An inspiring read

2010-09-22 00:00

“ONE of the most enlightened, courageous and noble-minded men of the twentieth century.” Thus was Jan Christian Smuts described by Winston Churchill. The description, and the fact of its utterance by a British leader, both say much about Smuts.

As this excellent book powerfully shows, he was a man of exceptional broad-mindedness, moral (and physical) courage, realistic wisdom happily married to idealism, admired and almost revered by major figures in Europe, and driven by a highly positive dynamism, all inspired by a passionate longing for, simply, a better world.

Smuts’s qualities are even more remarkable in someone whose background might logically have led to his becoming a verkrampte, narrowly South African politician. But in spite of that background, in spite of his steel-nerved leading of a commando in the second Boer War against the British, he ended up as a major player in international affairs in the early 20th century, as well as devoting huge energies to establishing and developing the Union of South Africa.

Much of this handsomely presented book focuses on the Paris Conference at the end of the First World War, in which Smuts was a leading and vocal delegate. Smuts, in fact, came to oppose the Treaty of Versailles very bitterly: he felt that it was over-punitive on the Germans, lacking in magnanimity, a dishonourable going back on promises made around the Armistice in 1918, and also utterly unrealistic. Even worse, he saw it as a certain recipe for further massive international conflict. The Second World War proved him horribly correct.

One of his overriding passions was to see a peaceful, united Europe — a desire never fulfilled in his lifetime (although he co-founded the League of Nations, later the United Nations). In 1919, he fought the Treaty (which was supported by Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George in particular) tooth and nail; and he lost out to less enlightened men.

The book (by an English historian) neither avoids the flaws in Smuts’s character nor the failure of some of his initiatives. It also points to the disturbing fact that his liberalism did not extend to his black fellow South Africans. He was, however, aware that the question of their enfranchisement would have to be faced head-on sooner or later, but seems to have felt that he wasn’t “big” enough to tackle it.

A great strength of this book is the fact that about 40% of it is made up of quotations — most from Smuts’s own writings and speeches, but many uttered by leading British and European figures who knew him, and some by members of his family. The author mostly allows the characters to speak for themselves, which gives his account great solidity. A fascinating and inspiring read.

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