Ian Buruma’s Anglomania tells two related stories. The first and longer of the two tracks the history of Europe’s love affair with England. From Voltaire in the eighteenth century and Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth to Isaiah Berlin in the twentieth, he sketches some of the more colorful figures who have carried on that intense romance. A smaller but equally interesting narrative, Buruma’s own story frames the larger history by representing both sides of the attraction in many ways. Half Dutch and half British, Buruma was raised and educated in Holland and has lived for the last decade in London. His unique view thus allows him to understand this international relationship from both perspectives.
Describing how many of Europe’s leading thinkers and writers gravitated to England, the author notes, “For about three hundred years, since the Glorious Revolution [of 1688], Britain attracted liberals from all over Europe, including Russia, because of its remarkable combination of civility and freedom.” Buruma sets out, not to write a standard history of this migration of exiles and émigrés, but rather to portray the unique characters who represent different aspects of the relationship. “I have selected a number of European Anglophiles and, by way of contrast, some ferocious Anglophobes, to see what Europeans particularly admired (or loathed) about Britain. . . . Some are famous, others obscure.” His first historical chapter, for example, describes Voltaire, the eighteenth century French philosopher and father of Anglophilia, who arrived in England with no English but who ended up writing Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733) and other works that offered some of the most insightful analyses of England. Voltaire’s many bons mots included, “England was like a hogshead of beer: froth at the top, dregs at the bottom, the middle excellent.” Like so many later Europeans, Voltaire was attracted to England’s liberty and reason: “The best of England, in Voltaire’s opinion, was the enlightened, universal, skeptical rationalism of English thinkers.” Why, Voltaire finally argued, cannot eighteenth century Europe be more like England?
The remaining fifteen chapters are equally intriguing historical narratives. The second chapter, “Goethe’s Shakespeare,” reveals how the Germans adopted the English Renaissance dramatist in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among other anomalies of this relationship, Buruma explains how the Nazi elite were in Weimar, Germany, celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday while German troops were preparing for the invasion of Britain in the spring of 1940. Later chapters cover Prince Herman Von Puckler-Muskau—better known as “Prince Pickle” in England—who coveted English gardens and laid them out on his Prussian estate. Even English food, Buruma reports, was fashionable at one point in the eighteenth century.
Karl Marx was only the most famous of a number of European revolutionaries who included the Russian Alexander Herzen and the Italians Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini. Marx fled to London after the failed mid-nineteenth century revolutions across Europe and lived there from 1849 until his death in 1883. He spent most of his time in the main reading room of the British Museum writing Das Kapital (1867), ranting at the British class system, and waiting for the revolution that would never come—at least not to England. The French-born Pierre de Coubertin, who organized the modern Olympic Games beginning in 1896, modeled many of his ideas on British school sports. Likewise, the Viennese Theodor Herzl based the core of his Zionism on the combination of order and freedom, which he considered perfect in England. Finally, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who achieved one of the remarkable feats of architectural history in the fifty-volume The Buildings of England (1951), was a refugee born in Leipzig, Germany, and another addicted Anglophile.
The Anglophobes, like Marx, are nearly as interesting. For example, William II, who had overseen the destruction of one empire in 1918, lived in exile in Holland until his death in 1941, waiting futilely for the call from Germany to lead another. Although Queen Victoria was his grandmother, he hurled anti-Semitic rantings (“Juda-England”) against the country...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)