And Tolstoy begins Book 10 with another explanation of his theory of the unstoppable wheels of history.  I must admit, every time Tolstoy returns to his theory, it becomes more convincing.

Certainly, I’m happy to buy that as far as this war went, nothing went to plan, and the fact that Napoleon’s army ended up freezing to death when they took Moscow (apologies to all of you fans that Leo spoiled it this early in the game, but like I said earlier, he is expecting you to know your Russian history).

But point by point, he shows how the French didn’t think taking Moscow would be a bad thing, the Russians had no intention of letting them take Moscow, yet by that happening, the French were defeated.  What else are we to say?

I think where I disagree is that Tolstoy wants to draw from this particular battle a general principle that no where in history has anything really “gone according to plan” in the sense that one or two individuals can claim to have influenced events.  And I’m especially not really comfortable with his idea that the higher up you are, with more individuals people underneath you, the less you are in control of things.

But, hey, I’m happy to put that aside, and see how this “randomly generated war” pans out over the rest of the book.  It’s certainly fun to be made to think.


3 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 10.1 – Unstoppable Wheels in Motion

  1. I agree with you Matt – Tolstoy does make a pretty convincing argument here: particularly where he talks about the ways in which, in retelling history, we focus on the events that support our theory – so the French tell it one way, the Russians another, but in reality both are just picking isolated bits of tha great mosaic and ignoring others or, to use your analogy, focussing on just one or two of the millions and millions of wheels that are really turning history.

    I think, too, we get in this chapter more of a sense of why Tolstoy spent time in the last Part (or “Book”) talking about all those different strategies and arguments that were competing against each other to dictate the path of the war. They were all part of the same kaleidoscope of influences – some coming to the fore for a minute or two, and then going into the background a minute or two later – their prominence determined not by their merits as ideas, but the many other bits and pieces around them.

    To me this is the sense in which Tolstoy is telling us that wars (or anything else in history for that matter) are not determined by the plans of this or that person, but by the whole context in which that person acts.

    I think we like to attribute history to the deeds of a handful of people – good people or bad people, because, in the first place, it makes it easier to understand and, in the second place, it allows us to absolve ourselves of the responsibility for the bad things that happen in the world. It is much easier to blame the holocaust on Hitler than to think that he was just one cog in a much bigger wheel, of which a great deal more people shared some ownership. And it is much easier for us to think today that world poverty is the fault of the selfish politics and economics of a few leaders of a few rich countries, rather than to see ourelves as part of the constituency for whom those governments set their priorities.

    Tolstoy, I think, is warning us of the dangers, and of the error, of an analysis of history that lets too many people off the hook.

  2. I wonder who the ‘certain Frenchman’ was.


    Russian authors are still fonder of telling us that from the commencement of the campaign a Scythian war plan was adopted to lure Napoleon into the depths of Russia, and this plan some of them attribute to Pfuel, others to a certain Frenchman, others to Toll, and others again to Alexander himself- pointing to notes, projects, and letters which contain hints of such a line of action.


    I have 787 characters!

  3. I don’t think it’s meant to be anyone in particular – just that some historians choose to attribute the plan to this or that Frenchman: that is, to someone the particular historian identifies, but another historian would presumably identify another Frenchman. The Russian word used here is “kakoy-to” which means “some” in the sense of a particular, but anonymous, thing, as in “some guy rang for you this morning but didn’t leave his name”.

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