The Interaction of Biography and Modern European History

By Janet Bruesselbach
For "Great Lives Lived"
With Scott Cook
Dec. 2005

           The role of the individual in history changes with the historiography of biography and of approaches to history. A critical issue in practical history is the attribution of responsibility, an issue always relevant to law but of arguable relevance to social science. The way in which biography cannot extricate itself from history in the case of the most influential figures in recent European history tells us how in return history cannot rid itself of biography's humanism. Historians can't be afraid to attribute major historical change to individuals. Neither must there be a constant requirement to find an individual cause, especially if it's only a butterfly in the storm. Contrast Victoria, the nominal leader of the greatest 19th century empire, and how she gradually transformed her constantly moderating role from active to figurehead, with Adolf Hitler, who attempted to create a 20th century empire through a policy of radical change and an increasing emphasis on his own active will. Victoria's reign saw the publishing of lengthy hagiographic biographies and Thomas Carlyle's "On History", an essay that, although it comprehends fully the complexity of historical cause, sees history as a humanist venture focusing on the actions of powerful people. Following the defeat of Hitler's Third Reich, modern history underplayed the role of the individual.

            Despite its reputation, Thomas Carlyle's "On History" is anything but a simplistic advocation of the Great Man theory of history. It is a complex and elegant understanding of the role of the humanities in establishing the place of the individual in the universe. It is a powerful argument for the importance of studying the past in every way possible, so that we may better understand the future, despite the monumental absurdity of the undertaking.

"Social Life is the aggregate of all the individual men's Lives who constitute society; History is the essence of innumerable Biographies. But if one Biography, nay, our own Biography, study and recapitulate it as we may, remains in so many points unintelligible to us, how much more must these million, the very facts of which, to say nothing of the purport of them, we know not, and cannot know!" (Carlyle)
Hence the philosophical pre-capitulation of Yeats' understanding of existence as "a stream of souls", uniquely organized by one's own mind. Frank Vandiver, in his essay "Biography as an Agent of Humanism", specifies this value Carlyle sees to the experience of biographer and subject: "A special blend of two people, two humanities, a dual view of the human condition... both humanities focus on the same time, one as present, one as past, and provide almost stereoscopic perception."(Oates 64) We are limited to a human reality, and to Carlyle, understanding things beyond the human experience is impossible. Of course, the use of technology in the social sciences begins to void that argument. The important thing is not to allow an understanding of individual responsibility to negate the irreducible complexity of history and the interaction of a world's population worth of decisions. "Every single event is the offspring not of one, but of all other events prior or contemporaneous, and will in its turn combine with all others to give birth to new: it is an ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being, wherein shape after shape bodies itself forth from innumerable elements." Carlyle's vision is timeless, but also very representative of the 19th century and its social contradictions.

            In the Victorian era it seemed that the figurehead of the worldwide British Empire had little control over historical change, retreating from the capital and self-effacingly denying her public role. Victoria exerted an amount of private influence that only became obvious upon revelation of her diary, which she kept her entire adult life. She also set the standards for the social powers of women, while maintaining that the domestic role was appropriate and that she herself was a grudging exception who only fulfilled her monarchial role out of, firstly, a knowledge of how her husband might have done it, and later, a kind of superior moral judgment. This is a great example of the individual creating their historical role, and the inextricable connections between private and public. Arnstein, author of a public-persona-oriented 1999 biography of Victoria, naturally has an interest in promoting the importance of the individual in history, especially the way in which Victoria's famousness is deserved and gave her genuine power. His biography is historical and does not allow the times of Victoria's life to be assumed; it is a succinct, successful, readable biography that does not need the literary qualities so revered by the essayists in Oates's compilation, such as André Maurois with his claim that "Great historical events bound up in the life of a statesman ought not to be treated in a biography as they are treated in a history."(Oates 11) Arnstein integrates Victoria into history as what historian Barbara Tuchman calls "a vehicle for exhibiting an age"(Oates 73) or a "prism".

            Victoria is the crowning example of an epoch taking the form of a life: her life. While in almost every other personality, the persistence of self-important and demanding brattiness would be negative, one can argue that Victoria's was appropriate. The apparent "stability" history claimed of Victorian England is a result of predictable change (like, for example, Victoria's increasing relative conservatism), not a lack of dynamics or strife. Near the end of her reign, due to the standards set by democratizing measures of which she mostly approved, politicians would attribute either too much stubborn influence or too little to the queen, depending on their needs. She certainly seemed to require more force, especially in her enthusiasm for foreign wars, to impose her now-conservative perspective. "The spirit of George III lives on in his descendent"(Arnstein 186), said Sir William Harcourt after Victoria rebuked her chosen Prime Minister Rosebery, notably demonstrating the importance of individual historical precedent in his criticism of unofficial monarchial power.

            Great Men and the individual influence they demonstrate connect Victoria to Hitler, notably because some threads of the zeitgeist tapestry are larger than others whether they deserve it or not. Wilhelm II's early hatred of England (condemning an "English Doctor" like some suspect Hitler blamed a Jewish doctor) via his mother, Victoria's eldest daughter, fueled his vehement German nationalism, which would be a powerful ideology for the German military during World War I, which itself can be seen as a family feud between Victoria's grandchildren. Hitler was a Germany-loving Austrian courier among those World War I soldiers, sent to a mental hospital for paranoid blindness following a gas attack while the Versailles treaty was signed. As Carlyle writes, "When the oak-tree is felled, the whole forest echoes with it; but a hundred acorns are planted silently by some unnoticed breeze." In other words, the most important sources of historical change are undetectable, making the outcomes seem inexplicable. Hitler was a bad nut amongst the acorns scattered by the German defeat.

            Victoria was born royal, but always touted herself as a "true liberal" with a belief in the essential equality of people. Hitler was lower middle class, often homeless, and shouted his way into the position of dictator, yet his ideology and policy centered around the racial superiority of "Aryans", a category in which his own inclusion is debatable. When it came to foreign policy and her empires in Asia and Africa Victoria may have believed in British cultural superiority, but she disdained racists and saw economic success as just reward for intelligence and industriousness.

"The higher classes...are so frivolous, pleasure-seeking, heartless, selfish, immoral and gambling that it makes one think...of the days before the French Revolution. The lower classes are becoming so well-informed, so intelligent, and earn their bread and riches so deservedly - that they cannot and ought not to be kept back."
(to Vicky, Dec 1867. From Hibbert.)
That statement stands out in the context of late nineteenth century society as praise of Jews, who gained more acceptance and power in Britain than anywhere else or any previous time, and is perhaps connected to Victoria's adoration of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. To Victoria, Judaism was only another religion, and religion was a personal matter; this was refreshingly selfless, practical and open for the head of the Anglican Church. Though Hitler may have shared Victoria's cautionary criticism of elites, he did so from the outside, in condemnation, and reserved a special hatred for the new upper middle class capitalists, for which the queen had, two generations before, so much praise. Victoria received a thorough private education about which she claimed 'I like reading different authors, of different opinions, by which means I learn not to lean on one particular side." (Arnstein 25): that is, moderation is the principal virtue. Hitler was a terrible student, and principally radical. In these cases education may be the manifestation of class difference that results in ideological contradictions.

            Is it possible that the atrocities committed by colonialism under Victoria's reign are nearly equal to those committed by the Nazis? If so, is there even the slightest idea that we could blame Victoria for them as Hitler is usually blamed for the Holocaust? The central matter of historical responsibility is critical to this question. David Irving, for example, wants to cast Hitler with the power of, if not the figurehead monarch, the elevated Chancellor with little knowledge of the genocidal actions of his department heads, and certainly no orders given. One can of course argue that Hitler made his wishes for the Final Solution clear and expected his commanders to anticipate those wishes, a power structure confirmed by the accounts of said commanders.

            Vandiver's argument that the inner thoughts of a historical subject cannot be assumed without concrete evidence (Oates 63), the policy of personal uncertainty, supports Irving, and almost eliminates the relevance of one of the themes Rosenbaum discusses of the sincere Hitler versus the mountebank or the actor. Yet Irving seems to have violated Vandiver's warning that the biographer, although they should understand an individual's motivations and actions based on their own, must avoid "over-identification with the subject", something which may even be unconscious when one does not want to perceive oneself as thinking like Hitler. Vandiver quotes Kendall's claim that good biography is informed by "direct, sensory experience of the matrix from which the subject's experience has been shaped."(Oates 55) Hence the appropriateness of Rosenbaum's reportage style, especially of his unsettling journey to the Gestapo Cottage and Obersalzberg. The journalism-based recommendation for biographers works just as well for historians.

            Perhaps we study individuals not because people are alike, but because people are different, and exert power in different ways. Role and personality are difficult to differentiate, which is why, as Justin Kaplan puts it in "The Real Life", "The public manifestation may be more significant than the hidden self or selves."(Oates 71). We know Victoria's epistletory power, but we also know that despite her role as commander-in-chief of the army and her pride in that role, she left the commanding to her generals. The Victorian situation one could distantly compare to the Holocaust is the Irish Potato Famine. Says Vandiver, "I am intrigued by the part that human reactions play in shaping history - especially human accommodation to events over which people have no control...these reactions deserve more biographical magnification."(Oates 59) Although it was originally caused by natural forces, the English handling of the Irish situation from 1845 to 1849 resulted in accusations of genocide against the Irish, especially when it came to economic policies that allowed Irish grain to be exported to find a better price rather than be sold to the million starving Irish. The memory of the ineffective aid from Britain is considered one of the reasons Ireland ultimately became independent. Yet there are no great scapegoats in the disaster. Victoria backed Peel's party-alienating repeal of the Corn Laws, donated heavily to aid the Irish, and, after the worst was over, made a visit to Ireland whose morale-boosting accomplishments were superficial at best. The worst that can be said of Victoria by the Irish was that she was well meaning but sheltered, ignorant, and presumptuous. She signed the Book of Kells.

            Vandiver's emphasis on the importance of human experience confronting inhuman forces should be expanded to all the power differences of history. It is not just natural disasters over which people have no control; his statement applies just as well to people over whom people have no control, or the disastrous misuse of control. The accounts of Holocaust survivors represent possibly the most important part of the history of World War II, and serve as far more of a condemnation of Hitler than statistics gleaned from S.S. records. Elie Wiesel's Night, for example, deals especially with surviving the absolute removal of one's historical agency. The individual actions of nameless people who save or destroy a life changed structure of history; while at the same time there was an inhuman arbitrariness to who survived. In Rosenbaum's chapter "The War Against the Question Why", Claude Lanzmann seems to exert unnecessary control to insist that no individual blame be placed, that history from the time he produces his 8-hour film of Holocaust survivors, Shoah, can only be inexplicable victim's stories but never explanatory stories about those in control, even though (because?) it is one of the Controllers' "Here there is no why" on which Lanzmann bases that commandment. The limitation of historical debate in this way comes from the wrongness of exceptionality. When Hitler's crimes, and by extension the man, are considered not just extreme but absolutely unique, deserving of a bending of the current rules of historical causality or of judgment, it is losing the forest for the trees the way history might disdain biography. History's role is Janus-like, understanding the past to shape the future; as long as the Holocaust or something similar doesn't reoccur, history is doing its job, and thoughts and beliefs are free. The point of comparing Victoria and Hitler is not to illuminate the individuals but to illuminate the way the quality of the individuals shapes the context of the history in which they are involved. We expect to condemn Hitler; we expect to dismiss Victoria.

            Yet a surprising amount of research on Hitler, according to Rosenbaum, seems to want to find something beyond his control that makes him more intrinsically evil. We seek to doubt Hitler's own insistence on the importance of his own will, the attribution of pan-historical blame and the exaction of social justice. Explanations bordering on excuse range from post-encephalitic psychopathy to deep-seated psychological problems (with physical origins like one testicle) to hidden Jewish ancestry to matters as subtle as ingrown Western ideology and economic inevitability. None of these could really have had an effect without ultimately depending on the choices of an individual person to neglect self-doubt in a search for power, whether driven by his pet issues or by power alone.

            In a way, Rosenbaum and Arnstein are working with causality in reverse directions. Arnstein tries to identify ways in which Victoria changed society, while Rosenbaum searches for what in society changed Hitler. He confronts a series of antithetical personalities of the man and his roots, none of them particularly more blameless than the others, from Trevor-Roper's sincere Hitler to "Hitler as a product, a virtual creation of a counterfeit of history, and history as the creation of this counterfeit." (Rosenbaum 57) Bullock claims Hitler began by acting as a leader but became possessed by the role he had created and became a sincere believer. Just as André Maurois says with a more generic exemplary historical figure in mind:

"A man who exercises some lofty function (...) reaches the point of literally 'playing' a part; that is to say, his personality loses something of that obscure complexity common to all men and acquires a unity which is not wholly artificial. A great man... unconsciously aims at making his life a work of art, at becoming what the world would have him be..."(Oates 9)
Rosenbaum seems fascinated by instances of this theme in explanations of Hitler, not only the life-structure of the actor Hitler who practices his dramatic speaking postures but also that of the artist, since Hitler was a mediocre traditional painter and a graphic designer before he went into politics, and, arguably from the design of Nazi regalia, after as well. He seems to suggest that what is particularly intriguing about Hitler in the issue of individual responsibility is that he was aware of how history would be made about him, and that he deliberately made himself a "Great Man", not just for posterity but as a tool of political manipulation.

            Rosenbaum compares the conflict over the individual in history to, in quantum physics, field theories in which certain particles inevitably decay versus hidden-variable theories where uniqueness is indeterminable before decay (135). Carlyle seems to have anticipated the field theories and claims that we can more clearly understand history from the effects of individuals on society than to try, as so many historians interviewed by Rosenbaum do, to determine why a particular individual becomes influential. "Why history was ready and waiting for a Hitler is seen as more important than why he turned out to be the Hitler."(Rosenbaum 136) Physics metaphors presume that personality is irrelevant even if the rise of a Hitler figure is inevitable. Personality is surely relevant if for no other reason than history operates with a kind of reverse Occam's Razor by which anything that makes it more complicated must be true.

            Of course, as Carlyle acknowledges, that doesn't mean we can't discuss history in simplifying ways. Seeking or justifying blame is a simplifying method through which complexity is continually revealed. Biography is simply the manner of shaping history to the form most familiar to us, the human. If it bears an intrinsic tendency to attribute responsibility for historical events to its subject, that is an understandable bias, but not necessary to the genre. If it seeks to find cause for individual decisions, its attribution of specific events or circumstances should also be considered only partial, assumptive explanations, given the complexity of the human mind and the manifold complexity of a history created by humans.


Arnstein, Walter L. Queen Victoria. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Carlyle, Thomas. "On History." From "Thomas Carlyle's Essay 'On History'". Peter Landry, 1998.

Hibbert, Christopher, Ed. Queen Victoria in her letters and Journals. NY: Viking, 1985.

Oates, Stephen B., ed. Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Kaplan, Justin. "The 'Real Life'". 1978. P. 70-76
Maurois, Andrè. "Biography as a Work of Art". 1956. P. 1-17
Tuchman, Barbara W. "Biography as a Prism of History." 1979. P. 93-103
Vandiver, Frank E. "Biography as an Agent of Humanism". 1982. P. 50-64

Rosenbaum, Ron. Explaining Hitler. New York: Random House, 1999.