The Shevardino Redoubt on the Borodino battlefield of 1812. Photo credit Yury Virovets
At some point in time, you should read Lev Tolstoi's great novel, War and Peace (Война и мир, 1869). The novel deals with the period of history from 1805 to 1820 and Russia's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia and subsequent defeat and retreat are the focus of the book.
The novel is also filled with much of Tolstoi's ruminations on history and his critique of the historical method as practiced in the nineteenth century--the critique is still applicable today.
Here is one of his most celebrated passages about history, which appeared in chapter 1 of epilogue 2: In the passage Tolstoi is making fun of what might pass as a historian's explanation of why events occurred.
"Modern history replying to these questions says: you want to know what this movement means, what caused it, and what force produced these events? Then listen:
Louis XIV was a very proud and self-confident man; he had such and such mistresses and such and such ministers and he ruled France badly. His descendants were weak men and they too ruled France badly. And they had such and such favorites and such and such mistresses. Moreover, certain men wrote some books at that time. At the end of the eighteenth century there were a couple of dozen men in Paris who began to talk about all men being free and equal. This caused people all over France to begin to slash at and drown one another. They killed the king and many other people. At that time there was in France a man of genius- Napoleon. He conquered everybody everywhere- that is, he killed many people because he was a great genius. And for some reason he went to kill Africans, and killed them so well and was so cunning and wise that when he returned to France he ordered everybody to obey him, and they all obeyed him. Having become an Emperor he again went out to kill people in Italy, Austria, and Prussia. And there too he killed a great many. In Russia there was an Emperor, Alexander, who decided to restore order in Europe and therefore fought against Napoleon. In 1807 he suddenly made friends with him, but in 1811 they again quarreled and again began killing many people. Napoleon led six hundred thousand men into Russia and captured Moscow; then he suddenly ran away from Moscow, and the Emperor Alexander, helped by the advice of Stein and others, united Europe to arm against the disturber of its peace. All Napoleon's allies suddenly became his enemies and their forces advanced against the fresh forces he raised. The Allies defeated Napoleon, entered Paris, forced Napoleon to abdicate, and sent him to the island of Elba, not depriving him of the title of Emperor and showing him every respect, though five years before and one year later they all regarded him as an outlaw and a brigand. Then Louis XVIII, who till then had been the laughingstock both of the French and the Allies, began to reign. And Napoleon, shedding tears before his Old Guards, renounced the throne and went into exile. Then the skillful statesmen and diplomatists (especially Talleyrand, who managed to sit down in a particular chair before anyone else and thereby extended the frontiers of France) talked in Vienna and by these conversations made the nations happy or unhappy. Suddenly the diplomatists and monarchs nearly quarreled and were on the point of again ordering their armies to kill one another, but just then Napoleon arrived in France with a battalion, and the French, who had been hating him, immediately all submitted to him. But the Allied monarchs were angry at this and went to fight the French once more. And they defeated the genius Napoleon and, suddenly recognizing him as a brigand, sent him to the island of St. Helena. And the exile, separated from the beloved France so dear to his heart, died a lingering death on that rock and bequeathed his great deeds to posterity. But in Europe a reaction occurred and the sovereigns once again all began to oppress their subjects.
While Tolstoi does a lot of reflecting and commenting about life, philosophy and history, I am not sure that he had found a clear answer by the 1860s (or maybe even by the end of his life). Maybe it is time that I re-read the novel again (for my third time).
The first fifteen years of the nineteenth century in Europe present an extraordinary movement of millions of people. Men leave their customary pursuits, hasten from one side of Europe to the other, plunder and slaughter one another, triumph and are plunged in despair, and for some years the whole course of life is altered and presents an intensive movement which first increases and then slackens. What was the cause of this movement, by what laws was it governed? asks the mind of man.
The historians, replying to this question, lay before us the sayings and doings of a few dozen men in a building in the city of Paris, calling these sayings and doings "the Revolution"; then they give a detailed biography of Napoleon and of certain people favorable or hostile to him; tell of the influence some of these people had on others, and say: that is why this movement took place and those are its laws.
Finally, see also, the First epilogue, chapter 1 (aka Epilogue, Part One, chapter 1).
Seven years had passed. The storm-tossed sea of European history had subsided within its shores and seemed to have become calm. But the mysterious forces that move humanity (mysterious because the laws of their motion are unknown to us) continued to operate.
Though the surface of the sea of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity went on as unceasingly as the flow of time. Various groups of people formed and dissolved, the coming formation and dissolution of kingdoms and displacement of peoples was in course of preparation.
The sea of history was not driven spasmodically from shore to shore as previously. It was seething in its depths. Historic figures were not borne by the waves from one shore to another as before. They now seemed to rotate on one spot. The historical figures at the head of armies, who formerly reflected the movement of the masses by ordering wars, campaigns, and battles, now reflected the restless movement by political and diplomatic combinations, laws, and treaties.
The historians call this activity of the historical figures "the reaction."
In dealing with this period they sternly condemn the historical personages who, in their opinion, caused what they describe as the reaction. All the well-known people of that period, from Alexander and Napoleon to Madame de Stael, Photius, Schelling, Fichte, Chateaubriand, and the rest, pass before their stern judgment seat and are acquitted or condemned according to whether they conduced to progress or to reaction.
According to their accounts a reaction took place at that time in Russia also, and the chief culprit was Alexander I, the same man who according to them was the chief cause of the liberal movement at the commencement of his reign, being the savior of Russia.
There is no one in Russian literature now, from schoolboy essayist to learned historian, who does not throw his little stone at Alexander for things he did wrong at this period of his reign.
PS. Translation does matter with these passages, but we are kind of ignoring that for the moment. These are great passages for you to reflect on.
References and suggested websites
- Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoi's View of History. This was originally published as an essay in 1951.
- You can always start with the Wikipedia entry on War and Peace, and there certainly is a lot of information available online about Tolstoi.
- Only if you have actually ever read War and Peace will you ever be able to really appreciate Woody Allen's movie, Love and Death (1975).
- I guess that you might be interested in the Sparknotes study guide on War and Peace, but that, of course, defeats the purpose.
- There are many versions of the book online, including a searchable online version of the Aylmer Maude translation. Tolstoi's Collected Works, including War and Peace, are available online (in Russian).