TOLSTOY AND AUSTERLITZ.

Having finished the first major section of War and Peace, ending with the Battle of Austerlitz in November/December 1805 (the novel was originally going to be called The Year 1805), I am once more struck with what a good writer Tolstoy was. (I know, who’d have thought?) Before I read his account of the battle, I worked my way through Robert Goetz’s 1805: Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Destruction of the Third Coalition, and having done so, I wondered how Tolstoy was going to handle it. The battle was a complicated one; the French and Allied forces were drawn up facing each other in roughly north-south lines between Brünn (Brno) and Austerlitz, the initial strategies didn’t work out (the Allies planned to turn the French right and cut them off from Vienna, Napoleon intended to turn the Allied right and drive them into the lakes and swamps to the south), and the fighting went back and forth over widely separated patches of territory before the Allies were definitively routed. Goetz took hundreds of pages to describe it, and a novelist could easily do the same, but Tolstoy disposed of it in a little over twenty pages in my Russian edition. Furthermore, a good bit of that is preparation and aftermath; the battle proper takes up only ten pages, a little over two chapters. Here’s how he does it.
Chapter XVI describes the first, shocking view of the French, appearing out of the morning fog within a few hundred paces of the Allied troops near the village of Pratzen; the panicked flight of the troops, followed by Kutuzov’s anguished plea for someone to stop them; and Prince Andrei’s heroic attempt to do so, seizing the fallen regimental standard and advancing with it, only to be shot. The chapter ends with one of the most famous passages in the novel, Andrei’s thoughts as he lies on his back looking up at the “quiet, peaceful, and solemn” sky and rejoicing in having seen it at last: “Everything is empty, everything is deception, except that infinite sky.” Chapter XVII opens with young Rostov, on the right (northern) flank commanded by the unenthusiastic Bagration, being given a message for either Emperor Alexander or General Kutuzov asking for instructions: “Bagration knew that because of the distance of almost ten versts between the two flanks, even if they didn’t kill the messenger (which was very likely), and even if he found the commander in chief, which would be very difficult, he would not be able to get back before evening.” Rostov rides off with his heart “full of joy and happiness”; in a few brilliant paragraphs, Tolstoy shows him—and us—clouds of cannon smoke covering incomprehensible movements of indistinguishable troops, some uhlans returning from the action, some Horse Guards galloping towards it (Rostov has to brandish his whip at one of them to keep from being ridden down), and some excited friends of his who detain him and want to tell him about their experiences, before he hears “musket fire quite close in front of him and behind our troops, where he could never have expected the enemy to be,” and realizes things are going very wrong; the chapter ends: “The idea of defeat and flight could not enter Rostov’s head. Though he saw French cannon and troops right on the Pratzen Heights, on the very spot where he had been ordered to look for the commander in chief, he could not and did not want to believe it.” At the start of the next chapter, he rides endlessly through the crowds, unable to find anyone who can tell him what’s going on; he grabs a soldier and asks “Where is the Emperor? Where is Kutuzov?”: “‘Eh, brother! They’ve all bolted long ago!’ said the soldier, laughing for some reason and shaking himself free.” And that’s basically that; he eventually finds his beloved emperor sitting alone in an empty field and is unable even to approach and deliver his message, which he realizes is now useless—the battle is lost.
The key sentence comes in Chapter XVII, after Rostov decides reluctantly he’d better continue trying to deliver the message rather than join the dashing Horse Guards in their assault on the French: Ростову страшно было слышать потом, что из всей этой массы огромных красавцев людей, из всех этих блестящих, на тысячных лошадях, богачей, юношей, офицеров и юнкеров, проскакавших мимо его, после атаки осталось только осьмнадцать человек. ['It was terrible for Rostov to hear later that of all that mass of huge and handsome people, of all those brilliant, rich men on their thousand-ruble horses, youths, officers and cadets, who had galloped past him, after the attack only eighteen were left.'] It’s a similar effect to the one I discussed here, but more compressed and brutal. Once we’ve seen the sudden appearance of the French where they were least expected and experienced the shock produced, and assimilated that brief foretelling of massacre, we know all we need to know about the battle.


Incidentally, I have to thank commenter “Gosaca Menacle” (a nice Jimmy Cliff reference) in this thread for calling my attention to “the cries of the soldier being punished for stealing in [Book II] chapter XV, as witnessed by Prince Andrei,” which are described as “desperate but feigned”; as a result I paid attention to this sentence in III:XVIII, while a despairing Rostov is still searching for his emperor: Раненые сползались по два, по три вместе, и слышались неприятные, иногда притворные, как казалось Ростову, их крики и стоны. ['The wounded crawled together in twos and threes, and you could hear their unpleasant, and sometimes (as it seemed to Rostov) feigned, cries and groans.'] Since these soldiers are not being beaten, all I can think is that while Tolstoy was serving in the Caucasus and hearing men suffer, he was struck by the fact that their outcries sometimes sounded притворные (‘affected, feigned’). I’m quite willing to take his word for it.

Comments

  1. ObIrrelevantButPersonal: I have a house in Austerlitz, New York, which got its name in an interesting way:

    The town was organized from parts of the towns of Hillsdale, Chatham, and Canaan, March 28, 1878 (sic 1818). A little more than one-fifteenth of the present town was taken from Chatham, a little over one-eighth from Canaan, and a little less than five-sixths from Hillsdale. From the fact that among the first settlers there were no less than twelve families of Spencers, the north part of Hillsdale and been known from the first as “Spencer’s-town.” This name finally attached itself simply to the village, and when the division of the town was being talked up it was proposed to call the new town “New Ulm.” When the bill erecting it passed the Legislature, however, Martin Van Buren, then a State Senator, and who, being an ardent admirer of the great Napoleon, was somewhat incensed at one of his political opponents (Elisha Williams, if we mistake not), who had succeeded in having a town in Seneca county christened “Waterloo,” leaped to his feet and moved to amend by calling the new town “Austerlitz.” Having carried his point, he retired to his seat, saying “There’s an Austerlitz for your Waterloo.”

    And here I might have been Johann Woldemar Cowan … of New Ulm.

  2. John Emerson says:

    New Ulm is in Southern Minnesota, and is the site of a statue of Arminius, or “Herman the German”, who at Teutoberg Forest treacherously inflicted on Rome perhaps the greatest defeat it ever suffered. A friend of a friend is on the statue committee, and one of these days I’m going to ask him what was done with the statue 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. (The area is 90% or more German-American.)
    Even more small-worldishly, I have on my desk here a book sent by ILL from New Ulm public library, and it’s avant-garde literature at that: “Ecuador”, by Henri Michaux (in English).

  3. John Emerson says:

    New Ulm is in Southern Minnesota, and is the site of a statue of Arminius, or “Herman the German”, who at Teutoberg Forest treacherously inflicted on Rome perhaps the greatest defeat it ever suffered. A friend of a friend is on the statue committee, and one of these days I’m going to ask him what was done with the statue 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. (The area is 90% or more German-American.)
    Even more small-worldishly, I have on my desk here a book sent by ILL from New Ulm public library, and it’s avant-garde literature at that: “Ecuador”, by Henri Michaux (in English).

  4. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    A great post, Language. Thanks.

  5. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    A great post, Language. Thanks.

  6. Bill Walderman says:

    Tolstoy’s themes throughout W&P are that wars and the international politics that lead to them are senseless, that military commanders aren’t in control of the course of events, that battles are episodes of mass confusion in which tactical planning counts for nothing. Kutuzov is successful only because he understands these things and takes advantage of the random drift of events while avoiding engagements with the enemy to the greatest extent possible.
    Tolstoy’s treatment of the big battles in the novel–first Schoengrabern, then Austerlitz, and finally Borodino–as well as the minor engagements bears out his views, and he reinforces them by focusing on the events as witnessed from within the thick of the confusion by the characters in the novel, Nikolai, Prince Andrei and Pierre.
    Wait till you get to Borodino. Tolstoy lays out the whole plan of the battle–there’s even a map–and then shows how everything went awry on both sides.

  7. Tolstoy manages to leave out cruicial (to understanding the battle) information that would have ruined his telling of the story if he meaat that telling to show how Rostov or Prince Andrei experienced the battle.
    One of the “lessons learned” in that battle was the importance of Napoleon’s reputation as a genius – he occupied and then relinquished a crucial piece of high ground, and this led the boob in command of the Austrian troops to conclude that, high ground or not, it must not be very important. If the Austrians had gone on and used that high ground, it could very well have proven fatal for the French. After the battle Napoleon is said to have said that he felt as though he had been in command of both armies.
    That’s not something anyone in Tolstoy’s novel could possibley have known and it couldn’t have beloinged.

  8. Field Marshal Lord Crown says:

    I don’t know much about Tolstoy, but would he really want to use Austerlitz as an example of tactical planning counting for nothing, as you put it? There may have been chaos at times, as Language summarizes so beautifully, but that’s a well-known part of battle psychology. I always thought Austerlitz was Napoleon’s great victory, and as wiki says “the battle is often regarded as a tactical masterpiece”.

  9. Sure, Napoleon was a genius and Austerlitz was his masterpiece. But Tolstoy was a novelist, not a historian (however much he would have bristled at that characterization), and the idea that planning counted for nothing, so-called leaders were just following the tides of history, and everything came from the bottom up was axiomatic for him, not something that needed evidence. When charged with stacking the deck, he proclaimed proudly that he had invented nothing, he had taken his descriptions of Napoleon and the battles from historical sources—but of course he chose those items that suited his ideas and ignored the rest.
    But so what? If we want an objective historical analysis of the battle, we go to historians. We go to Tolstoy for something very different, which he provides better than anyone else. And, as Jim says, “That’s not something anyone in Tolstoy’s novel could possibly have known and it couldn’t have belonged.”

  10. John Emerson says:

    Stendhal also described Napoleonic battles (in which he fought) as senseless from the point of view of the participants on the ground. But only the commanding generals have an overview. Perhaps Tolstoy was wrongly generalizing from direct experience.

  11. John Emerson says:

    Stendhal also described Napoleonic battles (in which he fought) as senseless from the point of view of the participants on the ground. But only the commanding generals have an overview. Perhaps Tolstoy was wrongly generalizing from direct experience.

  12. No, his experience was obviously important but he had thought long and hard about history and how it worked. All of us are formed by our experiences; that doesn’t mean our views are determined by them.

  13. Bill Walderman says:

    “I don’t know much about Tolstoy, but would he really want to use Austerlitz as an example of tactical planning counting for nothing, as you put it?”
    Yes. Read War and Peace.
    “Sure, Napoleon was a genius and Austerlitz was his masterpiece. But Tolstoy was a novelist, not a historian (however much he would have bristled at that characterization), and the idea that planning counted for nothing, so-called leaders were just following the tides of history, and everything came from the bottom up was axiomatic for him, not something that needed evidence.”
    Wait until you get to Borodino. He actually does provide a detailed “objective” tactical and strategic analysis of the battle (in addition to telling the story from Pierre’s confused vantage point). He shows how nothing either side planned on came out the way they expected. And he reserves his most caustic scorn for Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius. War and Peace is more than just a novel: it’s also an exposition of Tolstoy’s view of history. The third and fourth volumes in many places, and the second epilogue in its entirety depart from the fictional format of the novel.

  14. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    War and Peace is more than just a novel: it’s also an exposition of Tolstoy’s view of history.
    Ok, you’ve forced me to read about him in wiki. Whatever his view of history, this aspect of W&P sounds so tendentious as to be worthless as history and more a showcase for pacifism and non-violent anarchism. Subsequent events have made many of us favorably disposed towards pacifism, so why not leave Tolstoy’s view of history out of it? I expect them to be an anachronism anyway. It is a novel, is that so bad?

  15. crown, A.J.P. says:

    (It, obviously.)

  16. Bill: I’ve read W&P before, and am familiar with his description of Borodino (and love the fact that he inserted a map). But if you’re taking your views of history and Napoleon from Tolstoy, you’re making a huge mistake. Tolstoy was a great novelist but no more a historian than you or I, and his views of such things are those of an impassioned (and nationalistic) amateur. He doesn’t “show” anything about history or war, he just shows you his imagined characters and lets them talk and act, and that’s fine. But his second epilogue is unreadable as far as I’m concerned.

  17. “But only the commanding generals have an overview. ”
    BAWHAHAHAHA
    If only! Keeping track of a battle is the Holy Grail of command. Ever heard of the “fog of war”? Army officers ironically call themselves “managers of violence” because it is beyond management. That is drill and reptition and reptilian brain rank structures are so necessary – it is nearly impossible to think on any level with any clarity in those situations, even if you are sitting in a relativley secure operations center. And generals of N’s era had none of the means a modern genral has – functioning stafss, communications for field commanders, communications from field commanders to their subordinate units. At best they could get to a hill that might, just might, give them a view over a narrow areae of the battle.
    Tolstoy’s whole point about battles was that no one had any idea what was going on and that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ in his day that was a big thing to day; today it is practically trite. And his theory of history, that there can be no theory of history, builds on that insight.

  18. Bill Walderman says:

    I agree with Tolstoy about Napoleon, the nature of war, and history.
    Jim says it better than I could.
    There may be a tendentious nationalistic thread running through Tolstoy’s presentation of the Napoleonic wars, but fundamentally he was on the right track.
    Certainly the war between Russia and France in 1812 was senseless. There was absolutely no reason other than perhaps personal vanity for Napoleon to amass a huge force of French, Germans, Poles, etc. and invade Russia. And it turned out to be a gigantic blunder of Iraq proportions (or rather Iraq has been a blunder of Napoleonic proportions) that brought him to his downfall.
    Tolstoy doesn’t have many good things to say about Alexander or his governments, either.

  19. So you feel it was just coincidence that Napoleon picked out the Pratzenberg before the battle as a crucial focus, hid troops below it, and unleashed them when they would be most likely to break the Russian line (which they did)? The fact that he reconnoitered the terrain and the Russian generals didn’t bother (being confident they could whip the “Corsican corporal”) had no bearing on the battle? Of course you can’t control what happens when the battle gets going, but you can sure better your odds beforehand. I’m all in favor of demystifying authority figures, but like anything else it can be taken to extremes. I don’t think Nappy was just lucky.

  20. “Jim says it better than I could.”
    Though you probably can spell better.
    Napoleon made his own luck. My point was just that “you do your best and hope for the best”. If warfare is just unimprovably chaotic, then 200 hundred years of improvements in communications have been wasted energy. Actually the improvements have served not to make warfare less chaotic, just manageable over a much larger area with the same basic level of chaos. Napoleon with even his genius could not have managed the War in the Pacific, or Desert Storm with the methods he had at his disposal.
    Tolstoy does go in for a lot of nationalist essentialism, or he flirts with it, but he’s a piker compared to Solzhenitsyn.

  21. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Dear Bill:
    nicht das Amt die Vergangenheit zu richten, die Mitwelt zum Nutzen zukünftiger Jahre zu belehren, sondern bloß zu zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen
    (no duty to judge the past, nor to instruct one’s contemporaries with an eye to the future, but rather merely to show how it actually was). This is a quotation from Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) He was a real 19th century political historian, who figured out that historians should work from primary sources and eyewitness accounts.
    When you consider that the other 19th century players besides v.Ranke were Hegel and Marx, then the idea that Tolstoy knew what he was doing as a historian is laughable. You can’t just make a statement like “I agree with Tolstoy about … history” without backing it up (and Jim doesn’t say it any better than you, in fact he’s got it completely jumbled up: “(Tolstoy’s) theory of history, that there can be no theory of history”, is totally without any foundation as a method whatever your historiographic inclinations. The question, if you are a historian, is what you do with your facts, how you put them together with other evidence; that is common to all historians. What Tolstoy was doing (writing a novel) has nothing to do with any of this because he didn’t as far as I can see EVEN WANT to work with primary sources. This is rude, I suppose, but since you and Jim know, obviously, nothing about history, then your evaluation of Tolstoy’s so-called theory of history is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

  22. Actually, Tolstoy did work with primary sources and was proud of it, but he picked out what suited his purposes and ignored the rest, which is not how a historian operates.

  23. “but he picked out what suited his purposes and ignored the rest, which is not how a historian operates.”
    This comment made me smile. Forgive my cynicism, but I have always thought that this was EXACTLY how EVERY historian operates. I would have had no trouble accepting the last clause had it read “which is not how a historian should operate”, but as it stands, it seems far removed from the reality of historical recording. I’ve never read Thucydides, so I don’t know if his reputation for objectivity was earned, but every other historical work I’ve ever read was written in precisely the manner you say historians don’t operate. It’s one of the reasons I prefer historical novels, since the authors of those works don’t have to pretend to be dispassionate and objective.

  24. John Emerson says:

    For a time Gogol thought of becoming a historian, and did work on primary sources. He was also a nationalist, but apparently wasn’t sure whether he was a Russian or a Ukrainian nationalist. Nationalism seems best fitted to oppressed peoples.
    Musorgsky researched Khovanshchina pretty diligently, though not to any great depth. The innacuracies were deliberate (the opera really is a series of set pieces anyway, without much of a plot.)

  25. Forgive my cynicism, but I have always thought that this was EXACTLY how EVERY historian operates.
    Forgive my counter-cynicism, but I think of that as a quintessentially adolescent attitude: “Whoa, I just discovered there’s no such thing as total objectivity… which means it’s all propaganda!” No, actually, it’s not, and yes, there is a difference between how historians work (real historians, obviously, not nationalist hacks) and how propagandists and novelists work. There’s a huge difference between working on the basis of a theory or thesis (conscientiously looking for evidence both for and against), which is necessary if you’re going to produce anything coherent, and rooting through the past trying to find nuggets that will “prove” that your country/religion is always right. Rejecting entire fields of inquiry on the basis of cheap cynicism may make one’s life easier and more enjoyable, but it says nothing about the field of inquiry.

  26. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    This is a sick thread if the likes of me is representing the world’s historians, but it’s beginning to sound as if historians are sinister figures rooting around for facts to fit their evil theories. There may well be people like that, but historians with any credibility maintain their peers’ respect and their own credibility by operating some kind of scientific method. This is similar to the way linguists work, it seems to me. A quite well known historian I know (my cousin) collects newspaper cuttings, his own notations and the like on a subject that interests him and puts them in an envelope. When the envelope is full, he lays everything out on a big table and rearranges the pieces in different sequences (chronological, and otherwise) to see what threads can be found to exist. He writes something, a book or an article based on that. In other words, the “theory” is a result of the evidence and not vice versa. I know others work the same way, it is a method he and someone else rediscovered that was originated by Sidney & Beatrice Webb with a card index.

  27. Bill Walderman says:

    I don’t mean to attack historians and I don’t think that all history is just propaganda or that all historians simply choose the facts that suit their own preconceptions (though, of course, a lot of them do just that). I do, however, think that, unlike the natural sciences such as physics, there is no “science” of history, in the sense that general laws of history can be abstracted by observing and comparing specific situations and applied to predict the outcome of other situations (e.g., if we don’t stand up to Sadam or Iran or Russia we’ll soon be facing the consequences of another Munich). I don’t think this is an adolescent attitude: I suspect that most serious historians would agree with it. And, after 62 years on this planet, I think that human events unfold chaotically and irrationally, that no political actor is ever really in control of them, and that no historian can ever capture the full complexity of “wie es eigentlich gewesen.”

  28. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    No, but historians can reasonably claim to see themes through the chaos, and talk about how rococo architecture flourished in Southern Germany, or how European monetary policy was affected by the introduction of the Euro. Capturing how it REALLY is is as much the task of the novelist as of the historian, and I now know as much about the Thatcher years in England from novelists as I do from historians. Reading W&P gives a different kind of insight into the reality of the campaign and the ensuing confusion than reading a history would. But it’s important that W&P is not a history: historians and novelists both take liberties with the subject matter; they are different liberties, though.

  29. Hat, I really enjoyed this post (you are the gift of a good reader for writers)! But what’s with all the weirdo nonsense letters that keep appearing as posts?

  30. But what’s with all the weirdo nonsense letters that keep appearing as posts?
    Welcome to my world, the wonderful world of spam comments. Don’t know why it’s suddenly coming in so copiously, but I’ll just keep deleting it. Go away, purveyors of odd items! We don’t want any!

  31. there is no “science” of history, in the sense that general laws of history can be abstracted by observing and comparing specific situations and applied to predict the outcome of other situations
    With that, I thoroughly agree. My remarks about propaganda were addressed not to you but to Stuart above, who claims that “he picked out what suited his purposes and ignored the rest” is “EXACTLY how EVERY historian operates,” an attitude I find obnoxious.

  32. Bill Walderman says:

    “So you feel it was just coincidence that Napoleon picked out the Pratzenberg before the battle as a crucial focus, hid troops below it, and unleashed them when they would be most likely to break the Russian line (which they did)? The fact that he reconnoitered the terrain and the Russian generals didn’t bother (being confident they could whip the ‘Corsican corporal’) had no bearing on the battle?”
    With all due respect (and I don’t mean to sound polemical), I’m agnostic about the Pratzenberg and all the other great Napoleonic feats. I emphatically don’t think that all historians selectively weave a narrative out of facts picked selectively to support their preconceptions, but, without having delved deeply into the history of the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon’s career is one area where I suspect that propaganda predominates over scrupulous historical methodology. Later in W&P, in his narrative of 1812 and the second epilogue, Tolstoy makes a point that I suspect is on target (and he does back up his contention with specifics): the conventional narratives of Napoleon’s battles have been carefully scrubbed by propagandists masquerading as historians such as Thiers to make him seem much more brilliant and in control of events than “es eigentlich gewesen.” That’s not to say that the Russian leadership, from Alexander on down, weren’t incompetent fools . . . And I also suspect that Tolstoy’s account of Kutuzov is vitiated by some of the same hagiographic distortion as Thiers’ of Napoleon.

  33. “Rejecting entire fields of inquiry on the basis of cheap cynicism may make one’s life easier and more enjoyable, but it says nothing about the field of inquiry.”
    True. I never said that I rejected the entire field of inquiry, but I ought to have made it explicitly clear that I do not believe all historians are consciously and deliberately selective in their research and presentations. If I caused personal offence, I am sorry. That was not my intention.

  34. Bill Walderman says:

    “I never said that I rejected the entire field of inquiry, but I ought to have made it explicitly clear that I do not believe all historians are consciously and deliberately selective in their research and presentations. If I caused personal offence, I am sorry. That was not my intention.”
    This is AMAZING! This is the ONLY site on the ENTIRE internet where posters are temperate in their assertions, respectful of divergent points of view, and willing to apologize for real or perceived offenses to others. Something must be seriously out of whack here.

  35. Well, maybe not the only one, but it is a nice feature, and one of the many reasons I’m so grateful for my readership.

  36. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    You may think my posts are weirdo nonsense letters and spam comments, but I’m trying to make some points here.

  37. song called shiloh about a lost dog says:
  38. song called shiloh about a lost dog says:
  39. A spam about “song called shiloh about a lost dog” is so bizarre I left the comment there and just deleted the URL.

  40. As I understand it, doesn’t “Shiloh” mean something like “the one to whom it belongs”? If so, there’s a wonderful aptness to the song being about a lost dog.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Woldemar

    Waldemar.

    Teutoberg

    Teutoburg.

    with an eye to the future

    For the benefit of future years.
    The rest of the translation is surprisingly literal.

    He was also a nationalist, but apparently wasn’t sure whether he was a Russian or a Ukrainian nationalist.

    LOL! Must have sucked to be him. :-D

  42. John Emerson says:

    My frequent confusion of -berg and -burg promises to mess up any trips to Germany I might eventually make.

  43. John Emerson says:

    My frequent confusion of -berg and -burg promises to mess up any trips to Germany I might eventually make.

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