Simon Schama

History as an Act of Faith, Part II

VTR Date: November 10, 1989

Guest: Schama, Simon


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Simon Schama
Title: “History As An Act Of Faith”, Part II
VTR: 11/10/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When I introduced my earlier program with today’s guest, I quoted him as embracing openly what he describes as “the 19th century sense in which the historian is inevitably going to be colored by feelings about the present”. No hypocrisy here, no hidden agenda and important, too, because Simon Schama, Harvard Professor of History and Senior Associate at its Center for European Studies has aroused so much controversy with Citizens, his compelling 1989 volume celebrating, or at least chronicling the French Revolution of two centuries ago.

Professor Schama let’s go back…that’s the way I want to begin this program, by putting the question to him…about the notion of the baggage that you talked about, the intellectual baggage…began last program talked about Charles Beard saying “all history…all written history is an act of faith”. What’s your essential act of faith?

Schama: Well that I suppose of your standard late 20th century liberal democrat, with a small, or possibly even a big D, actually. That’s to say, the book was, I hoped, sort of concerned, although some critics didn’t see it that way, to take the rights of man seriously. The only, I suppose point of agreement I might have, presumptuously, with Francois Mitterrand, was I thought that the rights of man were well worth celebrating in 1989. The difference I would have with other liberal democrats who see the Revolution as the pre-condition for the rights of man, the pre-condition for democracy, my own view was quite opposite. It would be to say that really we have to shake ourselves out of the revolutionary romance and that so far from the revolution being the pre-condition of realizing the rights of man, it was likely to overturn them. So my own kind of, you know, belief in sort of parcels that I had, you know, clutched to myself for the moment are an attempt, really , to find ways of realizing the promise of democracy, or representative freedom without violence, without a kind of ecstatic embrace of revolutionary wholeness.

Heffner: And yet last time there was a phrase that you used that came perilously close to the notion of “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: Now, can you have such a radical change…

Schama: A Leninist and Marxist view. Well, I mean it’s a rash historian, really, who, you know, speaks from this week’s news. Nevertheless, let me have the temerity to do so. In the sense in which I think many of the extremely stirring events that are unfolding in Eastern and Central Europe are exactly an instance of extremely dramatic change that has nothing to do with the classic revolutionary…you know, the classic revolutionary situation, the crowds are really tearing down the Bastille. They were walking in millions, quietly, with an extreme…extraordinary kind of dignified sense of their own…of their own integrity, through the streets of Leipzig and Dresden and that lead an elite within the Communist Party to bulldoze down the Berlin Wall. It’s a division inside the elite in Hungary which similarly led to the extraordinary changes we’re seeing there. Now this is all more prosaic, it’s much less kind of at a superficial level, I suppose spectacularly dramatic than the events in Paris in July 1789. But for me it has a…precisely because it is a kind of more pragmatic, more collaborative, more cooperationist kind of view, really, of how you bring about change, there’s a better chance for pluralist democracy arising from such a situation. Now if, in fact, the new generation of whoever it might be in power in Hungary, or in the Soviet Union, for that matter, or anywhere else said “Alright, every Communist, every person who’s ever been Marxist will be brought to trial for war crimes, their property will be expropriated, they’ll be thrown out of the country, camps will be set up for these infamous scoundrels”, that, for me, would be a kind of tragic collapse into classic revolutionary politics, but it seems to be, I hope, you know, not in the cards.

Heffner: But having…having said that…how do you account, or how do I account for your statement that you are not enormously…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …optimistic about the future?

Schama: Well not for these reasons, oddly enough, although I do have…I suppose my deepest misgiving about the present and…let me say immediately that my own sense of exhilaration about what’s happening this year, in the second part of this year, overwhelmingly offsets my misgivings, but I do have some misgivings. Notably that when you give people the right to self-determination, but it in Estonia or Hungary, or wherever, true self-determination…it’s more likely rather than less likely that the kind of rather tribal atavistic sort of national feelings will demand to be satisfied, that’s to say, when you give a kind of…you kind of sort of break open a Pandora’s Box, really, and out of the Pandora’s Box may come all kinds of sort of swarming, buzzing things which may be very difficult to fit back into that box, the box being peace and stability in the major part of Europe. So I suppose I have a worry about intensely aggressive nationalism coming hard on the heels of the promise of democracy. European politicians this week, Chancellor Kohl, even Mrs. Thatcher, who isn’t always strong, may say, “I think you’re making understandably, really extremely intelligently cautious noises about the need somehow for the European community to be a kind of embracing or containing mechanism within which this…these new experiments of freedom can be exercised”.

Heffner: You know I expected somehow or other to be able to take your statement about not being enormously…

Schama: (Laughter)

Heffner: …optimistic and combine it with that fascinating statement that you’ve made several places…one, you say, “I was born on a terrible night…”

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …”One of the worst nights in European history, I was born in Slaughterhouse Five…not in Dresden, but on the night of February 13, 1945. I was born in a building in the heart of the West End, and the two buildings on either side were bombed by V-2s”…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …and I couldn’t help but think of Hobbes’ statement that he was born with fear, as twins. Born in the year of the Spanish Armada…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …and I wondered whether, in identifying your own “fix”, your own intellectual…your own emotional baggage that which colors your history writing, whether these origins have anything to do with who you are, what you are, the way you write?

Schama: Oh, I’m sure…I’m sure they do. But oddly enough, and this sounds somewhat paradoxical, if not actually bizarre, the immediate memory of the War, and growing up in bombed out London, I actually grew up in a little fishing village, which is a kind of commuter train ride away, and my father had offices in the East End, where not much was standing, and then in the West End…so that one, as a child used to take me into London, which I adored, sort of the age of five or six, 1949, ’50, ’51…London was like so many broken rotting teeth, great stumps of building with…but there were kind of grass and flowers and I remember once my father screaming at me because I decided to play football…I was kicking a football…a soccer ball against the wall of a bombed out building, incredibly dangerous thing to do, and the sense actually very well conveyed by that wonderful movie about a child growing up in the Blitz, “Hope And Glory”, my memory was not of the Blitz, but it was immediately after it…the sense was, oddly enough that people had survived, they’d survived in an atmosphere of great kind of, sort of heroic fortitude, the War had been terrifying and miserable and difficult, but somehow everybody in Britain had gotten through it. That memory, early one, while a bit kind of grim and gray at the level of candy rationing, the bane of all six year old school boys (laughter), was not something which weighed heavily on…on my shoulders. I mean…my blood runs cold when I think of the game that, as a child…we used to play a game around the back of our synagogue, our temple, while waiting for our Hebrew classes to which I went with a regularity that astonishes me, but the game was a kind of war game, you pick up sides…two sets of children, but it wasn’t Allies against Germans, I suppose we thought no one would probably actually choose to be the Germans, we played what we called “Japs and Jerrys”, so you had the choice of belonging to the Japanese side or the German side (laughter), so this really terrible kind of little game, was totally unperceived by our seven or eight year olds as something which really, you know, the war had this long, grim, horrible shadow. Many of my mother’s family was destroyed, you know, wiped out in the camps. Oddly enough, when we were growing up, the great fear, the great sense of trepidation, the great kind of trembling that went on in our school and in our lives as friends, was absolutely nuclear terror. I remember on the afternoon when we knew that President Kennedy, whom we all adored in the way the young did…still, defend that…we knew that the embargo, the quarantine had been ordered and that Russian boats were sailing towards it. I remember going home and saying to my parents, “This is unfair”, I said with all the kind of stupidity (laughter) of early adolescence, sort of accusing my parents’ generation for somehow being about to terminate the life and life of all of my generation, that somehow they’d gotten us into the fix of this nuclear generation. And the sense of actually that history was determined by long-term forces in the Soviet Union, United States, in Cuba, in Suez, wherever, it was this being out of arms’ reach that Europe was this kind of broken little backwater of a place, trying to poke itself up through the broken ruins of bombed out London, that…that was really, I think, what really spoke to my misgivings and may have lodged there, I don’t know.

Heffner: When you say “lodged there”, I wondered can I find that in what Schama writes today?

Schama: Well, maybe. I mean maybe. There is…I should say that, you know, my very first book I wrote in the ‘70s was about the Doge period in the French Revolution, and I set out to write that to think about the way in which the Revolution behaved when it came as a liberator, as I naively supposed…well I didn’t ever really believe that, I think. But I wanted to sort of test the possibility of revolutionary fraternity, and I mean as soon as you test it of course, it becomes sort of grotesque myth. That book was…again, owning up, as I’m more than happy to do to the way in which one’s present life, you know, colors one’s history, there the book was…the research started in the mid-sixties…I had been to Prague in the sixties, and fallen in love with the city, and felt it was a very deeply kind of…as I still do…feel it’s a kind of deeply tragic city. Intact in an odd way…the architecture in Prague is beautiful because it’s capitulated so many times, and in 1968 the Brezhnev doctrine, the kind of brutality of that particular moment was deeply upsetting, produced deep melancholy in me, and I think that sort of fed into the rather kind of tragic picture that I, that I presented in Patriots and Liberators, that…that first book. Nonetheless, I have to say when I lectured on the French Revolution in the sixties it was a more optimistic, and a more kind of robust view. I suppose what colored that view was that you could bring private lives to public purposes, dissolve them together. They could be brought together in a kind of rhapsody of fraternal politics, that was the mood of the sixties, I fear. Now one of my critics, a very shrewd critic, and a very generous critic, I have to say, who wrote a piece in a British journal said, “Well, what Schama writes over and over and over again, very nicely and very delightfully, but he does it over and over again, is about the family”, and in an odd way I hadn’t actually thought about that, but he…but she’s absolutely right. A lot of my book of Dutch culture is really about the relationship of…a story of a country which made family and private life and local life, the cultivating of gardens and the leading of a daily life, really more important than the beating of the great historical drum.

Heffner: But that, of course, again is the narrative.

Schama: Yes, but you could conceivably do a narrative which was almost wholly public, I mean Michelet’s narrative…Jules Michelet’s narrative in the 19the century which is never going to be surpassed for its just dynamic, extraordinary theatrical qualities. It’s kind of prose poetry, that is exactly one in which private life and family life melt into and take their rhythm and texture from great public events. I mean I always remember Michelet’s diary entry…his wife is pregnant, very pregnant, and he says…he says, “it is with great trepidation and awe that I approach the gates of the Bastille, even as a new me”, this man was clearly no feminist, “even as a new me is going to be wrested from the womb of my wife”, and he says this without stopping, as though biology and the revolution are kind of one and the same, and that is…couldn’t be less my own temper. I mean I do, indeed, in this book, see certain sorts of strains between the private and the public life.

Heffner: You’re considered a, a maverick, there is a quotation…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …here, “Schama is gleefully revisionist”…

Schama: Hmmm…

Heffner: …and yet was so interesting to me…

Schama: Well, I would correct that, and say I’m in some ways…

Heffner: Not gleefully?

Schama: …no, I , I…no…I don’t…no, I…there is a kind of game played by historians…I mean at its most ponderous, it’s the way many articles in academic journals begin, they say, “Muggins’ celebrated view of…the Battle of Waterloo was such and such. This naively uncorrected view was critically corrected by Juggins, who produced…However, both Muggins and Juggins need to be replaced by my view…Buggins” (laughter), and this sense of kind of a differentiation obsession, that I will revise what has gone before me simply for the sake of revising, I think is actually a terrible kind of tic that obsesses. So, I don’t revise for the sake of revision, or I try not to.

Heffner: You’re not pleading guilty to that?

Schama: No, I’m not.

Heffner: Buggins and Muggins.

Schama: No, I hope I’m not…I hope I’m a different name altogether. No, in fact, I think of myself as simply kind of listening, attentively if I can to sort of voices from the fairly remote historical past, and I’m just trying to do that. I mean the only…I deliberately really exclude nearly all historigraphical commentary from the book, except at the one point where I do become rather excessively self-righteous in the book, and there was an enormous and famous book written on the September massacres, which I thought was so appallingly matter of fact in a way about that truly horrifying phenomenon that I became rather school-masterly, and I do mention this particular person. Apart from that, I try not to.

Heffner: Do you think the same criticism would hold true in terms of your criticism of Paul Fussell’s new book, Understanding and Behavior in World War II? I was so taken by your review…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …of that in the New York Times…

Schama: Thank you.

Heffner: …very negative.

Schama: Well…you mean that I could be…I see, that I became self-righteous? Yes, I suppose the criticism could and was made, in fact. But if I was not going to be righteous about the reasons which World War II was fought then one might say there’s no point in being righteous about anything, really. That’s what I felt about a really, truly brilliant and grippingly and beautifully written book, was that it was so concerned really to say all war is hell, which…a view with which I would not really dissent from…that no war is ever worth fighting, including this one. I think it was the point at which he quotes, admiringly, Cyril Connolly’s remark that, “this is a war of which we should be ashamed”. I…

Heffner: You would dissent from that?

Schama: I absolutely would dissent, that was the point where I was really rather upset by that remark, and there your invitation to recollections on the Second World War did come into play…yes…I mean I, I did think with all its horrors and anarchy and disasters that happened on the Allied side and the need to de-glamorize it in the way Fussell does, nonetheless, one says, “Well, good grief, what was the alternative?”…what was the alternative, you know, would we actually wish for ourselves a peaceful Europe under the greater Reich? I don’t think so.

Heffner: Do you think that increasingly there are those who think in those terms, perhaps not developing it quite to that point, but focusing on the “war is hell…none of it is worthwhile”?

Schama: I don’t know, it’s very hard to say because we’re at such a kind of, you know, watershed right now that one suspects that the opposite may be true, that there are all sorts of strangely half-forgotten causes of territory and speech and culture, which remain unsolved because in effect the joint Russo-American occupation of Europe simply put them on hold, one thought forever, that actually became literally sort of, you know, belligerent problems again.

Heffner: No, I understand that.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: You see the potential…

Schama: Right.

Heffner: …for conflict…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …in groups and regions and even nations. No…

Schama: Right.

Heffner: …I was wondering about that group we know of as the intellectuals, the historians…

Schama: Intellectual…

Heffner: …those who write.

Schama: Yes. Well, I don’t know. I still, Richard, don’t really see it. I mean I think that what is interesting, for example, about reflections on Vietnam now, phenomenon about which I…you know, well, I won’t say what I feel about that unless asked in a minute, but I think actually there is more reflection of the nature now that really as horrible as it was that indeed might have been a war worth fighting…such a view I have…I hold, adore. But, perfectly intelligent, in some ways not absolutely discredible views so in some sense I think they’re…at least part of the intelligencia is actually has its heels dug in against automatic pacifism. No, I wouldn’t see a problem at the end of the century being total pacifism, but so much depends on whether one is talking about nuclear war or any other kind of war.

Heffner: Why?

Schama: Well, because I think actually nobody is going to vote for the elimination of the human species, really. And, in that sense, really, I think…maybe I’m quite wrong, but I certainly hope that any consensus that you could fight a limited nuclear war, in the sense in which tactical nuclear weapons, so-called “theater” weapons were really a viable possibility, which they…you know, that was all the rage of Washington policy discussion in the early ‘80s and at the beginning of the Reagan establishment. I think that…I mean I hope that’s really gone by and by, and oddly enough I think the resurgence of German politics, Germany’s determination not to have their own place reduced to cinders again may help to make that doctrine even more obsolescent than I hope it already is.

Heffner: In terms of your…I ask, I’ll admit that I asked you this question while we were in our break between our programs…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …about writing about America…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …you’ve written about…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …the Dutch…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …you have written about the French…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …you’ve written something about Israel…

Schama: Yes, I have, that’s right.

Heffner: And if you were, as a…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …as a follower of de Tocqueville…

Schama: Right.

Heffner: …in his writings about the French Revolution, if you were writing about Tocqueville, the commentator on America…

Schama: Writing about Tocqueville…

Heffner: No…

Schama: …on America?

Heffner: …writing about…I shouldn’t say that, writing about Tocqueville’s America. Writing about this country now.

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: Where would we find you intellectually?

Schama: Writing about our present? I…I suppose I would have some of those…I said to you in the break, that “oh, well, I don’t think I’m such a patrician as Tocqueville”, I don’t have my sort of knuckle-cracking skepticism about mistrust of democracy. However, when you put it to me that explicitly, I suppose my problems would be kind of classical Tocquevillian problems. In a sense in what worried Tocqueville was…he wouldn’t have known this phrase…but a kind of worry about what the cult of money might do in America, and it did in most democracies, that people’s own sense of material…that individualism would kind of reduce itself down to a worry about money and me, bottom line-ism, I might say, and that that would really make the noble intentions of Founding Fathers null and void, and he was worried about the kind, indeed, the kind of parade ground nature, really, of what American democracy might be. Now, God, if we go from there to Roger Ailes and sound bites and the absolutely abject quality of the last presidential campaign, and the tyranny of money on American politics, I would have a very high-sounding, old-fashioned 19th century…I mean I would love to ban all political advertising, I’d have these kinds of 19th century fantasies of somehow purifying democratic discourse. It’s completely, in a sense a sort of European misapprehension about the nature of American politics, which I equally recognize…sort of drawn raw vigor…they’ve truly heard the vernacular voice. You know, one thinks of all sorts of great American oratory because it is in some sense not been so lilly-livered and kind of pure, but I think we’ve gone so far down the direction of sound bites and snap images and playing politics at the lowest level of kind of vulgar negativism, that…(laughter) I do exactly sound like Tocqueville now, don’t I?

Heffner: Yes, indeed you do. Yes, indeed, you do.

Schama: Well, there we are, he’s a very powerful ghost.

Heffner: The people in the control room are always upset when I say to my guest, “we only have two minutes left”…

Schama: Thank you.

Heffner: But I’m saying it to you because I wanted to ask you just briefly to comment on the end of history…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …and this, this notion that it’s sort of all over…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …not badly, it’s all over, “we have won”.

Schama: Yeah. Well, I’d quote Yogi Berra, of course, (laughter)…everybody does…”it ain’t over until it’s all…” It’s never going to be over, I mean unless somebody does, indeed, press that awful red button. I do wish Francis Fukuyama, a very, you know, brilliant writer…had called it The End of Cold War History, or something like that, which is what he really means, but it’s not all over. There are huge conflicts of the distribution of resources, conflicts of religion, conflicts of national culture…

Heffner: Which he recognizes.

Schama: He recognizes in a terribly…they’re footnoted…they’re there, mentioned en passant, they’re recognized in order to be dismissed, and I mean it’s a…that, the problem of the informed mentality of that piece is exactly a State Department problem, that really history is State Department history, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union…well, I mean that vision is crumbling even as we speak.

Heffner: Isn’t it more than that, isn’t it the question of whether our approach to life, perhaps even the, the money involvement…that…the dollar involvement…

Schama: Yes.

Heffner: …you spoke about a moment ago, has won. The marketplace psychology, the marketplace ethic has prevailed…everything will be judged in those terms from now on.

Schama: Well, I think that’s a mistake, too, I mean I think that, you know, Hungarians who…with whom I have a great soft spot, when consulted about “what would you like to be?”, they don’t say, “well, we would like to be Wall Street”, they say, “we’d like to be Sweden”. The notion of a Hungarian Swede is as an impossible an oxymoron as you can ever want (laughter), but that’s…they have some sense and they can be a kind of democratic socialism, or a sort of mixed…the State is not required to be abolished in this vision of a free future, only to be a much more modest animal than it has been in the despotic period in their lives.

Heffner: And so, the war isn’t over?

Schama: The war isn’t over, history isn’t over, but I gather our program…alas, is over.

Heffner: (Laughter) Thank you so much Professor Schama.

Schama: You’re very welcome.

Heffner: Thank you for joining me today, and the other week, too.

Schama: It’s a pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.