The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
IN THE MEMOIRS OF PHILIP DE COMMINES, LORD OF ARGENTON. Edited, with Life and Notes, by Andrew R. Scoble. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1856.
IN THE sciences and arts, paternity is sometimes certain and sometimes a matter of dispute. Every schoolboy is told that Herodotus and Thucydides were "the fathers of history." These Greek historians are still read. New translations have appeared recently and at slight expense the schoolboy will be able to see what General George C. Marshall meant when in an address at Princeton while he was Secretary of State he asked "whether a man can think with full wisdom and deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues of today, if he has not reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens."
What historian following Thucydides compels mid-twentieth century interest? Polybius, perhaps, but only by proxy because he greatly influenced Toynbee who intrigues or annoys his readers. Caesar and Livy are still read, but principally so that a steadily dwindling number of schoolboys can attempt to learn the language in which they wrote. During the middle ages there were chroniclers, but before Philip de Commines was there anyone who deserves to draw even a fleeting attention from a world recently interested in meetings "at the summit," mildly encouraged by the manifestations of friendship between heads of states, and still deeply anxious about the future of "the German question?" Those who first gave Commines his due were not concerned with facilis ascensus Averni.
Henry Hallam described Commines as the first modern writer who in any degree "displayed sagacity in reasoning on the characters of men and the consequences of their actions." Even though England had "produced some commendable historians," John Dryden thought that "above all men in this kind of writing, may be accounted the plain, sincere, unaffected, and most instructive Philip de Commines." Clarendon's "History of the Rebellion" was not to be published until after Dryden's death. Clarendon was a greater historian than Commines, and it should not be forgotten that the profits from his later editions helped to pay for the Clarendon Press building at Oxford.
"The father of modern history" was born in Flanders, probably in 1447. His father was a knight in the service of Philip V, Duke of Burgundy ("Philip the Good"), who became the boy's godfather and had him brought up in the household of his own son, later to be called "Charles the Bold." In 1468 Commines became chamberlain and councillor to Charles. A few months later Louis XI paid a visit to Charles, who disregarded the safe conduct he had given and put the King into custody that was menacing rather than protective. Commines then had his first tryout in statecraft. He was instrumental in negotiating the King's release and perhaps in saving his life. Four years later Louis bid so high for his services that Commines left Burgundy to serve the court of France. There he acquired honors, properties, pensions and a wife who was wealthy as well as noble. Until the death of Louis in 1483, Commines was his chamberlain, councillor and envoy.
From this position near the summit he could observe the conflict of nations, the schemes of sovereigns and the intrigues of courtiers. His mind was subtle and perspicacious and his insight into motives was keen. None of his readers will conclude that Louis XI did not deserve his nickname, "the spider." Admiration that was too unqualified and apologies that did not go far enough show that Commines was a child of the century, indifferent to matters of right and wrong. So perhaps Sir James Stephens did not exaggerate when he wrote that Commines approached that "judicial serenity which we ascribe to a member of the Amphictyonic Council."
Charles VIII and Louis XII who succeeded Louis XI made little use of Commines and for a time he was banished to one of his estates and put under bond for good behavior. He had to spend much time in defending his rights to properties that had been unlawfully taken from their owners and given to him, but by 1491 he had completed his account of the reign of Louis XI. The second part of his memoirs--on Charles VIII's Italian expedition and the treaty of Vercelli (where he represented the King) --he completed in 1498. Until his death in 1511 he took little part in public affairs. His memoirs appeared 14 years later. As Hallam was to say, they marked "an epoch in historical literature."
Commines was no admirer of meetings at the summit and he documented his distaste by accounts of several he attended and of one he had heard about in detail from Louis and others who were present--the interview with Henry IV, King of Castille, which had taken place ten years before Commines left the service of the Duke of Burgundy. "It is the highest act of imprudence," wrote Commines, "for two great princes, provided there is any equality in their power, to admit of an interview, unless it be in their youth, when their minds are wholly engaged and taken up with entertainments of mirth and pleasure." When the concern was with affairs of state meetings were hazardous. "Though their persons should be in no danger (which is almost impossible), yet their heartburnings and animosities will certainly augment. It were better, therefore, that they accommodated their differences by the mediation of wise and faithful ministers." The details, as Commines gives them, justify the judgment.
Louis XI and Henry IV, he wrote, "had never had any quarrels, neither was there the least difference between them; they saw one another not above once or twice, upon the bank of a river" --the Bidassoa, which separates the two kingdoms and debouches between Hendaye and Fuenterrabia. There were language difficulties; the attending courtiers quarreled with each other, and the regal haberdashery caused derision. "The King of Castille's person was homely, and his dress did not please the French who laughed at and derided both." It was Louis's custom to wear old clothes and to circulate among his people as one of them. He did not dress up for the occasion, and the Castillians laughed heartily, "supposing it his stinginess." The parting was marked by "scorn and contempt on both sides."
Commines was present at a much more important meeting between Louis and Edward IV of England, in 1475. The summit chosen was a bridge that crossed the Somme at Picquigny, near Amiens. Ambassadors had fixed the amounts that Edward and his retinue would be paid for returning to their country, and now he and Louis were to meet and swear that they would carry out the terms of the agreement. A buffet was thought important, but not for the sovereigns themselves. Louis sent the English 300 cartloads of wine, and the taverns of Amiens kept open house for three days during which, Commines dryly notes, "not a drop of water was drunk." Several thousand soldiers staggered and slept in the streets and there was much disorder.
To separate the monarchs during their interview carpenters constructed a "strong wooden lattice," with openings only wide enough to let an arm go through. According to Commines, Louis insisted on this kind of a barrier because he recalled what had happened when his father (Charles VII) met John, Duke of Burgundy, on a bridge in 1419. There was a barrier then but it had a wicket. John unbolted it, passed through, "and was immediately slain, himself and all those who attended him."
On Edward's side of the river there was an English army. The King of France had with him 800 men at arms, but at the lattice barrier, the opposing retinues lessened to twelve on each side. Louis XI took no chances, but Edward did, because when he came to the bridge he had to pass through a causeway and was an easy mark for bow-men. This, Commines says, "might have produced very dangerous consequences to the English if our intentions had not been honorable," and adds: "the English do not manage their treaties and capitulations with so much cunning and policy as the French do, let people say what they will, but proceed more ingenuously, and with greater straight forwardness in their affairs." There were embraces through the holes of the gate; there were oaths to preserve the treaty; Louis asked Edward to visit Paris "where he could divert himself with the ladies." Before it was certain that the invitation would be declined, Louis regretted having given it. Some of the ladies, Louis told Commines, "may appear to him so charming, as may give him a desire of making us a second visit. His predecessors have been too often in Paris and Normandy already; and I do not care for his company so near, though on the other side of the water, I shall gladly esteem him my friend and brother."
At Geneva invitations were extended and accepted, but if and when statesmen pay visits today they do not take armed forces with them.
But the "Memoirs" of Philip de Commines have another relevance to our present discontents. Had they not been published, we might not now face a question to which even a genuine détente between the Soviet Union and the Western World and a decision by the Soviet Union to conduct its public affairs in a goldfish bowl, as the Western democracies do, would not give an answer: How much has a fifth Power learned from two world conflicts that were almost won and then lost? That Power, only a decade ago in the dregs of misery that she brought on herself, now complains that Geneva accomplished nothing so far as she is concerned. The question is: Will Germany again strive for Weltmacht?
To Poor Richard's Almanac Benjamin Franklin prefixed the much-quoted maxim: "For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost; for want of a rider a battle was lost." Well, the battle was lost. The chain of possible cause and effect that I suggest (substituting "might" for "was") is this: for want of Philip de Commines's "Memoirs," Sir Walter Scott might not have written "Quentin Durward;" for want of "Quentin Durward," Leopold von Ranke might not have decided to become the kind of historian that he did--Carlyle's "Professor Dry-as-Dust;" for want of Ranke, the most influential historian of his age--and it was a long one, for Ranke lived and worked until 1886--other historians might not have thought that the Kingdom of Prussia could do no wrong; and for want of these historians the German people might not have been so willing for William II and Hitler to lead them to battle. As Trevelyan has said, historians who disseminate the wrong history can help to plunge the world into war.
The "Memoirs" appeared in English as early as 1596 and there were later translations. John Dryden wrote of Commines as "unaffected," but Sir Walter Scott was affected: the "Memoirs," a French geographical index, a map of Lorraine, and eight-year-old memories of a visit across the Channel, enabled him to produce his first romance with the scene laid outside Britain, "Quentin Durward." The historical characters included Louis XI, Charles the Bold and Commines himself.
Ranke read "Quentin Durward" and was shocked. In the words of Lord Acton who had been his student: "He decided effectually to repress the poet, the patriot, the religious or political partisan, to sustain no cause, to banish himself from his books, and to write nothing that would gratify his own feelings or disclose his private convictions." Or as Ranke himself said: "I found by comparison that the truth was more interesting and beautiful than the romance. I turned away from it and resolved to avoid all invention and imagination in my works and to stick to facts." His aim would be to learn how it actually happened, Wie es eigentlich gewesenist.
He used this phrase in the first book he published and "scientific" historians have quoted it ad nauseum. The first book appeared in 1824, when Ranke was not yet thirty and was serving as a master in a school. The Prussian Minister of Education saw the book and promised Ranke a post in Berlin; within three months he had a supernumerary professorship--so prompt was the Prussian Government in rewarding historians who did not have dangerous political opinions. One would have thought that Ranke might have wondered concerning the reasons for his spectacular preferment. From the standpoint of the state, the choice was wise; nothing in any one of Ranke's later forty-odd volumes made any Prussian Minister of Education uneasy.
Ranke's belief in his "objectivity" was serenely complacent. An eminent theologian who, like him, had written on the Reformation, once met the German historian in Berlin and hailed him as a colleague. "No!" was the reply. "There is a great difference between us. You are above all a Christian, and I am above all a historian. There is a gulf between us." But Ranke was a Christian as well. He wrote: "God lives and is observable in the whole of history. Every deed bears witness of Him, every moment proclaims His name; but especially do we find it in the connecting line that runs through history." Presumably nothing that Prussia did could incur God's disfavor. Hence in the case of events that would require another historian to speak of turpitude and crime, Ranke wrote of "transactions and occurrences."
Views of whether certain occurrences are venial or vile will vary with the viewer. But another Rankean contribution to objective history was an insistence that the date of the "occurrence" made no difference. "Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott," he proclaimed: all centuries are equal in the sight of God. The theologians can dispute whether they should agree, but what a philosophy for a historian! Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor and Solicitor General themselves turned the screws of the Tower rack in the hope of forcing the protestant Ann Askewe to make some confessions. She "would not convert for all the pain," and a few weeks later the legal luminaries went to Smithfield to watch her body being burned. Should we be no more moved to horror if we read that two of the law officers of Queen Elizabeth II were to participate in a comparable "transaction?"
Some advocates of colorless history make great play with the argument that the historian should not assume the role of "a hanging judge." Of course not, and the analogy is faulty. A bishop once said to a judge: "I can say 'you be damned' while you can only say 'you be hanged.'" "Yes," replied the judge, "but when I say you be hanged you are hanged." Not always, because there may be reversals on appeal or clemency. The historian is not a hanger but a damner, for his readers are free to reject or modify his verdict, and the next year they may read a different verdict handed down by another historian.
Geneva proved Commines a bad prophet in one respect. The heads of states did not separate disliking each other more than they did before they met. Indeed, Geneva displayed more sweetness and bonhomie than any conference since 1520 when Henry VIII and Francis I met on "the field of the cloth of gold." Those two monarchs were so boisterously companionable that they began a wrestling contest which the ladies terminated before it became unfriendly. "It's time for supper," they called. The buffets at Geneva enabled President Eisenhower to say that "there is evidence of a new friendliness in the world." Opinions will differ on whether the men in the Kremlin, when, until so recently, they hurled insults, were putting on an act or whether the change of manners is itself an act. Such uncertainties do not exist in respect of Western statesmen. They live like goldfish and one can accurately estimate whether they are being themselves or pretending.
But Commines was right when he said that the "mediation of wise and faithful ministers" rather than summit meetings must be the way to reconcile differences between states. Every substantive issue of the cold war remains as it was before Geneva. The Russians, by their smiles, sought to conceal their refusal to move from their positions on European security, disarmament and German unification. As the French put it, there is a détente but no entente.
But even if the Western Powers were willing to say that there is no hurry about German unification, Germany would not agree. In Murren the brooding presence of Western Germany, in the person of her Chancellor, was intended to make a greater impression on the Big Four than if he had remained in Bonn. "Even if you don't like the hors d'oeuvres you wait for the main course," was his comment on Geneva. A main dish will be cooked for him in the Kremlin when he visits the Soviet Union. Dr. Adenauer is not immortal. Will his policy, even his party, survive him? Will we learn that the German mind has not exorcised the spell cast by Ranke? It was a German historian, Hegel, who thought that the only lesson of history is that people and governments learn nothing from it. And of Hegel himself, it was said that he mistook the Kingdom of Prussia for the Kingdom of Heaven.