Posts Tagged ‘Harold Nicholson’

Harold Nicholson (1886-1968), in his Chichele Lectures, Oxford University, 1953, and published as The Evolution of Diplomatic Method, Constable, 1953, repeated several anecdotes from his earlier book, The Congress of Vienna, 1812-22: A Study in Allied Unity. Constable, 1948.

The anecdotes are all about the fights for precedence and position among ambassadors.

He writes, to begin with:
In 1504 Pope Julius II had composed a table of precedence, under which the (Holy Roman) Emperor (Maximilian I) came first, the King of France second, the King of Spain third, and so on down to the smaller dukes, despots and princes. Under this table the King of England came seventh on the list, after the King of Portugal, but just in front of the King of Sicily….

This would be the last years of England’s Henry VII.
How different perspectives give completely different evaluations! On what did Pope Julius II base his table?
Contemporary England certainly seems determined to get back down here.

The real juicy quotes are as follows:
Ungainly incidents were always occurring, one of the most notorious of which took place in London in 1661, when the coach of the Spanish ambassador tried to push in front of that of the French ambassador, a battle occurred with loss of life among the footmen and postilions, diplomatic relations were severed between Paris and Madrid and a very real danger of war arose.

All in one breathless sentence, note!

He gives a further, hilarious, example:
As late as 1768, at a Court Ball in London, the French Ambassador, observing that the Russian Ambassador had established himself in front seat next to the Austrian Ambassador, climbed round over the back benches and inserted himself physically between them. This led to a duel at which the Russian Ambassador was severely wounded

Interesting to note that the second anecdote is a direct follow-on from the first, and yet the term ‘ambassador’ has been capitalised/upper-capped in the second. Copy-editor, anyone?

And we thought we had seen it all!
President Trumps’ barging the Montenegro President out of the way, for his celeb photo-shoot is peanuts next to this.

 

Harold Nicholson was the husband of Vita Sackville-West, based at Sissinghust, Kent. He was a knighted as Sir Harold for his diplomatic duties. At one point he was First Secretary to the League of Nations. He became a Labour MP after resigning from the Diplomatic Corps.
His was a ‘colourful’ life.

Harold Nicholson, The Congress of Vienna. 1948

I’ve had this book for years; it was bought second-hand, when there were second-hand book shops, before the charity shops took on books and drove them out, and then Amazon sent them spinning into oblivion.
It’s a hard back; as I read the pages were still squeezed together – maybe it had never actually been read or even opened fully.

The Congress of Vienna was a favourite topic of mine when I was studying International Relations. And Harold Nicholson was a writer I respected, based on his earlier study of diplomacy .

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Even so, as I read this book over November and December 2016 (one of my bed-time reads), it really brought home the extent of the huge shake-up, the major disruption to Europe as a whole, that Napoleon’s careering around the continent and beyond had created.

map-1810_and_1817-after_congress_of_vienna
This disruption of nation, national territory, identity, continued up-till and after the Second World War: 130+ years.
We read here of the tragic fate of Poland under Napoleon, and then Tsar Alexander  1;  of the machinations behind the establishing of Prussia as a major force in central Europe; we learn the reality/meaning, of the extent of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
This latter is so ably expressed in the novels of Joseph Roth, his Radetzky March in particular, and the lovely novels of Stefan Zweig; or, say, Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb.

Harold Nicholson, in his 1948 book, The Congress of Vienna,wrote:

Nobody who has not actually watched statesmen dealing with each other can have any real idea of the immense part played in human affairs by such unavowable and often unrecognizable causes as lassitude, affability, personal affection or dislike, misunderstanding, deafness  or incomplete command of a foreign language, vanity, social engagements, interruptions and momentary states of health.

All these are conclusions drawn from events, observations, reports, letters. Nothing is made up.

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Left field events in a novel I have always relished: the unexpected, something leaking in from a larger pattern, tie-ing the micro to the macro. The relativism that gives lives meaning.

And yet this excerpt above seems to suggest the opposite of a pattern? These notes by Harold Nicholson plot out how decisions skew, and how such skews are then accommodated, and produce the end result’s wobbling, teetering edifice. Time factor also comes in: this or that was meant as a stop-gap, and yet to alter it afterwards would be to endanger the whole. And so it remains.
And how the ad-hoc has more to say than the rationalised and reasoned. Decisions were made whilst fighting with the major and minor shifting, and conflicting, demands of others.
At an early point in the Congress, three major leaders had painfully thrashed out the basis for reasoned discussion of the whole Congress. Then  France’s new representative, Talleyrand, arrived. He quickly but expertly threw all into disarray simply by questioning the bases of their concepts: against who? France is no longer a threat; then who are the agreements being put up to contain?.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord:
charles_maurice_de_talleyrand-perigond

What fascinates are the courage and psychology of these people: to walk in among the major powers, leaders, kings, emperors, and still hold one’s own. To hold one’s nerve, and one’s sanity.
Englands’ Castlereagh came home broken, and committed suicide some time afterwards.
Shelley may have hated him, but on a positive note he did insist on the Congress tackling the topic of Slavery.
He was very disparaging about the fate and status of Italy.
But then, everyone was about the Spanish representative, Marquis Pedro Gomez de Labrador, and tended to leave him out of everything.
Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh:

casreagh

We can read in this the politics both real and imaginary that have so drawn people: The Game of Thrones is here, maybe most of the conflicts we see around us.