History and Villains
by HAROLD NICOLSON
THERE are few more interesting studies than the confrontation of contemporary with historical opinion. To what extent, for instance, is our view of the present condition of Europe, or of the character of the Nazi and Soviet systems, likely to be confirmed by those who, more than a hundred years from now, read our diaries and our newspapers? Will our grandchildren regard us as having been a generation obsessed by purely materialistic values, and one which clung pathetically to the fiction of economic man? Will they be astonished that we of 1945 failed to foresee the great surge of prosperity which came over Europe in the sixties and seventies, even as we had no true intimation of the religious revival which, starting from Lithuania, spread east and west between 1980 and 1992?
Will they regard us as dense or perverse in having persisted for so long in believing that the age of tranquillity was over, when in fact it was just about to begin? Will they read with amazement our own estimate of contemporary events and wonder how we could have been so ignorant or ill-informed as to believe that Adolf Hitler, in 1945, still existed or still exercised control in Germany? Will they laugh aloud when they read our diaries of 1940 and 1941 and find that many serious men and women were convinced that the invasion of England was not only possible but imminent?
Will they reflect somberly on the ineptitude of all human prescience when they discover that, three years before the German War ended, we were thinking of a general election; and that, whereas we suffered agonies of apprehension regarding the housing shortage, we never realized that the whole demographic problem of Europe would be radically altered by the plague of 1951? It may be, of course, that, being unable to foresee the future, we have got the present wholly out of focus. Yet, if we are to judge by previous experience, it is at least probable that we have got the present fairly right.
The task and duty of the historian is to separate the true sequence of events from the tangle of contradictory evidence with which he is presented. His difficulty is that, having once disengaged what seems to him to be the chain of circumstance from the seaweed and the barnacles which encrust and obscure it, he is so delighted with the continuity which he has discovered that he rubs and polishes his chain until it shines like silver. If he finds a weak link, then he will solder it together with careful skill; if he finds a link missing, then all too often he is tempted to replace that link with one of his own fabrication.
In order to achieve clarity and conviction, he inevitably becomes obsessed and even bemused by the theory of cause and effect. He observes a certain result and assumes that this result must have been caused by some deliberate and ascertainable motive. He thus comes to attribute to the personalities whom he is describing a greater degree of prevision, prescience, and intention than they in fact possessed.
The historian, in his laudable desire to simplify, often falls into the error of oversimplification, and is inclined to ignore the immense part played in the shaping of events by the incidental failings of human nature, such as personal affection or physical exhaustion, even as he frequently forgets to attribute to the element of chance the often determinant influence which it exercises upon the course of events. When we study some famous episode of a hundred years ago, and plow through the innumerable diaries, memoirs, and correspondence which form the contemporary evidence, we are left wondering whether the neat chain of circumstance with which the historians have provided us bears any real relation to what the protagonists thought or intended or hoped at the time. We ask ourselves whether it is not so much the presence as the absence of motive which determines history.
It is even more difficult to decide upon the comparative effectiveness of activity or inertia when examining the evidence already accumulated around some historical episode of recent date. I have been reading recently two fascinating books upon the connected themes of the French surrender of 1940 and the French revival of 1941-1943. The first, which was published some months ago in Paris, is La Vérité sur l’Armistice, by Monsieur Albert Kammerer, one of the most precise and scholarly of all French ambassadors. The second, of which an English translation is called Algiers, 19411943, is by Madame Renée Pierre-Gosset.
From each of these books, one derives the impression that in periods of rapid confusion men of good will, if deficient in momentary will power, find themselves at the mercy of men of evil intentions who know what they want. Laval and Darlan were able to seize control of the situation, not because they possessed some superhuman energy, but because they were able to profit by the honorable hesitations of others and to force into their service the incalculable elements of chance. In each case, coming comparatively fresh upon the scene, they derived advantage from the physical exhaustion of their opponents; in each case, when others were united only by their common lassitude and despair, they were able, in the general anxiety, to impose their own formula. But their success was due, not so much to the force of their own motives, as to the weakness of all other motives. It was not so much their activity which was the determinant factor as the inertia of those who were opposed to them.
Monsieur Kammerer, in analyzing day by day the tragic events of June, 1940, has had the advantage, not only of studying all available documents, but also of consulting people such as Monsieur Charles Roux, who were present at headquarters during the final scenes of that tremendous drama. His account is the most authoritative which we are likely to possess until the memoirs of General Weygand become available for publication.
It is inevitable that with the sudden defeat of great armies, with the piercing of defense lines which had been deemed unassailable, with the rupture of all normal communications, and with the intense confusion wrought by mass evacuation and constant aerial bombardment, the functions and self-confidence of a central government should become completely dislocated. The confusion and desperation which assailed the men of Tours and Bordeaux during those appalling days is fully comprehensible. It is understandable also that the French General Staff should have failed for the moment to foresee the miracle of the Battle of Britain, or to imagine the powers of resistance which this island, symbolized and inspired by Winston Churchill, and much fortified by twenty-five miles of salt water, would be able to develop.
But even when we recognize the strain to which Paul Reynaud’s cabinet were exposed, and even when we excuse their lack of imaginative confidence in our own powers of resistance, three questions remain for answer. Was Weygand more afraid of internal chaos in France than he was of a German occupation? Monsieur Kammerer answers this question in the affirmative, and we must await Weygand’s own defense before accepting this verdict as final. Two other questions remain. Why was the French fleet not sent to British ports? Why did not the President and the government transfer themselves to Algiers and continue the struggle in North Africa? Monsieur Kammerer has some interesting information to furnish upon both these points.
There is no question of bad faith on the part of Monsieur Paul Reynaud. His intention from the first was to transfer his government to Africa, to take the fleet with him, and to continue the struggle from there. It was Laval, assisted by Pétain, who by a series of disgraceful stratagems and ruses prevented this consummation; and in the end Reynaud and his supporters found themselves interned in the S.S. Massilia in Casablanca harbor. Laval triumphed by kidnaping his opponents. Monsieur Kammerer tells this sad story as impartially as he can; but in the last sentence of his book his feelings get the better of him. “Thank you, Churchill,” he concludes in leaded type. “Thank you, de Gaulle!”
The story is taken up by Madame Pierre-Gosset in her book about Algiers during the three years that followed. One turns with relief from the putrescence of Laval, from the sly senility of Pétain, to the first trumpet calls of the Resistance. Madame Pierre-Gosset has a good memory and a vivid journalistic mind; she describes the confused condition of French colonial opinion with acid acumen.
The general atmosphere which pervaded Algiers during those eighteen months was to her “ both loathsome and intense.” She describes how, gradually, North Africa was bled white by German exactions; how there was all the apparatus of the Vichy system — the propaganda, the Legion, “a disarmed and hesitating army,” the prisons, and the police. She is by no means sympathetic to the French settlers in North Africa, whom she dismisses as “a crowd of indifferent and cowardly people.” But she has a fervent admiration for the underground movement, and she describes with real brilliance the mixture of bluff and heroism with which they suddenly seized control on the night of November 7, 1942.
The main interest of Madame Pierre-Gosset’s book, however, is her analysis of the chance circumstances by which, in the days that followed, Admiral Darlan came to power. She is not, I feel, at all fair in this connection to Mr. Robert Murphy, the United States consul at Algiers at the time. The State Department, rightly or wrongly, had placed all their hopes upon General Giraud; he failed them at the crucial hour. The whole fate of the expedition, the lives of thousands of men, the eventual issue even of the whole war, depended for a few hours on Mr. Murphy’s powers of decision. He felt that the whole issue might be compromised unless he summoned Fouché to his assistance; he did so, and by so doing gave a horrid shock to American, British, and French opinion. The results of his action — both the good results and the bad results — are fully known to us. What would have been the results of inaction on his part?
IT IS often said that our forebears completely misinterpreted the Napoleonic epic, and that their estimate of Napoleon’s character and intentions was invariably incorrect. Such a statement is not borne out by any objective study of contemporary memoirs and correspondence. Naturally, their judgment was much clouded by party prejudices or affections. The Tories hated Napoleon as the child of the Revolution; the Whigs detested him because by him the Revolution had been destroyed. Their views again were influenced by contemporary propaganda. We find an exaggerated importance being attributed to the Jaffa poisoning case, the tragedy of El Arish, and even to the murder of the Due d’Enghien, which to our blood-sated sensibilities appears but an unfortunate episode. It is surprising to our minds to discover that, long after Napoleon had begun to put on flesh, he was still portrayed by English caricaturists in the guise of the “skinny Frenchman” battling desperately with a corpulent John Bull.
It is a little startling to find that many serious commentators, even after Marengo, were convinced that Bonaparte’s victories must be ascribed, not to any military genius on his part, but to the brilliant assistance given him by Berthier. Of all the early misconceptions, the persistent Berthier legend is the one for which it is most difficult to account. Many foolish opinions were, of course, expressed. A clergyman, writing to the Times on October 13, 1809, ascribed Napoleon’s demonic successes to the fact that there were so many impious theaters open in Paris. Much violent exaggeration was indulged in, but on the whole the British people seem to have estimated Napoleon’s character, and the menace which it implied, in terms which were substantially accurate.
The spectacle of Napoleon dominating the whole of Europe filled our forefathers with alarm which often expressed itself in vituperation; but a sense of awe and wonder was never absent. Sheridan, in a fine outburst of rhetoric, expressed this general astonishment: “His are no ordinary fortifications. His martello towers are thrones; sceptres tipt with crowns are the palisadoes of his entrenchments; kings are his sentinels.” They admitted the austerity of his personal life, and although the epithet of “heartless” occurs again and again, there were those who commented upon his affection for his family, and even those who reported that he was sincerely in love with Marie Louise.
The visitors who flocked to Paris after the Treaty of Amiens were much impressed by the simple dignity of his demeanor and the amazing beauty of his smile. Lady Oxford considered him the perfection of manly beauty; Miss Mary Berry hoped he would never be assassinated, since he was “so simple and unaffected”; and the Duchess of Gordon was credited with a desire to secure the hand of Bonaparte’s stepson for her daughter, Lady Georgina.
It is a fact that, with few exceptions, all British subjects who came into casual contact with Napoleon fell a victim to his charm. Lord Aberdeen, lunching at Malmaison, thought, him enchanting; Neil Campbell, who accompanied him to Elba, found conversations with him an unending delight; and Captain Ussher of the Undaunted was “proud to confess that all resentment and uncharitable feeling vanished” from the moment that the Corsican monster stepped on board. It was only men like Lord Whitworth or the Duke of Wellington, whose contacts with the Emperor were either intimate or prolonged, who persisted in regarding him as ill-mannered, tempestuous, unreliable, and devoid of all honorable or gentlemanlike feelings.
Thus, although our forefathers were justifiably much alarmed by Napoleon, it cannot be said that they were blind to his merits. The Tories were apt to admit that, with all his upstart qualities, he had in fact introduced order and discipline into a chaotic country; the Whigs openly admired his elimination of the vestiges of feudalism. Lord Holland described the exile to St. Helena as “ unworthy of the magnanimity of a great country”; and John Cam Hobhouse recorded that the “consummate injustice of such a measure is only to be equalled by the pleasantry of boasting of it as an act of clemency.”
Of course they made mistakes. They persisted in believing that Aspern and Eylau were decisive victories; they imagined that the Battle of Leipzig marked the total destruction of Bonaparte and the immediate conclusion of a triumphant peace; they never fully appreciated, in spite of the Duke of Wellington’s high eulogy, the brilliance of the final resistance in Champagne or of the battles of 1814 between the Seine and the Marne. His occasional outbursts of ill-temper, his sudden fits of barrack-room manners, were much exaggerated at the time. “General Bonaparte,” wrote Admiral Cockburn, “has not read Chesterfield.”
What is more curious is that they attributed his fits of violence, which were often deliberately assumed, to incipient insanity. Lord Malmesbury was certainly of opinion that he was verging on madness, and compared him to the Tsar Paul “towards the close of his reign.” An even stranger contemporary fiction was the legend of Napoleon’s cowardice; it was generally believed that at Waterloo he had manifested downright physical panic. But on the whole they regarded him as a tremendous genius who had been lured to destruction by overwhelming ambition and an obstinate confidence in his own good fortune. And therein they were more or less correct.
Will our contemporary estimate of Adolf Hitler prove as right as this? He has caused far greater human misery than did the other corporal, and his military and political genius were, to say the least, on a different level. To us also his gusts of screaming fury seem to savor of madness, and we may be right. But shall we ever regard him, as Byron regarded Napoleon, as some Prometheus chained with his vulture to a rock?
I believe rather that we are almost right, as they were almost right, in our contemporary estimate, and that history will not accord to Hitler the glamor by which Napoleon, even for his enemies, is today surrounded, but will leave him as a squalid and hysterical figure who, by almost demonic demagogic power, was able to drive his people into a fatal denial of all that was best in themselves.