Namier (Bernstein-Namierowski), Sir Lewis

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NAMIER (Bernstein-Namierowski), SIR LEWIS

NAMIER (Bernstein-Namierowski), SIR LEWIS (1888–1960), English historian and Zionist, pioneer of the trend in historical scholarship known as "Namierism." Born in eastern Galicia, where his parents were landowners, Namier became aware of his Jewish origin at the age of nine, upon overhearing antisemitic sneers at his parents' efforts to work their way into the Polish gentry. This traumatic experience turned him into a dedicated Zionist. After a spell at Vienna and Lausanne, he arrived in England in 1908. He graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, where he mixed with young men who were later to become famous, such as T.E. Lawrence and the historian Arnold J. Toynbee. Among his Jewish contemporaries were Leonard Stein and Leonard Montefiore. In 1914 Namier volunteered for the British army. He served for a time in the Foreign Office Intelligence Service and was taken to the Versailles Peace Conference to advise on problems concerning the old Hapsburg Empire, Poland, and Eastern Europe. After the war he did not turn at once to an academic career but tried his luck – unsuccessfully – in business. He needed the help of friends to complete the research for his first book and masterpiece, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George iii (1929). After publication of England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930) he was appointed professor of modern history at Manchester University (1931), holding the chair until 1953. Namier was one of the most influential British historians of the 20th century. His method, of deeply researched collective biography, widely known as "namierization," influenced several generations of historians. He was also seen as an influential conservative thinker, whose respect for the virtues of the British constitution was heavily influenced by its contrast with the catastrophic experience of the continental nations.

After his war service Namier devoted himself to the Zionist cause, although he was viewed with distrust by leaders of the Zionist movement, especially from Eastern Europe, as an outsider. Namier's Zionist creed, stemming from the outsider's need for roots and the wanderer's yearning for an anchor, found expression in 1930 in a powerful cry (in England in the Age of the American Revolution):

To every man the native land is his life-giving Mother and the State raised upon the land is his law-giving Father, and the days cannot be long of a nation which fails to honor either. Only one nation has survived for two thousand years, though an orphan – my own people, the Jews. But then in the God-given Law we have enshrined the authority of a state, in the God-promised Land the idea of a Mother-Country; through the centuries from Mount Sinai we have faced Eretz Israel, our Land. Take away either, and we cease to be a nation; let both live again, and we shall be ourselves once more.

From 1929 to 1931 Namier served as political secretary to the Zionist Executive, and it was as the chief draftsman of the*Jewish Agency, with Blanche Dugdale, that Namier, with his pedantic insistence on the niceties of formulation and protocol, made his chief contribution to the Zionist cause. He played a considerable role as an intermediary in obtaining the Ramsay MacDonald Letter, which in fact canceled the Passfield *White Paper of 1930. Thanks to his friendship with Reginald Coupland, the author of the 1937 report of the Peel Commission (the first British document to bring up the idea of a Jewish state in a partitioned Palestine), Namier was able to exercise a direct impact on matters of great political importance. He served for a time as deputy to Chaim Weizmann on the Anglo-Jewish Committee for Refugees from Germany, taking up a determined stand against the "barons" of Anglo-Jewry. At the time of the St. James' Conference on Palestine, which resulted in the anti-Zionist White Paper of May 1939, Namier insisted on a forceful Zionist policy toward the British government, occasionally criticizing the line taken by Weizmann. On the outbreak of World War ii he was on loan full time from Manchester University to the Jewish Agency, for which he worked until 1945. Namier kept aloof from the ideological struggles among the Zionist factions. He disliked the religious parties and had close friends in the Labor leadership. His Zionism was a romantic nationalism in the tradition of Mazzini and Pilsudski – the vision of a historic breakthrough conceived in messianic terms – but it lacked any Jewish cultural sustenance.

Namier's historical research may be classified under four headings: the social-political structure of England in the 18th century; the 1848 revolutions; the twilight of the Hapsburg monarchy; and the international crisis leading up to World War ii. All four inquiries may be said to be variations on one theme: cohesion versus disintegration. His chief work, The Structure of Politics…, is a microscopic examination of the composition of the successive Houses of Commons under George iii. His concern was with how politics are made by members of a governing elite, to the neglect of intellectual trends and social forces. Namier's biographical method was applied to the great collective History of Parliament (initiated by Whitehall and Westminister), of which he was coeditor. In recognition of his achievement as an historian, Namier was elected a member of the British Academy in 1944, was knighted in 1952, and was invited to give the prestigious Romanes Lecture at Oxford. These honors went some way to assuage his feelings of disappointment at having been bypassed for the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford University. The rather eccentric and intensely self-centered outsider with strong and forcefully expressed likes and dislikes scared off many contemporaries. There has long been speculation as to whether his academic disappointments, beginning with his failure to be elected to a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1912, was chiefly due to his foreign Jewish background or to his unpleasant and gauche personality. While capable of deep emotions, he lacked flexibility and was very vulnerable. After an unhappy first marriage, Namier married in church the former Julia de Beausobre, a daughter of the Russian gentry who was deeply committed to the Greek Orthodox Church and had suffered in Soviet prisons and concentration camps (described in her book The Woman Who Could Not Die, 1938). She played a great role in Namier's life.

Namier paid many visits to Palestine. His only visit to the State of Israel took place in 1959 in connection with the scheme for the publication of the Weizmann papers, in which he took great interest. On that occasion he gave a memorable address to the modern history seminar at the Hebrew University. It contained a kind of confession and testament and was preceded by the Hebrew incantation "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem" tearfully.

Namier's publications include Skyscrapers (1931); Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue's Edition of the Correspondence of King George iii (1957); In the Margin of History (1939); Conflicts (1942); 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1946); Facing East (1947); Diplomatic Prelude (1938–39, 1948); Europe in Decay (1936–40, 1950); Avenues of History (1952); In the Nazi Era (1952); Personalities and Powers (1958); and Vanished Supremacies (1958).


L Sutherland, in: Proceedings of the British Academy, 48 (1962), 371–85; J.L. Talmon, in: Commentary, 33 (1962), 237–46; J. Namier, Lewis Namier (1971). add. bibliography: odnb online; L. Colley, Namier (1994); J. Namier, Lewis Namier: A Biography (1971).

[Jacob L. Talmon]