Tag Archives: FDR


by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementYears ago – many years ago – I wrote a biography of Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich – also a writer. Both men were the first novelists to leave Germany once Hitler became Chancellor – and neither of them returned to their “Vaterland” during the Third Reich.

Heinrich Mann died in exile in America in 1950; Thomas returned to Europe two years later, but never  lived in Germany again, choosing German-speaking Zurich instead, which he found safer. For although he lectured both in East and West Germany, he found himself the butt there of hate mail and even articles attacking him – for having dared leave Germany in 1933! One particular critic was a novelist who’d stayed, and had gone into “inner emigration,” as he called it, proudly.

I remember, as Mann’s young biographer in my mid-twenties, feeling outraged on my subject’s behalf. God, Mann’s wife was part-Jewish, as was Heinrich’s – how could he have stayed in such circumstances?

Now in my seventies, half a century later, the concept of “inner emigration” has come to haunt me once again.

The election of Donald Trump is not the same as Hitler’s, of course – but there are parallels, and one of them is “inner emigration.” Like millions, I am shocked that a man of unique ignorance, political inexperience and unstable personality could have been elected to the most powerful post on earth – and by the damage he and his chosen appointees, backed by control of both houses of Congress (Gleichschaltung) could do to the world, from a warmer globe to trade war – even war itself! Worse still, the realization that this person represents literally scores of millions who voted for him – and perhaps more millions still, who didn’t vote, but support his views.

In shock I thus find myself, reactively, turning to my current biography of a previous president (FDR), in another time (the 1940s): trying as I do so not to watch or listen to the news, or even read the newspaper more than cursorily. For the post-election news is as alarming as the election campaign was.

Outrages against immigrants in America passing 500 already? Reversing agreements on climate change, international trade…

My heart sinks; it can only get worse – and Mr. Trump has not even been inaugurated!

I feel myself, in other words, going into “inner emigration” – and I wonder if it was like this for Germans in 1933, as Thomas Mann’s critic maintained?

History repeats itself, Marx once wrote, first as tragedy, then as farce. Are we now in the tragedy phase – and if so, how far is there still to go before farce – surreal, bleak but potentially catastrophic farce?

The tragic aspect is our clear awareness, here in America, of what is happening. There is no shortage of commentary or hand-wringing in the press, yet – unlike, say, Russia, where media opposition to the government and president was, and remains, shut down by new laws, intimidation, even plain murder.

But though there is still candid discussion in the media here, there is also a sickening awareness that this is no aberration, no “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” The result of the U.S. election represents a vast, last-ditch formal affirmation of white bigotry, racism, anti-feminism, anti-intellectualism and gun-toting intolerance – an underbelly of America that was de rigueur in the South until the success of the Civil Rights movement, and is now back with a vengeance: this time, however, across the entire nation, save for the eastern and western seaboard states (in one of which, Massachusetts, I live). As such it can’t be changed or rectified any time soon: it is here to stay for some while. And that is the saddest, most tragic part. It would require a massive cultural re-education program, a national mandatory civics class no less, to return to a more tolerant majority – and no one seriously sees this happening.

In which case, history will have to take its course.

Which brings me back to history – or biography.

“Internal emigration”? Or “Here I Stand” protest – even at the risk of arrest, incarceration, death or deportation, if and when things get worse?

The German population in 1933 supported Hitler and his “Make Germany Great Again” mantra. Those that didn’t co-operate went into “inner emigration,” or were silenced. Or emigrated. Germany became the most dangerous “rogue” nation in the world – with little chance of things getting better, as Hitler attacked and suborned more and more nations that dared oppose him.

Germans for the most part did their loyal duty: involving mass extermination of Jews and those their Fuehrer deemed Untermenschen.

For several years the outlook looked bleak for civilization – until in November 1942, American troops landed in Northwest Africa: the Torch invasion. It succeeded – but there was no indication the Germans would do anything but fight to the death to retain territories they had overrun.

As a result in January, 1943, President Roosevelt – who had tried to keep America out of war until the country was attacked at Pearl Harbor – sadly announced to the world, at a conference in Casablanca, that the Allies would have to pursue a policy of “unconditional surrender” of the Axis Powers. He did so because he recognized nothing short of total defeat would put an end to Hitler’s Nazi movement, which had infected the majority of German people – an infection that could not be cured by negotiated settlement. Goebbels’s declaration of totaler Krieg, several weeks later, confirmed the President’s judgment.

Despite Churchill’s and Stalin’s discomfort with the policy, Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” decision was duly carried out by the Allies, ending with unconditional German surrender in May 1945: VE Day.

It was the end of Naziism as a genocidal ideology of the masses. Though neo-Nazi groups surfaced in most western countries over subsequent decades, inspired by the swastika, such groups remained for seventy years fringe associations or parties. The memory of what the Third Reich had done, and what it had cost humanity to end the nightmare, had been too awful for most thinking people.

Are we, in America, guilty of amnesia? Now the presidential election is over, how should a “democratic” writer react? Protest? Inner emigration? Emigration?

A tide of almost exclusively white anti-intellectual populism has swept the nation. Will it drown out – even silence – all protests? Will we have then to wait in “inner emigration” until, inevitably, the mood exhausts itself, as the demography of the United States inexorably changes and the white majority eventually becomes a minority: the very fear that most activates Trump supporters? Or will there be a catastrophe – whether economic, ecological, military, or terrorist – that brings on a global conflagration, in which, finally, the forces of dying white, Aryan supremacy, as in the American Civil War and then World War II, will have to be confronted, and brought to “unconditional surrender,” lest they once again poison our universe?

I don’t know. But I think it important to tell the truth about the past and its people – which, as a biographer, I shall continue to do. Until silenced.

Nigel Hamilton, Ph.D.

Senior Fellow, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Author, “The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942” and  “Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)


by Nigel Hamilton

 Historians have been skeptical about téléchargementbiography since they invented it. By the same token biographers have been skeptical of historians.

Plutarch, in his life of Alexander the Great, felt impelled to remind readers he was writing “biography not history.” Histories, he pointed out, often told nothing of a “man’s character,” focusing rather on the facts of whether or not he won his battles. In his life of Timoleon, Plutarch rhapsodized on the joy he experienced in writing biography – treating history as a kind of mirror in which he could “adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described. It is as though I could talk with the subjects of my Lives and enjoy their company every day.” Samuel Johnson later echoed that sentiment, but extended it to include both the “virtues and the vices” from which a thoughtful reader might learn.

For six years now, for my own part, I’ve been breaking bread with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not only am I glad to share his company in World War II, but I want others to, for the first time – since no historian has yet managed it. Moreover, in terms of lessons learned, I’m keen to show historians how for the most part they have wholly misunderstood FDR in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. Far from being the laid-back, avuncular leader who left his generals to direct the war – as well his ally Winston Churchill – FDR was, I argue, the strategic mastermind and the patient military director or conductor of the Allies’ victory in World War II. As I’m seeking to narrate, he was almost constantly having to overrule his generals. And most importantly of all, he was having almost constantly to put down the strategic insurrections or rebellions of his crucial but junior ally and self-declared “lieutenant,” Winston Spencer Churchill.

Some historians – especially those bought up on Churchill’s self-laudatory six-volume war memoirs, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature – are reluctant to accept my somewhat radical biographical reconstruction of the war, and of FDR’s commanding role in its military prosecution. At my doctoral defense last spring, at Groningen University, one professor – a distinguished historian – noted that he, personally, was convinced by the forensic detail and authority of my revisionist approach. He posited that the reason Churchill and his supporters in the history profession had gotten away for so long with such a flawed account of the prime minister’s primacy in the direction of World War II might best be explained by what he called “structural” reasons.

How right he was – and is!

One such wall that the revisionist biographer must scale is patriotic pride. Another is accepted dogma. A third is the personal stake people may have in a given interpretation. A fourth is the lack of evidence to counter myth.  And so on….

All revisionist work must encounter such “structural” defense, or counterreformation, as it might be called – in fact I’m sure it’s little different in other areas of knowledge. A new proposition in science, say, or paleontology, or biology, will rarely be welcomed without fierce opposition – especially where professional reputations are at stake. In history, too. But biography is, I think, on an especially contentious ground, structurally and culturally. Just as Plutarch extolled the pleasures of his subjects’ company, so too do aficionados and supporters of a revered individual – and who feel threatened by revisionism.

In reevaluating Franklin Roosevelt as the true architect and director of military operations in World War II, in other words, I am bound to upset those who are wedded to the notion that it was the U.S. generals, not the U.S. President, who were chiefly responsible for strategy and victory in World II, as well as the many who stand by Winston Churchill’s magisterial account of his own leadership in his 6-volume account, The Second World War – namely the vast, colorful canvas Churchill painted in which it was he, not FDR, who was the strategic military genius behind the winning of WWII. And the first line of the structuralists’ defense of such a hero will always be to attack the factual basis, or evidence being put forward, in the revisionist case.

There are two aspects of this that I would like briefly to examine today. The first relates to what Hans Renders, in his forthcoming collection of essays on modern biography, calls “the biographical turn.”[1]

               Now in the late 1980s and early 1990s it became fashionable to decry the trend among modern biographers to write long, and in great forensic detail. As Lord Skidelsky put it, the “professionalization” of biography, especially among American university-led biographers, was leading to “works of scholarship rather than the imagination.” Janet Malcolm took up this claim in order to defend Ted Hughes, the husband of Sylvia Plath, in her 1994 investigation of biographers seeking to understand Plath, memorably accusing them of using “the apparatus of scholarship” to give “an appearance of bank-like scholarship and solidity, when the biography was nothing but a burglar, a busybody, a voyeur “simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.” Even thirty years later, long after Hughes had died, Ms. Malcolm was trumpeting his postmortal right to silence, by pointing to the errors in Professor Jonathan Bate’s new biography, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life.

               In seeking to understand the “professionalization” of biography in recent years I’ve argued in my essay “Biography as Corrective” in the Biographical Turn, that far from being an effort to conceal the nefarious motives of burglars and voyeurs, the length and forensic detail a modern biographer feels he or she has to exhibit are professionally necessary to overcome the structuralist walls put up by opponents – the very likes of Ms. Malcolm! Lytton Strachey may have been successful in mocking the myths of his Victorian models in Eminent Victorians, but his amusing, succinct irony, without forensic new research, was ultimately found to be insufficient in a new century of scientific investigation to change people’s minds. Biographers have thus been forced to resort to ever higher levels of scholarship if they are to succeed in correcting historians’ structuralist defense mechanisms.

It was for this reason that, for the second volume of my “FDR at War” trilogy, I was grateful to the Biografie Instituut at Groningen University for offering me the chance to develop and present my manuscript in part for the university’s Ph.D. program, in order to ensure that, with their help, it would pass scholarly muster once the book met the inevitable structuralist defenders of the faith: those reviewers, readers and aficionados who cannot accept that the U.S. generals in World War II were dangerously wrong in 1942 and 1943, or who cannot accept that Winston Churchill was not the strategic genius of World War II that he claimed to be, after president Roosevelt was no longer alive to contest their versions.

The second aspect I would like to consider here is the possible analogy between modern biography and our justice system.

In order to better understand how the serious, revisionist biographer operates today it may be helpful for us to see him or her as a prosecuting attorney. The biographer, in this analogy, assembles a case to present to the jury – i.e. the reader and reviewer. He or she will have to be a master of rhetoric, and of detail. For the structuralist defense will do everything possible to question and discount the evidence the biographer produces – since otherwise, the defense’s client may go to jail!

               Revisionist biography, in other words – especially biography that seeks to correct history – is not only an exercise in good, Ciceronian argument, it must take account of the likely methods that the defenders, or opponents, in the case will employ. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was the “dream team’s” famous mantra in the famous O.J. Simpson trial (referring to a blood-stained glove) – and it proved enough, together with efforts to question the factual evidence (DNA included) of the prosecuting attorney, Marcia Clark, to free the famous black footballer and broadcaster (though he was later convicted in civil court).

In another post I will look at the interesting way Commander in Chief, the second volume of my FDR trilogy, has fared before the jury since my PhD defense and publication.

For now, however, let me end by saying this. Revisionist biography – biography that has a moral agenda in contesting received opinion, and seeks to revise the current judgment of an individual in history, whether in the academy or in public – is a serious mission. Like the quality of our justice system as it is practiced, it has serious ramifications for the health of our society.

As proponents of the theory, justification and practice of biography in the modern world, members of the growing Biography Society have a noble purpose. In an age of Twitter, “professionalizing” biography is not a mask for burglary or voyeurism, pace Ms. Malcolm; it is a crucial, integral part of facing the many challenges – and ensuring the longevity – of the genre, today.

 An award-winning historical biographer, Dr Nigel Hamilton is currently a senior fellow at McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston.
He is the author of:

[1] Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, The Biographical Turn [Routledge, forthcoming]

Prosopography and Biography

by Nigel Hamilton


Somewhere between sociology and biography lies prosopography. It’s like collectivization under the Soviets: the collective study of individual lives, often using statistical methods, to find patterns that individual studies may not be able to see. (Prosopography is probably a misnomer, though. The term was more or less invented by the British historian Norman Stone in the 1970s, but it really derives from the Greek word, prosopopoeia, which means literally to make a face or imitation of another person – -i.e. as a rhetorical device, distinguishing the speaker/narrator from an ancient or mythical character who is being quoted. Here in New Orleans, for example, it’s used by members of the Winston Churchill Society who, once a year, imitate the master of great rhetoric, in extracts from his speeches and witticisms. Pretty brilliantly, too.)

     Sociologists were delighted with Professor Stone’s invention in 1971; biographers less so.

       Biographers, by and large, are wary of “generalizing” as historians and sociologists do. To the biographer, beginning a new work, the individual is an exception to the rule, not an exemplar. The biographer wishes to question supposedly common knowledge – or lack of knowledge. The focus on a single individual allows the biographer to do what portrait photographers do as well: namely, to adjust the lens, aperture and timing to create a distinction between the subject and the background.

     This said, there is no denying the appeal of group biography – or of group photography. Who has not “sat” for a family photo, or school reunion? Such images tell a different story, after all, than an individual one. I have, for example, a copy of a painting of FDR on my desk – but a photo of FDR, Churchill and Stalin at Tehran, too. For it is in the differences between those three individual leaders, as well as their common purpose at their first summit together, that I can best see FDR in the human context of the great historical drama they were called upon to play, in November 1943: whether to go ahead with D-Day in the spring of 1944, as FDR and Stalin wished, or to try an alternative scheme in the Aegean, as Churchill wanted.

    Group portraits in biography and portrait photography, then, are a means to better clarify and distinguish the individual traits of their subjects – not to provide common patterns, as practiced in prosopography by sociologists and historians.

  Group portraits, to be sure, have become even more popular in recent years, I’ve noticed.

  David McCullough’s recent Wright Brothers was preceded by his group biography, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris – a biographical account of the men and women who ventured from America to the City of Light in the nineteenth century, and how their sojourns affected them, both there and on their return. And more recently there’s Sarah Bakewell’s new book: a group portrait of the Parisian postwar intellectuals who made Existentialism a household word: At the Existentialist Café.

 Bakewell’s best-known work is her award-winning life of Montaigne, How to Live. Her new work is Montaigne squared – in fact Ruth Scurr, in the Wall Street Journal, calls the book “a new form of group biography” – one closer to prosopopoeia than prosopography. At the Existentialist Café is, Dr Scurr writes, “a series of overheard conversations about life, death and politics.” Scurr – no mean biographer herself, and a teacher at Cambridge University – notes that the biographers of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus have for the most part been “too distracted by their sex lives and broken friendships,” whereas Bakewell is more concerned with their “exchange of ideas” – while not ignoring, in the context of their famous “free-love” Parisian community, the semen.

  In sum, Scurr feels, Sarah Bakewell has done biography a real service in this respect – and quotes a wonderful passage from the book that we might all take to heart. “I think philosophy,” Bakewell reflects, “becomes more interesting when it is cast in the form of a real life. Likewise I think personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically.”

   I can’t wait to read it.

Nigel Hamilton
First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)

Honorary President, La Société de Biographie

Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston