February 09, 2010

Martin Wolf's father

Recently reading the Financial Times, I came across this comment in an old column by Martin Wolf, their leader writer:

I have recently been thinking a great deal about my long-dead father. I have been writing a memoir of his life for an exhibition being organised by Vienna’s Exilbibliothek (“Exile Library”) in honour of what would have been his hundredth birthday. But I have also been thinking about him because he would have fully understood what is at stake today. Born in what was then Austrian Poland on April 23 1910, my father’s life began just after the end of the “noughties” of the 20th century, of which I wrote last week. Moved by his parents to Vienna in 1914, he lived through the first world war, the hyperinflation of the early 1920s and the Great Depression, before leaving for London, just ahead of Hitler’s arrival, in 1937. There he survived internment as an enemy alien and the second world war. Nearly all his relatives, apart from his immediate family, were killed in the Holocaust. The same was true of my mother’s family. While she and her immediate relatives escaped by trawler from the Netherlands in May 1940, her wider family was destroyed.As a central European intellectual born in 1910 – he was a playwright, journalist, broadcaster, documentary filmmaker and writer of television dramas, in his native language, German – my father lived in historic times....

At an emotional level, these views shaped how I have responded to the financial catastrophe of the past few years.

What I find interesting about this passage is not neccessarily the views- I'm sure plenty agree and plenty oppose Mr Wolf's specific cures for the financial crisis- but the influence of Mr Wolf's father on those views. The reason I quoted the passage at length is that here we have a very cerebral commentator on current events talking in very emotional language- talking with pride about his father and to a lesser extent mother- and with sadness about their fate and affirming that it has influenced him on a deeper than rational, an 'emotional' level in his response to the present crisis. I think what this shows is something I am preoccupied with, which is the length of history. The crisis of today is 60 years on from that of the forties- I never knew my grandfather who fought in the war, I never knew my other grandfather too who tried to fight but was told he could not. But it is still in living memory 60 years on- to put that in context it means that the English Revolution was fought in the context of the Armada, the French in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Reunification of Italy in the context of the French Revolutionary War and the Reunification of Germany in the context of Napoleon. Living memories like Mr Wolf's today stretched back that far: Bismark might talk of Napoleon and his father like Mr Wolf does of Hitler and his.

I don't mean to labour the point but it is that we have a sense of history as discrete moments: in the future if we get that far the Presidency of Barack Obama and the current crisis will be one of those but what Mr Wolf's account shows is that for our times and for previous times, you can't understand the discrete without seeing it in a landscape of events. Obviously there are many stories that can be made out of these events: there are several ways of interpreting the thirties today and there were several ways of interpreting the past in the past, but you have to understand that people do not see events in a singularity but in the stream of their own lives if you are to capture those events. Mr Wolf's column may be brilliant or awful economics or politics, but what it does, whichever it is, is teach a very good history lesson: in order to understand history we cannot forget the histories of the people we study.


Claude said...

As I read your posts with attention, and learn much from them, I've been looking for informations about you, and I seem to miss your profile. Possibly, it's there on the sidebar. I still don't have much experience with blogs. Maybe you could point it to me.

As it is, I very much trust you. But if one wishes to understand well what one is reading, I agree that it's important to know a bit about the writer's background. And not only for pure history reading.

In many ways, every book is somehow historical. I learned much about India through the Raj Quartet. Although all the details of Paul Scott's life are not necessary to understand the book, it helped me to know that Scott had been a soldier in India, and had experienced some of the problems he is portraying.

Of course, a fiction book is not an opinion piece which could influence the politics of a country. Neither is a blog for that matter. In which case, except for my own satisfaction, it might not be so important to know well the writers. Thank you for your attention.

Gracchi said...

Claudia- that is a thoroughly reasonable request. I have my own reasons for describing myself as a Roman politician, but I can give you information which might give you some indication of where I'm coming from.

I did my undergraduate degree in Modern History (post Roman) at Oxford, and a Masters and PhD at Cambridge under the supervision of John Morrill working on the intellectual history of the mid-seventeenth century particularly the New Model Army. I have worked since then but also do some professional history- as soon as some is published, I'll link to it from this blog.

My father was a Yorkshireman but is now dead and my mother who is still alive is a New Zealander so I have both backgrounds in my past and am a national of both countries. There is more I'm sure but I hope that gives you a background to who I am and where I'm coming from.

Claude said...

Thank you. I truly appreciate knowing your profile. I guessed it would be solid. And, somehow, the touch of mystery (Roman politician?) makes it even more fascinating. I'm going to dig in the "Rise and the Fall..." to discover similarities, if any. Of course it could be a well-known expression which I'm not familiar with in my part of the world. Looking forward to your book. All the best!