Considered in his lifetime one of the world’s foremost authorities on international affairs, E. H. Carr today has a special claim to attention: he was consistently and egregiously wrong. First a defender of Nazi Germany, he evolved with no change of pace into a hardline Communist fellow-traveller. The Soviet Union, he held, was the model society of the future. At a time when it mattered, he ceaselessly lectured and broadcast, and taught and wrote, and all in defence of totalitarianism. It was a feat of sorts to campaign over years in most of the major outlets, above all The Times, in favor of appeasing Nazism and Communism. In their heyday, neither Hitler nor Stalin could do anything to cause him the least twinge of moral disquiet. This sinister man did more than his fair share to mislead public opinion.

According to Jonathan Haslam,[1] it all goes back to childhood, to an unambitious father and a timid mother, both of them “middle middle class, and very Victorian.” A spinster aunt dominated the household. Emotion, it seems, made the young Carr feel so ill that he learnt to take his distance from other people and life itself, to evolve into a natural scholarship boy. At Cambridge, he was a classicist, a sometime student of A. E. Housman, and the shade of that gloomy master of repression and pedantry seems to envelop Carr. With a brusque dismissive manner, his eyes pinpointed behind clerkly spectacles on a narrow and humorless face, Carr at any rate became one of the “cold radiator types” whom Cyril Connolly believed to be a speciality of Cambridge.

Rheumatic fever unfitted him for military service in 1914, and he was recruited instead on a temporary basis into the Foreign Office. There he seems to have acquired the mindset that officialdom has supremacy over the political process, and that its paper deposits contain all that needs to be known. Carr was one among eighteen officials on the British delegation to the Versailles conference in 1919. Allied treatment of Germany and the intervention on the side of the Whites in the Russian civil war soon hardened an essential conviction that his own country could do no right. The one and only fixed point in his outlook was that he knew best.

Soon he was posted as a secretary to the British legation in Riga. One of Haslam’s themes is that Carr craved love and affection, but if so he set about obtaining them in strange ways. Anne, his first wife, accompanied him to Riga. Eight years older than Carr, the mother of three children, she had only been free to marry Carr when her previous husband committed suicide.

Domestic life rapidly bored Carr, and so did Riga. First-hand experience of a small state victimized by aggressive neighbors only encouraged his belief in power. Visiting Moscow, learning Russian, taking up Dostoevsky, Bakunin, and Marx, he edged his way out of the Foreign Office into academic life. When a chair fell vacant in the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, he was chosen over other applicants including Herbert Butterfield and the eminent historian of Hungary, C. A. Macartney.

Another of Haslam’s themes is that Carr is to be explained as an old-fashioned liberal who went astray, decayed, and exploded. However ill-defined, a concept of progress was at the core of Victorian liberalism. For Carr, as for many between the wars, this shifted and enlarged into a sentimental fantasy of revolution, complete with flag-waving and leaders haranguing jubilant crowds in public arenas, thus making order out of chaos. The abandonment of liberalism, Haslam writes, left Carr without firm moral foundations, imagining that he was catching the tide of history. Capitalism and democracy were doomed. The individual had to belong to the collective. In the grip of such illusion, innumerable men and women betrayed the very values which protected their own liberties and rights, certain in themselves that the totalitarian ends either of Nazism or Communism justified the means. Carr is a supreme example, but quite how an essentially irrational and amoral reaction could be mistaken for an intellectual process is one of the central mysteries of that period.

Nazism was a first example to Carr of revolution as progress. Hitler offered a creed embracing all Germans and restoring their national pride. He was consummating the work begun by Marx of overthrowing capitalism. Posterity would regard Hitler, Carr wrote in 1933, as “its most characteristic and striking figure.” Hitler’s various aggressions were justified. The victims were beneath notice. The Munich Agreement was a model for negotiating peaceful change. As late as October 1939, in a lecture at Chatham House, the foreign affairs think tank in London, he unfavorably compared Russia to Germany, “which was almost a free country.” That same month, though, he was also writing that Stalin possessed a gift for politics which “amounts to genius.”

The war came as a shock, he later confessed, which “numbed the thinking process.” Others who had enthused about Hitler and Nazism recanted, and usually they had the decency to stay silent for a spell. Not Carr. The moment the Soviet Union attacked and incorporated the Baltic states —whose aspirations for independence he knew first-hand—he was writing, “this is a better alternative than absorption in a new Nazi Europe.” George Orwell, always a penetrating observer of the trahison des clercs, at once noted how “all the appeasers, e.g. Professor E. H. Carr, have switched their allegiance from Hitler to Stalin.”

What ever was the mechanism of self-deception at work whereby this undoubtedly clever and industrious man could blot out reality? In 1937, the worst of the years of terror, he visited Moscow again. In the street he happened to meet the former Prince Mirsky, a literary critic and an émigré who had made the mistake of leaving London to return to Moscow. In his memoirs, Malcolm Muggeridge has described how the rather pitiful Mirsky used at the time to come round to his apartment for a bath, and then assert that “what was happening in the USSR had to happen.” Unauthorized contact with a foreigner carried a death sentence, but Carr insisted on a conversation with Mirsky even though the latter pretended not to recognize him. Later that year, Mirsky was arrested and liquidated. Muggeridge says that Mirsky’s crime was an untimely critique of Pushkin, but Carr’s greeting can only have helped to build a case against him.

Such an episode brings into focus the lack of imagination, the tunnel vision, and the conceit that together permitted Carr to censor facts without acknowledging to himself that he was doing so. In Haslam’s words, he “may have had his suspicions” about the massacre of the Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn, but he “suspended” them. Breaking off relations with Moscow in the aftermath of this most cold-blooded of crimes, the Poles, he judged, were “hasty and ill-advised.” It was understandable that the Red Army should allow the Germans to suppress the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Russia, he wrote at the end of that same year, “has no aggressive or expansive designs in Europe.” Communist governments imposed by Stalin in the satellites of eastern Europe ought to be recognized. The Communists had both the right and the authority to take over Greece. By accepting the division of the world into conflicting blocs, Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 impeded in the West “the proper development of economic planning and of social aims.” The Soviet suppression of uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia hardly ruffled him. Soviet force and terror were automatically equated with red-baiting and McCarthyism in America.

After Aberystwyth, he moved to Oxford, and then to Trinity College, Cambridge, in the heart of the establishment. His rooms were in one of that college’s most historic quadrangles. A bust of Lenin occupied a shelf of the bookcase. While maintaining that capitalism was dead, he was constantly on the telephone to his stockbroker. His letters beseeching for funds and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation or university sponsors refer to his need to be comfortable. It was a case of collectivist equality for others and privilege for himself.

Useful idiot as he appeared to be, it would still be worthwhile to look up his KGB dossier. Carr was what the trade calls “an agent of influence,” promoting the party line either of his own free will or perhaps prompted by the Soviet officials with whom he was in touch in London and Moscow and elsewhere. In early Cold War days, for instance, Carr lectured in Vienna, going out of his way to stay for the purpose with Peter Smollett, well-known as a Soviet apologist. Haslam notes this, but does not go on to explain that Smollett had a deeper role, having been recruited into the KGB by Kim Philby himself and acquiring the code name Abo.

Throughout the second half of his life, Carr was at work on the many volumes of his History of the Soviet Union. He believed himself to be sculpting in marble the superiority of the Soviet Union, and the inevitability of its triumph worldwide. These books part company with reality. In the manner of the Webbs before him, in the manner of a Foreign Office drudge as well, he took the Soviet paper deposit at face value, quoting the resolutions of this plenum and the directives of that party congress as if this was all there was to the society. The indifference to the murdered millions is astounding. “I suppose I’ve rather by-passed the horrors,” was Carr’s typical euphemism for his inhumanity, as expressed in a letter to Betty Behrens, herself a Cambridge don. Equally astounding, he continued, “But then I’m a historian.”

Another question at once arises: how was it possible that Carr was considered an authority on Soviet developments and that editors and publishers turned to him reflexively for his opinion? Haslam’s answer, in part anyhow, is that Carr may not have told the truth but that he lied quite beautifully. Haslam speaks of the smooth elegance of Carr’s prose, the extraordinary verbal dexterity, the confident sweep of his judgments, “one of the most acute minds of his generation” (though so acutely wrong)—every few pages he heaps up confusing literary compliments of the kind. This is the biographer’s special pleading. Carr pumped out leader-writer’s boiler-plate: “sharply distinguished,” “peculiar difficulties,” “remarkable intellect,” “striking reversal,” “rejected firmly,” “disagreable truth,” “grievous error”— his pages are a procession of clichés.

Carr’s relationship with Isaac Deutscher was crucial. A similar character, every bit as intolerant and self-satisfied, a totalitarian of Trotskyist hue, Deutscher exploited his continental and rather conspiratorial background to persuade people that he really knew about the Soviet Union. There is a little ditty about two celebrated historians in a previous century: “Ladling from alternate tubs, Stubbs butters Freeman, Freeman butters Stubbs.” In repetitious columns and reviews, Carr and Deutscher duly buttered one another as the only commentators able to interpret events.

Singly or together, they simultaneously denigrated everyone who disagreed with their views. Hugh Seton-Watson, Edward Crankshaw, George Katkov, David Footman, and his own former pupil Norman Stone were among the many colleagues against whom Carr intrigued or whom he openly criticized, in the hope of destroying them and their professional reputation. Isaiah Berlin, the most polite and unpolemical of men, published a rebuttal of Carr’s What is History?, an essay which makes a frivolous, almost childish, case against the individual’s freedom of choice and in favor of a quasi-Marxist historical determinism. An unforgiving Carr lost no chance afterwards to jibe at Berlin. Leonard Schapiro was probably the most distinguished British Sovietologist of the day. As chairman of a publications subcommittee at Chatham House, Carr did his best—with dispiriting success—to suppress what eventually became one of Schapiro’s best books: The Origin of Communist Autocracy (1955), a classic ever since.

These men could look after themselves; Carr’s wives could not. Enclosed in his ego, he paid no attention to any of them, discarding them like tissues, resenting any interruption to his work, loathing Christmas because libraries were closed, loathing opera, loathing parties and social occasions. The nastiness was unlimited. Anne developed a sarcoma, and, on the day that one of her daughters was due to have a very serious operation, Carr informed her that the marriage was over, that he was leaving her for Joyce. In due course he left Joyce for her closest friend, Betty Behrens. She was an expert on eighteenth-century France, but Carr never read what she had written. Soon Betty had a nervous collapse and moved to an asylum, whereupon Carr tried to take some of her considerable fortune.

Events have stranded Carr; he labored his life away under false assumptions. The central figure of slapstick is someone who mistakes his illusions for reality. In that respect, Carr cuts an irresistibly comic figure, and will do so for as long as anyone remembers him. Things might have turned out otherwise, however, and in that case here was someone who would have had no trouble at all signing death warrants in a police state. The bully and the misanthrope gravitate naturally to totalitarianism. The lesson is gratifyingly simple.

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  1. The Vices of Integrity: E. H. Carr 1892–1982, by Jonathan Haslam; Verso, 306 pages, $35. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 4, on page 68
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