Books: Cultural Amnesia — Lewis Namier |
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During what he called the Nazi era, and in its thoughtful aftermath, Lewis Namier (1888–1960) was a figure of immense prestige in British academic and intellectual life, to the point that many of his fellow historians were able to call their country civilized simply because it had given him refuge: they didn’t have to like him. Of Russian heritage, born Lewis Bernstein in Poland, he was a Jewish refugee in search of a homeland. To his adopted country, Britain, he devoted microscopic attention. The mark of his historical method was to study the written records of Britain’s representative institutions right down to the level of the names on the electoral lists, an approach which yielded a body of meticulous factual material that tended to overwhelm the conclusions he drew from it, thus making his major books hard to enjoy now. His journalism, on the other hand, was, and remains, a model for acerbic style and pointed argument. Namier’s knighthood makes him sound like an etablishment figure, but his professorship at Manchester between 1931 and 1953 tells the truth about how the Oxbridge mandarinate preferred to keep him at a distance. In their own defence, they could say that his frustrations stimulated his productivity: a classic argument of the genteel anti-Semite. A better defence was that another Jewish academic, Isaiah Berlin, scaled the heights of both the intellectual world and polite society. The truth of the matter probably lies there. Namier simply lacked charm. But he could write Engish prose with an austere beauty that leaves Berlin’s sounding verbose. The influx of talented Jewish refugees was one of Europe’s most precious gifts to Britain in the twentieth century, but Namier’s career, which dramatized the story in almost all its aspects, reminds us not to be sentimental about it. A gain for the liberal democracies was a dead loss for the countries left behind. Poland’s twentieth-century tragedy was already there in Namier’s rise to success in his new homeland, and if he had possessed a light touch to ease his course, the disaster would only have been more evident.

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Historical research to this day remains unorganized, and the historian is expected to make his own instruments or do without them; and so with wooden ploughs we continue to draw lonely furrows, most successfully when we strike sand.


COMING TO ENGLISH as a second language, there were twentieth-century political refugees who wrote it with mastery: Joseph Conrad could do almost anything with his adopted tongue that any native writer of discursive prose had ever done before. There were even those who wrote it with primal, poetic genius, as if they had been born and grown up bathed in the richness of its etymology and idiomatic nuance. Vladimir Nabokov is the first example that springs to mind, and the last to be eliminated from discussion, because there will always be equivocal admirers who think that the beauty of what he could achieve with English was the real reason he could never tear himself way from the mirror.

But the exiled European writer who really got the measure of English, with the least show and the most impact, was Lewis Namier. Early to the field, he arrived in England in 1906 as a refugee from the pogroms in Poland. His stylistic achievement has never been much remarked because he was not thought of as a writer. He was thought of as an historian—which, of course, he was, and a renowned one. He would have been a less renowned historian, however, if he had not written so well: as with all truly accomplished prose styles, his was a vehicle for emotion and experience as well as for a sense of rhythm and proportion—the griefs and hard-won knowledge of a lifetime are dissolved into his acerbic cadences, and his neatness of metaphor epitomizes the gaze long grown weary but which misses nothing. His prose had hooded eyelids, but they were never quite closed. You can see his alertness in the single sentence quoted above. For primitive, improvised instruments, “wooden plough” is already good. For an isolated, not very well rewarded endeavour, “lonely furrows” is a pretty development; and “most successfully when we strike sand” is a poetic climax that drives a prose argument deep into the memory. The line of thought is a trek into pessimism: he is really saying that the historian’s research tools work only when the work they do is not worth doing. But by the distinction of his style he exempts himself from the stricture, and by implication he exempts anyone else who can see the problem—and if it is put as clearly as this, who can’t? So there is a game being played here, for high stakes. Hence the drama.

Namier was always dramatic, although in some of his central work he tried his best not to be. With his capital piece of original research The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III he piled up impeccable credentials. The book was a hard grind to write and proved it by being a hard grind to read: like the tireless counting of heads that Ronald Syme brought to the study of ancient Rome, Namier’s archival burrowings left no doubt that he was serious. But even here, with the air full of dry dust, he was establishing a dramatic principle: he was talking about the individual people who made up a class. He was doing the exact opposite of what the Marxists did, which was to talk about a class as if it formed its individual people. Though a convinced determinist, Namier had no time for big ideas. He hardly had time for the arts and sciences, about which he was unusually dispassionate for one of his background. Namier studied the parish registers and the electoral rolls in the urge to know about the individual lives which, he was convinced, were in the end unknowable. In a lifelong flight from the murderously abstract, Namier was making the other European contribution, which was pre-eminently the contribution of the émigré Jewish intellectuals—the contribution which could see developments in history but refused to accept that they tended towards a culmination. He had already seen how they could tend towards tragedy.

In his incidental writings that dealt with the diplomatic and political prelude to World War II, and the issues raised by the war itself, Namier brought his gift for drama to its fullest flower. It is meant neither as an insult nor as a paradox to say that he did journalism the favour of writing it like a journalist. Fifty years later, his buttonholing immediacy remains a shining example of what journalism can do. Contributed to the whole range of British upmarket publications—the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the Listener, etc.—his pieces were collected into a row of books which any serious student of modern English prose, let alone of history, should seek out and treasure, because more than any other books by anybody they give you the full weight of the event even when describing only a fragment. I have a row of them before me now; substantial demi octavo volumes bound in black or dark blue linen and stamped with silver titles: In the Nazi Era, Europe in Decay 1936–1940, In the Margin of History, Conflicts. One of them, although written as a set of instalments for the magazine Political Quarterly, was conceived as a complete book: the marvellous Diplomatic Prelude 1938–1939. Much of it was written before the relevant official papers were released, but his guesswork was dauntingly good, and remains penetrating to this day. Namier’s academic contemporaries often punished him in print for his tendency to wander off the point into a forest of footnotes, but on the strength of his journalism you would say he had cogency in the blood. Put together, the books constitute a short but weighty shelf of some of the most vivid higher journalism in English since Hazlitt, although behind them is a far greater depth of learning—an extravagance of mental impulse for an arresting economy of effect. Writing at the time instead of later, he couldn’t always be right, but he was never less than pertinent, even when, the circumstances being what they were, he faced the task of matching with his style a sadness that shrieked to heaven. In 1942 he was saying—saying without crying, and God alone knows how—that the Jews would have to be withdrawn from Europe after the war and go to their new home. He couldn’t yet be certain, or didn’t want to be certain, that Hitler and Himmler had concocted a radical new way of withdrawing them from Europe, but his fine essay is certainly written in the context of that terrible possibility. As Walter Laqueur has convincingly argued, the code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park was getting the news about the massacres in the east almost from their inception; and though circulation of the news was restricted to the very highest levels in order to protect the Ultra secret, it was definitely talked about. Namier, a born stalker of corridors, was not the sort of man to miss a significant word—or, for that matter, a significant silence. Though Namier never wrote a single book about the Holocaust, its significance permeated all his work from the moment he got wind of it.

With the war over, Namier showed his unusual powers of character analysis when it came to assessing the suave special pleading of the surviving German bigwigs who directed their appeals towards a higher tribunal than the one at Nuremberg. (“The factual material in these books,” he wrote in In the Nazi Era, “is mostly of very small value.” He meant that they were lying.) He wasn’t fooled for a moment by Halder’s claims that Hitler had buffaloed the Wehrmacht into an unwanted war. Fifty years later, Carl Dirks and Karl-Heinz Janssen in Der Krieg der Generale were able to quote chapter and verse from the military archives to prove that the German armed forces were always a long way ahead of Hitler in their expansive ambitions. Namier guessed the truth just from listening to the denials. He respected the decency of Beck but correctly spotted that the other surviving generals were looking for an alibi by blaming Hitler for the army’s build-up to aggression in both west and east. Namier blew a melodious but piercing whistle over Halder’s niftily calculated pamphlet Hitler als Feldherr. Namier had been warning the world since the 1930s that the Nazis were backed up by a German political culture whose authoritarianism would always amount to savagery if given the green light. He could be thought of as a sort of reverse anti-Semite on the subject, if it were not such a bad joke.

At Cambridge, the gusto and the speakable narrative style of J. H. Plumb rubbed off on a whole school of young historians. Nowadays, by consulting the chronology, I can shamefacedly compute that while I was dancing to mainstream jazz in the annexe of the Red Lion in Petty Cury, the real action was in the bar, where Simon Schama was listening to Plumb—or, more likely, Plumb was listening to Schama. Namier had no such influence. Lacking Isaiah Berlin’s personal charm and clubbability, Namier was slow to gain status as an establishment figure. A. J. P. Taylor found academic preferment elusive because of his opinions, the flamboyance with which he expressed them, and his Fleet Street outlets, which were deemed undignified. Namier missed out on the grand invitations for more personal reasons. An honorary fellowship at his beloved Balliol came late and might never have come at all. The drawback of academic fellowship in the ancient English universities is that fellowship means what it says. An Oxbridge college is like a London club with slightly less miserable food and wine. Conviviality counts for at least as much as gravitas. The chaps are supposed to get on with one another. With a thick accent that didn’t always make his dogmaticism sufficiently hard to decipher, Namier was unusually disagreeable in a context where merely to disagree was to be disagreeable enough. He was a wet weekend in Lwów. In the long run this was probably a lucky break for both him and us. Isaiah Berlin—the truth must still be whispered—wasted far too much time at grand dinner tables. Like F. R. Leavis, Namier was condemned by his personality to the monastic dedication that the college system nominally favours but in fact frustrates. His mere presence at Manchester helped to put the redbrick universities at the heart of post-war intellectual achievement in Britain. His solid brilliance helped to give the writing of history in post-war Britain a weight of seriousness that not even the United States could match. America had the power: in the East Coast foreign policy elite, a scholar-diplomat like George Kennan was shaping the world. But Namier was understanding it: there was a difference, and part of the difference was conferred by Namier’s prescient awareness that to draw up a balance sheet was Europe’s privilege, and precisely because its power was broken. Namier obviously found that fact at least as liberating as inhibiting. The title of one of his later books, Vanished Supremacies, was not entirely a lamentation: vanished supremacies could mean values reaffirmed. One of the old man’s strengths was that he was a realist without being a materialist: abstract ideas were never his strong suit, but the concrete idea of a spiritual value was not alien to him. So-called realpolitik had destroyed the world he came from but had not infected him. He was not a plague carrier.

What was he, apart from an historian of unquestionable eminence? For most of us, the eminence is unquestionable because we are never going to know much about his special subject. Eventually he cut down on his journalism and went back to parliamentary history, where he disappeared into the archives and never emerged alive, so that only a specialist can decide whether he was valuable or not. But his achievement as a stylist is apprehensible to all. He was one of those refugees—Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was another—who helped to make an exhausted Britain conscious of its lasting strengths. Pevsner did it through listing the buildings, and Namier through reaffirming the supple empiricism of the language. The war having been decided by the New World’s gargantuan productive effort, the United States should logically have become the centre of the Western mind as well as of its muscle. Men like Namier ensured that the Old World would still have a say. With their help, it was English English, and not American English, that continued to be the appropriate medium for the summation and analysis of complex historical experience. With Namier’s example to the forefront, Britain became the natural home for a language of diplomatic history, which is essentially concerned with that range of events, beyond America’s ken, in which power can’t be decisive. The echo of Namier’s voice can be heard in Abba Eban’s enthralling book Personal Witness, perhaps the most remarkably sustained work of intricate diplomatic exposition ever published. When Eban talked, it could have been Namier talking. Eban said of Yasser Arafat that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Namier said things like that. Though he said them in the thick Polish accent that he never lost, they all depended on his croquet champion’s mastery of an adopted syntax. It was Jewish humour, but it employed all the resources of the English language, as once it might have done with German. You couldn’t call it a shift of power, because there was no power involved. It was a realignment of civilization.

One of the measures of our commitment to civilization is the extent to which we realize that material strength can never be more than a part of it, even if the part is essential. (An admirer of Talleyrand’s cunning, Namier nevertheless found his craving for money not only pathological, he found it—a telling word—“pathetic.”) Namier died as he had lived, largely unloved. There was nothing cuddly about his person, and nothing charming about what he said, except if we are charmed by a style adequate to the grim truth. We ought to be. What finally matters is the holy books, and how they are kept. If I had to choose a tone of voice in post-war expository prose that was commensurate with the importance of what had just happened to the world, I would choose the tone of Sir Lewis Namier. At Cambridge a history don once caught me reading the essays of Lord Acton. The don considered that Acton had deserved his high reputation at the time but “of course he’s out of date now.” I suppose it is possible that Namier’s researches into the structure of politics at the accession of George III will eventually go out of date. But it will be a fateful day if historians cease to read Namier’s incidental prose, because incidental was the last thing it was: it was vitally concerned with all the issues of his age, many of which are still the issues of ours. And one of those issues, by implication, is the most troubling that faces the humanist heritage: how are we to pass it on in its full complexity, and what can transmit that except style? Namier said of George Canning’s letters to George IV that they were “brilliant, incisive, at times even boisterous.” Although it is not the first word we think of in relation to Namier himself, “boisterous” must eventually be used for him too. He saw, and indeed foresaw, the whole European tragedy in modern times; yet somehow he persuaded it to give him energy. There was something biblical in that, like a prophet drinking oratorical inspiration from the splendid cataclysm of a sinful city punished by divine fire. Sometimes an artist is measured by the steadiness with which he holds himself when history leaves him no alternatives except to speak or weep. If he speaks, he is a seer: but when there is grief in his voice even though it does not break, we call that poetry.