Even if never articulated we always felt that something was awry, summarized in the alleged Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times.” The heroes of most historians appear to be vainglorious killers among whom no sane soul would wish to live.
Elsewhere a columnist considers the glamorous Charlemagne, under whom vicious wars raged from Spain to Saxony. A rare peaceful year was considered noteworthy among his forty-two enthroned. He also made evading baptism a capital crime, and the writer drips irony: “Convert or be put to death. Very Christ-like.” Yet the emperor has box-office appeal for historians, because of empire which required him to behave worse than other leaders. How much ink would he get had he been dubbed Chuck the Mild instead of Charles the Great? It is the Big Man theory of history; the dubious glamour survives while the silent victims are all conveniently dead.
In one major survey of important historical figures (while critiquing the whole troubled survey process) Jesus gets first place but war-makers score seven in the top ten. Charlemagne ranks only twenty-second, below Hitler, Stalin, Alexander the Great, King Henry VIII and other murderous thieves. Conversely, a large summary of surveys by historians and political scientists puts Calvin Coolidge in the bottom quarter of US Presidents usually, and always below half. Yet he rolled back corruption, reduced the size of government, cut taxes, oversaw economic growth and left office on a tide of popularity. The highest Presidential scores are reserved for America’s war-makers (apart from Eisenhower’s White House years).
Historians gobble slaughter like popcorn. An unscientific ramble through Amazon lists 14,127 books on Napoleon (including 2,205 novels plus, for all I know, his favourite recipes), 22,475 on Hitler, 49,448 on Alexander the Great, but only 480 histories on Albrecht Durer; the message being kill multitudes, sack cities, topple advanced civilisations and you get one thousand times more publicity than by engraving Christ’s Passion and fathering Renaissance art in Northern Europe.
Lest one sneer that the mass murderers had greater lasting impact, the life-saving Dr. Jonas Salk gets only 558 titles, 1,128 for Alexander Fleming, Marie Curie has 2,717 and 8,287 for Thomas Edison (who might have scored about two-thirds higher and tied with Hitler had he slaughtered millions instead of screwing around screwing in light-bulbs).
Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, praised “masterful inactivity,” and a potted biography tells us why he is ignored by historians: “there were no great foreign wars or domestic issues to handle, he lacked major achievements, and he enunciated no grand principles. ‘But he was kind, honest, and not self-seeking.’” His people thrived, but a fat lot of good it did him.
So is historical homicidophilia driven by theatricality? Is a historian’s gruesome penchant driven not by his or her own blood-lust, but by market pressures and public taste for mayhem? Historian Edward Gibbon seemed to think so, and described the spread of gunpowder by saying, “If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.” People, people who kill people, are the luckiest people in the world.
But if we ‘are what we eat’ do we become what we write, or grow more sympathetic to distasteful subjects? Or is something more sinister at work? It seems plausible that history teachers may be henpecked by departmental politics, gutted by hierarchical terror and the need to grovel at the feet of superiors—(the smaller the bone the bigger the dogfight; and the most venal places I visited were small US colleges and an Israeli kibbutz). Hence, mimicking Stockholm Syndrome where captives sympathise with their kidnappers, historians may transfer their subservience to bullying monarchs, emperors, warlords and other mass-murderers. They may even demand reciprocal grovelling from their graduate students. Feeling ignored or disrespected, the pedagogue may daydream of being a Mogul emperor having his enemies trampled to death by elephants; or, like several African tyrants and Mr. Jeffrey Dahmer, of keeping human body parts in the ‘fridge next to the aerosol whipping-cream. The Big Man histories are often written by little men.
Another incentive for fantasies of power must be boredom, the Father of Mischief. Students became teachers from a fascination with ideas, and usually never met a fresh idea again. A Hillsdale College administrator once told a visiting scholar that his toughest assignments were ensuring “enough sex for the students, football for the alumni and parking for the faculty.” The latter have more in common chatting about their lawn-mowers, especially when one is interested in Milton’s stance on Cromwell versus another in the fossil record of cephalopods. Not much overlap there. Then how long does a spouse’s fascination (“My Suzie’s quite the little expert in Mayan sentence structure, aren’t you, Sweetie?”) endure after the honeymoon? So who can forgive Dr. Suzie if, like Walter Mitty, she drifts off at her desk dreaming of sacking Bokhara or being crowned Empress of Byzantium instead of getting tenure or even intermittent sex?
Some historians manage to channel their frustrations into ideology. Then power-lust survives, so far as they long to become department heads, but they come to despise the great and powerful figures of history. This is rooted in solid research, for most great leaders were bloodthirsty scoundrels, starting with Churchill (“In suppressing the evidence that the Polish officers at Katyn had been murdered by the Soviets, he remarked: ‘There is no use prowling round the three year old graves of Smolensk.’” Then he presented Stalin with a crusader’s sword!) The problem is that once academics sip the ideological Waters of Lethe they forget normality and begin to despise anyone worth mentioning, even the admirable, because they loathe those authorities who perceive the merit. Initially their new heroes are harmless souls who fit their new agenda, as in minority figures hyped into being supposed achievers – as in the ubiquitous former slave relabelled as a great something (who may have been great if given the chance, but who looks out of place among true luminaries).
But over time the ideologues often end up liking Stalin and Mao even better. Soon they stage little amateur theatricals that support ethnic, racial, linguistic, cultural and gender diversity so long as nobody is allowed to hold a diverse opinion. Then they sign up for the school’s Eugenics Workshop and plan to sterilise Republicans, or they design wholesome camping weekends using official camps enclosed by barbed wire. They become permanently miserable, jilted at the altar of ridiculous expectation.
But not every historian falls prey to these temptations. Over the past generation, a few have found fame and royalties via sound historical research into subjects that made people’s lives better. A fairly recent bestseller viewed the Age of Exploration, not with some murderous conquistador but through the spice trade and commerce. Another revealed invention, industrialisation, business and improved human health through the (initially unpromising) lens of cod fishing, and another on salt. Such seeming trivialities made more, and more positive, contributions to humanity than sacking whole cities and even stacking up hillocks of human skulls. Imagine that.
There may be a cynical explanation in the need to find untrammelled academic territory. Possibly the thesis supervisor or commissioning editor would not approve the 22,476th book on Hitler, while Hitler-and-Wagner was already chewed to death, and there was little joy in researching Der Fuehrer’s cribbage scores (1926-1931). It may be that sailing the high seas with a hold full of precious spices and cannon at the ready may be academic buccaneering too, and nearly as fun. It may be impossible for an historian to write the 49,449th book on Alexander without discussing his attitudes on transgender mountain cultures in Khorasan (South-Eastern, not Central), making the work a total mockery.
But it is likely that some modern micro-historians prefer proper research to regurgitating imperial biography or brushing on ideological whitewash. They may take a genuine interest in fascinating lives beneath the hierarchical radar, and how they contributed to something great and lasting. They may even find more to interest and inform us than what rich creep poisoned the other, and polluted the river with his subjects’ haemoglobin. Others, like Christopher Dawson and Russell Kirk, provided “meta-histories” that seize the commanding heights, tracing themes over epochs. This demands more knowledge, but provides in macrocosm the same infectious interest as others in miniature–a telescope and a microscope are each useful lenses with which to scrutinise the Permanent Things.
Moreover both types may teach us more by contrasting epochs and cultures, which are big enough to permit meaningful definition, rather than dwelling on the shifting moral behaviour of any individual, even if he wears a crown and slaughters the folks next door.
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