Lewis Namier, the historian as poet.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
March 8 2007 7:36 AM

Lewis Namier

The eccentric historian who changed British postwar culture.

(Continued from Page 1)

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 toward 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 the 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 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.

Lacking Isaiah Berlin's clubbability, Namier was slow to gain status as an establishment figure. An honorary fellowship at his beloved Balliol College, Oxford, came late and might never have come at all. But in the long run his charmlessness was probably a lucky break both for him and for us: His personality condemned him to the monastic dedication that the college system nominally favors but in fact frustrates. (Isaiah Berlin—the truth must still be whispered—wasted far too much time at grand dinner tables.) Ultimately, his mere presence at Manchester helped to put the redbrick universities at the heart of postwar intellectual achievement in Britain. And his solid brilliance helped to give the writing of history in ­post­war 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. One of the old man's strengths was that he was a realist without being a materialist: 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.

Advertisement

What was he, apart from a 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. But his achievement as a stylist is apprehensible to all. The war having been decided by the New World's gargantuan productive effort, the United States should logically have become the center 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.

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. 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?) 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.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.

  Slate Plus
Working
Nov. 27 2014 12:31 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 11 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a helicopter paramedic about his workday.