Tuesday Book: A sceptical gaze at the romantic nationalists

Holy Madness: romantics, patriots and revolutionaries 1776-1871 by Adam Zamoyski (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)
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The Independent Culture
"HOLY MADNESS" was a term used by Lafayette, who with Alexander Herzen was the most admirable and attractive of the large cast assembled in this book. It begins by tracing, from an original angle, the familiar story of the French revolution and Napoleon's domination of Europe, and goes on to examine the seeds of nationalism that were germinating in, or being foisted on to, Greece and Italy, with a severe glance at Germany and a commendably objective account of the self-destructive risings in Poland.

Under the influence of the French philosophes, illusion had been piled on illusion in an attempt to persuade people to be good in a godless society. Rousseau thought that education was the panacea, and, knowing nothing of football hooligans, believed that sports and public ceremonies would produce "patriotic intoxication that alone can elevate men above themselves". Diderot demanded a more violent form of personal sacrifice: "A nation can regenerate itself only in a bath of blood", though like other idealists he was careful not to plunge into one himself. But it needed Napoleon to bring these patriotic cravings to a climax by embodying them himself. His troops did not cry "Vive la Patrie!" but "Vive l'Empereur."

Among many other crimes, the French disgracefully imprisoned Toussaint L'Ouverture, the blameless black hero of Ste Domingue. In Zamoyski's striking phrase, "they dragged the sacred words and emblems of liberty and fraternity through labyrinths of hypocrisy and rivers of blood". With regard to the eventual escape of South American countries from Spanish colonialism, he quotes the high-minded Jefferson's statement in 1786: "My fear is that the Spaniards are too feeble to hold them till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece."

Zamoyski feels that there was often precious little genuine idealism behind most of these well-known struggles for independence. Under his sceptical gaze, the mists of romance that have surrounded Wolfe, Tone, Byron, and Garibaldi fade away, and the real men emerge. Later, of Bakunin, he writes: "Trapped inside the titanic body was an eternal student, lazy, nomadic, careless of money and possessions, fired by total, childlike conviction." The poet Alfier, who settled down in Paris with Bonnie Prince Charlie's widow, expressed his patriotism by saying: "For you, O Italy, hatred of the French, under whatever standard or mask they present themselves, must be the single and fundamental basis of your political existence." Dreamers of a united Italy, however, knew that their best hope lay in some kind of French intervention against their hated Austrian oppressors. (Metternich spent 30 times more on police and informers than on education.)

In Greece, Admiral Cochrane, who had played a vital part in the independence of Chile, was hired by the London Greek Committee to lead a fleet against the Turks. His verdict on the Greeks under his command was that they were "collectively the greatest cowards (not excepting the Brazilians) that he had ever encountered". And when the King of Bavaria's son was installed as King of Greece in 1830, he fulfilled Louis Philippe's prophecy that "Byron would never know that he had died so that one day people might eat sauerkraut on the steps of the Acropolis".

The Germans started by being carried away by the theories of the Enlightenment. But, as Zamoyski puts it, "intellectual and emotional subjection to France could not last... against the German respect for law, love of order, and passion for rumination." They came to realise that you can have liberty or equality, but not both; and as for fraternity between those who wanted either, it soon melted away in a sea of passionate disagreement.

Zamoyski's canvas is so huge that sometimes he only skims the surface. His 30 pages of reference notes indicate the huge number of books he has consulted, many of them recondite; but his approach is unfailingly original.

His cheerful but gentle mockery will not please those who think they can discern a more valid pattern in the activities of some of the revolutionaries. But there will be few who will not learn much from him, and the elegance of his style makes him a real pleasure to read.

John Jolliffe