During much of my life, especially during my earlier years, the so-called “great man” approach to history has been out of fashion. And there are good reasons for that. Overwhelmingly, for example, the deep, epochal, transformative changes of history — e.g., the domestication of the horse, the invention of movable type, the development of the stirrup, advancements in the technology of sails and shipbuilding, plagues, and the like — haven’t cared who was sitting on the throne. The fundamental characteristics of the “Elizabethan Age” were a long time in coming, very few of them actually had much to do with Queen Elizabeth I personally, and they didn’t suddenly cease to exist on 24 March 1603 when she died.
But I sometimes thought that, in the enthusiasm for the historiography of such figures as Fernand Braudel and such movements as the “Annales school,” scholars were overcorrecting. So I’m pleased that good biographies (e.g., 0f the American Founders, of Lincoln, and of Churchill) continue to be written and to be well received.
During our just-concluded tour, I repeatedly emphasized the unique confluence of impersonal factors (e.g., Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the flourishing of mass media that followed) with Luther’s personal gifts as a popular writer, a scholar, a composer of hymns, and a preacher, which greatly contributed to the vast success of the Lutheran Reformation. (Of course, one should also note the academic talents of Philipp Melanchthon and the artistic abilities of Lucas Cranach the Elder., and perhaps the political savvy of Frederick the Wise, the prince-elector of Saxony.)
Without Luther, a “Lutheran” Reformation might still have occurred. But maybe not, and certainly in much different form.
I also spent some time on the personal relationship of Richard Wagner with King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It may well have been much deeper on Ludwig’s side than on that of the constantly indebted (and supremely egotistical) Wagner but, without it, Neuschwanstein Castle might not have existed at all, the Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee castles would be very different, Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth might never have been built, his “Ring Cycle” — Der Ring des Nibelungen, consisting of Das Rheingold (“The Rhinegold”), Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) — might not have been staged or even completed, and his Bühnenweihfestspiel (“Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”) Parsifal, his last major work, might not have been written.
And would the Third Reich ever have arisen without the talents for oratory and demagoguery and the demonic personality of Adolf Hitler?
But I’ve also been thinking, lately, of how the absence of certain people can affect history.
I recall reading, many years ago, about Gustav Stresemann, who served as chancellor of Germany in 1923 (for 102 days) and as German foreign minister from 1923 to 1929. He is best known for his work toward the reconciliation between Germany and France in the wake of the First World War, for which he and the French prime minister Aristide Briand received the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize. The Weimar Republic was a mess, political unstable and perpetually fragile, with short-lived governments (including his own as chancellor), but he was the most influential cabinet member during most of the Weimar period. He was especially devoted to making the war reparations imposed upon Germany by the punitive Treaty of Versailles less onerous; their oppressive burdensomeness, and Germany’s resentment of their harshness and perceived injustice, loomed large among the grievances out of which Nazism emerged. Unfortunately, Stresemann died suddenly, of a stroke, at the age of fifty-one. Some have wondered whether, had he lived, the rise of the Nazis might never have occurred. As the late Scottish-American diplomatic historian Gordon Craig is quoted by Wikipedia as saying,
No German statesman since Bismarck’s time had demonstrated, as brilliantly as he [Stresemann] was to do, the ability to sense danger and to avoid it by seizing and retaining the initiative, the gift of maintaining perspective and a sense of relative values in the midst of a changing diplomatic situation, and the talent for being more stubborn than his partners in negotiation and for refusing to allow their importunities to force him to accept second-best solutions.
Another of the examples that has come to my mind in recent days is Pope Adrian VI — Hadrian or Hadrianus — a Dutch-born reformist priest who came to the papal throne in January 1522 when the Lutheran Reformation was in its early stages, only to die in September 1523. (There would not be another non-Italian pope until the election of John Paul II in 1978.). Adrian was unwilling to compromise theologically with Martin Luther, but he acknowledged that the Roman Curia bore much of the responsibility for the Lutheran troubles and he sought to make appropriate changes. When he was succeeded by the Medici pope Clement VII, however, Adrian’s proposed reforms were largely buried with him.
And here’s yet another, which has been on my mind since our tour bus began to near Berlin: There were only three emperors or Kaisers who ruled from Berlin. The first of them, of course, was Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888). He was succeeded by his only son, Kaiser Friedrich III. Frederick, to give him the English form of his name, hoped to move the Empire in the direction of greater democracy and greater participation of common citizens. He and his wife, the Kaiserin Victoria, daughter of the British Queen Victoria, hoped to rule jointly in a constitutional monarchy just as her mother and father, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, had sought to do. Moreover, Frederick hated war, and he was loved by many for his humane nature. But by the time he inherited the German throne, he had been fatally stricken with cancer of the larynx, and he died at the age of fifty-six after a reign of only ninety-nine days — most of them bedridden and gravely ill. His son and successor, the militaristic Kaiser Wilhelm II, rejected essentially all of his proposed reforms and ultimately led Germany into the First World War. Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in 1918.
My father, incidentally, always remembered a little jingle about Kaiser Wilhelm II that I can only imagine he had heard from an American veteran of World War One. I offer it here for its unparalleled historical importance:
Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France.
Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.
I’ve mentioned Queen Victoria and her beloved German-born consort, Prince Albert. He’ll serve as my last example of what the absence of a great personality can mean: I need to write a longer entry about Albert sometime, but, as I’ve noted, he and Victoria were also working toward a shared constitutional monarchy. (She wanted him to bear the title of king, but Parliament refused to authorize it.) Unfortunately, he died at the age of just forty-two. The cause is generally given as typhoid fever, but it may rather have been a chronic illness such as Crohn’s disease, kidney failure, or abdominal cancer. In any event, Queen Victoria was so completely devastated by his death that she wore black for the remainder of her long life and effectively withdrew from many public duties — thus dooming the dream that she and Albert once shared of an active constitutional monarchy. Today’s Queen Elizabeth is essentially a figurehead. Beloved, of course, but merely a figurehead with no real political power.
Posted from Munich, Bavaria, Germany