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“The Hero As Historian”: Pieter Geyl and the Condition of Carlyle after Hitler

From: Studies in the Literary Imagination
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 167-184 | 10.1353/sli.2012.0007

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If we were to fasten a postscript to Thomas Carlyle’s 1841 On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, entitled “The Hero as Historian,” we should probably find that the twentieth century demanded more physical and mental courage of its historians than the nineteenth. The hero-as-historian of Carlyle and totalitarianism, towering over the rest of us, is the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (1887–1966). Geyl’s place in Anglophone historiography is secured by his essays on British historians and “The American Civil War and the Problem of Inevitability.” In European studies, his volumes on the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and his Napoleon, For and Against, published in 1949 but initially written during his imprisonment by the Nazis, should be held in admiration far beyond our lifetimes. No more heroic entry in Who’s Who exists than Geyl’s. Among the notable events of his extraordinary life, the entry lists:

in 1924 [Geyl’s] title changed into Professor of Dutch History and Institutions in the University of London; resigned 1935; Professor of Modern History, University of Utrecht, 1938–68; 7 Oct. 1940 arrested as hostage, spent thirteen months in Buchenwald, then over two years in various internment camps in Holland, released 14 Feb. 1944; 28 Nov. 1942 dismissed by Reichskommissar from professorship on ground of suspect “general mentality,” restored after liberation of Holland…. May 1941 elected Reichskommissar, confirmed by Queen on liberation of Holland. (Who Was Who 421–22)

The entry concludes with a list of visiting lectureships and professorships in the United States and in Britain, awards from both countries and from the Netherlands, honorary degrees, a British CBE, and “Ordre pour le mérite (Germany), 1959.”

Geyl was not, of course, the only Dutch historian with war service as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, but he was the greatest, as his prodigious list of prestigious publications in Who’s Who bears witness. Perhaps no comparable hero-as-historian in World War II could be named, other than the great Marc Bloch of France, tortured and shot while in the Resistance. The blazing pride of Geyl’s listing of his imprisonments, degradation, and dismissal by the Nazis almost parodies the distinctions with which most of the rest of Who’s Who invited attention to their achievements, but the state decoration from the Bundesrepublik Deutschland in 1959 bore the warmth of generous reconciliation.

I never met Geyl, but I once had a long interview with his successor as Professor of Dutch History and Institutions in London, Gustaag Johannes Renier, and at the beginning of a fascinating conversation, he asked me to do him the honor of calling him “Professor Renier” on the ground that he regarded tenure of the chair that had been previously occupied by his friend and mentor as his own greatest claim to respect. S. T. Bindoff, professor of history at Queen Mary College, London, translator of Geyl’s work and author of Tudor England, a dazzling work of scholarship that may have outsold all of Geyl’s books together, made it clear to me that the latter Geyl was the greatest historian he had known, and that must have included all of the active great historians of the UK in his time.

Geyl’s war heroism was incidental to their admiration, but it becomes vital when we look at his ideas on Carlyle. His twenty-two years in London, six as a journalist including World War I (when the Dutch were neutral), gave him primary authority in recent British history, particularly in English cultural self-image. It did not necessarily produce historiographical Anglophilia. The English in 1903 were on the plateau of their imperial self-assurance, despite their prewar symptoms of unease, and as the imperial preoccupation diminished after the war, a somewhat xenophobic insular superiority took its place—the disillusioned intellectuals of Bloomsbury and elsewhere being nonetheless England-obsessed for all their mockery of past propaganda. Renier, who also followed Geyl in becoming a Dutch journalist in London, would write a hard-hitting but fair-minded best-seller The English: Are They Human? Its epigraph was a popular English rhyme: “The Germans live in Germany, / The Romans...

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