Conservative revolutionary

The lives of Lewis Namier

Author: D. W. Hayton

Lewis Namier was one of the most important historians of the twentieth century. His work on the politics of the 1760s, based on the ‘scientific’ analysis of a mass of contemporary documents, and emphasising the material and psychological elements of human motivation, was seen by contemporaries as ’revolutionary’ and remains controversial. It gave a new word to the English language: to Namierise. Moreover, Namier played a major role in public affairs, in the Foreign Office, 1915–20, and in the Zionist Organisation in the 1930s, and was close to many of the leading figures of his day. This is the first biography of Namier for half a century, and the first to integrate all aspects of his life and thought. Based on a comprehensive range of sources, including the entire corpus of Namier’s writings, it provides a full account of his background, examines his role in politics and reconstructs his work as a historian, showing the origins and development of his ideas about the past, and the subjects which preoccupied him: nationalism, empire, and the psychology of individuals and groups. Namier’s life and writings illuminate many of the key events of the twentieth century, his belief in the power of nationalism and the importance of national territory, foreshadowing problems which still beset our own world.

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‘Lewis Namier (1888-1960), has long held a legendary status among historians. When I was an undergraduate, my teachers told me he had revolutionised the study of our subject. DW Hayton’s startlingly honest biography, Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier (Manchester University Press), puts him in his contexts – a Polish-Jewish immigrant to the UK, a painstakingly exact scholar, a Freudian who thought that ideas played no part in history or in the motivation of individuals, a Zionist who disliked Israel, and a thoroughly unpleasant man. Hayton shows both why his work on 18th-century politics was hailed as revolutionary on its first appearance, and why it is no longer influential today. Masterly.'
New Statesman

‘That is a bald summary of a life brilliantly covered by Hayton, and with a great mastery not only of obvious sources but also of an astonishing range of obscure ones. The back cover has Adam Sisman claim the book as definitive, which is wrong as no historical work can be, but it is certainly excellent. Hayton’s conclusion makes it apparent that he came to like Namier, a difficult man; but not even Namier’s most devoted pupils and friends were blind to his faults and this is an even-handed biography. It is not the sort of cosy study recently produced for Hobsbawm. Instead, this is a psychologically grittier work and one that asks tougher questions of a man who struggled to provide a consistency to his life and work'.
History Today

‘Until now the standard version of Namier’s life was the biography by his widow, whose inclinations were mystical rather than historiographical. Hayton’s is triumphantly comprehensive, unobtrusively weaving high politics with historiography, the life of the mind (and its whimsies) with the body: Namier’s minor obsession with graphology, his years in psychoanalysis, the botched sinus operation of his adolescence, his writer’s cramp, his insomnia.
London Review of Books
January 2020

‘Namier, an extraordinarily talented man, had an extraordinarily unhappy life … This book is especially good in revealing the central European and Zionist dimensions of Namier's work and knowledge, including his writings on nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history … a carefully researched biography'
J. C. D. Clark, The Critic
February 2020

‘deeply researched… a work of mature and exact scholarship'
Jim Smyth, Dublin Review of Books
February 2020

‘D. W. Hayton’s biography – scrupulous, humane and leavened with dry wit – does its subject justice'
Richard Viven, Literary Review
February 2020

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