Unattractive in his political life, Maximilian was equally unattractive in his personal characteristics. Fate had unkindly bestowed upon him a singularly unimpressive presence; he was lanky, lean and small with mouse-colored hair and a pasty complexion, his speech and features much affected by adenoids. His manners were polished and his conversation blunt and well-informed, but the shrill pitch of his voice startled those who were not prepared for it. In honor of his wife, a princess of Lorraine, he affected the French fashion, whose elegant elaborations can hardly have concealed the shortcomings of nature.
Abler and more politically effective than John George, Maximilian had not that dogged honesty which was the saving grace of the Elector of Saxony. Cautious to a fault, he would never commit himself and thereby raised delusive hopes in all who courted him. Like John George he was sincere in striving for the common good of Germany, but unlike John George he had a clear sense of policy and an accurate judgment. His excuse was the less when, like John George, he allowed his individual advantages to take precedence. In this respect both the Elector of Saxony and the Duke of Bavaria failed their country, but Maximilian always with the more shameless egoism. Never was man more anxious that others should sacrifice their gains for the general good; never did man stand more jealously, more fatally by his own.
- C. V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (1938)
C. V. Wedgwood does not believe in the so-called "Great Man" theory of history. If anything, her vision is the opposite: what shapes history is the weakness of people in power, their inability to prevent their flaws from coming to the surface and annihilating anything that might have been achieved by the better angels of their nature. That is what gives her work its fine--and baffling--literary quality. How can a book that's mostly about moving troops from someplace and putting them somewhere else, in which descriptions of looting and rapine maintain a static consistency from chapter to chapter and whose biographical fragments amount to a kind of elaborate twisting of the knife, be so wonderfully captivating, magical, and irresistible to read? I say this as someone who has not found the energy to read for pleasure in months (which is why I haven't been blogging) and who bought the book fully expecting to let it mature on the shelf like a fine wine. Somehow this did not happen.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, any notion Wedgwood might have of historical causality is not really reducible to the categories in which we're accustomed to thinking. Disbelief in "great-manism" has been universal among bien pensants for about a hundred fifty years now, which is truly astonishing, considering how many times every other foundation of our thought has been overturned since then. We all nod our bored heads along with Tolstoy when he inveighs against Napoleonocentrism. What do we think causes historical events to happen? Well, that does change: sometimes we call it "social forces," sometimes "culture," sometimes something already fully circular like "patterns" or "trajectories." As Carlyle's influence has waned further and further, the people who think about this kind of thing have gradually come to believe that any theory that places individual human beings front and center in the historical process (not just in a positive or transformational kind of way) is actually subsumable under great-manism.
That's a funny paradox. I'm not sure if this is a malady specific to historians, but we're somehow always being encouraged to "leave room for agency," an admonition that is current only as long as that agency involves otherwise powerless brown people. People who are not oppressed cannot have agency. Actually, no, maybe that's too post-'60s revisionist. What I mean to say is: in the contemporary view, people have agency, and that agency is important, as long as nobody is actually accomplishing anything. It would be absurd if someone got up at the AHA and demanded that Duke Maximilian of Bavaria be assigned his due measure of agency. I think it would be short-sighted to blame this kind of thing solely on the '60s hangover that continues to dominate in The Profession. No doubt that's part of it, but mostly it's symptomatic of a near-universal unwillingness among historians to discuss causality in any kind of serious way because no one actually has clear and defensible views on the matter. (I've talked about this kind of thing lots of times before.)
It's a bit like Jackson Pollock. There must be people out there who think Jackson Pollock is a good artist for excellent reasons. I suspect, however, that there are more people like me: people who secretly have no idea why anyone thinks Jackson Pollock is a good artist but, for social and cultural-capital kinds of reasons, don't want to discuss their qualms with anyone. (What does it say about me that I only felt the weight lift once I read this piece?)
What is particularly odd is that the bien-pensant position is, in its bastardized current form, obviously absurd. Everyone agrees that people who wield power can, usually, do lots of different stuff with it; everyone agrees that individual biographies can be decisive when those individuals become entangled in social movements (for instance); everyone operates in their daily lives under the assumption that personality is an important part of how people react to events and do things. But put those pieces together and all of a sudden you need to mount defensive rearguard actions and use words like "social forces" (what are they?), "structure" (where is it?), and "contingency" (as if the historical role of individuals were not the ultimate source of contingency).
In Wedgwood's hands, all these hifalutin methodological questions fall away. I don't know how contemporary early modern Germanists think about her work; three quarters of a century is usually enough time for the pendulum of revisionism to swing around two or three times. Judged on its own terms, however, the history she tells is utterly convincing. The weaknesses of statesmen reinforce and direct the flow of a process that has its own dynamic. Without, say, the selfishness of Maximilian or the arrogance of Wallenstein the war would have been allowed to exhaust itself, but the tragic flaws of otherwise reasonably normal and competent people ensured that it could not come to an end. In contrast with Wedgwood, any more "structural" or economic explanation in the Marxist style looks utterly ad hoc, and anything more contemporary far too causally flabby. (One of the effects of the decline of interest in causality among historians has been a dramatic rise in histories that largely ignore causality in favor of relatively static internal accounts of various phenomena. Whether or not this is a good thing is a subject for a different post.)
I have to confess a large part of my sympathy for Wedgwood's approach comes from the fact that I love her style, although strictly speaking this is of course totally irrelevant. Is it that her account of the war actually is more convincing, or is she just more successful at making it look that way? I'm not sure. When I start thinking about how, exactly, style and content can be so cleanly separated my head starts to hurt, which isn't quite the same thing as being willing to assert that the two are one and the same. On some level, isn't a successfully-told story one that also proposes an internally consistent and propulsive narrative, even if we're talking about fiction? But this stacks the deck against approaches that lend themselves less easily to narrative...
At any rate, one of the reasons I feel so enthusiastic about the current resurgence of good, well-researched academic narrative history is that it promises to recreate some of Wedgwood's charm. As narrative, it must inevitably deal with both character and causes, and pry into the links between the two. As history, it ought to feel a sense of responsibility not only to the sources but also to the state of the field, meaning it cannot simply impose a character-centered framework on material that it assumes to be its own. If we're to start revising the bien-pensant view, we ought not to do it without thinking deeply about how it can be replaced.