Saturday 19 November 2016

Radetzky’s March

In a possibly desperate attempt to justify my claims about framing and history, I would like to comment, briefly, on an all-round Austrian hero, about whom only a few, even among wargamers, ever seem to hear. The interest is not so much in the content of our hero’s life, but it the circumstances which have made him so obscure.

An article in December’s History Today magazine (yes, even history magazines run ahead of the calendar) about Josef Radetzky is about his contemporary fame and his subsequent obscurity. Radetzky fought the Turks in the 1780’s, the French in 1813 and crushed the 1848 uprisings in Italy. Now, however, he is rarely recalled, except through an obscure 1932 novel, and Johan Strauss’ March in his honour.

In his lifetime, (1766 – 1858) he was hailed as a military genius; his accomplishments were lauded across Europe. At his death he lay in state in Milan, then in Vienna, and then in Heldenburg, where he was buried.  The Times of London compared him to Wellington, an honour which, at that time, no higher could be paid to a foreigner.

So why has Radetzky slipped into obscurity. The answer seems to be that he was just a bit unfortunate with the results of the timing of his achievements.

For example, from 1809 – 1817 he was chief of staff of the Austrian army. He has been described as the chief architect of the defeat of Napoleon. However, the major success of this time was the Battle of Leipzig and the 1813 – 1814 campaign. This led to Napoleon’s abdication, of course. But it was then overshadowed by Napoleon’s return and the subsequent Waterloo campaign, in which the Austrian army was no involved. Rather fewer people cared about the success in 1814 when it all had to be done again in 1815.

Similarly, Radetzky was the commander of Austrian forces in Italy in 1848. He ignored his superiors, went on the offensive, crushed the Piedmontese and pretty well finished the revolutionary war before it started. Again, he was badly served by history. His activities in Italy were undone within a year of his death as the Risorgimento took place. What might have happened if Radetzky had still been in command? It is, of course, hard to say, but Italy might look rather different today if he had.

So what happened? It is possibly, of course, that Radetzky’s achievements are still lauded in Austria and similar parts of the former Empire. Anglo-American historiography, however, has almost entirely ignored him.

Firstly, as noted, his main achievements were largely undone by the next steps in history. It is not exactly Radetzky’s fault that Napoleon escaped from Elba, or that Italy was reunified in a way which no-one expected. It is not his fault, either, that history can argue that Napoleon defeated himself in 1812 in Russia, and everything else was a mopping up operation. As a military officer Radetzky defeated Napoleon in 1809 at Aspern, and it could be claimed that Wagram was a stalemate. The politics of the situations overshadowed the purely military aspects.

Thus, in our historiography, at least, we remember Wellington and Nelson, but not Radetzky. But there is a wider and further framing question here. We can regard Radetzky as simply being on the wrong side of history. He fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed in 1918. Historians ever since have been picking over the corpse to establish the causes of that failure.  The empire, according to one view, was simply a conservative, reactionary state with little hope of surviving in the longer term anyway. Successes like Radetzky were just bumps in the road to inevitable failure and collapse. A multi-ethnic, multi-national empire like that could never survive the transition to modernism and the nation state. The empire was justly kicked out of Italy, Germany and, of course, was responsible for the outbreak of World War One. On this analysis Radetzky fought, and won, in vain.

Our interpretation of Radetzky thus lies in the frame in which we try to understand him. In the frame of 1813-1814 he might well stand as ‘the Great’, a Field Marshall of outstanding ability. But in the frame of even 1813-1815 his success is a little more nuanced; Leipzig was not the final world. Similarly, in the context of the 1848 revolutions, his contribution is a success, at least when viewed from the side of the Empire. By 1860 that view is much less focussing on success; it is overshadowed by subsequent events.

Of course, on an even broader canvas, Radetzky becomes ever less important. Most of the achievements he could lay claim to were undone by 1918. The Empire collapsed. The post-Napoleon Europe his victories achieved had died on the Western and Eastern fronts. From the viewpoint of this history, Radetzky is at best a side-show, a tragic figure trying to hold back the tide of historical inevitability.

Radetzky, of course, would not, and could not see it like that. He did what he had to do (all right, he did not have to father a child in his eighties on a woman who was not his wife). As chief of staff and governor in Italy, he did what the context of his times required. It is not his fault that he was on the wrong side of our current (or at least recent) historiographical debates and viewpoints. He would not have seen, I suspect, his activities as either tragic or irrelevant.

So hopefully this idea of framing history is coming into a little bit of perspective. The importance of someone is a function, at least in part, of the time frame we impose on them. Similarly, the importance of an event is, in part, a function of the time frame. Further, both are limited by our concepts of what happened next. Leipzig is trumped by Waterloo. Finally, the importance of people and events are also framed by our impressions of what went forward. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was doomed to fail (and it did, of course) and so anyone appearing to oppose that decline and fall is, simply put, irrelevant.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Historiographical Greatness

The discussion we have had about how Alexander III of Macedon came to be known as ‘the Great’ has been, to me, at least, fascinating. There is a great deal there about how we view, receive, and consume, even, history. Even those of you who basically said that Alexander was great are taking a historiographical view.  Greatness is, of course, is the eye of the beholder.

As was pointed out, other people through history have been given the epithet of ‘the Great’ – Peter, Catherine, Frederick, Alfred. In many cases it seems that this is so because they have a historical achievement to their name, or at least a set of spectacular bits of achievement which have accumulated around their name. Peter did a bit of westernising and beat the Swedes. Catherine did a bit of land expanding (not personally, I don’t think). Alfred did a bit of defending and brought in some literacy. And so on. Whether a leader is a great one depends on what you care to examine.

More recently, of course, there has been a decline in greatness. In part, I suspect, this is because historiography has changed rather. Instead of the ‘great man’ (or ‘great woman’} view of history, which allows alexander to conquer the world and gives him the credit, there has been the rise of other historiographical viewpoints.

I may have mentioned before that there are a variety of views about the causes, course and conclusion of the English Civil Wars (which were neither English nor Civil, but let us leave that argument for another day).  These views include religion, the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, the poor weather in the first half of the seventeenth century, the fissiparous nature of the three kingdoms (and one principality), the increasing power of Parliament, the decreasing power of Parliament and so on.

Similarly, depending on what you focus on, you can make a case for the wars being won by Puritan discipline, or by the fact that the navy backed Parliament, or by the victory of the hard liners in London in 1644 leading to the creation of the New Model Army, and so on. History, and more importantly, the interpretation of history, is never that simple.

Perhaps that is why I do feel a little disappointed in those wargamers who simply argue that Alexander was great, and deserves his plus three on the general-ship dice. Firstly, they decline to engage in any historiographical comparisons, and secondly they miss out on a good deal of interesting stuff. Maybe Alexander was great, but he did have to work and win battles in a certain strategic and historical context. He had no access to machine guns, and so had to make the pike work as hard as possible.

The context in which any general works is something of a given. Generals are notorious for entering into a war ready to fight the last one, but as someone pointed out recently in the news, really, given funding constraints, particularly in peace time, the generals have little choice in the matter. Alexander came to the throne in a kingdom already committed to invading Asia; in fact, it already had done so. While it would be theoretically possible for Alexander to have withdrawn the expeditionary force, it would probably not have gone down too well at home. The invasion was pretty well forced upon him by circumstances.

Similarly, the arguments on the Parliamentary side in late 1644 pretty well forced a change in the nature of the armies and general-ship. A number of factors were recognised, implicitly if not explicitly. Firstly, and most importantly, there was the question of what winning the war might look like. What would happen if the war was lost was perfectly clear – the Parliamentary leaders would hang. What winning would look like was more difficult. How do you negotiate with a defeated king who is still king?

Despite these issues, the most pressing factor was that the war had to be won. This consisted in a number of facets, such as creating the NMA, although actually that army was only one of a number of forces operating in 1644-5. The difference is that Fairfax was permitted to do what it took to win the war without constantly referring to London. Thus came about the string of victories in the summer and autumn of 1645.

The freeing up of the military strategy of the Parliamentary forces was a major factor, but not the only factor, in winning the first Civil War. The country was weary of troops and fighting. Trade was depressed and taxation was high. Some sort of solution was needed. This is the context for the political decisions which eventually won the war.

What, then, of the great man thesis? Was Alexander just lucky to hit the Persian Empire just when it was at its most rocky? Did the political and economic situation in the Empire simply suit an invader with a reasonably good army that, even when he made mistakes, could fight its way out of trouble? These are historiographical questions, and are unlikely to be decided one way or the other.

On a similar theme, of course, we can question whether Cromwell was a great leader or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Again, as I’ve tried to point out, the context was specific. The war was won before Cromwell really came to prominence as a war leader, but we see him as the person of the wars. Whig history of the late Victorian era has a lot to answer for here.

As I mentioned, there are no real answers here. The evidence is, broadly speaking, given. All we argue about are interpretations. In ECW studies, the debate is swinging back from the Marxist sort of economic and radical politics explanations towards to view that the major problems were the King himself and unresolved (and probably, unresolvable) issues in religion, which themselves related back to differences between Charles and a lot of his subjects. But this is a change of interpretation, a change of emphasis in how we view the importance of what was going on. We could suggest that it has arisen as a consequence of the realisation that in the contemporary world, religion is more important than the secular Marxist historians might have thought.

But the point, I think, is that the question is never quite so straightforward as ‘was Alexander the great?’

Saturday 5 November 2016

Alexander the What?

I have by my side two books, both of them interesting in their own way, but between them I think they augment the point I was trying to make last time about the framing we do when we do history. Indeed, there was no post last week because I was trying to finish the second book, as I had already had this as an idea.

The first of the books I want to discuss is ‘The Genius of Alexander the Great, by Nicholas Hammond (1997, London: Duckworth). Hammond was a well known classical scholar, and did an awful lot of work of Greece and Macedon during the classical age. The thesis of the book is well summed up in the title: Alexander was not just the Great, but he was a genius. His logistics were first rate, for example. His military acumen was second to none.  He set out to, and achieved, conquest of the known world and, if others had not go cold feet, he would have conquered the rest of it as well. Indeed, had an early death not overcome him, he would have got as far as the Gates of Hercules within another campaigning season or so.

In this, of course, Hammond has to explain a few bits of history away. For example, Darius got between Alexander’s army and his base just before Issus, which does not seem to be the mark of a particularly great leader. We all have bad days at the office, granted, but Alexander had to rely on his army to fight their way out of the predicament. Similarly, the debacle in leading part of the army across the desert has to be explained, especially in the light of the excellent logistical mind that Hammond credits Alexander with.

There are a few other anomalies that have to be smoothed over, as well, such as drunkenness and murder, but on the whole, Hammond’s alexander is a rather likeable chap, at least in terms of despots of the era, who could do a nice turn is cross-cultural relations and with whom you could have a drink (or seventeen).

The other book is Alexander the Great Failure, by John D Grainger (2007, Continuum: London). I do not think that Grainger is a classicist, but a more general historian. In fact I recall reading one of his previous books, Cromwell Against the Scots, which finished with an appeal for England and Scotland to remain united, on the basis that when they fell out, mayhem and military government ensued.

Grainger’s point is that alexander did nothing to fix any of the problems he inherited from his father, including the personal nature of the Macedonian monarchy. This caused problems in Macedonia when the king was absent, as Alexander was for most of the time. He also failed to fix the heir, by, despite being urged to before invading Asia, not marrying and begetting a son. In the end, he did gain an heir, but that heir was posthumous and got murdered before any significant activity too place.

Aside from that, Grainger rather grudgingly admits that Alexander was a good commander, although he points out that Macedonian progress in Asia would have been harder if Darius III had been more secure on the throne, and the Egyptians had been less restive. The biggest charge against Alexander that is laid is that he failed to sort any administration out for the conquered areas. They were left to Macedonians he appointed, or, more frequently, the already existing satraps were left in post. They quite frequently revolted.

Grainger’s evidence for Alexander’s failure comes from pushing beyond his death in the historical record. The collapse of Alexander’s empire was not, according to Grainger, inevitable, even on Alexander’s early death. Several of the successors had a good go at conquering the empire and holding it, but all failed. If Alexander had had a viable, teenage heir, then the empire might have held together. But he did not, and it fell apart as the successors lost trust in each other, and grabbed what they could hold.

The upshot of this is that the empire collapsed. The eastern satraps became independent, or were reconquered by the resurgent Indian states. Macedonia was exhausted and failed to defend itself from the Galatian invasion, and the successor states slugged it out to mutual exhaustion and, in doing so, permitted power to arise further west, in the shape of Rome, which eventually conquered the whole lot.

The interesting thing about these two accounts is that, whichever one you might like, they are both based on the same set of historical data. There are no new facts, no astounding discoveries in either volume. Both base their account of the reign of Alexander and beyond on the existing historical record. So far as I can tell, neither author has bent that record out of shape to accommodate their views.

We have, then, what we can call a ‘maximal’ and a ‘minimal’ view of Alexander. Maximally, with Hammond, we can call him a genius. Minimally, with Grainger, we can call him a disaster. Either view is acceptably academic: it is based on reasonable interpretations of the sources. Both authors admit that there is a lot we will never know about Alexander and his forebears and successors.

So we have here two historical frames, one in which Alexander is the Great, and one in which he is a failure. Which do we choose? Do we have to choose?

In fact, I don’t think that the two pictures are incompatible. Grainger admits that Alexander was a good general. Hammond does not really discuss administration. But somewhere in these (perhaps rather extreme) views of Alexander there might be considered to be some ‘truth’, whatever that might be. As historical wargamers, are we committed to a framework of history for the specific periods we game in?

We could wonder if this mattered, but I think it does, even at the level of whether Alexander gets +3 on his command dice for being a genius, or being at -1 for being a drunkard. Somehow, we have to make a judgment.