History is biography.
Pick up any book about the past and you will find names of individuals. Some names are accompanied by a lot of narrative detail, others by not as much, depending on that individual’s importance and the historian’s interests. The history of countries is told through individual people. Books that relate tales of past empires, but lack a profuse number of names of individuals, are not history, but archaeology books.
To write a history of, say, the American War of Independence or of World War II without mentioning a single name would be absurd.
There are schools of historiography that disdain the individual, claiming that, if a certain person is prominent in history, it is because he was the spokesman or most prominent representative of a social or economic collective and could have easily been replaced by another—just as ancient Persia’s immortals were replaced the moment one of them died, or in the way that, when one Mafioso capo is arrested or Muslim terrorist leader killed, another steps in to take his place. Whatever actions that individual takes are therefore inevitable and it is pointless to emphasize his personal role in history. I strongly suspect that whether one adheres to the great man or the mass view of history depends on one’s personality and external ideological commitments, rather than on the historical facts themselves.
A few years ago, a wealthy white liberal told 60 Minutes that she had offered to finance a Smithsonian exhibit on Martin Luther King’s life and work. The Smithsonian refused the offer, explaining that what was accomplished during the civil rights era was accomplished by many and so King’s personal contribution could and should be ignored. Yet, a few years later, that same clique arranged for a hagiography of Che Guevara. So much for consistency.
Thomas Carlyle was the foremost exponent of the great man theory of history, which focused on the Bismarcks, the Frederick the Greats and the Napoleons. But he did not emphasize the role of personality—and certainly not psychology—and he also overlooked all the mediocrities who became prominent simply by being virtue of being born into the aristocracy. More than one king proved himself an imbecile (think of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden Moor.)
Robert the Bruce and Simón Bolivar, by contrast, both had an almost pathological tenacity, and, despite a series of disasters, achieved their goals.
By contrast, when Athens attacked Syracuse, the Athenians appointed Nicias as their leader. He proved to be an untalented general—and the Syracusan enterprise was a disaster.
Erwin Rommel was appointed general of the Afrika Korps, with orders to support the Italians. He disregarded orders not to attack and, consequently, his Afrika Korps became famous for its victories.
Yuri Andropov was absolutely certain that America would launch a nuclear first strike against the USSR. Had he not died when he did, he might have decided to strike first in an atomic exchange.
Irrational hatred can subvert mass movements. Pope Innocent IV’s pathological hatred of Emperor Frederick II undercut the latter’s interest in crusading. Likewise, Fidel Castro’s pathological hatred of US Americans stemmed from having been rejected as a would-be professional baseball player. He subsequently perverted Cuba’s pro-democracy revolution into an anti-American Communist regime—after achieving power, he would become enraged if someone bested him at basketball, baseball or fishing.
In the 1800s, Napoleon was the master of Europe, having extended France’s borders and established satellite states. That should have been enough for him, but he could not control his thirst for power, so he invaded Russia, with disastrous consequences.
When Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, the Iranians took over the American embassy in Tehran. Most Americans were incensed and demanded war, yet Carter was an idiot. According to the collectivist theory of history the intense, massive pro-war movement would have automatically resulted in war, yet Carter refused to give the green light. The inverse was also true: another imbecile president, George W. Bush, ignored public opinion and involved Americans in a war that nobody wanted except him and a handful of nutjobs.
Science provides examples of both sides of the argument. Archimedes, Benjamin Franklin, Jenner, Galileo, Copernicus and Columbus all made their discoveries independently. Yet, later there was a race to discover the structure of the DNA molecule, to put together the periodic table and to build the first airplane: races won by Crick and Watson, Mendeleev and the Wright brothers respectively. Likewise, by the early 1800s, people had already been toying with the idea of evolution for a century, particularly after Linnaeus produced his taxonomy. Darwin’s grandfather even hints at an idea of evolution in his work and several writers made clumsy attempts to come to grips with the elusive idea: the concept of progress was deeply rooted in the European psyche, after all, and evolution implies progress.
Scientific races became frequent once communication between scientists improved, through the publication of books, professional journals and scientific challenges.
Art, on the other hand, is entirely individualistic. Although Darwin and Wallace, Newton and Leibnitz and other pairs of scientists have been co-discoverers, no such thing has ever taken place in art. No two people have independently and simultaneously written a Don Quixote de la Mancha, painted a Night Watch, sculpted a Thinker, composed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, nor written The Time Machine. The question of mass movements is irrelevant.
But, personality traits aside, unpredictable incidentals can also fly in the face of mass movements and inexorably move events towards an end.
An error in translation led to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Towards the end of WWII, Japan’s cities had sustained horrific fire bombings. The country still had isolated troops stationed throughout Asia, but the home islands had been subjected to unimpeded attacks. America issued an ultimatum: surrender or face the consequences. Prime Minister Suzuki’s response, unfortunately, used a word which could be translated as either to silently consider or to contemptuously ignore. Considering that a bitter war was being waged, it seemed obvious which meaning was intended.
Hernán Cortés sailed westward from Cuba with 600 men, and landed in Mexico, where he fought a battle with a local tribe and was granted several women as tribute. One of these women was called Malinelli and was bilingual. Malinelli was very intelligent and quickly learned Spanish, so Cortés used her as his interpreter. She told him about the local tribes and their customs. Had it not been for her, Cortés and his men would have been unable to make crucial alliances and would have been overwhelmed by hostile forces.
At Thermopylae, the Greeks held off the Asian hordes for a long time, thereby demoralizing the huge numbers of Persian invaders. But victory changed to defeat when Ephialtes showed the Persians the way around the pass.
When it became evident that disaster was looming, Nicias was ordered to evacuate Sicily. However, on the very night that the Athenian army was to set sail, a lunar eclipse took place, which was interpreted as a bad omen. Departure was postponed and, as a result, the Athenian army was captured.
To say that cliometrics is irrelevant or unimportant would be to commit an error, however.
Certain historical events were inevitable, human nature being what it is. For example, had Julius Caesar not crossed the Rubicon, sooner or later another military commander would have declared himself dictator. Military uprisings had occurred in China and the Persian Empire, and would continue to occur in Europe, Africa and South America.
To a large degree, history repeats itself, because history is made by human beings and human beings are predictable. For example, if a husband learns that his wife has been unfaithful, he will react in one of a limited number of ways: divorce her; kill her; kill both her and her lover; kill her lover; ignore the matter; talk it over with her; be unfaithful in return; institute some kind of open relationship; retire from public life; commit suicide; commit murder and then suicide.
This is also how psychics, cold readers and con artists work. There are about a dozen areas of concern that everyone shares: money, health, parents, work, friends, appearance, children, etc. and, with skillful probing and given an ability to read body language, the psychic can elicit the information she needs to appear clairvoyant. The same applies at a societal level. Confronted with a problem, a country and its leaders will respond in predictable ways. After all, the ruling elite in all countries for the most part are and have always been pompous jackasses. Few of them are professionals in other fields and, to my knowledge, no ruler has ever been a historian. As a result, when confronted with a situation, they tend to respond in one of a few usual manners and cannot think outside the box. That is why history repeats itself: human and societal problems remain the same. Hegel’s pronouncement that “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history” and Santayana’s that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” are therefore both often true.
But not always. The creation of the United States of America was a unique event. America was founded on the basis of lofty principles: “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The British were shocked that, after America gained independence, Washington was not crowned king. In their debates over the particulars of the new system of government, the Founding Fathers looked to history—particularly the history of Greece and Rome—as a guide to the possible pitfalls to avoid in said system. They learned the lessons of history and, in that, they were truly unique.