essay, "Vom Sinn des historischen Romans," was published in 1935 in
Das Neue Tage-Buch.
The term "historical novel" awakens some awkward connotations nowadays.
We think of the Count of Monte Christo, of Ben-Hur, of various historical
films; we picture adventure, intrigue, costumes, heavy swaths of bright
colors, overly theatrical language, a mixture of politics and love,
and the reduction of great events to the level of petty individual
Social and political considerations do their part to discredit this
class of novel even further. An author who sets about to depict events
of the past that have run their course is suspected of wishing to
avoid the problems of the present day, of being in other words a reactionary.
From depicting the past, so goes the suspicion, it is a short step
to glorifying the past. In truth, many of today's historical novels
offer nothing but more or less cleverly constructed images in exaggerated
colors which are intended to entertain and distract the reader from
the needs of the present by singing the praises of a past that is
fuller, brighter and better.
For my part, I admit to loving historical novels with a passion. I
do understand the prejudice against this form of literature, but it
is a prejudice. Ever since my youth it has disturbed me that of the
literary works that survived their own epoch, so many dealt with historical
rather than contemporary subjects. Homer, to take an example, desires
the creation of a dictatorship and wishes that the Greeks might have
a strong central government. But he gives shape to this longing not
by criticizing contemporary conditions, but rather by depicting the
catastrophe that arose centuries earlier from disputes among the self-seeking
princes in Greece; and he lets a king who died in antiquity give voice
to his demands. The tragic playwright Aeschylus desires to reform
Athenian judicial procedures. To achieve this purpose he depicts the
legendary actions of a man named Orestes in ancient times and the
dispute among the gods and men to resolve them in court. All of the
surviving Greek tragedies with a single exception are transplanted
into a remote, mythological era. Likewise, the authors of the New
Testament, whenever they expect something new or revolutionary from
their contemporaries, set their thoughts in motion by writing history,
historical novels, in order to draw forth their arguments from a carefully
arranged view of the past. The authors of the four Gospels unquestionably
saw themselves as heralds of new and revolutionary truths; still they
called upon events of some sixty to ninety years earlier to justify
these truths. If ever an epoch considered itself revolutionary, it
was the Renaissance: of the stories told by the leading Italian writers,
a great many are placed in the past as are nearly all of Shakespeare's
I have often studied the great and established historical works of
literature from this point of view, asking myself whether they present
history or mythology for their own sake, whether their authors were
enticed by colorful costumes and settings, and whether they intended
to give shape to contemporary or historical subject matter. In every
case I have come to the conclusion that the artist had no other intention
than to give expression to his own (contemporary) attitudes and a
subjective (but in no sense historical) view of the world, and to
do so in a way that these could be perceived directly by the reader.
Whenever he chose to use historical wrappings, it was for the purpose
of elevating the subject out of the personal and private realm in
order to set it on a platform and achieve a degree of distance. Tolstoy
when creating War and Peace did not wish to write a history
of the Napoleonic campaigns but rather wanted to present his (contemporary)
ideas on the subject of war and peace, while August Strindberg in
writing his historical dramas and sketches without a doubt wished
only to present himself, his era, his ideas, no less than in his autobiographical
novels. When these two authors place a temporal distance in front
of their characters and ideas, it is surely for the sake of improving
our perspective according to the principle that it is easier to recognize
the shape of a mountain range from a distance than when you are in
the midst of the mountains themselves.
This brings us to the answer to the first of the two questions that
the author of historical novels is repeatedly asked. This question
is: if your content is contemporary, why don't you select contemporary
subjects instead of subjects from the past?
Permit me to answer this question based on my own experience as an
author. I have written both contemporary novels and historical ones.
After closely examining my conscience, I venture to state that in
my historical novels I intended the content to be just as modern and
up-to-date as in the contemporary ones. It never occurred to me to
write about history for its own sake; costume and historic trappings
have only been a means of stylization, a means of achieving an illusion
of reality in the simplest way. Other writers may place their conceptions
at a greater spatial distance, perhaps in some exotic locale, in order
to set them off with greater clarity; I for the same purpose have
removed mine to a certain distance in time: that is the only difference.
I cannot imagine that a serious novelist, when working with historical
subject matter, could ever regard historical facts as anything other
than a means of achieving distance, as a metaphor, in order to render
his own feelings, his own era, his own philosophy, and himself as
accurately as possible.
Both positive and negative motives interact whenever I find myself
induced to place contemporary subject matter in historic raiments.
Sometimes I fail. If I attempt to arbitrarily stylize parts of my
plot, they remain what they are; if I leave them in contemporary dress,
they remain at the level of a simple account, a suggestion, a passing
thought and do not develop into an image. Or when I work with the
present, I feel the lack of any conclusion. Things remain in flux;
assuming that a series of events in the present is concluded, and
to what extent, remains arbitrary, and any ending I might write seems
to be a random act. In depicting present-day conditions I have the
uncomfortable feeling that a frame is needed; it is like a rare aroma
that escapes and evaporates when we cannot replace the stopper in
the bottle. Add to this that our restless times hasten to turn every
form of the present into the past, so that if today's world is to
become history in only five years, why should I not be free to choose
a world as far in the past as I wish in order to give expression to
a subject I hope will still be alive in five years? There are times,
too, when I fear that if I work with contemporary persons and events,
I might not be able to keep them free of the shadows of trivial and
petty personal concerns and thus sacrifice the equilibrium that is
the prerequisite of any work of art.
Years ago I set out to show the path of a man from deed to indolence,
from action to contemplation. I was tempted to demonstrate this idea
using a contemporary figure; that of Walter Rathenau. I tried and
failed. I moved the subject back two hundred years and described the
path of the Jew Josef Süss Oppenheimer. In so doing I came much
closer to my goal.
One topic that has deeply moved me as long as I can remember is the
conflict between nationalism and internationalism in the heart of
a single individual. If I were to tackle this theme in the form of
a contemporary novel, I fear my presentation might be overshadowed
and contaminated by personal grudges and resentment. I chose therefore
to transplant this conflict into the soul of a man, the Jewish historian
Flavius Josephus, who, it appeared to me, had experienced it in the
same way as so many do today, with the difference that he did so 1860
I hope I have retained the peace of mind to judge things fairly; still
I believe I can do a convincing job of depicting the persons who-1870
years ago-put the torch to various central buildings in Nero's Rome,
poor, foolish implements of the feudalists and militarists of their
day that they were, and indeed do a more convincing job of it that
I could of describing the people who two years ago set fire to the
Reichstag in Berlin, poor, foolish tools that they were of the feudalists
and militarists of our own era.
This, then to the first of the two questions. The second question
which our kind encounter again and again is this: if a reader is so
interested in the past, in history, would he or she not be better
off to reach for a precise, scholarly presentation instead of the
fictional construct of a novelist?
Well, the reader in search of instruction and information from a historical
novel is falling into the same error as an author who might try to
compete with a historian. What is a historian, anyway? It is someone
who uses facts to record the development of humanity. The author of
the historical novel, however, as we have seen, has no such goal in
mind, but rather a portrayal of himself and his view of the world.
There exists, I am suggesting, between the conscientious author of
historical novels and the conscientious historian the same difference
that exists between a composer on the one hand and a researcher into
the problems of acoustics. Asking the author of historical novels
to teach you about history is like expecting the composer of a melody
to provide answers about radio transmission.
I have always made an effort to render every detail of my reality
with the greatest accuracy; but I have never paid attention to whether
my presentation of historical facts was an exact one. Indeed, I have
often altered evidence which I knew to be documented if it appeared
to interfere with my intended effect. Contrary to the scientist, the
author of historical novels has the right to choose a lie that enhances
illusion over a reality that distracts from it. Hindenburg scolded
the artist who painted his portrait for incorrectly reproducing the
buttons on his uniform: the painter Liebermann had different views
on portraiture. It is not difficult to demonstrate that Homer, the
authors of the Bible, Shakespeare, and countless other writers of
historical works down to the present day have been surprisingly bold
and cavalier in their handling of documented reality.
Success proves their case. Their books, their imaginary legends, epics,
dramas, novels, their invented characters and deeds, their "lies"
turn out to have more life in them than the facts which scholars have
faithfully passed along with the aid of all the material they have
critically sifted and sorted through. That contemporary of the Maccabees
who made up the story of Queen Esther has had a greater influence
in the long run than the historians who chronicled the facts of the
rebuilding of the Jewish national state. For most people even today
, the imaginary figure of Haman is a much more vital and viable enemy
of this same national state than the real King Antiochus who provided
the historical model. Perhaps 500 persons apart from myself know that
the prototype of Landvogt Gessler was a certain feudal official by
the name of Peter von Hagenbach, a discovery that has not yielded
anyone any benefits besides the ten pounds Sterling I received for
writing the article in which I revealed this discovery of mine. Everyone,
however, knows the imaginary figure of William Tell, whose familiarity
has had all sorts of tangible consequences. In most cases, a good
legend or a good historical novel is more believable, gives a truer
picture, is livelier and more suggestive than a precise rendering
of historical facts.
I should add that it is open to debate whether what we call the writing
of history these days is truly scientific. This is not to minimize
the historian, who, armed with the facts and Hegel's philosophy, attempts
to discover fundamentals and rules for human development. But would
someone who gathers historical data according to a different system
be able to make the same scientific claims? However he sorts his materials,
does he not by the very way he arranges facts yield up a subjective
view of history?-Is he not at best producing art? That old skeptic
Talleyrand summed up his experience in a single sentence: "Nothing
is easier to arrange than the facts." And Lytton Strachey came up
with the happy formulation: It is obvious that history is nothing
more than the combination of accumulated facts. If these facts are
assembled without artistry, however, the result is no more history
than butter, eggs and parsley can claim to be an omelette.
To the extent that the writing of history is an art, it is inconceivable
without the principles enunciated by Friedrich Nietzsche. In his book,
Untimely Thoughts on the Uses and Disadvantages of History in
Our Lives, he insists that history is worth pursuing only as
it contributes to life. Once the sense of history becomes autonomous
or universal, it begins to erode life; it is up to the malleable forces
of life to hold history in check. Let life itself form the role of
history according to present and future needs.
The scientist may raise serious objections to the preceding sentences;
the author of historical novels will endorse them with both hands.
Like the philosopher, the author views his task as one of establishing
a clear connection between life and history, and of making the past
bear fruit for the present and future.
Benedetto Croce, continuing along the path laid out by Nietzsche,
came to the following conclusion: "A sense of the present is the truest
characteristic of all living history, as opposed to a mere chronicle."
He was driven into exile because the Nazis did not agree that it was
the purpose of the past to become part of the present; rather they
wanted to lead the present back into the past. Theodor Lessing restated
Nietsche's conclusion in the sentence: "History gives meaning to the
meaningless." He was murdered by the Nazis, who, to be sure, like
to claim Nietzsche as one of their own-the Fuehrer had himself photographed
under a bust of Nietzsche-but their mandate is one making sure the
senseless remains senseless.
Both the historian and the novelist view history as the struggle of
a tiny minority, able and determined to make judgments, which is up
against a vast and densely packed majority of the blind, who are led
by their instincts and unable to think for themselves.
I believe it is important to depict episodes from earlier phases in
this struggle. Reminders of earlier victories and defeats, legends,
and historical novels seem to me to be a weapon we can well use at
our present stage in this eternal struggle. Our opponents, incidentally,
are aware of the value of this weapon; they are recasting human history
in the form of sentimental myths, according to their ideological precepts,
and they are also busy heating up the historical novel in some of
its stalest forms.
Translated by John Ahouse.