Idolizing the people

Most peoples romance about their past.  The French have made an art form of it.  Their first historian of the revolution, Michelet, idolised le peuple.  Pieter Geyl is as insightful a historian as I have known.  He wrote a paper about Michelet which you can get in his magisterial Debates with Historians.  The people were implicated in the Terror and other atrocities.  In his account, Hippolyte Taine lacerated the mob.  Michelet let them off.  The gruesome September Massacres – when victims were cast out of jails to be slaughtered by the mob – a broiling lynch mob – were not the fault of le peuple but ‘three of four hundred drunks’.

As the French descended into anarchy and a form of dictatorship, the sedate bourgeoisie of law-makers in the Convention surrendered power de facto to the Paris commune – a word fated in the history of Europe and which would recur fatefully about once a generation or so in France up to and including the yellow vests a year or two ago.  The triumph of the commune was, if you like a revolution within a revolution.  Danton had to live with imputations about his inaction during the massacres.  The Convention had to live with imputations about their failure to rein in the Commune.

Geyl made observations in 1954 that bear directly on the appalling failings of the United States taking place before our eyes.

The worst, however, was that the event [the September Massacres] demonstrated the impotence of the Convention.  To me the way in which that Assembly allowed itself to be tyrannised over by the Paris Commune (in which the lowest elements had the upper hand, as Michelet admits) seems an undeniable proof of moral cowardice, dishonouring the Revolution.

That is a precise picture of Republican elders in the United States showing moral cowardice in giving way to the mob – ‘in which the lowest elements have the upper hand.’.  And they are doing just that in light of the evidence coming out every day that the mob will in truth be a lynch mob even without that encouragement.

When Michelet gets fuzzy about the ups and downs of the ensainted people, Geyl says this.

There is in that sentimentality about the bloody maniacs of 1793/4, moved by the new revelation of eternal truths, but also by hatred and fear, something positively repulsive.  But they were all patriots, they were all faithful servants…


And no decent country in the western world would have suffered the election of a draft dodger and tax evader who was a lying fraudster and whose inability to recognise the world as it is or to accept its rules were bound to lead to chaos and strife – to an extent that now threatens the rule of law, if not the Union itself.

And then compare the way in which the Tory elders of England put down their serial pest.  It wasn’t pretty, but it did have the benefit of a start of one millennium or so.

PS The note on Pieter Geyl below comes from Listening to Historians.  He is one of those people – I know far too many – who make you wonder what you have done with your life.


Holland had, and still has, a reputation for tolerance and enlightenment.  In the 17th century, it offered sanctuary to great European thinkers like Spinoza and Locke – Spinoza died there; Descartes also sought protection there.  Holland has also produced great historians.  One of them was the late Pieter Geyl (1887-1966).  Don’t just take my word for it.  A J P Taylor said: ‘If I were asked to name the historian whom I have most venerated in my lifetime, I should not hesitate for an answer.  I should name Pieter Geyl.’

Every now and then – it is not very often – you come across a writer who soon puts you at your ease.  There is a breadth and depth of learning; there is an absence of arrogance or waspishness; and there is some compassion, some generosity of spirit, too.  I do not think that we can call someone ‘wise’ unless we can see something on top of a very fine mind – something like humanity, for the want of a better word. 

The late Professor Geyl qualifies on all counts, in spades.  Geyl was trained in Holland but spent a lot of time teaching and writing in England and in the States; he also spent some time in Germany, something that I will come back to.  His 1955 book Debates with Historians is ideal for our purposes as it looks at four of the historians that we have.  (A substantial part of the book consists of a polite demolition job on Arnold Toynbee.)

The first essay from about 1952 is called ‘Ranke in the Light of the Catastrophe.’  A Times Literary Supplement piece had in the eye of Geyl suggested that Ranke by his ‘political quietism’ been a pioneer of National Socialism – the ‘Catastrophe’ of the title.  (In the fashion of the time, the article was unsigned.  Geyl referred to its ‘vehement one-sidedness’ and had said that in ‘this case it is not difficult to guess who is the writer’ – A J P Taylor?  Trevor-Roper?)  Geyl was intent on defending the German historian against this charge, a very decent undertaking for a Dutchman so soon after that war, you might think. 

There are two things.  One is the great insight of Ranke, that we have seen, that ‘Every period is immediate to God, and its value does not in the least consist in what springs from it, but in its own existence, in its own self.’  This to me sounds like Bonhoeffer.  It is to preach humility to historians – and some of them could do with the sermon. 

Then there is the magisterial closure to the refutation of the charge that Ranke had prefigured National Socialism.  It contains the following.

If we are tempted by our horror at the culmination of evil that we have just experienced or witnessed to pick out in the past of Germany all the evil potentialities, we may construct an impressively cogent concatenation of causes and effects leading straight up to that crisis.  But the impressiveness and straightness will be of our own constructing.  What we are really doing is to interpret the past in the terms of our own fleeting moment.  We can learn a truer wisdom from Ranke’s phrase that it should be viewed ‘immediate to God’, and he himself, too, has a right to be so considered…..Comprehension, a disinterested understanding of what is alien to you – this is not the function of the mind which will supply the most trenchant weapons for the political rough-and-tumble….To understand is a function of the mind which not only enriches the life of the individual; it is the very breath of the civilization which we are called to defend.

God send us more people who can think and write with that largeness of spirit – and consign our mediocrities to the dustbin that they deserve.

The second essay is about Macaulay.  He is the complete opposite of the ideal of Ranke.  He refuses to ‘look at the past from within…to think in the terms of the earlier generations’.  Macaulay looked on the past as the culmination of his view of Progress, of those ‘on the right side’ no less.  Geyl finds that ‘this mental attitude toward the past is in the deepest sense unhistoric.’  Elsewhere he uses the more homely term ‘cocksure.’ 

All this may be accepted, but with two exceptions, has anyone written history in a more entertaining fashion?  Has anyone ever got even close to Macaulay’s description of the trial of the seven bishops or of the massacre at Glencoe?  Some years ago, I was reading the History of Macaulay for the third time.  I was reading about the trial as I walked to chambers with the book in front of my face.  I was nearly killed by an irate tooting driver because I found that I was walking against a red light.  The dry-as-dust crowd are not likely to lead me unto temptation or unto damnation.  And let us not forget that in writing the Whig view of the Glorious Revolution, Macaulay had a lot to be cocky and sure about.  His team had won – hands down.  And as they say at the footy – winners are grinners; the rest make their own arrangements.

The next essay is about Carlyle and ‘the spirit of the Old Testament that seems to be present, coupling anathematization with adoration.’  It is about Carlyle’s ‘impatience with baseness and cowardice, his feeling of being out of place in a world of superficial sentiment and mediocre living……the babbling of lifeless religiosity or the sham assurance of modern idealism.  Instinct, intuition, the myth, these were his challenge to the rationalists and glorifiers of science who (unappeasable grievance) had made the Christian certitude of his childhood untenable for him’.  Carlyle was impatient with those in thrall to logic.  ‘Yea friends, not our Logical, Commensurative faculty, but our Imagination is King over us.’  That is not the least of Carlyle’s appeal.

Geyl, as it seems to me, gets the sadness in Carlyle exactly right: ‘the sentimental tie to a spiritual heritage which his intellect rejected, the painful reaction against the false teachers who gave him nothing in exchange for what they had robbed him of.’  That condition is very common now – it may define our time, as the time of the claimed death of God, but the author concludes on Carlyle: ‘and the perception of that tragic quality makes it possible to accept gratefully that which is vivifying in his work and serenely to enjoy its beauties.’  Would that other professional historians might be so generous with this poetic and prophetic lightning-conductor from the north.

Then follows an essay on Michelet, the first great historian of the French Revolution.  I have read Michelet, mostly in translation, the better to understand the loathing of the French for the church and, for many of them at one time or another, the English.  His father was an unsuccessful printer – as Professor Burrow reminds us, ‘exactly from the stratum from which the revolutionary crowds were chiefly recruited.’  But, Professor Geyl instructs us, business was bad under Napoleon, and ‘the memory of the Revolution was thus, in that poverty-stricken family, allied to detestation of the Corsican despot.’  It helps to have the inside running on the local knowledge of some historians. 

You will understand the deeply emotional and personal approach of Michelet if you recall that his initial work was on medieval France and that he thought that the English in destroying Joan of Arc – whom he saw as incarnating ‘the self-consciousness of France’ – ‘thought they were deflowering France’!  (God help him if he ever got to see what Shakespeare put in the mouths of her English tormentors.) 

Michelet has the exclamatory style of Carlyle, and a Romantic mind-set, but, as we saw, their differences come in two words.  Michelet talks of the ‘people’ – le bon peuple – while Carlyle speaks of the ‘mob’.  Or, rather, as Geyl tells us, it is the people when it is good – the storming of the bastille; but when they are bad – massacring the inmates of prisons until the streets ran with blood – it is not ‘the people’ but ‘three or four hundred drunks.’  If the awful Terror was an awful weapon, it only had to be employed because of the evil English without, and the traitors within – ‘the people’ and France were guiltless.  (Do you recall Francois Mitterrand saying of Vichy France that ‘The French nation was not involved in that; nor was the Republic’?  Did they all come from Mars?  Have you heard a Russian say that it was not Russia that invaded Afghanistan – it was the Soviet Union.) 

On the one hand, Michelet dislikes Robespierre for the lack of that ‘kindness which befits heroes’; on the other hand, the moderates, who literally lost their heads, lacked ‘that relentless severity which it seemed that the hour required.’  Only seemed, Professor?  When people walk on egg-shells like that, they are protecting someone. 

And the treacly chauvinism – no, imperialism – defies the patience of the Dutchman.

France the country of action.  Love of conquest?  No, proselytism.  What France wants above all is to impose her personality upon the vanquished, not because it is hers, but because she holds the naïve conviction [yes, naïve conviction] that it represents the type of the good and the beautiful.  She believes that she can render to the world no greater benefit than by presenting it with her ideas, her manners, and her fashions.

It is like a wearied but proud parent answering for the forward behaviour of a preppy, spoiled child.  Here presumably is the rationale of Michelet for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Hitler did not bother to try to dress up his invasion of Russia.  Was there any difference between the two for the millions of Russians who were doomed to die because of each invasion?  If you are facing rape or a bayonet, does it matter who sent them?

And what about Belgium, the presently disintegrating heart of Europe?  Well, they were not ‘true Belgians’ – they were within the ‘true boundaries’ of France.  What about the French robbery and rapine in Belgium?

Was it not for Belgium and for the world that France undertook the war, which between 1792 and 1815 cost her ten millions of her children?  In view of that frightful quantity of French blood, it does not begrudge the Belgians very well to grudge us a little money.

It takes your breath away.  What about the ten millions of the children of those nations who were not minded to accept liberation from Napoleon?  And what had Europe to show for her five million dead?

Did he [Robespierre] not understand that to try to dam in such a Revolution was impossible, ridiculous, and unfair?  Unfair, for we owed it to the world.

Again, it defies belief – until, that is, we recall the banality of the evil of the dictators of the next century.  Michelet thought that France was ‘stained’ by 1815.  (Some are still unhappy about Waterloo Station.)  Geyl observes that ‘his vehemence sometimes gives the impression of being an attempt to shut down his inner uncertainty’.  The same may be said for Robespierre, but we see this all the time now in the wind-bags posing as politicians. 

We have been speaking of the need for historians to look at the world as it was seen by people at the time – Maitland was very strong on this – but are we not compelled to dream of meeting the shades of Professor Michelet over the ruins of Dresden or Hiroshima and asking him if he might care to revise his view of the wisdom of allowing nations with tickets on themselves to walk all over other nations just to present them with ‘her ideas, her manners, her fashions.’

Professor Geyl feared that the cult of the Revolutionary tradition may even now be a danger in the hands of propagandists of absolutist politics.  ‘It began with the detestable league against Justice entered into by army and church in the Dreyfus affair.’  I agree, and very many otherwise decent French people then averted their gaze to save the honour of France, but then I look down at the footnote.  ‘I must apologise for speaking the language of the supporters of Dreyfus, in which the personifying metaphors undeniably have the usual effect of effacing transitionary shadings or exceptions.’  It is very, very rare, is it not, to find a professional man apologising for dropping his professional guard?

There are four papers on Arnold Toynbee.  He had discovered ‘laws’ of the rise and fall of civilizations that he unfolded in massive length and detail and with prodigious learning over 2500 closely printed pages.  It was all moonshine.  He said that on his predictors, things were not looking up, but that if we went back to God, we could be saved: ‘Be converted, or perish.’  It was therefore a smash hit in the United States.  It has now sunk almost without trace.  Its tone can be assessed from the work of a fellow-traveller at Harvard who published four massive volumes full of tables and graphs called Social and Cultural Dynamics.  Scores – no, as we would now say, teams – of scholars compared any number of books and paintings to grade the extent to which they might be characterized as ‘sensate’ or ‘ideational’.  What got into one of the most respected and wealthy universities on earth to back a project that was on a par with reading tea leaves or Tarot cards? 

I will mention four things about Professors Geyl and Toynbee.

The first is that Geyl is completely courteous and fair.  He may for all I know have learned from reading Darwin that if you want to do a demolition job on someone, the best thing to do is to set out the object of attack fairly, accurately, dispassionately, and courteously.  This advice is allied to the opinion of good advocates – that their most potent weapon is candour.  One advantage of setting out the other position in detail is that you can point to the spot where it fails.  You can claim the logical high ground.  You are not just being disarming – your position is carried with conviction.  One reason for this is that you are being honest – intellectually.  People should read The Origin of Species and Debates with Historians on this ground alone.  Would that those posing as professional sportsmen could absorb this lesson.  Each is a triumph of fairness and courtesy.

Secondly, the short answer to those who claim to have the answer to history is the remark that someone made to the effect that the tragedy of the social sciences is that of a syllogism broken by a fact.  We are not God.  Our understanding is too frail to support over-arching cathedrals.  We must make do under humbler shelters.  Geyl refers, more than once, to the wise advice of the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga to the effect that the height of a civilization cannot be measured.  ‘To judge a civilization, or one particular stage of a civilization, steadily, and to judge it whole, is a task which I think will always be beyond the powers of the human intellect.’  We should leave the blind arrogance of those who adhere to the alternative view to those who prop up the corner of a bar arguing about whether Muhammad Ali was as good a sportsman as Babe Ruth. 

On a related issue, Geyl quotes a cracker of a line from an English historian called Mr E M Young.  Mr Young warned about trying to get some absolute ‘canon of valuation’ and went on:

If we trespass across this boundary, we may find ourselves insensibly succumbing to one of the most insidious vices of the human mind; what the Germans in their terse and sparkling way call: ‘the hypostatization of methodological categories’, or: the habit of treating a mental convenience as if it were an objective thing.

(In fairness to Mr Young, it may be said that the relevant ‘terse and sparkling’ phrase does look threateningly like as if it may have fallen from the great Prussian, Immanuel Kant.  God only knows what it sounded like in German.) 

It is spellbindingly obvious that it is only people who do the things that make up our history; or, as Carlyle said, history consists of innumerable biographies.  There was no such thing as the French Revolution.  Some people in France – some we can identify; most we cannot – performed actions that came to constitute events that over a period of time – the boundaries of which are negotiable – historians and others have labelled as the French Revolution.  But there was no such thing.  The convenience of a label, and sloppiness of thought, give no warrant for treating all these infinite human actions as ‘an objective thing.’ 

On 14 July 1789, the Parisian bourgeoisie – however you define that weasel term – did nothing.  Rather, some men and women – some of whom we know; most of whom we do not know – took by force a government post, and then mayhem and all hell were let loose (as I think Milton said).  The taking of that fortress came to stand for the subsequent collapse of royalty and most of the last vestiges of the feudal system, but only God knows what may have happened to the white hats if a detachment of troops in black hats in charge of heavy fire-power had not changed sides at what we now would call the tipping point on that day. 

Not one of the things that any person did that collectively now fall under the label of the ‘French Revolution’ could have been predicted in advance – not one.  Nothing was preordained.  For just one example, Louis Capet could have kept his head, as could Charles Stuart, if he had been ready, willing and able to negotiate.  And while on 14 July, many historians forget that the nastiness and violence and killing started then.  Paris did not have to wait for the Terror to see blood on the streets or heads taken off shoulders – they had it from Day One.  If we are speaking of a revolution, we are speaking of violent force.  Depending on your outlook, you might think that the mob got the taste of blood very early.

Thirdly, and very much relatedly, one essay is dedicated to exploding the idea that Toynbee was being empirical – just proceeding as a matter of fact on the evidence – as opposed to people like the German Spengler (The Decline of the West) who were theoretical or philosophical.  It is a fair inference that Toynbee followed the bad example of mediocre judges – too many of them – by reaching a conclusion and then setting out to justify it.  But Professor Geyl states the objection more dispassionately.

I must confess that the historian who presents me with large generalizations and in the same breath tells me that he has been proceeding empirically will always arouse my distrust.  Nothing is more likely to be misleading than the comparison of the historian’s method with that of the scientist.  When the scientist conducts an experiment intended to show that a certain reaction is brought about by one particular element, or combination of elements, rather than another, he will take care above all to isolate that factor beyond the possibility of mistake.  It will always be hard indeed for the historian to do likewise.

It is the same for lawyers; we are fond of saying that experience trumps logic; we and historians are looking at men and women through a glass darkly, not measuring quantities of matter into a test tube.  That is why some of us are more enlightened about the past by the art of Gibbon, Carlyle, and Macaulay than a shotgun splatter of graphs, tables, citations, and footnotes; it is also why it does not look too good for the professional historians to be snooty about or envious of those writers who can reach us where we live.  We may be reminded of the observation – of R D Laing? – that more light may enter a mind that is cracked than one that is whole.

Geyl concludes against Toynbee that ‘the whole imposing work is a travesty of the scientific method.’  The final paper winds up that ‘this prophet usurps the name of historian….I regard his prophecy as a blasphemy against Western Civilization.’  The steps leading to that conclusion have been laid with great care, and the skeleton of the reasoning has been frankly exposed.

Finally, we have an indication of the way that the breeze has changed about religion.  The invitation ‘Convert or perish’ would ensure that this monument of Toynbee hit the dustbin a lot faster now, but Professor Geyl refers to a Dutch professor ‘who is a faithful Catholic and stimulating religious thinker, [who] begins by observing that many of his co-religionists will not admit any criticism of Toynbee, because they are so profoundly impressed with his message, his message of salvation through Christ.’  Toynbee had somehow constructed a system intended ‘to support divine truth.’ 

It is like the opponents of Galileo who quoted the Bible to over-rule the science of astronomy.  It is no business of mine to give advice to those of faith, but may I say that it makes as much sense to me for people of the cloth to pick fights with professional historians, philosophers, or doctors, as it would do for the Marylebone Cricket Club to challenge the New York Yankees to a World Series baseball play-off on a resurfaced Lords?

I shall try to deal briefly with three other essays.

Talleyrand, a randy, deformed bishop with a brilliant mind, was the foreign minister of Napoleon.  They clashed over policy.  Talleyrand undoubtedly went against his boss at times.  In one essay, Geyl asks why French historians, even those who are against the little Corsican, do not notice this.  ‘Are the French more inclined to detest inconsistency of action and deceitfulness?  Have they less patience with the witty and charming intriguer, the shifting evasive, character?’  There were some acting against the Emperor when he ‘was paving the way for the catastrophe’ (there is that word ‘catastrophe’ again), but Geyl concludes that the French took the view that their ‘loyalty was to the government actually in power, irrespective of one’s feelings as to its desirability’.  A footnote says that the Dutch version of the paper ‘was written under the German occupation in 1944’. 

When Churchill’s memoirs came out, Geyl was ‘thrilled’ to read that Churchill had the same view.  Churchill had had to tell a secret session of the Commons why Eisenhower had chosen to deal with Admiral Darlan who had been sent by Petain ‘and to whom there still clung the somewhat unpleasant odours of Vichy’ (and you will have noted the tolerance that is there extended to the fallen).  Churchill, no enemy of France, said that there was a principle of the droit administratif, ‘a highly legalistic state of mind’ arising from a sub-conscious sense of national self-preservation.  The Allies believed that because the French state had been subjected to so many convulsions, many French would regard de Gaulle as a man who had rebelled against the authority of the French State.  Therefore the Allies thought that they had better deal with the officials nominally empowered, even if they were on the nose.  (And perhaps here is a clue to the enduring antipathy of de Gaulle to England: these papers were written before that antipathy was fully realized).

You will see immediately the relevance to the attitude of French historians to Talleyrand and Napoleon.  In 1952, there was another name to reflect on.  ‘The German parallel does not of course imply that I am overlooking the enormous difference between Napoleon and Hitler…But they were both dictators and adventurers.’  This very wise historian had previously prepared us for this discussion:

One certainly does not need to be a Frenchman to understand that attitude.  [To betray Napoleon was to betray France.]  Everybody will find it easier to recommend to the citizens of another country resistance to a dictator as their true national duty than to put that doctrine into practice when the case presents itself at home.

How very, very true.  How many of us have within ourselves the courage of a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  Not me, Mate.  There was a man of God who was imbued with the Sermon on the Mount and who felt that it was his duty not just to disobey but to kill Hitler.  Bonhoeffer had after all accepted the truth of the remark with which Professor Geyl closes this essay:

as regards Talleyrand, the German parallel will remind us – if we need that reminder: the present generations are becoming ever more familiar with the idea – that under the regime of a dictator-adventurer the social order is partially dissolved and the resistance cannot be judged by the rules of normal times.

Is this just not downright marvellous?  How often is history so enlightening?

There is a paper on the U S civil war.  You will not be surprised that Professor Geyl is against the view that the war and its outcome were pre-ordained.  He argues that the essential premise of the contrary argument is just ‘one more proof of the general truth that the course of history is not governed by the conscious will of the majority.’  Did a majority of English people want to kill Charles Stuart?  Did a majority of French people want to kill Louis Capet?  Anybody familiar with the politics of a student body, a trade union, a parish church, or a professional partnership will wonder how often a majority view prevails.  (Do most people in Europe want to support the Euro on the terms on offer?  Do the centralists in Brussels have anything in common with those whom they claim to represent?)

In the course of the discussion, Geyl shows that he understands the greatest of all our men, Abraham Lincoln – ‘that rare combination of courage to stand alone with moderation; of detestation of the evil with understanding of the difficulties of the human agent or of the society in which the evil flourishes.’  He looks at the naked majesty of the Second Inaugural and goes on:

….the leading idea expressed in religious terms, is that events had taken their course independently of human control.  To me this humility in the face of the mighty happenings seems to be a truer proof of wisdom than Randall’s rationalism [the contrary view].  The conception in which it is founded may have its tragic implications; it has not, to anyone who accepts life in its entirety, anything depressing.  What seems depressing is rather that attempt to show, over and over again, that those people could have been spared all their misfortunes if only they had been sensible.  For do we not know at long last that man is not a sensible being?

Have you as yet got to expect the richness and ripeness of this kind of response from this writer?

From a short note on ‘Latter-day Napoleon Worship’, here is the former Emperor at St Helena on his first wife:

The real reason why I married her was because she had got me to believe that she had a large fortune….I found out the truth about her finances before I married her, and in any case the marriage with a woman of a good old French family was an excellent thing for me.  I was a Corsican after all.

Geyl comments on the ‘downrightness, and also a psychological truth, which are positively staggering.’  Could a man who was so cool about dropping a wife also be cool about dropping an army?  He did it twice.  Once in the sands of Sinai and once in the snows of Russia.  When the going got tough, Boney buggered off – twice.  (Well, he was a Corsican, after all.)  If you put to one side the millions who died so that the little Emperor of the French could play Europe and Egypt like a chessboard, there are things to be said for an against Buonaparte – and there is a book by Geyl on that subject – but on one issue there can be no argument – his troops could not trust this leader to stick by them when things went bad.  Is a there a worse charge left to be levelled against a soldier?

As ever, Geyl can allow for the poignancy of the manner of Napoleon’s dying – ‘for he could be truly and charmingly kind.’  And Napoleon certainly was unrepentant as he left us: ‘I am glad I have no religious faith.  It is a great comfort now.  I have no chimerical fears, I am not afraid of the future.’  I understand that feeling – what it might do for his victims is a matter for God.  Geyl leaves the subject ‘almost ready’ to accept the verdict of Thomas Hardy:

Such men as thou, who wade across the world

To make an epoch, bless, confuse, appal,

Are in the elemental ages’ chart

Like meanest insects on obscurest leaves –

But incidents and grooves of earth’s unfolding;

Or as the brazen rod that stirs the fire

Because it must.

If you read a lot, you may sometimes feel like a lone digger traipsing over an old gold field, and you just plough on in the wistful hope that one day your luck may turn and you may just come across some real gold.  Well, we got one here!  We have here a breadth and depth of learning, simple courtesy and fairness, and above all, compassion for the human condition.  In the end, Professor Geyl only fires point blank at Toynbee because he sees Toynbee as having impeached his faith, a faith that was I expect entirely secular, but no less real or precious for that; I suspect also that he had tired of Toynbee’s dogged unrepentance, and the wilful blindness of his deluded followers.

Professor Geyl represents something very, very fine about the European tradition.  He came from a nation that holds some of the title deeds of western civilization, to adopt a phrase of Churchill’s, a nation renowned for its tolerance.  His was a Europe that had just been convulsed in an appalling war, for the second time in a little more than a generation, but this historian is able to analyse its history in a way that does great honour to his calling.  In those essays, he had defended one German historian of a charge of being a step-ladder for the Nazis, and he had sought to understand what he saw as the ‘catastrophes’ that had befallen both France and Germany in different centuries and with different dictators.

I mentioned that Geyl had spent some time in Germany and that he wrote the Dutch version of the Talleyrand essay during the German occupation of Holland.  For thirteen months, Pieter Geyl, even then a most distinguished Dutch historian, had been kept at a place that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama visited a couple of years ago.  Its emblem was Jedem das Seine, ‘To Each his Own’.  We know it under a name of unspeakable horror – Buchenwald. 

On his release from Buchenwald, Geyl was kept in a Dutch prison by the Germans until the end of the war.  And, yet, in the period following that war, he was able to write about Europe, and the world at large, in the terms that I have indicated.  This, surely, was a colossal achievement, and one that humbles us.  Professor Geyl has produced work that helps us come to terms with our humanity, and that is I think the proper purpose of the world of learning, or, as I would prefer to say, men and women of letters.  Or as A J P Taylor is quoted as saying in the blurb on this book, ‘Geyl is one of the few living men whose writings make us feel that Western civilisation still exists.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s