Characters in History: A History of Character
MA: The more I read "Peace" the more obvious it becomes that Fromkin's method is largely psychological. Amid the variety of recorded facts and events that he depicts is the ongoing attempt to settle those facts in the context of full-fledged people.
I think you're on to something here in highlighting Fromkin's reliance upon psychology in guiding his narrative. I think the character of his history is a History of Characters...a History of Personality. His primary sources are the attitudes and aspirations of, as you say, "full-fledged people" wrestling with one another to achieve usually contradictory, conflicting and often impossible goals.
I should qualify the term "primary sources" with the understanding that his utilization of letters, memos, comuniques, diaries, anecdotes, offical statements, planning documents, recorded conversations, etc. are delivered largely in character: a particular blend of personal attributes and appetites are behind everything.
I think this makes for great drama, keeps the narrative tied to personal interaction and individual choices more than impersonal fate or random chaos. It may be that impersonal fate and random chaos have their role in any historical event, but Fromkin is working to show the power of personality in shaping history.
MA: Is it really necessary to try to understand the figures of history in order to understand why one event led to another?
I think the figures in history do figure in understanding historical events and processes. I suppose it depends upon your goal/s in telling your story. I think the historian brings a whole host of goals/agendas to their historical projects: their personal aspirations and professional obligations, who their primary audience will be, as well as political allegiences. Why tell the story of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the struggles between European nations to control the Middle East? Fromkin, I believe for the most part, is telling this story to help interpret current events. He's not writing this narrative simply to exhibit his genius for historical scholarship, bolster his credentials in the field, add a few more feathers to his retirement nest (though all of these are probably present)...but to engage our contemporary quandry in the Middle East.
Fromkin is hoping his narrative might guide future decision making in this trouble region by illuminating past ignorances that helped create this contemporary mess.
It would then seem that his emphasis upon personality and character would point to his desire and/or assumption that the contemporary solutions we seek require unique persons with particular characters.
MA: And if so, to what extent is it possible to understand those figures based on the documents they left or that others left about them?
Do we really ever understand anybody....family members, friends, loved ones, aquaintances for a lifetime, ourselves? I think it's possible (and necessary) to figure out some patterns of behavior, general habits, persistent attitudes, tastes, proclivities in others. But all of this (as important as it may be for developing trust, intimacy, keeping promises, maintaining ties) never really captures the always present, often surprising, ineffable fire and angst that drives a person.
All the moreso when exploring persons we have never met and have to rely upon the experiences of others. Even the most careful observations cannot contain the whole of another's life. Perhaps we don't need to grasp the whole of a person to understand key themes and patterns worthwhile to our objectives in exploring their lives in the first place. Again, it comes down to what we want out of the process, who are we looking for and why?
I also think individual memory can be highly suspect. Autobiographical accounts should not be taken as objective certitude: personal aggrandizement, fear of exposure, frustrated relationships, traumatic events...all of these play into how people tell their personal stories. And, the simple fact that we don't always remember very well what the hell happened. Who was involved, where did it happen, what was said, why did it occur just then, what preceded it...pieces are missing, get confused, left out, transposed where they weren't, etc.
I think one important key to good history is the utilization of multiple perspectives: bringing a variety of eyes to an event or person. This is no guarantee that we will get to the core of what actually happened, or who a person really is, but it will remind us of the varieties of ways people can interpret the same set of facts. Crucial to this point is to seek out the silent characters in any historical narrative. Why aren't they heard from and why has our Historian kept them out of his story? What difference would it make to his thesis, and what new conclusions would we draw if these silent characters were introduced to the drama?
I think a great deal can be understood about the Character of History when we try to listen to those historical characters kept historically silent.