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By:Robert Nisbet | August 28, 2019
Nisbet_10-1986

[This view first appeared in the October 1986 issue of Chronicles.]

The obscurest epoch is today.
—Robert Louis Stevenson

Taken together, these three books serve nicely as a kind of group portrait of Clio and her several faces. In reverse order we have the historian as diarist and memoirist, as documentarian, and as reflective sage. As one of the learned species, historians, it has always seemed to me, lead all the rest in the amount of public preening they do, in volume and regularity of assurances to the citizenry of the indispensability of their guild in the making of the informed citizen.

There is something to their self promotion. Burke taught a natural rights-drenched Europe that it is the historical world alone that counts, natural rights, so called, being as aerated as, say, phlogiston. But Burke didn't feel it necessary to write narrative his tories to prove his point, and I submit that a deeper and more tenacious sense of the past and its unending vitality can come from the non-narrative, non-episodic treatment of some aspect of the present than from the formally declared "history." Works by Maine, Vinogradov, Hayek, and Schumpeter come quickly to mind in this respect, but there are many more, by philosophers, theologians, and statesmen, even occasional social scientists to make the point.

So much of current history-writing has the second-handedness that comes from confronting not a historical phenomenon itself in the first instance, but rather a predecessor's or even con temporary's treatment of that phenomenon. But, then, revisionism has al ways been a marked attribute of the professional historian's contemplations. Thucydides chided Herodotus for his gullibility, as did Polybius Timaeus, and Lucian Ctesias. From the time in the 6th century B. C. when Hecataeus dealt critically with the myths and legends extant, striving to rescue the "true" from the "false," down through all the intervening ages to Ranke and his stern wie es eigentlich gewesenist, to the latest revisionist of a revisionist of the Old South, tilting at forebears has been a very structural element of history writing. This has led some serious people to ask, from time to time, whether history is a profession like medicine, astronomy, or sculpture or instead a club within which members play, with solemn mien, their games.

The relation between the words his tory and story is not limited to etymology. Both have long had the common spine of the narrative: "First this, and then, and then . . . " Tell me a story, begs the child; write me a history demands the publisher—or department chairman gazing sternly at a young colleague's prospects for promotion. Much social science stems from the metaphor of growth, organic growth being the model; hence its fondness for portrayals of reality in which little baby changes grow up into larger changes and then stride across the landscape. Historians are not averse to this, but their larger contribution ever since "'Omer smote' is bloomin' lyre" has been that of marry ing eligible events to one another and then recording the alleged issue of the marriages.

The narrative framework is as much the rock of history writing as it is of literature. There is the occasional historian who declares himself scientific by comparison with, say, a Zoe Oldenbourg and her immensely knowledgeable novels of the Middle Ages; but he is not using the word "scientific" in any way that the sciences would find acceptable. Coulton's Middle Ages are as much the product of art as Oldenbourg's. It was a school of historians, not novelists, that Trevelyan mocked when he wrote: "Men of the Middle Ages; you are about to begin the Hundred Years War." Ranke's famous adjuration to tell it exactly as it happened may have been addressed to those charmed by Walter Scott's novels, but it is far more likely, I think, that it was directed to self-styled historians of his day, particularly the writers of histoire raisonnée.

Vaughn's anthology of 35 historians, some departed, most still living, has some excellent and stylistically iridescent testaments to the value of history and to the pitfall in its construction by historians. It is good to reread Carl Becker's notable "Every man His Own Historian" in which he reminds us that ultimately the art of history, academic or other, stands or falls by its skill in arresting the attention of Everyman. The same exactly was true of ancient bards who told sad stories of the great and powerful. Verisimilitude is quite as important to the novelist or epic poet as it is to the historian. It was as historian, philosopher, and artist that Carl Becker gave us his great Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (on which Peter Gay did not so much as lay a glove in his tirade); add to that also wit—precisely the kind of wit that we find in Gibbon.

Bless Professor Vaughn for including Herbert Butterfield's "The Dangers of History." "The dangers of his tory are liable to become much greater if we imagine that the study of this subject qualifies us to be politicians or provides us with patterns which we can immediately transpose into the context of contemporary politics." Butterfield goes on to say that history is made the more dangerous by the fateful affinity that seems to lie between it and the Machiavellis, Napoleons, and Lenins of the world. He adds, "One of the dangers of history lies in the ease with which these apparently self-evident judgments can be extracted from it, provided one closes one's eyes to certain facts. The person who is incapable of seeing more than one thing at once will reach results all the more quickly and will feel the most assured in the judgments that he makes."

Bacon's Idols of the Theatre and the Marketplace are found as often and lushly in the minds of historians-who might be presumed to have a few more defenses against them-as of plumbers and taxi drivers. Consider the whole ridiculous story of the so-called Renaissance in Europe, that of the fabled Quattrocento in Italy, believed even to this day by many lo be the supreme eruption in world history of genius in philosophy and science and technology as well as painting. The myth of such an age began with the players themselves, the humanists, so called, in the Italian 15th century. They, in their hatred of feudalism and contempt for church and monastery, declared that they, by virtue of their alleged revival of the ancient classics of Greece and Rome, had liberated Eu rope's mind from the clutch of ecclesiastical tyranny and launched it into a future of unparalleled magnificence. So sown, the myth prospered, believed in raptly by most of the philosophes in the 18th century and transmitted to Michelet, whose hatred of the Church knew no limits. It was Burckhard!, though, who most successfully hypnotized the modern mind with his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, a book that in paper remains a best seller, an achievement made ironic by Burckhardt's personal hatred and con tempt for the humanists and all their coffeehouse descendants through the centuries following, including the philosophes and the rootless intellectuals of Burckhardt's own day in Europe.

As I say, even at the present moment, despite the relentless exposures. from Pierre Duhemon, of the falsity of the claim of a renascence in the 15th century that ushered in modern science and philosophy and laid the base of modernity, even a few historians, and vast numbers of laymen re main convinced that something at least happened in that century; enough surely to justify giving a course on the subject in college and a chapter on it in school textbooks. As a pessimist, I am certain that we shall never be let free of that laugher "Renaissance mind" whenever someone of reputed breadth of knowledge seduces the newspaper mind. May I say here, be fore concluding on the subject, that I too am, and will forever be, charmed, enchanted, and narcotized by Florence and Venice.

F. L. Carsten reveals another face of Clio: that of assiduous regard for the documents. No one can take away from historians—beginning in the last century-a passion for documents and their contents that serves admirably to fortify us against some of the more outrageous myths which—like that of the Italian Renaissance—go on and on until finally demolished by some serious scholar. I doubt that historians would relish the comparison, but at their best they serve a journalist's role in their examination of rumors, reports, and alleged miracles.

Both journalists and historians work from the documents of the case; that is, when they are alert to responsibility. It is the foremost task of each to tell the world, when necessary, that the emperor in fact has no clothes on. From journalists as well as historians come periodically the deadly missiles which bring down for good some of the entelechies and spongy abstractions which are Christianity's revenge for the rationalists' assault upon the divine.

A rousing romp with the documents has succeeded in banishing many a philosopher's or social scientist's—and historian's—delusion of "impressible conflict," "inevitable rise (or fall)," "overpowering trend," and "inexorable movement." Historians are often as prone as novelists to ascribe motives to the principals of history when they don't know any more about such motives than they do their next door neighbor's. A sudden windfall of documents often helps banish the worst of claimed motives. Then there is our love, in history and in fiction, of great—if dubious—unities of person ages and events. I believe firmly that if there is a 21st century, and there are still historians writing, a best-seller will come off the press with the engaging title Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill: A Study in Twentieth Century Unity. There are as bad if not worse titles to be found even now in the library catalogs.

Another idol of the historian's and journalist's mind is "crisis." We must be forever indebted to Elizabeth Eisenstein for her discovery that every single century from at least the 12th in European history all the way down to the 20th has been labeled, in title as well as theme, "Century of Crisis." Nor must I forget "innocence." Breathes there the century or half century or decade that hasn't been characterized an "Age of Innocence"? From which, naturally, there was a Fall. In the end, only the documents help save us from lasting refuge in these secularizations of the biblical.

Professor Carsten, of the University of London, gives us in his illuminating treatment of the Weimar Republic and its relation to the West an important distillation of his explorations of documents of both the Foreign and the War Offices in Britain. As he points out, British officers and officials had a unique excellence of observational position with respect to Germany during the years immediately following the surrender of November 1918. "Owing to the occupation of the Rhineland and the several Allied Commissions working in Germany—partly military, partly supervising the various plebis-cites—British officers and officials were in an almost unique position to observe the German scene. In addition some German ministers, above all Streseman, were in the habit of talking confidentially to British diplomats in Germany, of unburdening their hearts and expressing their secret worries to them."

What we gain from Professor Cars ten's immersion in the files is a crisply written, spare, and no-nonsense treatment of the history of the Weimar Republic as seen through the eyes of some of the top British officials of the 920's, one and all present on the scene and alert to what was happen ing. From the opening chapter, "Defeat and Revolution in Germany," through "Bavaria and the Hitler Putsch," "The Great Crisis of 1923," and "The Final Crisis," down to the final chapter, "The National Socialist Takeover," we are treated to a narrative account of that ill-fated government that is close to exemplary, it seems to me. The spread of the poisons of German anti-Semitism within Weimar together with frank accounts of the conditions within which the poisons gained their greatest potency and of the reactions of all classes of non Jewish Germans, all this is found in impressive detail in the varied reports of Britons on the scene to their home offices. On the whole, while England slept (if indeed it did sleep during a full decade of turmoil, strife, and break down of its own) the diplomatic corps did a respectable job.

"Faced by the rise of the National Socialist movement, some of the Foreign Office officials took too rosy a view of its 'youthfulness,' its 'vigor/and its 'sincerity,' and praised its determination to restore 'discipline' in German youth. . . Yet these illusions did not last, and the diplomatic reports on the 'seizure of power' were completely realistic and made no effort to conceal or condone the terror unleashed in Germany." It is also true, as Carsten shows beyond question, that at least some of the Foreign Office people in Germany showed a rooted anti-Semitism of their own, a state of mind that largely accounted for some exaggerated or distorted accounts of Jewish influence in Germany. But these, we find, are the exceptions. For the most part the multitude of documents examined by Professor Carsten reveal laudable perceptiveness and objectivity.

From Carsten's account, we are justified, I think, in rejecting for once and all the recurrent charges that the British official mind, that particularly of the Foreign Office, was seized by defeatism and appeasement prior to Churchill's ascendancy to the Prime Ministership in mid-1940. Chamberlain made one, and one only, serious mistake at Munich in 1938: that was his egregious phrase "peace with honor" when he returned to Britain. But aversion of war with Germany was an absolute necessity for Britain. It had a great navy but nothing else, least of all anything resembling an air force. Hitler would not have been deceived on that score, sitting as he was on top of the greatest air force in the world in that year. Happily for mankind, a great deal got done in Britain, and much more started, in the short period be tween Munich and September 1939 when Nazi forces invaded Poland.

John Colville's The Fringes of Power is, I have to say, somewhat disappoint ing as a World War II diary. It can't compete either in importance or sheer interest with the diaries kept by Field Marshall Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff for Great Britain through most of the war; by Lord Moran, personal, Parliament-imposed physician to Churchill throughout; or even the diary kept by Harry Butcher, special aid and constant companion of Eisenhower. My strong interest in Colville's work was aroused last September, before the diaries' publication, by an article he wrote in Commentary. The subject was essentially how we won the war against Nazism but lost the peace in 1945 through wartime mistakes by America and Great Britain in their relation to the Soviet Union.

Colville does not by any means exculpate Churchill and Britain, but he quite correctly lays the larger share of blame upon Roosevelt and some of those closest to him, both civil and military. From the beginning, as Colville notes (in line with the bulk of historical assessments written since 1945) a haze of romantic populism interfered with a clear-eyed view of Stalin and the Soviets. In the minds of the American principals, starting with FDR, the British Empire was a greater danger to postwar peace and tranquillity than the Soviet Union and the sovietized dictatorships it began forming (before the war had ended). One need only read the secret correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill, recently published in full, to sense quickly the contrast between Roosevelt's credulity toward and even confidence in Stalin and Churchill's ever tougher and more skeptical regard. We may truly say with Colville that the real roots of the Cold War, now 40 years old, were sunk at Teheran and Yalta.

All this, as I say, is known well by Colville, and I wish only that his diaries contained more that relates to the matter—as Alanbrooke's and Moran's do. He was Private Secretary to Churchill, and the relationship was a very close one, Colville holding almost filial status in the Churchill household, as liked and trusted by Mrs. Churchill as by the Prime Minister. Given an association that by the nature of Colville's intimate, official, and almost uninterrupted work under Churchill at 10 Downing Street, it is really surprising that these diaries don't reflect more concretely than they do that very high level, virtually constant association in the great matters leading up to and involving the summit meetings during the war: Atlantic, Cairo, Teheran, Quebec, Washington, Yalta, and Potsdam. Colville tells us that if only because of the sheer volume of the diary he kept he found it necessary to scrap and jettison much when preparation began for publication. Let us grant him a possibly more refined and sensitive view of confidentiality than lies behind the Alanbrooke and Moran diaries—and also Butcher's, of course.

What is lacking in the way of summits and crises in Colville is in good part made up, I have to say, by in sights, perspectives, judgments of people, and above all by intimate glimpses of the Churchill family at war-and again in the postwar after Churchill was reelected in 1951. Here Colville is at once eagle-eyed and charming. His regimen of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners-and late-night brandies with Churchill and immediate guests—must have been a formidable one—suspended during 1942-43 when he finally broke down Churchill's resistances and enlisted at the bottom in the air force, which he did not leave for return to Downing Street until he had flown a number of missions. But our gain from Colville's steady subjection to the regimen is a substantial number of memorable literary snap shots of the light and leading. As the center for several governments—in exile, for the American military forces, and other countries as well, London had its full share of the famous and important.

One of the greatest, and at the same time most welcome, offerings of the diaries is the amount of space given to Mrs. Churchill. Few need to be told that she was as great a woman in many important respects as he was a man. Even now it is doubtful that the full range of her love for him, and his for her, has been more than barely adequately communicated. She never hesitated to tighten the rein when Churchill required it or to speak back sharply even to those like Montgomery and de Gaulle, whom the Prime Minister himself might step back from on occasion. She obviously liked Colville quite as much as the PM did, and this makes for numerous entries which take us a long way in our understand ing of a truly great woman. And not only the two Churchills but their children, including the ever- problematic Randolph, come in for penetrating if generally affectionate portraits. All in all, Sir John Colville has taken his place with the greater diarists of the century.

[The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press) $12.95]

[Britain and the Weimar Republic, by F.L. Carsten (New York: Schocken Books) $20.00]

[The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955, by John Colville (New York and London: W.W. Norton) $25.00]

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