Conservative revolutionary

The lives of Lewis Namier

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

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