Some biographies approach the character of their subjects stylistically. It applies to this biography of Lewis Namier, a leading British historian of the mid-20th century. David Hayton on Namier is just like Namier and yet ready to run an ethical pen: far-reaching but able to concentrate; fascinating, but also with some longueurs; and consistently reasonable, cautious in its context, and adept in moving into a variety of worlds.
We follow Namier from a comfortable childhood in Austria's Poland, albeit with a problematic father, through training in Switzerland and the London School of Economics to Oxford, where he goes to Balliol and his life with great enthusiasm. As a Jew, however, he was unacceptable to the companions of all souls, although he was clearly bright enough to be excluded from their ranks.
We follow Namier in World War I, into the army and then into political intelligence for the Federal Foreign Office. The latter's complex policies, which have become more complex due to Namier's strong views on Poland and Czechoslovakia, are well managed, which serves as preparation for the even more complex policies of the Zionist question. Namier is horrified by the anti-Semitic violence in Eastern Europe and becomes a permanent Zionist who also rejects religious Jews.
Indeed, Zionism was one of its main activities in the 1920s, a period of precarious income and very modest living standards. To a certain extent, the iron penetrates his soul – which is not surprising considering that he is ready to fight for time to research and write, while in his eyes most of the Oxbridge dons are neither his Industry still matched his skills. At the same time, he was an active and avid journalist because of his need for money and his work on a number of international issues. Burdens manifested themselves in the form of physical illnesses and mental burdens, to an extent of monomania, in his ability to bore others, and in the failure of his first marriage, which Hayton writes with characteristic care and accuracy.
Namier unexpectedly became an academic with a chair in Manchester, where he proved to be better with the lighter students. Like many professors of the day, he discharged the teaching that he did not want to young colleagues.
The Second World War was a repetition of the First in some ways, but Hitler's genocide policy made his stance even more urgent. As in the previous war, Namier was not convinced of the attempts to hold the international system responsible and instead considered the special character of German political culture to be responsible.
That remained his view in the post-war world, and one of the few places that I could recommend for a reading other than Hayton's consistently excellent analysis is the finding that the continuity of the numbers of the Third Reich in Adenauer's Germany means that Namier had a point , while his disagreements with Liddell Hart about the German army and anti-Semitism in 1951 can be understood based on the sympathy of the latter for the German generals, even if they were endangered by war crimes, and on the understanding of Namier for their responsibility. As James Butler showed in his correspondence with Liddell Hart, you didn't have to be a Jew to think the situation was disgusting.
After the war, Namier thought he would and should have a chance at Oxbridge chairs, but voters preferred others, in the Cambridge case, a home-grown second-councilor. Instead, Namier focused on the "History of Parliament" project. His second marriage, with which Hayton coped well, brought him stability. However, the health of Namier was increasingly worrying. He died, still working, but with a lot of unfinished work. Incomplete work was a pattern that was repeated throughout his life.
It is a bare summary of a life brilliantly covered by Hayton and with great mastery not only of obvious but also of amazing dark sources. On the back, Adam Sisman claimed that the book is final, which is wrong, as no historical work can be, but it is definitely excellent. Hayton's conclusion makes it clear that he liked Namier, a difficult man. but not even Namier’s most dedicated students and friends were blind to his mistakes, and this is a just biography. It's not the kind of cozy study that was recently produced for Hobsbawm. Instead, this is a psychologically more difficult job that raises tough questions from a man trying to reconcile his life and work.
There is also a lot about other historians. A.J.P. Taylor, G.M. Trevelyan and J.H. Lot doesn't show up well and John Neale was clearly very difficult. The "History of Parliament" project is skilfully explained and Namier's published works, on which he is often judged sharply, are contextualized in relation to what he would have liked to publish. The latter is particularly important for the approximation of his published studies on the 18th century. In a way, like so many, it is the unfinished sense that is so oppressive. Namier's poignant understanding that the arrogance that displeased others was due to insecurity and his knowledge that what he was trying to defend and explain in politics and science should largely fail, if not be destroyed. On the other hand, Namier managed to be a public intellectual, which, as columnist Bagehot said, we did in the economist in July 2019, only a few modern academic historians can achieve anything.
Conservative revolutionary: the life of Lewis Namier
Manchester £ 472pp £ 25
Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter,