Ex-Kaiser Wilhelm is dead; Press dogs, who in pre-war days whined at the demise of any minor princeling, gave vent to a few feeble yaps. Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, failed to elicit the funereal modulation affected by throaty B.B.C. announcers; a dead Derby winner (steed, not jockey) would have been accorded less shabby obituaries.
Rich instruction herein for the thoughtful:
“He is every inch a king” ;”He stands for peace.” Thus, A. G. Gardiner, editor of the Daily News in 1909. A. J. Cummings, noted contributor to the same organ, to-day can only feebly bleat about the disadvantages suffered by Queen Victoria’s pet grandson, due to a hard-faced mother and a withered arm. Imagine the splash head-lines and sickening adulation which the News Chronicle and an A. J. Cummings would have indulged in had not the first Great War pitilessly torn the martial cloak from Sidney Low’s “great gentleman” (Contemporary Review, July, 1907), and revealed the Imperial blighter for the barren-spirited nonentity he was.
Biographies on the whole reveal the author to the same extent as autobiographies conceal him; the popular type of “history” indulges in numerous small “character sketches.” “. . . . He was a perfect gentleman.” Believe it or not, this is the considered opinion of the Right Honourable H. A. L. Fisher on “Bloody Nick.” You may find it recorded on p. 113 of the single volume edition of “A History of Europe.” The degenerate Russian moron had been dead 18 years when the Right Honourable and Christian Liberal “statesman” awarded him full marks in the “gentlemanly” line. If H. A. L. Fisher was not in possession of facts forming the minimum requirement for historical record, why did he foist on an uncritical public his preposterously feeble “history”? Bertrand Russell’s excursion into history (“Freedom and Organisation, 1814-1914”), written two years previous to Fisher’s work, exasperatingly obscurantist on the economic field, does at any rate aim at presentation of salient and pertinent fact; he points out that Fisher’s “perfect gentleman” refused the appeal of an admiral for the mitigation of the death sentence on a boy who had attempted to assassinate a ferocious bureaucrat.
In any case, a little reflection should bring home to the reader of history the futility of “character” sketching, especially of the specific “appreciation” kind. An amusing collection of wildly differing appraisements could be compiled. Even in the matter of personal appearance incredible divergences of opinion occur. Bernard Shaw’s “handsome” Russian Dictator is about as different from David Low’s “pock-marked” Georgian as words and pen could make him (see New Statesman, week ending June 7th, 1941).
Fletcher Moulton was an acute Shakesperean critic. In the “New Shakespeare Society Transactions, 1886,” he characterised Henry the Fifth as a “perfect man and national hero.” David Somervell, to-day, in his little “Europe Throughout the Ages” (p. 41), roundly labels him “our own stupid military hero.” Page after page of glowing tribute by Macaulay to his Orange hero and saint must be compared with a note on William the Third in the chapter on “Primary Accumulation,” in Vol. I of Marx’s “Capital,” and Compton Mackenzie’s frank revelation in p. 82 of his very readable “Literature in My Time.”
The sober historian, bent on presenting the deep, main economic currents, will be content to leave the bewildering complexes, vaguely denominated “character” to the novelist and playwright (the film producer of historical “characters” has produced the reduction ad absurdum in this line). Heaven only knows the practically insuperable difficulty of getting “character” across the footlights. Supreme masters of stagecraft, Shakespeare and Ibsen, leave each thoughtful auditor with his own particular image of Hamlet or of Peer Gynt.
In many respects, Marx’s “18th Brumaire” is a model of historical monograph, but it is open to question whether the few mordant strokes of personal detail of its shabby hero do not constitute just the tiny fly of impatience in the otherwise pure ointment of historical presentation.
What can we say of Churchill’s estimate of Hitler in his broadcast last year (May 16th) to the Italian people. “ . . . . He is a great man,” followed by “There stands the criminal ”; the Prime Minister was never more revealing of the general outlook of the governing class. “Greatness” and criminality, if not equated, are at any rate not regarded as incompatible. Let there be no mistake. The present conflict, in spite of a superficial jettisoning of jingoism and lip-service to “Democracy,” has not altered the mental horizon of the capitalist class. The new found touching discovery of “brotherhood” between Bethnal Green and Mayfair is too late and too closely connected with the desperate struggle to save the sweets derived from the exploitation of labour from foreign appropriations to be convincing. There are not lacking signs that with all the powerful assistance rendered by oily-tongued religious pepmongers, with the servile acquiescence or hungry Labour leaders, the game played in 1914-18 will not be so successful after this war.
Hitlerism is more or less the British capitalists’ Frankenstein monster vaguely shaping in the slime of a brutal Imperialism, emerging in clearer outline after Versailles, and rising now to full stature in all its foulness to confront the astounded author of its being—a new Miltonic episode of Sin and Death!