Commentary Magazine


Sir Lewis Namier

To the Editor:

Professor Talmon’s penetrating study of Namier [March] . . . is likely to become definitive, and I would therefore like to fill out some incidental details. It is not quite correct that he did not return at once to an academic career after World War I. He did, being a tutor in history at Balliol (although somewhat cold-shouldered there) when I was an undergraduate. He then announced that he proposed to enter business in order to make enough money to enable him to write a book which would revolutionize our conceptions of 18th-century English history, which to the general surprise he did. . . .

Namier once said, I recall, that although he was a descendant of the Vilna Gaon (a point which I do not think has been mentioned in any of his obituaries: perhaps he changed his mind about it!) he was uncircumcised. At that time, he did not know as he told me a single word of Hebrew: when I observed that it was not too late to make this good, he turned on his heel and thereafter barely spoke to me until the end of his days. Namier was like that! His war-time essays on the Jewish tragedy were written indeed in a definitely religious spirit—but notwithstanding this, he was subsequently married in the Greek Orthodox Church, participating in the service. It is said that Chaim Weizmann never quite forgave him.

Cecil Roth
Oxford, England

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To the Editor:

Professor Talmon’s reminiscences of Sir Lewis Namier . . . made interesting reading and a worthy tribute to a man who has hitherto remained comparatively ignored by the international Jewish community. But they need supplementing in several respects for your readers to appreciate the full complexity of that great man’s character.

In the first place, Dr. Talmon by no means does justice to Namier’s work for the Zionist movement in the 1930’s. He did in fact devote nearly ten years’ sustained effort to the Zionist cause and the Jewish Agency. But he died in the hope that Israel would become a full-fledged member of the British Commonwealth. He was not alone in this sentiment, whose existence had a great deal to do with the strength of Gentile Zionism in Britain—without which there might be no Israel today.

Secondly, Dr. Talmon has not fully appreciated all the reasons which have led a section of British historians to regard Sir Lewis’s influence on British historiography as one on balance to be rejected. He has rightly pointed to the criticism which sees “Namierist” history as politics with the politics left out—Hamlet without the Prince. But this objection lies deeper than that. It is that in an age where to be “controversial” is to put oneself outside the limits of taboo, the Namierite approach promotes an easy escape from grappling with the moral issues which were once to be considered the essential stuff of history. Perhaps the most pernicious of all Namier’s effects in this view was his initiation (as it was largely his idea) of the mammoth History of Parliament, an enterprise which has absorbed a disproportionate part of Britain’s numerically limited historical talent for more than a decade and still has little to show for it. (In the field of recent history his talents and energies had an equally perverse effect, which I dealt with at some length in the Cambridge Journal for June 1954). . . .

None of this is designed to detract from Dr. Talmon’s picture of Sir Lewis Namier: though one may question whether the “ordeal” of which he writes was not mainly “subjective,” while none the less real for that. He was of course also a much greater man than too great an emphasis on his personal characteristics or on his specific Jewishness would suggest. Angry, assiduous, masterful and masterly, he towered over British historical scholarship for much of his life and for the immediate postwar decade he not only towered over, but dominated the scene in a way which the fragments that remain behind him cannot sufficiently convey, and which only an understanding of the social and intellectual developments among British historians since 1920 . . . can really explain.

D. C. Watt
London School of Economics
London, England

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