Clive's Lives

Lewis Namier

The eccentric historian who changed British postwar culture.

The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

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.
Lewis Namier, Crossroads of Power

Lewis Namier 

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. Born Lewis Bernstein in Poland, of Russian heritage, 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 establishment 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 defense, they could say that his frustrations stimulated his productivity: a classic argument of the genteel ­anti-­Semite. A better defense was that another Jewish academic, Isaiah Berlin, scaled the heights of polite society.) Namier simply lacked charm. But he could write English prose with an austere beauty. The influx of talented Jewish refugees was one of Europe’s most precious gifts to Britain in the 20th  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.

Coming to English as a second language, many 20th-century political refugees wrote it with mastery. But the exiled European writer who really got the measure of his adopted tongue, with the least show and the most impact, was 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 a 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 grief and ­hard-­won knowledge of a lifetime are dissolved into his acerbic cadences, and his neatness of metaphor epitomizes the gaze long grown weary that misses nothing. You can see his alertness in the single sentence quoted above, 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. 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. 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 brought his gift for drama to its fullest flower in his incidental writings that dealt with the diplomatic and political prelude to World War II and the issues raised by the war itself. It is meant neither as an insult nor as a paradox to say that he did journalism the favor 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 that constitute 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, he couldn’t always be right, but he was never less than pertinent, and 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. 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 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.

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.