Category Archives: English History

Remarkable Life, Remarkably Sad Ending



Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx, A Life

     Karl Marx’s third and youngest daughter Eleanor, born in 1855, became the successor to her father as a radical analyst of industrial capitalism. But she was also an instrumental if under-appreciated force in her own right in the emergence of social democracy in Victorian Britain and internationally in the late 19th century. Her remarkable life, as Rachel Holmes writes in her comprehensive biography, entitled simply Eleanor Marx, A Life, was “as varied and full of contradictions as the materialist dialectic in which she was, quite literally, conceived . . . If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice” (p.xvi). Holmes, a cultural historian from Gloucestershire, England, who specializes in gender issues, characterizes Eleanor as the “foremother of socialist feminism” (p.xii).  She emphasizes how Eleanor supplemented her father’s work by defining for the first time the place of women in the working class struggles of the 19th century.

     But in conventional (Karl) Marxist thinking, the personal and the political are never far removed and they are ever so tightly intertwined in Holmes’ account, which focuses heavily on interactions within the Marx family circle. In the last third of the book, Holmes provides heartbreaking detail on how the three closest men in Eleanor’s life betrayed her: her father Karl; her father’s collaborator and Eleanor’s life-long mentor, Friedrich Engels; and her common law husband, Edward Aveling. The collective burden of these three men’s betrayal drove Eleanor to an apparent suicide in 1898 at age 43.

     Adhering to a chronological format, Holmes writes in a light, breezy style that, oddly, is well suited to bear the book’s heavy themes. Nearly everyone in the Marx family circle had nicknames, which Holmes uses throughout the book, adding to its informal flavor. Eleanor herself is “Tussy,” her father is “Möhr,” and her mother Jenny is “Möhme.” Eleanor had two sisters, Laura and Jenny, the latter referred to as “Jennychen,” little Jenny.  Jennychen died two months prior to father Karl in 1883. Two older brothers and one sister failed to survive infancy.

     The Marx family’s inner circle also included Engels, “the General,” and its long-time and exceptionally loyal servant, Helen Dumuth, “Lenchen.” Engels, the son of a rich German industrialist with substantial business interests in Manchester, was Marx’s life-long partner and benefactor and akin to an uncle or second father to Eleanor. Lenchen, whom Holmes describes as “history’s housekeeper” (p.342) and the keeper of the family secrets, followed the Marx family from Germany to Britain and shared the progressive values of Eleanor’s parents. Lenchen and Eleanor’s mother Jenny were childhood friends and remained remarkably close in adulthood.

    Lenchen had a son, Freddy, four years older than Eleanor, who “grew up in foster care with minimal education” (p.199). As Eleanor grew older, she gradually intuited that Engels was Freddy’s father, although Freddy’s paternal origins were never mentioned within the family, least of all by Engels himself, who always seemed uncomfortable around Freddy. Freddy resurfaced in the tumultuous period prior to Eleanor’s untimely death, when he became Eleanor’s closest confidant — almost a substitute for her two brothers whom she never knew.

* * *

    By the time Eleanor was born in 1855, her father Karl was already famous as the author of important tracts on the coming Communist revolution in Europe. Banished from his native Germany as a dangerous radical, Marx took refuge in Britain. The household in which Eleanor grew up, “living and breathing historical materialism and socialism” (p.47), was disorderly but still somehow structured. Father Karl was notorious for being unable to balance his family’s budget, and was consistently borrowing money. Much of this money came from Engels.

    Eleanor came of age just prior to the time when British universities began to admit women, and she was almost entirely home-schooled and self-educated. Yet, the depth and range of her learning and intellectual prowess were nothing short of extraordinary. With her father (and Engels) serving as her guides, Eleanor started reading novels at age six, and went on to teach herself history, politics and economics. She also had an amazing facility for languages. The only member of the family who could claim English as a native language, Eleanor mastered German, her parents’ native language, then French, and later other European languages, most notably Russian. She became a skilled translator and interpreter, producing the first English language translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

    By her early twenties, Eleanor had demonstrated exceptional organizing skills that her father lacked, along with genuine empathy for the plight of working families (which her father also lacked). The more pragmatic Eleanor seemed to be in all places where workers gathered and sought to organize. She supported dock and gas workers’ unions and their strikes. She became actively involved in London education policy, Irish Home Rule, the evolution of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, and the campaign in France for amnesty for the revolutionaries of the 1870-71 Paris Commune.

     Eleanor’s work in mobilizing trade unions provided impetus to the emergence of the Independent Labor Party in the early 1890s, Britain’s first democratic socialist political party. Her work clarified that for Eleanor and her socialist colleagues Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine in the sense that it demanded that people think in boldly different terms about capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the workers who fueled the capitalist system.  But it was also a doctrine that rejected violent revolution in favor of respect for the main tenets of liberal (“bourgeois”!) democracy, including elections, parliamentary governance and the rule of law.  Her views crystallized as she and her colleagues battled with anti-capitalist anarchists, who did not believe in any form of government. Eleanor saw “no way of squaring anti-democratic anarchism with democratic socialism and its commitment to work within a representative parliamentary system” (p.397), Holmes writes. Eleanor Marx was more Bernie Sanders than Bolshevik.

     While involved in organizational activities, Eleanor maintained an abiding interest in the theatre.  Unlike her first class talent for organizing workers, her acting abilities were modest. Shakespeare and Ibsen were Eleanor’s particular interests among major playwrights, whose works contained messages for her on going organizing activities. Given her organizational skills, Holmes thinks that Eleanor would have made a brilliant theater director. But such a position was closed to women in her day. Instead, her “theatre for creating a new cast of radical actors in English art and politics” was the recently opened British Museum Reading Room, “its lofty dome a metaphor for the seat of the brain, workplace for writers and thinkers” (p.182). Here, in the aftermath of her father’s death in 1883, Eleanor wrote books and articles about her father, becoming his “first biographer and posthumous exponent of his economic theory” (p.195). All subsequent Marx biographers, Holmes indicates, have based their accounts on the “primary sources supplied by Eleanor immediately after her father’s death” (p.196).

     The Reading Room was also the venue where Eleanor first met Edward Aveling, an accomplished actor from comfortable circumstances who became a socialist and Eleanor’s common law husband. Aveling proved himself to be a monstrous villain whose malevolence and treachery dominate the last third of the book, with Aveling the central character in a story that has the intricacy of a Dickens plot coupled with psychological probing worthy of Dostoevsky,

* * *

      Holmes describes Aveling as an “attractive, clever cad who played a significant role in popularizing Darwin and steering British secularists towards socialism. It’s easy to see why his anti-establishment, anti-religious, anti-materialist turn of mind appealed to Eleanor” (p.195). But Aveling was also a con artist and the author of a seemingly endless series of scams, stunningly skillful in talking people — Eleanor among them — into loaning him money that was rarely if ever repaid. Eleanor “failed to recognize that his character was the projection of a consummate actor” (p.195), Holmes argues.

     Aveling was further a first rate philanderer, with a steady stream of affairs, most frequently with young actresses or his female students. Although these dalliances made Eleanor “emotionally lonely,” she came to accept them. Eleanor and Edward were proponents of what was then termed “free love,” but the freedom was all on Edward’s side.  The net result, Holmes writes, was that Eleanor took on the “aspect of conventional stoical wife and Edward of conventional philandering husband” (p.238).

    Marx and Aveling jointly published a seminal work on women in the social democratic movement, “The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View,” probably the only positive product of their relationship. “The Woman Question” made “absolutely clear,” Holmes writes, that the “struggle for women’s emancipation and the equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for any effective form of progressive social revolution” (p.262). Marx and Aveling aimed in their landmark essay to show that “feminism was an integral necessity, not just a single aspect or issue of the socialist working-class movement, and that sexual inequality was fundamentally a question of economics” (p.260). Aside from their genuine collaboration on “The Woman Question,” just about everything in the fourteen-year Aveling-Marx relationship was negative.

     Holmes documents how Eleanor’s family and friends privately expressed doubt about Aveling and his suitability for Eleanor. Toward the end of her shortened life, they were expressing these doubts directly to Eleanor. The couple did not marry because Aveling reported to Eleanor that he was still legally married to another woman who was “emotionally unstable, difficult, vindictive and refused to divorce him” (p.420).  In fact, Aveling schemed to preserve the marriage to inherit his wife’s estate should she die. When she died, Aveling hid this fact from Eleanor over the course of five years. Finally, Aveling simply walked away from Eleanor and the house they kept together, “without explanation, pocketing all the cash, money orders and movable values he could find” (p.415), to marry a young actress named Eva Frye.

     When Eleanor learned of Aveling’s marriage sometime during the final days of March 1898, she was “confronted by the fact that Edward, after all his fine words about free love and open unions being as morally and emotionally binding as marriage under the law, was simply a liar. And she was a gull, a fool who had willingly suspended her disbelief – because she loved him” (p.420). One of the books’ most puzzling mysteries is why Eleanor, with her keen awareness of women’s vulnerability and their potential for mistreatment from men in what she saw as a rigidly patriarchal society, stayed so long with Aveling. Holmes finds an answer in the deeper recesses of what she terms Eleanor’s “cultural ancestry,” which presented her with the:

questionable example of loyal, dutiful wives and mothers. The formative examples of her Möhme and “second mother” Lenchen, both utterly devoted to her father, shaped her attitude to Edward. Unintentionally, Tussy’s mothers were dangerous, unhelpful role models, ill-equipping their daughter for freedom from subordination to romantic illusions (p.227).

     Eleanor’s frentic final weeks were marked by  desperate correspondence with Freddy, Engels’s putative son. Realizing that a codicil to a will she had executed a few years earlier left most of her estate to Aveling, Eleanor wrote to Freddy that she was “so alone” and “face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin – everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful; worse than even I fancied it was. And I want someone to consult with” (p.418).

     Eleanor executed a second codicil, reversing the earlier one and leaving her estate to her surviving sister, nieces and nephews. The codicil was in an envelope addressed to her lawyer, undelivered on the morning of March 31, 1898. That morning, after a vociferous argument with Edward, Eleanor sent her housekeeper Gertrude Gentry to the local pharmacist with a sealed envelope requesting “chloroform and small quantity of prussic acid for dog” (p.431-32).  The prescription required a signature to be returned to the pharmacy.  Aveling was in the house when the housekeeper left to return the signature to the pharmacy, Holmes asserts, but when the housekeeper returned the second time, she found only Eleanor, lifeless in her bed, wearing a summer dress she was fond of.  Aveling had by then left the premises.

    What Aveling did that day and why he left the house are among the many unanswered questions surrounding Eleanor’s death. The death was officially ruled a suicide after a slipshod coroner’s hearing, the second codicil was never given effect, and Aveling inherited Eleanor’s estate. Many, including Aveling’s own family, were convinced that Aveling had “murdered Eleanor by engineering her suicide” (p.433). Calls for Aveling to be brought to trial for murder, theft and fraud followed  him for the following four months, but were mooted when he died of kidney disease on August 2, 1898.

* * *

      If Aveling’s duplicity was the most direct causative link to Eleanor’s apparent suicide, the revelation in Eleanor’s final years of an astounding betrayal on the part of her long-deceased father and Engels, at a time when Engels was dying of cancer, almost certainly contributed to Eleanor’s decision to end her life. But I will refrain from divulging details of the dark secret the two men had maintained with the hope that you might scurry to Holmes’ thoroughly-researched and often riveting account to learn all you can about this remarkable woman, her “profound, progressive contribution to English political thought – and action” (p.xi), and the tragic ending to her life.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 28, 2016


Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Politics

Liberal Star Rising High, Falling Fast


Michael Shelden, Young Titan:
The Making of Winston Churchill

                  Michael Shelden’s Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill adds a significant slice of the life of Winston Churchill to the ever-growing body of Churchill literature. Shelden, author of highly-acclaimed biographies of George Orwell, Mark Twain and Graham Greene, treats Churchill’s earliest years in politics, roughly 1900 to 1915. The book is easy to read. Rather than digging deeply, the book seems to skim along the surface of British political and social life in the first decades of the 20th century and, as such, constitutes an enjoyable glimpse of Britain at what was arguably the apogee of its worldwide power.

              Churchill returned to England in 1901 at age 26, after making himself known to the British public at a very young age for his adventures, exploits and writing from places as diverse as Cuba, India and the Sudan. “Most dramatic of all,” Churchill survived “capture by the Boers in South Africa, and then [made] his escape across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory” (p.7). Thanks to a “torrent of prose in five books and many newspaper articles, almost everyone in Britain knew of young Churchill’s brave deeds on three continents between 1895 and 1900” when he had “lived the adventures of a storybook character” (p.7). Having made his reputation as a man of adventure, the supremely confident Churchill now sought to “earn respect as a man of learning. He regretted not having a university education, but he was always his own best teacher, and had made good use of his independent reading. In political battles, he wanted to excel by making knowledge his sword, entering each fray with more facts and a deeper understanding than his opponents” (p.29).

               As he embarked on a career in public service, Churchill considered politics “almost as exciting as war, and – quite as dangerous” (p.83). He successfully launched his political career in 1901, winning a seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative. Less than three years later, however, Churchill switched to the Liberal Party and his political fortunes soared. But the book ends abruptly in 1915 with the spectacular failure of a British military operation during World War I at the Dardanelles. Then head of the Royal Navy, Churchill was held responsible and forced to resign. In the book’s final pages, the brilliant political wunderkind appears to have gone down in flames, crashed and burned, with a highly uncertain future ahead of him.

               Much of the first half of the book concerns not Churchill’s politics but his search for a suitable wife. There were numerous candidates whom Churchill pursued, always with zest. The first was society femme fatale Pamela Plowden, who spurned Churchill’s marriage offer. Shelden suggests that this was a lucky break for Churchill, who “sadly misjudged Pamela’s character from the start.” Shelden describes Plowden as a “young woman of ordinary desires who always found it hard to limit her interests to one man” (p.53). A notable exception to Churchill’s search within England’s aristocracy was the American singing star Ethel Barrymore. In addition to her own multiple attractions, it could not have escaped Churchill’s attention that as he was pursuing Ms. Barrymore, he was also following in his revered father’s footsteps — America was the birthplace of Churchill’s mother Jennie (although Churchill’s father died well before the book starts, his mother is a constant here, advising her son on many of the romantic and political issues he was dealing with). But Barrymore too spurned Churchill’s marriage offer.

             Another leading candidate was Violet Asquith, daughter of Henry Herbert Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister during much of the period covered. Shelden describes Violet as “strong-willed,” “highly opinionated,” “idealistic,” “overwhelming,” and “romantic” (p.152-53), qualities which could also be ascribed to Churchill. But similar though they might have been, Churchill was not as attracted to Violet and she was to him, and did not extend a marriage offer to her. Later in life, Violet wrote that their relationship had been one of “unrequited love” (p.152). Yet, Churchill retained contact with Violet throughout his married life. Much like his mother, Violet served was an informal political advisor to Churchill. Shelden describes Violet as the sister Churchill never had.

                 Churchill’s campaign to find a wife came to an end in 1908 – and at about the half-way point in the book — when he wed Clementine Hozier (always “Clemmie” to Churchill). Eleven years younger than Churchill, Clementine was the granddaughter of an Earl and thus had the requisite aristocratic background. But her childhood was hardly royal. Her mother, Lady Blanche, separated from her husband, Sir William, when Clementine was 6, and to this day it is not clear whether Sir William was Clementine’s biological father. After the separation, Clementine and her family “lived a frugal but often colorful life in England and France” (p.167), where Lady Blanche befriended numerous artists and writers, including the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Churchill liked Clementine’s unconventional background and her French connections. “Bachelor life had been lonelier than Winston had wanted to admit,” Shelden writes, and when he married Clementine, the woman he would stay married to for life, he had found a “companion with whom he could share everything” (p.207).

          Churchill’s shift from the Conservative to the Liberal Party in 1904 marked a crucial turning point in the ambitious young politician’s career. The immediate issue prompting the shift was tariffs on goods coming from with the Empire. Conservative leader Joseph Chamberlin, a Birmingham industrialist known as the “King of the Screw Trade” (p.64), favored tariffs to boost revenue and home industries. Churchill was at heart a free trader, a good liberal position, but the issue seems like a pretext – Churchill had calculated that he could rise higher and faster within the Liberal Party for several reasons, not least of which was that his boss would be his friend Violet’s father, Henry Asquith. In his new party, Churchill found a “‘house of many mansions’ large enough to hold even the oversized individuality of Winston Churchill, giving him the chance to belong to a party that he could define as he chose” (p.178).

          Churchill saw Britain’s next political battlefield at home, lying in the “growing discontent over questions of economic justice and basic human rights” (p.57). He joined forces with the more radical Beatrice Webb and astonished everyone by how swiftly he managed to lay out his vision of a Britain “protected and liberated by what later generations would call the social safety net” (p.218). He called for a “network of State intervention & regulation,” which he hoped would “give everyone in Britain a minimum standard of security in such areas as employment, housing, and old age pensions. This was heretical thinking for a politician who had left the Tories only three years previously” (p.164).

            In 1907, Asquith appointed Churchill to his first cabinet position, President of the Board of Trade. At age 33, Churchill was the youngest cabinet member in nearly 50 years. Although his strong suit had generally been style, after entering the cabinet, Shelden argues, Churchill was able to show that he was also a “political leader of real substance” (p.217). As Board of Trade President, Churchill was responsible for three major achievements: the Labour Exchanges Act, which created a national job placement system; the Trade Boards Act, which helped alleviate unhealthy working conditions and miserable pay among “sweated laborers,” mostly women in small workshops; and a scheme for unemployment insurance which was embodied in the National Insurance Act of 1911. Churchill described these as actions designed to give a “greater measure of security to all classes, but particularly to the laboring classes” (p.218). By 1909, the last year that the Liberal Party had a commanding majority in the House of Commons, Churchill had become the party’s most effective figure.

            Churchill next accepted a post as Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order the country. He had become, in effect, the country’s top cop. “In his work as a Liberal legislator, Winston had been trying to create a better life for the millions struggling to survive in the hard conditions of industrial Britain. But in his job at the Home Office he was given a harrowing view of the crime and depravity in the nation’s slums and was forced to confront how intractable these problems were” (p.222). Throughout his tenure as Home Secretary, Churchill acted with flair, gusto, and daring. He was not a low profile leader.

              In an infamous confrontation with striking miners in Tonypandy, South Wales, Churchill suppressed the miners’ protest, efficiently if perhaps also ruthlessly, making enemies on the left. Then, he enraged conservatives with his efforts to reconcile with the miners. Churchill emerged from the crisis with a “whole new set of enemies on the right and left blaming him for doing the wrong thing – one side saying that he was too tough, the other that he wasn’t tough enough (p.237). Churchill gained further notoriety when two Russian anarchists went on a shooting spree in the East End of London. He was called to the scene precipitously, and adroitly managed to minimize casualties as the house in which the anarchists were hiding went up in flames. Although Churchill’s handling of the incident should have been one of his finest moments as Home Secretary, instead he was “ridiculed as a grandstanding egomaniac who didn’t have any business inserting himself into an armed police operation” (p.241).

            By the time he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, in 1911, Churchill had already begun to grasp the implications of Britain’s growing military and economic rivalry with Germany and the importance of sea power in defending the British Isles and the empire. Churchill, Shelden writes, was the “only major British leader who was thinking so far ahead about the catastrophe that awaited the world” (p.258). He wrote an eerily-prescient memo that year, supposed to be only for Asquith and the Committee of Imperial Defence, which “read like an outline for a novel about the first weeks of a European war” (p.257). Drawing on his considerable powers of imagination, Churchill described what he believed would transpire in the first forty days of fighting. As he pointed out after the First World War, his forecasts were “almost literally verified three years later by the event” (p.257).

                       When war broke out in 1914, Churchill, not yet 40, found himself:

at the center of a world war, with a heavy responsibility for the largest navy in the world, and a duty to protect the shores of his island nation. It had taken him only thirteen years to rise from a parliamentary backbencher to one of the top posts in an empire at war. After all the struggles, after all the political fights and name-calling, he now had the chance to change the course of world history, and to prove the worth of his heroic view of life (p.306-07).

            With his “youthful energy, battlefield experience, and the will to win” (p.309), Churchill seemed to be everywhere at once in the opening months of the war. He actually went into combat, taking part in the defense of Antwerp, Belgium. This was, to say the least, a highly unusual tactic for someone in his position. Lacking sleep but with his mind spinning relentlessly, Churchill came up with all sorts of ideas for saving the city, some good, some not so good. The worst came when he wired Asquith requesting that he be allowed to resign as First Lord and given “full powers of a commander of a detached force in the field.” In the heat of battle, Churchill had “lost all sense of priorities, thinking that holding Antwerp was everything. But the only priority that mattered at that second was winning” (p.310). As Shelden points out, leaders were often criticized for sending others into battle. Now, Churchill was criticized for doing the opposite.

             Then came the ill-fated 1915 attack on the Dardanelles, the narrow 38-mile straight which divides European from Asian Turkey along the Gallopi peninsula, emptying into the Mediterranean. By Shelden’s account, Churchill unwisely accepted the advice of an eccentric and cantankerous retired Admiral, Jacky Fischer, once considered the “greatest naval innovator of his time” (p.275), but then in his seventies and well past his prime. The idea was to take out Ottoman Turkey, Germany’s ally, to enable Russia, Britain’s ally, to move freely through the straights to the Mediterranean, thereby forcing Germany to shift its focus away from the Western Front, where British troops were entrenched. The assault turned out to be a “disaster from start to finish . . . [W]hen the older battleships moved into the strait on March 18 to attack additional forts they ran into mines, and they were lost in a matter of a few hours. . . mistake after mistake was made” (p.315). The Turks “proved to be far more disciplined and determined than the British had been willing to believe” (p.315).

                The setback in the Dardanelles was “so big that a suitably big scapegoat was needed, and Winston was it. As soon as things began to go wrong, little time was wasted in pointing the finger of blame in his direction” (p.315). As Shelden puts it, the “young Titan had pushed his luck too far” (p.315) and was forced to resign. In a war that left so many of its combatants maimed or traumatized for life, Churchill was “lucky to escape with merely a wounded career. But he couldn’t be sure at the time that the wound would ever heal and allow him to resume his rise to the top. Because he had been so sure of himself, and had risen so quickly, he was so unprepared for this precipitous fall that few options were left open to him” (p.321).

                 Churchill “lost something in 1915 that he never regained,” Shelden concludes. A spirit that had “once seemed so vital and inexhaustible, a lively spark that had served him well from crisis to crisis . . . [had] flickered and went out in 1915 and Churchill was never the same” (p.323). We all know, however, that the pugnacious Churchill survived, rebuilt his career and much more. The ignominious ending to the story leaves the reader hoping that Shelden will next describe the path which the fallen Liberal star took back into the political arena.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
April 26, 2015


Filed under British History, English History, Uncategorized

Not So Great


Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars:
A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 

          Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion makes a nice complement to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, reviewed here in September. Hochschild’s work does not purport to be a comprehensive account of what is sometimes called the Great War, as is Clark’s on the prelude to the war. Rather, Hochschild elaborates upon selected manifestations and consequences of the destruction unleashed in the summer of 1914, destruction that “still seems beyond belief,” with a “magnitude of slaughter. . . beyond anything in European experience” (p.xiii-xiv). In artful prose, Hochschild surveys war resisters, women’s rights advocates, socialists, soldiers on the front lines and their commanding generals. His approach is anecdotal but also rather strictly chronological, treating the war in yearly sections, staring in 1914 and ending in 1918. Hochschild’s primary focus is on Great Britain, but he manages to bring all the belligerents into his picture. Throughout, he writes sympathetically and passionately, yet objectively, about those who prosecuted the war and those who opposed it.

          Hochschild starts with a captivating prelude termed “Dramatis Personae,” which provides an overview of Britain in the half-century prior to 1914. Here, Hochschild introduces his readers to several of the main characters of his book, whom he follows throughout the course of the Great War. These exceptionally vivid sketches personalize the fault lines of the war, none more so than between career soldier John French, who became commander of British forces on the Western Front, and his pacifist, progressive sister, Charlotte Despard, who led the opposition to the war. Hochschild also gives prominent attention to Douglas Haig, French’s “ambitious subordinate” (p.104), who replaced French as Western Front commander and in that capacity made some of the most misguided strategic decisions of the war. The jingoistic poet Rudyard Kipling is the figure in “Dramatis Personae” most likely to be familiar to readers. Kipling’s unabated enthusiasm for the war was tested when his beloved son John disappeared in battle in Northern France. Hochschild also introduces his readers to Emmeline Pankhurst, whose fervent support for women’s suffrage overrode her pacifist inclinations; and James Keir Hardy, leader of the British Socialist Party and a true believer that socialism was the perfect antidote to war.

          “Dramatis Personae” further highlights forces that changed the nature of warfare when the conflict broke out in 1914, most of which came into view during Britain’s war against the Boers in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. Over 100,000 civilians, including African farmhands, Boer women, children, and elderly were herded into guarded concentration camps, “an eerie glimpse into the not-so-distant future” (p.33). More than twice the number of Boer civilians died in concentration camps than Boer soldiers who died in combat. The Boer War made clear that industrial might would determine the outcome of the next war.

          The socialism that was gaining ground across Europe as 1914 began was an early manifestation of what we might now term globalism, in which social welfare and improvement of living standards across Europe were deemed to trump workers’ loyalty to their nation states. But British class consciousness proved for the most part an ineffectual competitor with the national loyalties which the Great War demanded. The socialist dream “[d]issolved in the face of an ancient and greater force: the deep, instinctive human impulse for solidarity with fellow members of one’s tribe – a group most defined, in this moment of crisis, not by class but by nation” (p.128). In Germany, too, socialists were “like everyone else, carried along on the unstoppable torrent of emotion” (p.92). On both sides, consequently, “governments were delighted to discover that they had feared the left too much” (p.92).

           At the outset of the war, advocates of women’s suffrage were among the few who raised their voices in opposition. Emmeline Parkhurst, who had been a vocal opponent of the Boer War, suggested when war broke out in Europe in 1914 that “all war was the mere byproduct of male stupidity” (p.48). The Suffragettes’ opposition to the war was so strong that her Women’s Social and Political Union decided to put suffrage on hold. But later in 1914, Parkhurst went through a mysterious transformation into a war supporter. Hochschild spectulates that she may have made tactical decision that it would be easier to obtain the vote for women if she supported the war. It was perhaps in recognition of this support, as well as recognition of the sacrifices that women were making to further the war effort, that Britain in 1918 gave the vote to women over 30 — those less likely to have husbands killed or wounded in the war, and therefore less likely to adopt anti-war sentiments, Hochschild suggests. By the time the war ended, Parkhurst had become one of the most strident voices in support of the British war effort.

          The anti-war movement arose in Britain at about same time as conscription and remained an important force throughout the war. By 1916, some 200,000 Britons had signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace. Russia was the only other belligerent to have an anti-war movement as large and as vocal as Britain. Although the war had unleashed “powerful national chauvinism, witch hunts for traitors, and public fury at any apparent lack of resolve to fight” (p.257), Britain alone enjoyed the “deeply embedded tradition of civil liberties” that allowed the anti-war movement to flourish (p.188). But with overwhelming pressure from friends and family to support the war effort, it nonetheless required “rare courage to resist” (p.188). Yet, by 1917, there were anti-war voices within the Establishment and the right.

          British leaders vigorously sought to counter anti-war sentiment. Parliament empowered a War Propaganda Bureau, which enlisted a wide range of authors to launch a “flood of books, pamphlets, newspapers, postcards, slide shows, and films for consumption in Britain and abroad,” (p.148), with the United States being one of the primary foreign targets. “Pamphlets and books bore the imprimatur of well-known publishing houses, and the government secretly agreed in advance to buy copies, which it often distributed for free” (p.148). The Bureau freely ran with rumors and half truths about German atrocities in occupied Belgium. In one court case against a war resister, prosecutor Sir Archibald Bodkin — who, after the war, won fame for winning the case that banned James Joyce’s Ulysses from publication in England – argued that “war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong” (p.191).  Imagine.

          In his treatment of the realities of the battlefield, Hochschild focuses on trench warfare, new weapons, and battlefield carnage. Trench warfare was not new. Versions were seen in the American Civil War and the Boer War. But it “seemed like such an ignoble sort of combat that hardly anyone in Europe had planned for it” (p.123). “No war in history had seen so many troops locked in stalemate for so long” (p.173). On all sides, military leaders were reluctant to admit how dramatically the machine gun had changed warfare. “No general was ready to acknowledge that the machine gun had upended warfare as it had been known for centuries. A single such gun emplacement could stave off hundreds, even thousands of attackers” (p.124).

              The Battle of the Somme on July1, 1916 was the bloodiest of the war so far, and marked a turning point for Great Britain. Of the 120,000 British troops thrown into the battle, 57,000 were dead or wounded by day’s end – “nearly two causalities for every yard of the front” (p.206). From that point onward, Hochschild argues, the attitudes of British soldiers began to change. “It was not a turn toward rebellion but toward a kind of dogged cynicism, a disbelief that any battle could make a difference” (p.211). Later that year, however, David Lloyd George as Secretary of State for War allowed a film of the gruesome battle to be shown in theatres. The film actually reinforced civilian support for the war. “The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made – and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all” (p.228).

          Hochschild’s treatment of battlefield realities is interlaced with discussions of miscalculations made by military hierarchy, especially French and Haig. Haig combined stubbornness with an “unshakable faith in the rightness of the British cause. . . [and a] mindless optimism in the face of bad news” (p.321). Haig adhered to his belief that the cavalry was still the 20th century’s key to military success. Referring to two cavalry skeptics, Hochschild quotes Haig as saying, “If these two had their way, Cavalry would cease to exist as such. In their opinion, the war will continue and end in trenches” (p.139). High casualties were seen in some military circles as a sign of aggressive leadership and a measure of success. This perverse logic, Hochschild writes, “sometimes led Haig to fly into rage when he thought British losses . . . were too low” (p.209). But what made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them. He “felt it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations,” his son wrote, “because these visits made him physically ill” (p.210).

          Haig launched a bombing campaign in Northern Belgium – one of lowest spots in Europe’s “low countries” — with no apparent thought given to the possibility that this bombardment would “wreck canals and drainage ditches and leave tens of thousands of craters that soon filled with water” (p.285). Haig and French were jointly responsible for Britain’s first use of poison gas, on September 25, 1915. The winds did not favor the use of gas that day and, when the day was done, Britain had suffered more casualties than Germany from its own gas.

          The following day, Haig made a decision to order an advance by two battle weary, inexperienced reserve divisions directly up a hill guarded by German machine guns and uncut barbed wire. Out of the 10,000 men thrown into battle, more than 8,000 were killed, wounded or missing in very short time. It is difficult for us to look at this “spasm of carnage” on September 26, 1915, Hochschild writes, as “anything other than a blatant, needless massacre” initiated by French, Haig and their advisors “with near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced” (p.165). But, Hochschild notes, few survivors saw that day’s carnage in this light. “For them to question the generals’ judgment would have meant . . . asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so many myths about wars born” (p.165).

          After detailing the military ineptitude that exacerbated the unparalleled carnage on the battlefield, Hochschild poses the question that lies behind his narrative: is there an argument to be made, from Britain’s perspective, that the Great War had been necessary. Here, Hochschild differs dramatically from Clark, who refused to assign responsibility to any nation state for the outbreak of the war, depicting it not as a crime of any state but a collective tragedy implemented by sleepwalking diplomats. Hochschild would likely respond that the war was both a tragedy and a crime, with Germany the most criminal of the belligerents. It invaded neutral Belgium, committing widespread atrocities against the Belgium civilian population –“pre-figuring the Nazis’ even more ruthless occupation regime of the Second World War” (p.219) — and clearly threatened to conquer France in the West and Russia in the East.

           In the end, though, Hochschild sidesteps a direct response to this question, while nonetheless reminding readers that the consequences of the Great War would be devastating for years to come. The “most toxic legacy of the conflict,” he concludes, “lies in the hardly imaginable horrors that followed” (p.373).

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 8, 2014


Filed under British History, English History, European History, German History, History, Uncategorized

Where’s the Light?


Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity:

The British, French and American Enlightenments


[Introductory Note: This commentary is another which I first wrote in in 2009, also based on a book I pulled off the shelf at my favorite used book shop in Washington, D.C. that year, while on leave from my mission in Bulgaria.  I’ve since come to the conclusion that “The Roads to Modernity,” published in 2004, is an important work because it challenges accepted notions of the 18th century Enlightenment.  I’ve always found the terms “Enlightenment” and “Enlightenment values” to be slippery ones, used loosely, without single governing definitions (I am faced with a similar situation in my day job, where the term “rule of law” dominates the agenda, but without a single or accepted definition — and few in my field consider this a problem).  Gertrude Himmelfarb is therefore to be lauded for her effort to bring some precision to the historical notion we term the Enlightenment. 


Himmelfarb is closely associated with the neo-conservative movement, which I wrote about in reviews in mid-2012.  She is the wife of the late Irving Kristol, one of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism, and the mother of William Kristol, a well-known American conservative commentator.  Some of her scholarship can be seen as having a partisan edge, and the closer her subject approaches the present, the more tendentious I find her writing to be.  But her views of the Enlightenment deserve serious attention, even from those who do not share her political outlook.] 


In “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments,” Gertrude Himmelfarb details three distinctive forms of the “forward march of the human spirit” – Denis Diderot’s definition of the Enlightenment — in the 18th century in the three countries most frequently associated with modern democracy, Great Britain, France and the United States.  Himmelfarb makes her purpose clear at the outset: she seeks to “reclaim” the Enlightenment “from the French who have dominated and usurped it” (p.3).  For Himmelfarb, the French Enlightenment elevated reason and saw it as diametrically opposed to religion, with insidious side effects. 


In Great Britain and the United States, by contrast, reason did not have that preeminent role and religion was not the paramount enemy.  The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but “social virtues,” whereas in America it was “political liberty.”  For both, reason was an “instrument for the attainment of the larger social end, not an end in itself,” with religion an “ally, not an enemy” (p.19).  In Himmelfarb’s view, the contributions of 18th century American and British thought to modernity and modern democracy far surpass those of France.  Indeed, to Himmelfarb, France’s contributions are antithetical to democracy.  


In her brutal dissection of the French Enlightenment, Himmelfarb contends that  esteemed philosphes Diderot and Voltaire were elitists who were contemptuous of  common people.  Voltaire’s contempt led him to a cynical espousal of religion for the lower classes, as a means of keeping them in line, with the more enlightened elements of the population eschewing backward religious practices (Himmelfarb excuses a similar tendency of some of the American founding fathers, p.211).  Disdaining Christianity, Voltaire was even more disparaging of Judaism.  To associate the French Enlightenment with democracy, moreover, is to ignore the historical record.  The philosophes favored enlightened despotism and embraced Rousseau’s collective notion of the general will, which Himmelfarb considers inherently hostile to individual liberty (p.167).   


            Himmelfarb also seeks to establish that there was in fact a distinctive 18th century British Enlightenment, a point at odds with conventional academic wisdom.  In addition to Adam Smith and David Hume (whom some scholars see as representatives of a distinctly Scottish Enlightenment), she finds both Edmund Burke and John Wesley central to the English Enlightenment.  A host of sentiments, which Himmelfarb summarizes by “social virtues” or “moral sense” – benevolence, compassion, sympathy, “fellow-feeling,” a natural affection for others– comprised the “social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse” in 18th century Britain” (p.33). 


18th century Britain was also characterized by a “conspicuous absence of the kind of animus to religion – certainly nothing like the warfare between reason and religion – that played so large a part in the French Enlightenment” (p.38). In contrast to France, British moral philosophy was “reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more enlightened future” (p.51).  Himmelfarb quotes de Tocqueville’s observation that he found in England what he had been deprived of in France, a “union between the religious and political world, between public and private virtue, between Christianity and liberty” (p.52). 


If social virtues were at the forefront of philosophical speculation and social policy in 18th century Britain, in America these virtues constitute a backdrop to “political liberty,” the principles and institutions appropriate to a new republic.  “As it was liberty that was the driving force of the American Enlightenment, so it was political theory that inspired the Constitution, designed to sustain the new republic” (p.191-92).  Like the  British, and in contrast to the French, Americans did not turn against religion itself.  “Instead, they incorporated religion, of almost every degree and variety, into the mores of society” (p.207).  The Founders in America “did not look upon religion as the enemy of liberty” and American churches did not “look upon liberty as the enemy of religion” (p.211). 


Himmelfarb raises many points worthy of a good academic debate.  Should we really speak of three (or more) Enlightenments?  Peter Gay, a towering authority on the Enlightenment, considers it a single phenomenon radiating out from France, as Himmelfarb acknowledges.  Was the French Enlightenment as unenlightened as Himmelfarb contends?  One of my most memorable college teachers was a leading authority on Diderot who taught his clueless undergraduates to revere not only Diderot but also Voltaire and the other 18th century French philosophes.  Several decades later, I am not ready to discard this deeply inculcated reverence.  Further, I wonder whether Burke, seminal theorist though he was, should be considered an Enlightenment thinker.  One can answer these questions differently from Himmelfarb, yet be impressed by the cogency and readability of her – dare I say “enlightening”? — work. 


Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

January 13, 2013


Filed under English History, French History, United States History