battle, Britain would have been defeated in World War Two, that means no D-Day and very possibly Germany defeating the Soviet Union. 

At the end of the day, I consider myself to be very lucky I wasn’t born 200 years ago and had to work down a coal mine, or charge towards machine gun nests through barbed wire. Instead, I can sit in comfort at home making YouTube videos, I’m very, very grateful to my ancestors for all their hard work and sacrifices, as without them, I’d have nothing.

My Grandfather died in 2008 and I wish like my mum he could see The People Profiles, I hope they’d be proud of me. I do what I do to honour my ancestors as much as for myself or my living family.

Ultimately, history is about understanding the dead. We are standing on the shoulders of countless millions of people who lived and suffered and whose lives matter. If we don’t honour the dead after all, why should future generations remember or honour the things we’ve done ourselves? Don’t we want that? Don’t we want to be remembered?


About the Author
Hannah’s credits include Quillette, The Critic, The SpectatorUS, UnHerd, Creative Review, The Guardian (Art&Design) and The Jerusalem Post among others. Hannah’s posts have been kindly retweeted and shared by Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Warren Farrell, Sebastian Gorka, Will Knowland and Christina Hoff Sommers among others. Gal is a multi award winning documentary filmmaker.