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!

Such an argument typifies one erroneous form of “alternative history.” It presupposes that history need not move, that it can be stopped: that if one channel, the channel through which we have seen it flow, could have been blocked, the flow would have ceased, and instead of shooting perilous rapids or tumbling headlong down a precipitous cascade, we would have found ourselves paddling for ever after in a placid lake. But history cannot be made to stand still. It moves. It must move; and if it is blocked in one direction, it will move in another—though still controlled by the configuration of the landscape. Only in the wishful minds of nostalgic or utopian thinkers does it stop—and always on their terms, without much regard to the landscape.

To the nostalgic argument of my former colleague I would indeed concede one point. I would admit that if the First World War had not broken out, there would have been no call for Stalin or Hitler. But I would add that, once it had broken out, there is no reason to suppose that a German victory would have made the world safer for feudal reaction than the Allied victory made it for liberal democracy. Results do not necessarily conform to intentions. And I would draw his attention to the words of the German historian of German war aims in the First World War. If those aims had been realized, writes Fritz Fischer, they would “infallibly” have imposed on the peoples of Europe, both East and West, “an intolerable hegemony” and “laid up a store of terrible explosive material for new conflicts.” It is true that no Hitler would then have arisen in victorious Germany, but we might well have seen his equivalent in conquered England or conquered France; and that thought itself may well have a usefully sobering effect on us, causing us to look back into our own history and to discover there the latent seeds which, happily for us, did not sprout.

The same point can be made about the Second World War. What would have happened if Hitler had won? His war aims are clear enough: they did not, like those of his predecessors in 1914, have to wait forty years to be revealed. They were set out, in terrifying detail, in the years of his victory: implicitly in state documents, explicitly in his table talk. An empire of exploitation was to stretch into Eurasia, with a German ruling class, sole possessors of wealth, education, and arms, ruthlessly dominating a native population of disorganized rural helots. And this empire was to last a thousand years. Would it have lasted thirty? I do not doubt that it could have been established. But how long would the conquered world have submitted to it, or the conquerors have sustained it? Would the next generation of Germans, men not themselves formed in the same mold or hardened by the struggle to create such an empire, have had the will to perpetuate such a system or pay the heavy cost of stamping out the constantly smoldering fires? In recent years we have seen that great empires can be defeated by small peoples, or held to ransom by private terror. Generations change, and mentalities with them; eras of luxury and ease follow times of heroic effort; Apollo’s bow is not always bent.

So much for the first fallacy, the assumption that history can be stopped in its course and frozen: that the alternative to what has happened is a mere non-happening, the preservation, in pickle as it were, of the previous state of affairs. I mention it because it seems to be the philosophical credo of a new school of tory, or rather—since they will accept Marxist allies so long as they know their place—antiwhig historians, who believe that, in England (with which alone they concern themselves) nothing that has happened since 1640 ought to have happened: that our “ancien régime,” which fortunately survived those “petulant outbursts,” the revolutions of the seventeenth century, would be with us still had it not been undermined by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and weakly surrendered, or willfully destroyed, by the statesmen of 1829–1832.* I am afraid that I do not find this scenario convincing.

A second, more engaging fallacy is that, in any great historical crisis, the alternatives are limited to two—the two that oppose each other at the time. This is a fallacy that appeals particularly to failed politicians. In my time I have met two such politicians, each of whom had had ample leisure in which to develop this flattering idea. One of them was Alexander Kerensky, the liberal prime minister of Russia from August to November 1917. In our brief conversation, which occurred shortly after the Second World War, he dwelt, naturally enough, on the distant days of his glory, when he was hailed by Lloyd George as the savior and reformer of his country, and he implied that it was by a mere fluke that he had been displaced by Lenin. Someone, I think, had been, most unfortunately, absent from a vital committee meeting.

The other politician was Sayyed Zia al-Din, who, in February 1921, in alliance with Reza Khan, the commander of the Cossack guard, made himself the revolutionary prime minister of Persia, only, like Kerensky, to be displaced, three months later, by his formidable partner. When I met him, thirty years later, “the infamous Prime Minister of 1921,” as he has been called, was a genial old gentleman living a retired life as gardening consultant to King Ibn Saud of Arabia. He too dwelt on his three months of power, which he had certainly used to some purpose, for he had locked up almost every other Persian politician—except, unfortunately, Reza Khan, who had then been able, by some untoward accident, to kick him out and make himself, in due course, hereditary Shahanshah of Iran. I forget the nature of that untoward accident: it seemed to have some relation to the differing style of headgear worn by members of the cabinet. But for these two accidents, I was given to understand, the Bolsheviks would never have acquired power in Russia and the Pahlevi dynasty would never have ruled in Persia. Kerensky and Sayyed Zia would have ruled instead. We smile at these harmless fantasies, psychologically so intelligible but politically so unconvincing. History does not permit us to impose upon it so limited a choice. But because we do not think that these were the practical alternatives, we are not authorized to suppose that there were no alternatives to the dictatorships of Lenin and Reza Shah.

So much for the general fallacies of those whom imagination, prejudice, or vanity has set free. Essentially they are romantic fallacies: comforting, escapist, utopian. But even in the real world our freedom is very limited. There are walls that the greatest statesman cannot breach or the historian wish away. For centuries men have sought to define and understand those walls. At first they were church walls: history was thought to be determined by Providence and revealed by prophecy. Then, when those walls had been pulled down, or had fallen into decay through the interunion disputes of the maintenance men, a period of “Pyrrhonism” and freedom was succeeded by new, more secular walls, competitively run up, largely by German architects: the world spirit of Hegel, the dialectical materialism of Marx, the historical theodicy of Gustav Droysen, the orderly, self-correcting Weltgeschichte of Leopold Ranke, the rotatory civilizations of Spengler and Toynbee (an honorary German). These are all pretty grim walls, prison walls indeed, of Cyclopean structure, with barbed wire on top and effigies of the architects staring censoriously down the bleak, high corridors. But there are also more elegant and sophisticated structures that most of us now accept. They were systematized in our time, in France.

I refer to the so-called school of the Annales: that school whose great work was done in its early years, when its masters—true disciples, like all great modern historians, of Montesquieu—presented the history of events enclosed but not imprisoned within successive walls, some more inhibiting than others, of geographical, economic, social, intellectual fact. How agreeable, indeed how fascinating, it was, in those days when the Annales were still readable, to walk through those varied courts, with their graceful colonnades and occasional open views toward the sparkling Mediterranean sea! For of course I am thinking particularly of the most famous product of that school, Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranée—the first work, I think, to treat the whole Mediterranean as a geographical unity during one part of the long period when it was politically divided between two antithetical cultures, Christendom and Islam: another type of that artificial, prolonged fracture of which the Netherlands and now Germany and Korea are later examples.

I have heard it objected that Braudel’s book on the Mediterranean in the time of Philip II takes a very long time to reach Philip II. All that stuff about geography, empires, trade routes, gold and silver, pepper and prices…. But is not this precisely what constitutes its character, illustrates its philosophy? Other historians bring the politicians in first, as if they command the stage. For centuries Philip II commanded it as hero or villain, the gloomy bigot of Protestant, the weary Titan of Catholic historians. But here we see him coming on to a stage already set, into the immense responsibilities of a world empire which was threatened at a vital point: which demanded a hundred decisions, but in which freedom of decision was limited and obstructed not merely by his own instinctive hesitancy and slowness but by a whole complex of forces, tangible and intangible: the hard facts of geography and economy, the invisible but no less coercive pressures of mentality and reason of state.

It was within these constraints that the most powerful ruler of the age struggled for forty years to govern half the world, sitting in his huge, severe monastery-palace of the Escorial, scribbling, scribbling, scribbling—el rey paplaro, the king of paper—with his two devoted daughters, the infantas, standing beside him to throw sand on the ink. Before we can judge him or his decisions, or consider the alternatives to them, or suggest parallels, we have to recognize these constraints, these limits, and be chastened, as he was, by them; and perhaps we then understand why he sought to cut the Gordian knot and order the assassination of William of Orange and (if only he could reach her) Queen Elizabeth. And why not? As his great minister, Cardinal Granvelle, assured him, “all the Italian princes do it”: it had the ultimate justification, Reason of State.

Reason of State…how vain it is to suppose that any private virtue can prevail over it! The classic modern instance is surely Germany, which also, logically enough, produced, in Friedrich Meinecke, its classic modern theorist. Consider Germany in the eighteenth century: a fragmented society held together only by its common culture. It was not a polity but a Kulturvolk; and when, after the brutal impact of Napoleon, it called for a political carapace to protect that culture, it saw itself as a Kulturstaat: a state still defined not by politics but by culture. But alas, a culture-state is a state, subject to reason of state, and when a state, conscious of new strength, feels itself beset on both sides by hostile and potentially more powerful neighbors, it necessarily acquires a new character. Culture merges into power. This change is only too obvious in the seventy-five year history of united Germany. Since 1945 we have seen a similar change in another new state that began as a cultural ideal and became, necessarily, a national state responding in a similar way to similar problems.

Long ago, before the dreadful events of the early 1940s, Jewish idealists imagined that they could live innocently in Palestine, in a “national home,” peacefully coexisting with their Arab neighbors, jointly with them enriching their ancient holy land. Such were the dreams of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and, later, Albert Einstein, and many others, when Palestine lay under foreign domination and the problems and responsibilities of power could be left to Ottoman or British rulers. Little did they foresee the future: an independent state, smaller than Wales, armed to the teeth, aggressive, expansionist, partitioning its neighbor states, turning its conquered subjects into second-class citizens, making pre-emptive raids—mini-blitzkriegs—across its frontiers: the infant Prussia of the Middle East. And yet the later condition was perhaps implicit in the former by the imperative of Reason of State.

I have also mentioned “mentalities,” another imperative, no less forceful, though we have taken longer to isolate it. The word is now, to historians, a term of art. We owe it to the Annales school—to Lucien Febvre, in whose honor we generally pronounce it in French, mentalités. By it we mean those structures of thought which, we now admit, are not mere epiphenomena, as the Marxists would have us believe, but—at least when they have been fully established—independent systems, as coercive as any more material inhibitions. I discovered their full significance, and their strength, when I studied the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and realized that it was impossible—yes, impossible—even for the most enlightened men of the Renaissance to pierce that enclosing mental wall. They could avoid bumping into it, find their way around it, doubt its relevance to themselves, ignore its existence, refuse to notice the embellishments and buttresses recently added to it; but they could not break through it, or blow it up, until the whole intellectual system of which it was an integral part had begun to crumble; and the same is true of all ideological beliefs which, so long as they hold firm, must numb a portion of the mind and deprive it, in certain directions, of its critical faculty, its full freedom of choice. We may like to think that reason will ultimately undermine irrational ideas. We have no right to do so. So long as those beliefs are an integral part of a mentalité, reason, operating within that mentalité, will only corroborate them. Sir Edward Evans Pritchard’s book Witchcraft Among the Azande marvelously illustrates this truth; and what is, or was, true of the amiable paganism of the southern Sudan is equally true of all religions—until they are removed from the heart of a culture and transformed to academic departments of religious studies.


Which brings me to what is surely one of the greatest of lost moments in history. I am not sure whether I should call it lost or gained—opinions will differ on that—but of course every loss is also a gain to another party. I refer to the capture of the Roman Empire and, through it, of our Western civilization, by Christianity. What an extraordinary, what a totally unpredictable event that was—but what great event in history has ever been predicted? Looking back on the first four centuries of the Roman Empire, we see the slow disintegration of Hellenic culture and the Roman religion of state. We see the spread of the mystery religions of the East, the religions of salvation, and see them, in the third century, competing with each other for the lost soul of the disordered empire. But when in fact did the old culture die? And what was the crucial moment of so tremendous a change: a change that determined the religion of the West for sixteen hundred years?

At one time—at the end, perhaps, of the third century—the race, it seemed, was open. Who would win it? Would it be the Mithraism of Persia, whose temples are found wherever Roman legions were stationed—in Spain, in Morocco, on the Rhine, on the Danube, in London, and along Hadrian’s wall? The Emperor Diocletian, only a few years before Constantine, declared Mithras the protector of the Empire, as his predecessor Aurelian had declared the Syrian sun god Bel. Or would it be the Hermetic syncretism of Egypt, which had penetrated so deeply into the Roman world? Or would the old paganism of Rome, exenterated by Greek philosophy, be somehow revitalized by the admission of new deities to its crowded Pantheon? In fact, as we all know, it was none of these. But at what moment, we ask, and why, did a Jewish heresy from Palestine, a provincial heresy of a despised religion, now exported and transformed, so snatch the lead that a brutal tyrant who had fought his way to the imperial throne thought it safe to make it his own?

The old historians, being Christian, had an easy answer: Christianity prevailed because it was true. Even in the nineteenth century this could be believed. But not now. Now we must seek the moment, ask the cause; and perhaps we must admit that, like another great and final victory, the victory of Christ over his competitors was a damned close-run thing.

Perhaps the difference, in the end, was not all that great. Perhaps if Mithraism or Hermeticism had triumphed, it would have ended by absorbing the substance of the others, as Christianity, having triumphed, absorbed the pagan gods and pagan mysteries and so, from being Protestant, became Catholic. After all, it is on the sacred day of Mithras, December 25, that we celebrate the birth of our savior-god, and Hermes, once safely defeated, would be revived as a precursor of Christ. So we would still have had some of the central doctrines of Christianity under another name. We would still have had a risen god and a tribal meal; nor can we exclude the possibility that our theologians would have invented doctrines just as curious and refined as anything that emerged from the Christian Councils. However, there would have been some differences too. The specifically Hebrew content would be missing from our history and literature. Other proofs than the “prophecies” of the Old Testament would have been necessary to convince Pascal and to be refuted by Voltaire. Or perhaps, if paganism had held out for another two centuries, then, as Jacob Burckhardt suggested, the Roman Empire would have embraced Islam and we would all be Muslims—with a difference of course, to emphasize our independence of the Vatican of Mecca, just as the Scots and Irish would have to be a little different from us English. Perhaps we would be Shi’ites, ruled by a Grand Ayatollah in Lambeth: an agreeable thought.

Have I been sucked out of the airplane? Perhaps I have. I feel the rush of cold air as if I am about to nose-dive into the cloud, with a jagged peak just below. But no, I have a toehold. So let me clamber back to my seat and fasten my safety belt. My seat, I now recall, was in row sixteen or seventeen, in those centuries. Is there any lost moment in our history, in those times, comparable with Frances Yates’s lost moment in the Netherlands? Yes, I believe there is, and I shall home in on it.

The seventeenth century used to be described as the century of revolution. In the middle of it there were “six contemporaneous revolutions” in Europe, including one in England, the so-called Puritan Revolution; and this was completed forty years later by the so-called (you see how cautious I have become) Glorious Revolution, whose tercentenary we can commemorate this year. It is true, “revisionist” historians have been very busy downgrading these revolutions, but they have not yet proved that they did not occur, and some of their consequences—both good and bad—are with us still. The bad are perhaps the price paid for the good; but need we, in fact, have paid that price? Does one always have to burn down the house in order to enjoy roast pig? The heaviest price that we paid for certain undeniable liberties was in discrimination against Roman Catholics, excluded from public life for a century and a half, and in Ireland, where the repercussions of a particularly repressive policy haunt us today. Nothing of that was predictable in 1600; all flowed from a course of events that began in one fatal year, 1641.

If any one episode more than another caused the pressure for reform in 1640 to turn into the English Civil War in 1642, it was the Ulster Rebellion of 1641. If any one factor more than another prolonged and embittered that civil war, it was the involvement of both sides in the bogs of Ireland. If any particular episodes left behind them, on both sides, inextinguishable folk memories, they were the “Irish massacre,” which began that melancholy chapter of history and the Cromwellian reconquest of 1649–1650, which seemed to end it. In fact it did not: it merely prepared the way for a continuing process of expropriation, discrimination, expulsion. In the second revolution, the revolution of 1688, the pattern was repeated. James II, like his father, tried to use Ireland against his English subjects, to make it, in the end, a separate kingdom under the protection of France. William of Orange, like Cromwell, reconquered it and left behind a legacy that burdens us still. Remove the Irish revolt of 1641, and how different all later history might have been—not only in Anglo-Irish relations, but in England too!

Why was Ireland so sensitive an issue in English politics? It was, of course, our postern gate through which foreign enemies—first the Spaniards, then the French—sought to attack us. It was to us what Poland was to Prussia once Prussia was strong and Poland weak; and through fear we treated it similarly: colonization, expropriation, discrimination, partition. The response too was similar: exasperated nationalism inflamed by religious difference, religious difference inflamed in turn by awakened nationalism. But it was not always thus. In 1603, the first year of King James I, Ireland had been “pacified,” and all through his reign it had remained at peace. There was a Protestant establishment indeed, and a Protestant seminary in Dublin propagating (at least to that establishment) the Protestant gospel; and there were Protestant settlers pressing on the unexploited land. But as yet there was no hint of serious trouble to come. Scottish settlers were establishing themselves in Ulster—how convenient that their Scottish king was now, by a happy dynastic accident, both king of England and Lord of Ireland!—but they would no doubt be assimilated in time; after all, Irish settlers from Ulster, the original Scots, had been absorbed into Scotland, had given it its identity and name. To outward appearance at least, Irish Catholics lived amicably with their Protestant neighbors, sat with them in the Irish Parliament and represented Irish interests. We might add, parenthetically, that Poland at the same time, a land of three religions—Catholic, Protestant, and Socinian—was a model of religious toleration for Europe, cited as such by the ecumenical Dutchman Hugo Grotius. Theoretically at least, the way was open for peaceful coexistence under a common crown.

Did anyone point such a way forward? One man at least did. From the very beginning Francis Bacon urged a new course in Ireland. In the last year of Queen Elizabeth, before the pacification was complete, he urged that there be no bloodletting “in that miserable and desolate kingdom,” that an assurance be given that “Her Majesty taketh no pleasure in effusion of blood or displanting of ancient generations,” and that religious toleration be guaranteed for an indefinite period. Meanwhile there should be instruction through endowed schools and ministers, the Scriptures should be published in the vernacular language, and justice should be equal “between the English and Irish…as if they were one nation.” All through the reign of James I, Bacon urged this policy, by which, he believed, “the last of the daughters of Europe” could be “reclaimed from desolation and a desert (in many parts) to population and plantation, and from savage and barbarous customs to humanity and civility.” He believed in plantation, but the planters must bring capital for development; they must not be hungry, carpetbagging adventurers. And religious matters must be handled “with due temperance and equality, lest Ireland civil be more dangerous to us than Ireland savage.”

“No displanting of ancient generations,” equal justice “as if they were one nation,” no hungry adventurers, toleration, temperance…how absurdly ironic these phrases would have seemed a century later! The greatest, most scrupulously accurate nineteenth-century historian of seventeenth-century England, S.R. Gardiner, wrote of Bacon that to have carried out his political program “would have been to avert the evils of the next half-century…. Humanity would have been at least as much benefited if the civil war, with its attendant evils, could have been made impossible as it was by the completion of the Novum Organum.” Gardiner was writing of Bacon’s policy for England. Perhaps the same could be said of his policy for Ireland.

But that moment, if it existed, was lost, and, being lost in one country, was lost in the other also. Historians, looking back, discover cause behind cause of our civil war. Some of them seem to think it was foreordained in the previous century, others that it arose out of the accidents of high politics at the time. Since both these opinions were advanced by contemporaries, we can hardly hope to settle the controversy. The views taken seem to depend, to some extent, on political loyalties: Roundheads believe in ancient structural causes, Cavaliers in modern political accidents. But then, as now, it was agreed that if there was one moment when the English crisis might have been not indeed resolved (for that is too ambitious a hope), but prevented from deteriorating into civil war, that moment was in the autumn of 1641. Strafford, Charles I’s formidable deputy in Ireland, had by then been executed—sacrificed to the Catholics as well as the Protestants of that country. The Scotch army, having served its purpose, had been paid off and sent home. The problem had thus been reduced to its English setting. Surely, within that setting, it was soluble. When the treaty with the Scots was signed, there was rejoicing in England. Throughout the country the church bells were rung, and press and pulpit declared “the jubilee and resurrection of Church and State.”

Of course the politicians, on both sides, were more wary, but as no one wished, or was prepared, for civil war, they could at least hope for a gradual accommodation. And if, by whatever means, such an accommodation had been achieved, how different the course of later history might have been! The Irish rebellion, Strafford’s fatal legacy, the panic fears that it aroused and that were exploited, the problems of command (and finance) that it created, and the opportunities that it offered, reanimated the dying embers of a fire in which so much would be consumed. Once civil war had begun, and the Parliament was in danger of defeat, the Scotch too were brought back again into England and English politics. The breach between an English king and his parliament had become the endlessly entangled “War of the Three Nations,” and would end not in a political solution but in revolution and military conquest in all three. So when I consider the long consequences of the English revolutions of the seventeenth century—the political polarization and social discrimination which lasted into the nineteenth century, and the Irish problem which is with us still—I see the year 1641 as the most obviously lost moment in our history, the equivalent of that moment, sixty years before, in the Netherlands.

The critic will answer that all this is mere speculation, that, given all the circumstances, the breakdown, here as there, was inevitable: in each case there were forces at work that made a peaceful or rational settlement impossible. Perhaps, in any particular case, there were. We can never know for certain. But then another question pokes up its disconcerting head. If the revolutions that happened were inevitable, what about the revolutions that did not happen? Why, for instance, did revolution not break out in England in the late 1620s? The situation was just as explosive then as in 1641–1642, passions as high, the economic situation, if anything, worse; and in addition there was plague at home and military defeat abroad. On the face of it, the danger of revolution was greater then than later: men seemed to expect it, whereas in 1641 they did not. Perhaps there would have been revolution if the Duke of Buckingham had not been opportunely assassinated. Equally, perhaps, there would have been no revolution in 1641 if Charles I had opportunely died—just as revolution was prevented in the Netherlands in 1650 by the sudden death of William II, Prince of Orange. Perhaps Philip II was right in thinking that that was the best way of dealing with William I.

Or think of the nonrevolution in England in the 1840s, those “hungry Forties,” the years of Chartism and the Irish famine, of Disraeli’s “two nations” and the lugubrious vaticinations of Carlyle. In those years, as in the 1640s, there were revolutions throughout Europe. If revolution had spread to England, historians would no doubt have said that it was inevitable. After all, many men expected it then, whereas no one had expected it in 1640.

That is one reason for remembering the lost moments of history, for keeping open, as it were, the options of the past which history, as a mere record of fact, has closed. For if we are only interested in their closure, what ultimately is the purpose of our study? The past is past: it cannot be undone; why unbury the dead? My answer is that it is not dead but living; and unless we recognize that it is living, and live with it, and question it, and face the alternatives of the past as they were faced at the time, our history is dead too, and might as well be buried too—unless, of course, by a kind of necrophilia, we enjoy laying out the unresisting corpse.

One of my learned and respected colleagues has written, quite contentedly it seems, of the death of the past. I like to think that the report of its death has been exaggerated. Or perhaps I should say that the past, which is ours, for through us it is joined to the future, and made continuous with it, is as alive as we make it. I hope that we, as historians, shall constantly keep it alive, not merely as a form of entertainment, which is a legitimate, if limited function, far less merely as matter for examinations and theses, which is simply keeping the corpse unburied and refrigerated, on a cold mortuary slab, for anatomical demonstration, but as a means toward our understanding of the world and our place in it: how we came to inherit it, by what efforts we can maintain it, by what errors or accidents we may lose it. For a nation that has lost sight of its history, or is discouraged from the study of it by the desiccating professionalism of its historians, is intellectually and perhaps politically amputated. But that history must be true history in the fullest sense: that is, flexible, aware at every stage both of the alternatives and of the limitations. Otherwise it becomes a dead ritual, a hardened tradition, a national or partisan myth. We have seen enough historical myths in our time to realize how stunting—even, at times, how disastrous—they can be.

This Issue

October 27, 1988