top of page

Lewis Namier and the Tragic Unity of European History


Bruce Anderson

Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888-1960), by Elliot & Fry, bromide print, 1940s. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals 
by Sir Lewis Namier. Oxford University Press. £25.00. 138 pages 

PittThe Younger by John Hoppner, 1806.jpeg
Portrait of William Pitt ‘the Younger’, John Hoppner, oil on canvas, c. 1806

When it came to the fate of Europe, Sir Lewis Namier[i] was ideally equipped to brood over the vasty deep. Modern European history is an unending struggle for mastery between mighty contenders: triumph and disaster, hope and despair. For millennia, much of human existence had been a dreary cycle of poverty and oppression, while most human beings' lives were merely an animal struggle for food, clothing, shelter and sex, at a marginally more advanced level. Then came the possibility of fundamental change. Despite the occasional relapse, religion was ceasing to be a demiurge of war. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, so often used as a symbol of Church-inspired strife, seemed to have been banished to the art galleries. The political opportunities offered by the Enlightenment plus the economic ones arising from the scientific and industrial revolutions appeared to open the way to a dramatic break from the miseries of the past. Perhaps Beethoven's Ode To Joy could become the national anthem of a joyous European future.


Just over 120 years after that work was first performed, the era of misery had returned. Enlightenment: the light had been extinguished by the darkness of a new Dark Age. Though the horses had given way to tanks and warplanes, an Apocalypse had been let loose in Europe. Tens of millions had been butchered; millions more were refugees. Cities had been shattered and with them, centuries of heritage. Germany, a flower of European culture, had descended into bestiality.


Ezra Pound lamented the casualties of the First World War, who had died 'For an old bitch gone in the teeth/ For a botched civilisation.' By 1945, the botch was surely terminal. As the displaced straggled and starved, America and Russia were confronting one another across the ruins and the graves. it seemed likely that the Europeans, whose forbears bestrode the globe while shaping its history, would have a new and final role: providing the playing-field for a Third World War - likely to prove fatal as far as Europe was concerned. 


Thus far, that fate has been avoided. Although it would be comforting to believe that this is because Europe has learned wisdom, there is no abiding comfort in self-deception. Europe has avoided destruction, only because of mutually-assured destruction. The terrible consequences of a Third World War would not merely fall upon one continent. That said, Europe does not only live under the unthreatening shadow of the superpowers' armouries. Today, there are other, darker menaces. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a children's story, ‘The Princess and The Pea.’ In it, a girl demonstrates her suitability to be a Princess. Her bed has been heaped with twenty mattresses, but there is a single pea under them, so she is unable to sleep. In the case of modern Europeans, there are two peas under the mattresses, Palestine and Pakistan, both reasons for geopolitical sleeplessness, both legacies of Imperial exhaustion. The fall of Empires is rarely a benign process. As new grievances replace old and optimism gives way to disillusion, there is always a hazard from tumbling masonry. In this case, some of that masonry could be nuclear. Preserving our botched civilisation - and we have nothing else - will require many qualities, as well as luck. Above all, we will need hard thinking in pursuit of tough-mindedness. That makes many modern Europeans uneasy. They prefer to take comfort in self-indulgence. We can only pray that history will not be too brutal in exposing this error. 


So why did everything go wrong? To put it mildly, the question is easier to address than to answer. Mighty intellects have tried, including Lewis Namier, the name he chose in later life. He possessed formidable powers of scholarship reinforced by linguistic gifts and enhanced by a profound and lifelong experience of tragedy, both personal and political. He was born in Galicia, in the midst of a political earthquake zone. His parents were Jews, who had acquired land and wished to pass as Polish gentry. Young Namier was not circumcised, and did not know of his Jewish origins until he was nine years old. Thereafter, he was a wanderer, in search of belonging and a secure identity. However distinguished he became, that was always beyond his reach. This may explain why he was often a difficult character; some even used the word 'paranoiac'. But even those who admired him knew that he was different.


Although he had a diverse career, history was his vocation. This had two aspects. He wanted to work out why so much had gone wrong in Europe, and why so much had gone right in England. Although the latter is his claim to a monumentum aere perennius, he arrived at it by a strange route. Though Laurence Sterne did not quite write 'they order these things better in France', he has been thus misquoted down the generations by many members of the cultivated English bourgeoisie, who were mainly thinking about food and wine. But even before Sentimental Journey appeared, Montesquieu had become what one might describe as the first French anti Sterne-ite. He and later figures including the liberal economist Claude-Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), and the historian Francois Guizot (1787-1874) who served as a French Foreign Minister (1840-1848) and Prime Minister (1847-1848), believed that in politics, they order these things better in England. They attributed this to the constitutional settlement which emerged after the Glorious Revolution - a retrospective Christening - and believed that France should learn from that example. In effect, they were Gallican Whigs.

Namier agreed about English superiority and one might have thought that he would have accepted the entire thesis: not so. In part, this may have been a matter of temperament. Even if he had wished to play either role, he was not suited to being a laudator temporis acti, or a disciple of Macaulay's. But there was a basic intellectual divergence. The Whig historians believed that England owed its success to a coalition of grandees and ideology. A mixed government, controlled by the Whig aristocracy, all steeped in their Party's nostrums, could safely be trusted with almost permanent power, which enabled it to cure the Tories of any residual Jacobitism until they too were fit for a period of hegemony, under that most Whiggish of Tories, the Younger Pitt.

Namier threw doubt on all of this. While he did salute the 'solid pragmatic instincts of the British governing class', he argued that the structure of English politics did not depend on the Dukes of Omnium. It rested on a solid foundation; English landed gentlemen sitting in - and controlling - the House of Commons. He believed that these men had ensured England's stability, so he wanted to find out all about them. Their education, their tastes, their finances, their family connections, their involvement in local matters: everything which might explain their attitude to great questions, and their voting behaviour. He also examined Parliamentary constituencies in similar detail.


As he was writing about local notables, there may have been an element of wistfulness. These men lived the sort of lives to which his parents would have aspired. Alas, Galicia was a long way from Gloucestershire. Equally, Namier's interest in the squirearchy in no way diminished his reverence for the aristocracy. Great houses still occupied by a great hereditary family: to him, that was one of the glories of England, and the destructive incursions of socialism and taxation were a source of sadness. His detractors sometimes accused him of snobbery, and he did enjoy reciting lists of stately homes whose hospitality went well beyond the muniment-room. In J.L Talmon's words, he took an abiding pleasure in the 'unbought grace of the deeply-rooted and the self-assured, those who have never known the need to present credentials.' Yet his interests were more than social. He did spend a lot of time in the archives. Out of this grew his role in that wartime creation, the History of Parliament Trust, whose work is based on Namierite principles. Without him, there would still have been a History of Parliament, but it might have taken a different direction.


Inevitably, there were critics. Some were bewildered that a man of his mental power should have devoted so much effort to resurrecting the obscure dead from their unremembered tombs. There were comparisons with Housman choosing to edit Manilius. Others, and not only Marxists, made the point in a more sophisticated fashion, insisting that Namier's focus was too narrow, and that the History of England between Culloden and the French Revolution cannot be written solely by reference to the House of Commons. That view is becoming consensual. Even so, Namier's work will endure, for two reasons. First, even if the Members of Parliament were not as all-important as he claimed, they still mattered. Second, it is unlikely that anyone will ever volunteer to retrace his steps.

Eugène Delacroix - Le 28 Juillet. La Liberté guidant le peuple.jpeg

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, oil on canvas, 1830

Namier's admiration for England was enhanced by the contrast with Europe. There is no prospect of anyone claiming that the destinies of Europe could be explained by the relationships between the equivalents of Justice Shallow and Justice Silence, Squire Allworthy and Squire Western. Namier's 1848, The Revolution of the Intellectuals, published in 1946, sets out to identify what had already gone badly and what would, in future, go even worse. If one were to distil a complex argument, three malign influences are crucial. The first is the French Revolution; the second, nationalism: the third, the influence of intellectuals and intellectual naivete. 


As for France, the wisest comment about the French Revolution was made by Zhou Enlai, in four words. Asked about its consequences, he replied “Too early to say.” They are certainly a work in progress. Sometimes immense events can leave a poisonous legacy in a nation's blood-stream. Obvious examples are Argentina and Peronism, the Old South and the American Civil War, slavery and American blacks. So far, no cure has been found for these infections of political blood-poisoning. The same is true of France. With a powerful bourgeoisie who have shaped French institutions in their own image plus a peasantry with sound small-c conservative instincts, France ought to be a politically Conservative nation. But that stability has always been elusive. To which should a French Conservative owe allegiance: the Tricolour or the Fleur de Lys? Moreover, the blood-guilt of Regicide has been reinforced by the lure of Bonapartism.

 Portrait of Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, German-Austrian diplomat, politician an

Portrait of Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Thomas Lawrece, oil on canvas, 1815

The Congress of Vienna, watercolour etching by August Friedrich Andreas Campe, in the coll

'Aux Armes, citoyens.' The French Revolution invented the levée en masse. Napoleon drew on it for his conquering armies. Though a lot of the masse were exhausted by 1815, the Emperor had turned his fellow-countrymen into a nation of Charles de Gaulles and Julien Sorels. Stendhal’s panoramic novel Le Rouge et le Noir is a good guide to Bonapartist dreams, and fantasies. Many Frenchmen had a certain idea of France, which would not be easily satisfied.

Bonaparte had also turned Europe upside down. After 1815, the victors had the task of restoring order. Two centuries later, it could be argued that their work is incomplete. In the short run, the rulers of the European mainland sought to ensure that there would be no more revolutions and no more trouble from the French. In this, they had the restored Bourbons as allies. The cliche was true: the Bourbons had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. But the same accusation could be made against Metternich, the inspirer of ‘the Holy Alliance’ between Austria, Prussia and Russia. He might have thought of revisiting that fascinating paradox, Enlightened Despotism. In its piquancy, the tentative alliance between philosophes and absolute rulers could be compared to the coalition of Southern Baptists and Jewish Manhattan neo-Conservatives which gave the Republican party an unprecedented intellectual vigour, for a season. But Enlightened Despotism was effaced by Revolutionary Despotism. Metternich thought that the solution was unenlightened despotism. Europe needed reaction.



Europe had other ideas. The grandeur of the Congress of Vienna had shallow roots in the minds of men. In July 1830, the Bourbons were sent packing again, and reactionary Europeans were alarmed. History is written backwards, but lived forwards. We take it for granted that the disturbances of the early 1830s would not lead to revolution - because we know what happened. Contemporaries, denied that luxury, feared that the overthrow of the Bourbons would lead to a second French Revolution, with its armies pouring across the Belgian frontier; Belgium was in the process of breaking away from Holland. Meanwhile the English, who had always understood the strategic importance of Belgium, were convulsed by demands for Parliamentary reform. If France misbehaved, would they be able to issue credible threats? It seemed more than possible that there would be a general European war. But everything calmed down. A lot of credit is due to Talleyrand. His maxim, surtout pas trop de zèle, was never more appropriate and on the whole, it was heeded; again, for a season.

The Congress of Vienna, August Friedrich Andreas Campe, watercolour etching,  c. 1815. Courtesy of the collection of the State Borodino War and History Museum, Moscow. 

The French never learned to love their new Orleanist dynasty. The old Right found it hard to accept the son of Philippe-Egalité who had voted for the guillotining of his Sovereign. Some Royalist ultras saw his own subsequent death by the same method as divine justice.


Louis-Philippe, King of the French from 1830 to 1848, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, oil on canvas, 1841.

The Frankfurt Parliament in Frankfurt's Paulskirche in 1848_49. Coloured, contemporary eng

Despite the conquest of Algeria and the repatriation of Napoleon's body from St Helena, the Orleanist regime lacked glamour. Louis-Philippe was happy to refer to himself as Citizen-King. In the eyes of many, that was not a means of consolidation, but merely a contradiction. Nor did the Citizen-King do nearly enough to broaden his base of support. Guizot, Louis Philippe's most important Minister, may have been an Anglophile but he did not learn the most important lesson from recent British history: the need to extend the franchise to the urbanised middle-classes. In 1848, despite the Hungry Forties, that helped the English authorities to face down the Chartists. But in France, voting rights were restricted to the upper bourgeoisie, and Guizot was credited with brushing aside complaints. Those who wished to vote should 'enrichissez-vous.' That seemed to epitomise the complacency and indeed corruption of the governing system: almost on a par with 'Qu'ils mange de la brioche.'


The late 1840s were difficult years in much of Europe. There was even an uprising in Switzerland. Much of the trouble arose from that traditional source of unrest and uprisings, as in the late 1780s in France: failed harvests. In Paris, protests brought the Monarchy under pressure. In response, Louis-Philippe showed no inclination to fight for his throne a l'outrance. As Namier put it: 'In February 1848, in Paris, political passions devoid of real contents...evoked revolutionary phantoms: fevered nerves and hearts grown cold responded to an overtowering past by a routine of excitement.' Louis-Philippe slipped off to Surrey. The July Monarchy turned into Miss Havisham. 


To the East, the excitement encouraged emulation. Germany was particularly vulnerable to contagion. The post-Napoleonic arrangements based on the German Confederation were never stable. There was a constant susurration of liberal discontent. Demands for enfranchisement and a modern legal code increased. Many German Liberals thought that there was an obvious way to make progress: to unify Germany. Given what has happened subsequently, it may seem hard to grasp a key point. In 1848, German unity was not only a liberal cause. It was an idealistic one. In that spirit, German liberals converged on Frankfurt to create new institutions and a new constitution, with little immediate resistance from the rulers of the German Confederation. Reaction seemed as impotent as Louis Philippe.

The Frankfurt Parliament in Frankfurt's Paulskirche, after a drawing by Ludwig von Elliot, contemporary engraving, 1848-49

The difficulties were not slow in materialising. First, naivete encountered nationalism. Second, the cultured classes had to reckon with the lower orders. German unity was all very well, but what was to happen to the non-German minorities who lived in what eventually became the Reich? This was especially true if Austria was to be regarded as part of a new Germany. Schleswig-Holstein was a factor, but Poland was at the heart of the problem. The partitions of Poland had always weighed heavily on the Western European liberal conscience, encouraged by the romantic allure of many Polish exiles, especially in Paris: especially Chopin. Much of Poland was held down by Russia. The thought of civilised Poles suffering at the hands of Russian barbarians was a constant source of distress among the salon classes. 

So: Poland should be free. But if that were to happen, what would happen to the Germans who would have to live under Polish rule, especially in Poznan? The Frankfurt Parliament found no way of arbitrating between the two nationalisms' competing claims. Nor did anyone else, until Stalin. He did find a solution: ethnic cleansing. 


Poland was a problem for the Frankfurt parliamentarians. So were two other 'Ps': the proletariat and the peasantry. Very few of them were invited to Frankfurt, and those who were, received no enthusiastic welcome. There was a general belief that only the socially acceptable salonfähig should be eligible to vote. Indeed, many delegates took the view that rather than extend the franchise to the lower orders, it would be better to stay with the status quo.


Namier enjoys the way in which social generosity eventually gave precedence to social anxiety, as Frankfurt petered out. Another observer tried to find a realistic liberal solution. Ludwig von Rochau had started his political career on the radical left. By the time of Frankfurt, he had moved to the centre. He ended life as a liberal Bismarckian. He concluded that Frankfurt failed because of a lack of what he termed 'realpolitik'. He was the inventor of the term. By it, he did not mean raison d'etat. In what John Bew, the author of an excellent study of Realpolitik, has described as a fusion of Burke and Marx, he argued that political stability depended on finding a balance between economic forces, social forces and ideas. The high-minded liberalism of Frankfurt had been insufficiently grounded in reality.


Another observer of the Frankfurt degringolade came to overlapping conclusions. Otto von Bismarck could be described as a proponent of an illiberal realpolitik. He also believed in a united Germany and indeed created one. Could his settlement have endured? In 1888, Frederick III became Kaiser. He was a liberal - by the standards of the time - a constitutionalist and an Anglophile, as befitted a son-in-law of Queen Victoria. During the Franco-Prussian war, he had commanded an army in the field, successfully. So he had the prestige which his insecure son, Wilhelm II, (‘Kaiser Sarkozy’), always craved and rarely found. But Frederick III had also been on the German smoking team. Cancer got him after only 99 days on the throne. If he had reigned for thirty years, could civilisation have remained unbotched and the First World War been avoided?


Admittedly, the French would neither have forgotten or forgiven the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, while there was another aspect of Bismarck's legacy which could have been troublesome. He seemed to have proved that it was possible to fight surgical-strike wars: limited objectives, limited duration, limited destruction and casualties. But Churchill would be proved right: the wars of peoples would be more terrible than the wars of Kings.


Though there were uprisings, especially in Hungary, the Austrian empire survived 1848, while Russia was untroubled. The Austrians did then return to enlightened absolutism and eventually found a compromise with the Magyars. Their efforts to hold a polyglot Empire together were assisted by the fact that some of their subject peoples disliked one other more than they distrusted Vienna. But neither the Habsburgs nor the Romanovs were in any position to survive a war of the peoples. Both needed peace for preservation.

Neither got it. By the time Namier was writing, the malign consequences were in full view. German liberal nationalism had given way to jackboots and Hitler; Polish romantic nationalism to Pilsudski and anti-semitism. The weakness of intellectuals in politics had been fully exposed. It is worth remembering that for Centuries, most intellectuals worked for Churches and thus suffered from the déformation professionelle of churchmen: group-think, a belief in absolute truth, and an intolerance of other views. Modern intellectuals often have a further defect. They tend to believe in the perfectibility of mankind. This is especially true of socialists, who subscribe to a secular teleology, socialism, and are willing to believe that enormous sacrifices are justified in order to achieve it.


Perfectibility, teleology, group-think and a contempt for the vicissitudes of normal life: we are surely talking about the descendants of the men of Frankfurt - those who created the European Union. Their motives were not ignoble. After the dark ages from 1914 to 1945, their belief in moving beyond the nation-state is easy to understand. But they - and Namier - are wrong. Not all mainland European nationalisms are evil. It is possible, even for Germans, to learn the lessons of 1945 and to understand that other nations know how to take their nationalism in moderate doses. The Euro-nomenklatura has another fundamental flaw. It has no understanding of realpolitik. Its members should all study Namier: the life, and the works. 


Berlin’s Reichstag parliament building bombed, May 1945, Courtesy of Vassili Subbotin/

Although he found consolation in English history and in the creation of the state of Israel, rootedness and contentment never came easily to him. How could they? He had spent too much time contemplating the abyss into which Europe had almost fallen. As Nietzsche said, 'if you stare into the abyss for long enough, it will stare back at you.' That was true of him, But Namier held its gaze. Although he may have shaken his head at the delusions and follies of intellectuals in politics, Namier himself never lacked intellectual rigour or intellectual courage. In that spirit, he should be read and saluted.



Works by Lewis Bernstein Nemier

  • The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, 1929, 1957.

  • England in the Age of the American Revolution, 1930.

  • Skyscrapers and other Essays, 1931. Contains his essays on Austrian Galicia.

  • In the Margin of History, 1939.

  • Conflicts: Studies in Contemporary History, 1942.

  • 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals, 1944.

  • Facing East: Essays on Germany, the Balkans and Russia in the Twentieth Century, 1947

  • Diplomatic Prelude, 1938–1939, 1948

  • Europe in Decay: A Study in Disintegration, 1936–1940, 1950.

  • Avenues of History, 1952.

  • In the Nazi Era, 1952.

  • Monarchy and the Party System: The Romanes Lecture Delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre 15 May 1952, 1952.

  • Basic Factors in Nineteenth-Century European History, 1953.

  • Personalities and Powers, 1955

  • Vanished Supremacies: Essays on European History, 1812–1918, 1958.

  • Charles Townshend, His Character and Career, Leslie Stephen Lecture, Cambridge University Press, 1959.

  • Crossroads of Power: Essays on Eighteenth-Century England, 1962.

  • The House of Commons, 1754–1790 (3 vols.), 1966 [1964], edited by John Brooke & Sir Lewis Namier





[i]Ludwik Bernstein Niemirowksi (1888-1960), University of Lwow, University of Lausanne, London School of Economics and Balliol College, Oxford. British subject 1913 – name anglicised as ‘Lewis Bernstein Namier.’ Private, 20th Royal Fusiliers 1914-15; HMG Department of Information 1917-18; Foreign Office, Political Intelligence Department 1918-20; Member, British delegation, Versailles Peace Conference, 1919. Business career 1921-31. Professor, University of Manchester 1931-53. Knighted 1952.

Background painting is The Education of the Children of Clovis, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861

bottom of page