Leo Tolstoy on historical rationalization

“Napolean began the war with Russia because he could not resist going to Dresden, could not help having his head turned by the homage he received, could not help donning a Polish uniform and yielding to the stimulating influence of a June morning, and could not refrain from bursts of anger in the presence of Kurákin and then of Baláshev.

Alexander refused negotiations because he felt himself to be personally insulted. Barclay de Tollay tried to command the army in the best way because he wished to fulfill his duty and earn fame as a great commander. Rostóv charged the French because he could not restrain his wish for a gallop across a level field; and in the same way the innumerable people who took part in the war acted in accord with their personal characteristics, habits, circumstances, and aims. They were moved by fear or vanity, rejoiced or were indignant, reasoned, imagining that they knew what they were doing and did it of their own free will, but they all were involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work concealed from them but comprehensible to us.

The actors of 1812 have long since left the stage, their personal interests have vanished leaving no trace, and nothing remains of that time but its historic results.

The cause of the destruction of the French army in 1812 is clear to us now. No one will deny that that cause was, on the one hand its advance in the heart of Russia latein the season without any preparation for a winter campaign, and on the other the character given to the war by the burning of Russian towns and the hatred of the foe this aroused among the Russian people. But no one at the time foresaw (what now seems so evident) that this was the only way that an army of eight hundred thousand men – the best in the world and led by the best general – could be destroyed in conflict with a raw army half its numerical strength, and led by inexperienced commanders as the Russian army was. Not only did no one see this but on the Russian side every effort was made to hinder the only thing that could save Russia, while on the French side, despite Napolean’s experience and so-called military genius, every effort was directed to pushing on to Moscow at the end of the summer, that is, to doing the very thing that was bound to lead to destruction.

In historical works on the year 1812 French writers are very fond of saying that Napolean felt the danger of extending his line, that he sought a battle, and that his marshals advised him to stop at Smolénsk, and of making similar statements to show that the danger of the campaign was even then understood. Russian authors are still fonder of telling us that from the commencement of the campaign a Scythian war-plan was adopted to lure Napolean into the depths of Russia, and this plan some of them attribute to Pfuel, others to a certain Frenchman, others to Toll, and others to Alexander himself – pointing to notes, projects, and letters, which contain hints of such a line of action. But all these hints at what happened, both from the French side and the Russia, are advanced only because they fit in with the event. Had that event not occurred these hints would have been forgotten because the event falsified them. There are always so many conjectures as to the issue of any event, that however it may end there will always be people to say: ‘I said then that it would be so,’ quite forgetting that amid their innumerable conjectures many were to quite the contrary effect.”

War and Peace: p. 541-542

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