Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
Do times make the man or do great men create and influence their times?
The 19th century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle pondered that question in a series of lectures that were collected in his 1840 book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.
Carlyle’s work originated “The Great Man Theory,” which maintains that "heroes" – and powerful villains – are responsible for major events that have changed history for better or worse.
“Universal history is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here,” Carlyle wrote. “They were the leaders of men, these great ones…the creators of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain.”
In Changing Minds in Detail, British author David Straker summarized Carlyle’s complex theory with a simple statement: “Leaders are born and not made. Great leaders will arise when there is a great need.”
Carlyle’s list of “heroes” consisted of not only political figures like Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon, but also a “heroic” prophet (Mohammed), heroic “priests” (Martin Luther, John Knox), heroic poets (Dante, Shakespeare), and heroic intellectuals (Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau).
The historian has his supporters and critics. Not surprisingly, the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche agreed with Carlyle. Nietzsche created a corollary to Carlyle’s theory with his own concept of an Übermensch or superman. In his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche called Carlyle’s heroes and his own Übermenschen the “highest specimens of history."
The German philosopher’s belief in a race of supermen not only led to a comic book and film franchise but to Hitler’s perversion of the concept that created its opposite, the Untermensch or subhuman.
Twisting Carlyle’s and Nietzsche’s abstractions, the Nazi dictator justified the murder of 5.9 million Jews and 5 million other minorities, among them Roma (gypsies) and homosexuals.
Surprisingly, Herbert Spencer, the 19th century English philosopher who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, disagreed with Carlyle, maintaining that his so-called heroes were the product not the creator of their times.
In 1896, Spencer wrote in The Study of Sociology, “You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."
In Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, the Russian novelist rejected the concept of historical heroes whom he believed were just the opposite – or as he called them, “history’s slaves.”
After World War II, Carlyle’s theory fell out of favor as historians and social scientists focused on the influence of environment and previous events on the present.
Still, the Scottish historian continues to resonate because it’s impossible to imagine the present without the men and a few women like Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great who dominated the past.
Without Hitler, could a morphine addict like his addled second in command, Hermann Göring, have pursued world conquest or a fatal, final solution of what they considered the world’s “Jewish problem”?
Winston Churchill is another indispensible historical figure without whom the present would be unrecognizably different.
The heroic efforts of Britain against Nazi Germany during the Blitz in 1940, fighting alone after the fall of France and before the United States entered the war, have obscured the political environment in Europe before Hitler started World War II by invading Poland in 1939.
Britain's royal family favored appeasing Hitler even after he invaded Poland.
Prior to the invasion, a huge party of appeasement in Britain, which included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and George VI and his wife, the current queen of England’s parents, above, did not want to take on Nazi Germany.
But both the Duke, who was King Edward VIII before his abdication, and his brother George VI were ceremonial figures with no real power.
More importantly, major political figures in Britain at the time also preferred appeasing rather than opposing Hitler’s land grabs that gobbled up Austria, the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia before the megalomaniacal Fuehrer turned his acquisitive eye on Poland.
Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill’s immediate predecessor as prime minister, remains notorious for his erroneous prediction in 1938 that giving Hitler the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland would give the world “peace in our times.”
After Hitler’s invasion of Poland a year later discredited Chamberlain's boast, British appeasers still hoped to avoid a conflict with Germany. After Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940 because of his failed policy of appeasement, two candidates vied to replace him, Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign secretary.
The royal family and most of the Conservative Party to which both statesmen belonged favored Halifax for the top job.
During the 1930s, Churchill’s was the famous “voice in the wilderness” that warned of the dangers Hitler posed. His jeremiads went unheeded in a world distracted by the Depression and the lack of funds to rearm as Hitler did prior to the war.
But even after World War II began, Lord Halifax still wanted to keep Britain neutral and leave Poland to its fate despite the two nations having signed a mutual defense treaty. Recently declassified files reveal that after the invasion of Poland, Halifax tried to broker a peace agreement with Germany.
Halifax didn’t get the top job in part because he was a member of the House of Lords, which would have made it difficult for him to control Britain’s governing body, the House of Commons. Although Churchill was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, he did not have an aristocratic title or a seat in the House of Lords.
If Halifax and not Churchill had become prime minister, it’s frightening to imagine the world today. With Britain on the sidelines, Germany wouldn’t have had to fight a war on two fronts, and the Soviet Union probably wouldn’t have survived the full, undiluted force of Germany’s mighty military machine, the Wehrmacht.
Most importantly, after the United States entered the war following Pearl Harbor and after Hitler declared war on the U.S. as Japan’s ally, a neutral Britain wouldn’t have served as one huge landing strip for American planes to strike at Nazi-occupied Europe or a launching pad for the Normandy invasion.
In the compilation book, What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, one of the authors, Williamson Murray imagines a world in which Lord Halifax and not Churchill becomes prime minister after Chamberlain's resignation.
Murray's alternate history is based on a real event. In 1931 while on a visit to the United States, Churchill was hit by a taxi in New York City, but survived.
In the author's fictional scenario, Churchill doesn't survive, and Halifax surrenders to Germany in the summer of 1940 at the height of the Blitz. Germany wins the war in 1947, and today, the U.S. is still fighting Germany from its stronghold in South America.
Murray uses irony to skewer critics of Carlyle's Great Man Theory. "How could one assign the troubles of a nation to a taxi accident?
"After all, everyone agrees that history is entirely the result of great social movements and the actions of the millions who make up humanity – certainly not the product of the actions of a few great men."
Without Churchill and with so many British favoring appeasement, including Halifax and the royal family, Germany might well have won World War II. In this case, two great men defeated Hitler, Churchill and FDR.
Like Churchill, the president also had to buck public opinion which was vehemently isolationist until Pearl Harbor made isolation from the world-wide conflict impossible
The list of great men who lend credence to Carlyle’s theory is too innumerable to examine here. But one truly great man offers the most convincing argument for Carlyle’s Great Man theory.
Several times during the Cold War, the world came to the brink of nuclear Armageddon, most notably during the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Mikhail Gorbachev deserved and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for ending the threat of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.S.
The great man who ended the Cold War single-handedly and avoided the end of civilization as we know it is Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s not an exaggeration to call the former Soviet president the savior of the world and civilization.
During a 1986 peace conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, Gorbachev surprised Ronald Reagan, the old Cold Warrior, with an offer to destroy all nuclear missiles by the year 2000.
Reagan rebuffed Gorbachev and exacerbated world tensions by funding the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars,” a technologically unfeasible plan to create a nuclear umbrella that would supposedly make nuclear war winnable.
Despite Reagan’s rejection of Gorbachev’s offer to disarm, the Soviet leader pursued peace on his own.
In 1991 when the nations of Eastern Europe sought to overthrow their Soviet masters, Gorbachev refused to send tanks to quell the uprisings, unlike his predecessors who brutally smashed earlier uprisings in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia.
Without Gorbachev and with a belligerent clone of Khrushchev or Brezhnev in power, the two superpowers would still be waging the Cold War. The minute hand on the nuclear clock would still be set at one second before midnight and global destruction.
George W. Bush is the most recent embodiment of the Great Man Theory. According to iCasualties.org, which keeps track of the body count in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost 8,000 Americans and their allies have died since 2001 in those two countries.
If Thomas Carlyle were alive today and examined the Bush administration, he might have renamed his concept “The Dangerous Man Theory.”
The death of Genghis Khan's son ended the Mongol conquest of Europe.
Historical novelist Cecilia Holland, a contributor to the alternate history What If?, subscribes to the Great Man Theory.
Holland cites one great or influential man, Genghis Khan's son and successor, whose sudden death in 1242 saved Europe from being overrun by a Mongol army camped outside Vienna, ready to level the city and sell its inhabitants into slavery.
A Mongol-dominated Europe would have made the present world unrecognizable.
With Rome destroyed there would have been no Renaissance, no Leonardo or Michelangelo.
The Low Countries, birthplace of capitalism including a stock exchange, would have also been crushed by the Mongols, who destroyed cities and entire civilizations in their wake.
In the 16th century, the Low Countries' revolt against their Spanish rulers inspired later democratic revolutions in England, the American colonies and France.
The pope might have been killed by the Mongols just as the pope's Islamic equivalent, the caliph of Baghdad, had been trampled to death by Mongol horses. With Rome destroyed, there would have been no corrupt popes and the Reformation their corruption created.
The Reformation allowed scientific inquiry to flourish and prevented its suppression by the pope, who placed Galileo under house arrest toward the end of his life for the heretical belief that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the known universe.
Without the Reformation to protect them from persecution by the Catholic Church , Copernicus, Keppler and Newton might have suffered Galileo's fate or worse.
Cecilia Holland places in its historical context the fortuitous death in 1242 of Genghis Khan's son, the would-be eastern conqueror of the Western world:
"At the last moment blind luck spared Europe. History may be a matter of momentum, but we can never forget that the life - or death - of a single individual can still matter."
Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. New York: Fredrick A. Stokes & Brothers, 1888.
Cowley, Robert, ed. What If? The World's Foremost Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Untimely Meditations. New York: Digireads, 2010.
Sanello, Frank. Fractured History Tales or Why (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About the Past Never Happened. Los Angeles: Genesee Avenue Books, 2011.
Straker, David. Changing Minds in Detail. Syque Press, 2010.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966.
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