Sunday, 6 August 2017

Sir Lewis Namier on the popularity of modern dictators

The great historian Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960) wrote an essayin 1947 entitled "The First Mountebank Dictator" on the subject of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great Napoleon, who was unexpectedly elected President of the French Republic in 1848, then four years later staged a coup and declared himself Emperor of France. He was finally overthrown after being defeated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
   Louis-Napoleon has always been a mystery to historians: he was first elected by an overwhelming majority of the votes, despite his complete lack of previous achievements; he governed by direct appeal to the masses (who were small farmers in the countryside rather than city workers) and was generally despised by the intellectual classes; and his policies were a mixture of authoritarian control from the centre, some measures of social reform, grandiose public building projects, an interventionist foreign policy in Europe (such as his participation in the Crimean War and his crucial role in the unification of Italy) and imperialism throughout the rest of the world. None of his writings show any sign of coherent political thought.
   Namier discusses Louis-Napoleon's popular appeal, which he styles "Caesarian democracy", characterised by:-

    "Direct appeal to the masses; demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political classes and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; blatant displays and shady corruption".

   Namier was in origin a Central European Jew, and at the time of his writing this essay what particularly interested him was to draw a comparison between Louis-Napoleon and Hitler. Of the early careers of the two future leaders, which were marked by "miserable failures", he writes:-

   "Both men were treated with humane and neglectful forbearance .... Not even at a later stage did the political leaders realise the full gravity of the situation - thinking in terms of their own and not in those of the masses, they could not descry either in Louis-Napoleon or Hitler a possible ruler or dictator".

   What struck me when reading this essay was how much of this could be applied to certain leaders of the present day - mentioning no names!

1 comment:

  1. I come here not for political debate, I find no profit in that. Instead I come for the wonderful glimpses into history of which I was unaware. If it is better I do not come let me know and will of course withdraw.