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The Lost Moments of History


The lost moments of history—I owe that phrase to the most stimulating and original historian of ideas, the late Dame Frances Yates. It comes in her book on the Valois tapestries, the great series of tapestries, now in Florence, which were woven about 1580 for Catherine de Médicis, queen mother of France, the tormented France of the Wars of Religion. They were woven in the Netherlands, then in revolt against Spain, and Dame Frances believed that they were presented to the Queen by William of Orange, the leader of that revolt. In this she seems to have been mistaken, but that, for my purpose, is irrelevant. What is relevant is that, whether those tapestries directly recorded it or not, there was at that time a great “moment,” that is—for the word is used here in its strict classical sense—a great turning point, in the history of Europe: a point at which the struggle in the Netherlands seemed to be resolved. That moment followed the conclusion of the so-called Pacification of Ghent in 1576.

If that pacification had been confirmed, and had lasted, if the Erasmian William of Orange had been able to establish a French prince, the Duke of Anjou—married (as was hoped) to Queen Elizabeth of England—as protector of the still undivided Netherlands, how different the history of Europe might have been! The tide of religious war might then perhaps have been turned back or drained away; the old Burgundian unity of the Netherlands—the economic and cultural heart of northern Europe—might have been preserved; the ecumenical ideals that had been damaged but not yet destroyed might have been realized. A process might then have been begun which, if continued, if favored by luck and skill, could have transformed history and perhaps spared Europe the terrible experience of the Thirty Years’ War.

Of course it did not happen thus and we can presume nothing. History is full of surprises, and if we lose the capacity to be surprised by it, we have lost the sense of it. The Pacification, so hopeful at the start, foundered. But in considering what actually happened in history we must not forget the ideas, the hopes, perhaps the illusions that are also part of its substance. “That lost and forgotten hour of history,” as Dame Frances called it, marked the last serious and perhaps practical attempt to restore and continue the historic unity of the Netherlands. When it had failed, the struggle of parties was resumed, the great powers of Europe became more deeply involved in the war, the polarization of religion was sharpened, and, in the end, from the wreckage thus caused there emerged two new states, distinct and antithetical: so distinct, indeed, that when, in 1815, in the great reorganization of Europe that followed the defeat of Napoleon, they were reunited, it was too late. The union, which had once been natural and organic, was now found to be artificial, and fifteen years later the two countries, now known as Belgium and Holland, sprang spontaneously apart. They remain apart today.

Ah, but were they not always really apart? Were they not, even in the sixteenth century, though superficially united by imperial rule, really two nations, one Germanic, the other Latin, speaking different languages; and was not this fundamental racial difference shown in their choice of distinguishing religions, Protestantism in the Germanic North, Catholicism in the Latin South? Was not the ultimate separation therefore almost inevitable, the mere recognition of a reality that hitherto had been masked?

Such a view was held in the nationalist nineteenth century, but not, I think, now. The evidence does not support it. Protestantism was not natural to the Dutch nor Catholicism to the Belgians: in fact, exactly the reverse. It was the South, the advanced industrial and commercial towns of Flanders and Brabant, not the backward North, that was first won for Protestantism, and the Protestantism for which it was won was not Germanic Lutheranism but French Calvinism. It was the fortune of war, the conquest of the indefensible southern plain by the invincible Spanish tercios, that drove Calvinism to take refuge in the safer lands beyond the rivers; and it was the same military conquest, and the limits of conquest, that caused the country to be politically divided and fixed its division along military, not racial or linguistic, lines. The religious division did not precede, it followed, the political division. Once the country had been politically divided, Catholics emigrated to the South, Protestants to the North; and thus distinct cultures confirmed the antithesis of two distinct new states.

This historical example of the lasting bisection of a country by specific events was made actual to me in 1945 when I witnessed the division of Germany and speculated on its future. Until then, the political unity of Germany was an established fact, the irreversible achievement (as it seemed) of the nineteenth century. But now, as the rival Allied armies rolled in from east and west, the state which, like the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, had been the economic heart of Europe was surgically divided. At the time, the division, along lines artificially fixed by the balance of external power, was assumed to be provisional: once the country had been purged, democratized, set on its feet, the occupying forces (it was said) would withdraw and its “natural” unity, with some modifications indeed in the east, would be restored.

However, that did not happen. As time passed, and the differences between the Allies became apparent, the expected reunification was postponed. Meanwhile, on either side of the increasingly fortified frontier, antithetical social and political systems took root. Today, forty-three years later, few Germans have any personal memory of a united Germany. If the antithetical institutions last much longer—if they outlast the ideology that devised them and acquire a stability of their own—who shall say that this new division of Germany may not be as permanent as the division of Belgium and Holland in the sixteenth century? For it is thus that permanent frontiers and distinct nations are created.

I have taken my text from an episode in sixteenth-century history, the failure to preserve the historic unity of the Netherlands. However we may explain that failure (and there is no lack of explanations) we may take it as a type of the lost moment of history. By that I mean a moment which marks not merely a tactical setback within a particular historical period (for of course such moments are being lost, and gained, all the time), but a long-term change of direction: a change, moreover, which need not have occurred—it was not a historical necessity, a consequence hanging in the stars, but the result, at first, of particular human accidents or decisions or events that in themselves were not necessary: it could have been otherwise.

Of course I know the answer, can hear the objection. The lessons of history, it will be said, must be deduced from what has actually happened, not from what has not happened. And of course I must agree that this is true. Any alternative history that we can offer is necessarily a tentative hypothesis. However, such hypotheses are, in a sense, necessary too; for the alternatives that were on offer at any time were real in the minds of those who rejected them, or could not grasp them: they were an element, an intangible but real element, in the total historical situation; unless we are aware of them, how can we reconstruct the reality of the historical conjuncture, or learn from it? Only if we see events in the setting of competing alternatives can our history claim to be objectively true.

Nor, in any other way, is it alive. Detailed historical research is indispensable in historical study, but it is not in itself the end or purpose of such study. We may delve in the bottomless archives in order to catch each other out in the minutiae of local or social or diplomatic history, but if we stop there, who except our fellow delvers will trouble to examine our findings or learn—if anything is to be learned—from them? Only if we look at history forward as well as backward, from the position of contemporaries to whom all options were, or seemed, open, as well as from the present, when all but one of them have been closed—only then can we see it, as it were, spectroscopically, feel that we are part of it, that its characters were real people, three-dimensional not flat, moving in an equally three-dimensional world, with freedom, however limited, of choice.

Having said this, what a dangerous door I have opened! It is like the door of an airplane in flight. Immediately a dreadful prospect is before us: a vast empty space and, far below, the menacing teeth of bare, grim mountains piercing the intervening clouds, the teeth of all those busy critics and reviewers, awaiting their prey. Hastily, before we are sucked out, we try to slam the door. How much safer to stay inside, in the air-conditioned safety of approved textbooks, casting only an occasional glance, through a thick, protective windowpane, at the now flattened panorama below! And indeed, how right! For sometimes, let us face the fact, we are ourselves those critics, those jagged mountain teeth are our teeth. Let me therefore limit the danger by facing some of the legitimate objections that can be made and admitting some of the forces that reduce the freedom of our speculations. I begin by disowning two general fallacies which, I believe, disqualify all speculations based upon them.

First, there is the fallacy that we can, as it were, retrospectively stop history in its track, freeze it when it has reached a point satisfactory to ourselves: that the alternative to movement in one direction, the direction actually taken, is preservation and perpetuation of the status quo. This is a common fallacy, and not always retrospective; how often have we seen warlike nations converted to pacific ideas once their conquests are complete and they fear that they may not be able to keep them much longer! They wish to freeze history on their own terms in order that they may enjoy undisturbed possession of the future, live, as it were, as comfortable rentiers on the hard-won capital inherited from their predecessors. And students of history sometimes do the same to the past.

In one of my mutations I had a colleague, a scholar of some distinction in his field, whose views are rather conservative—somewhere between those of Prince Metternich and those of the late Evelyn Waugh—and who liked to rearrange the past in accordance with them. One of his well-worn themes was that “the wrong side” won the First World War. For think (he would say) of the benefits that would have flowed from a German victory in that war. Instead of liberal democracy, deteriorating all the time, leading to socialism, communism, and what not, the old feudal hierarchies of Europe would have been preserved, restored, solidified, under the firm patronage of right-thinking Hohenzollern emperors in Berlin, and we would now be living in the best of possible worlds, a stable monarchical system that would never have known communism or fascism, Stalin or Hitler. How disastrous (according to this philosophy) were those lost moments of history, the “miracle of the Marne” in 1914, the failure of the last German offensive in 1918!

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