I was born in Woodford, Essex, and grew up in Loughton and Theydon Bois, two villages further down the Central Line, the latter on the edge of Epping Forest. My first school experience was at Oaklands School, Loughton, Essex, where my mother taught. From 1955 to 1959 I attended St Aubyn’s School, Woodford, London E17, then went on a county scholarship from 1959 to 1966 to Forest School, Walthamstow, London, E17, where I obtained A-level Grade ‘A’ in History, English, Latin, and Ancient History.
From 1966 to 1969 I was Open Scholar in Modern History, Jesus College, Oxford, where I was awarded First-Class Honours in Modern History in 1969. I attended lectures by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, James Campbell, Jack Galbraith, Penry Williams and many other leading historians of the time. Apart from the required courses in British history, where my tutors were Richard Grassby and John Walsh, I took the Crusades further subject with Maurice Keen, and the Commonwealth and Protectorate special subject with Keith Thomas. I was awarded the university’s Stanhope Essay Prize in 1969, for an essay on the set topic of John Knox; this also involved reading an extract at Encaenia, in the presence of Harold Macmillan, as Chancellor of the University.
I then moved on to St. Antony’s College, Oxford, where I was a junior member from 1969 to 1972. My doctoral project was funded by the Social Science Research Council, and involved two years’ research in Germany, which from 1970 to 1972 were partly funded by a Hanseatic Scholarship of the FVS (Alfred Toepfer) Foundation. The first year I spent in Hamburg; the second I divided between Berlin and Oxford. In Hamburg I was a member of the Europa Kolleg, a self-governing graduate residential community in Klein-Flottbek.
I was enrolled in Hamburg University but never attended any courses. I submitted my thesis in October 1972, and was examined by F. L. Carsten and Agatha Ramm. I delayed taking my degree so I could take it simultaneously with my M.A., in 1973.
I have collected several other degrees in the course of my career. In 1990 I was awarded a Litt D by the University of East Anglia, and in 2001 a Ph.D. by incorporation, University of Cambridge (necessary in order to give me borrowing privileges at the university library after I leave or retire). In November 2012 I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of London. In 2015 I took the degree of Doctor of Letters at Cambridge University and was awarded an Honorary D.Litt by Oxford University.
From 1972 to 1976 I was Lecturer in History at the University of Stirling, Scotland. I joined the AUT (later UCU) immediately and remained a member up to 2005, when I resigned because I felt the union was not representing the interests of university teachers; I also objected to its antisemitic pursuit of an academic boycott of Israel (antisemitic because it did not pursue the policy in relation to other, much more objectionable regimes). While at Stirling I was also a DAAD Research Scholar at the Institute for European History, Mainz (1975) and I obtained a British Academy Small Research Grant in 1976 for research, and also a publication grant from the Sir Ernest Casell Educational Trust publication grant the following year.
From 1976 to 1983 I was Lecturer in European History, University of East Anglia, Norwich, in the School of European Studies (later renamed School of Modern Languages and European History). By this time I had published article and books (see publications section), and I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1978.
While at East Anglia I served in the Fall Semester of 1980 as Visiting Associate Professor of European History, Columbia University, New York City, U S A, and in the Spring of 1981 I was a Visiting Lecturer in History, Umeå University, Sweden, which invited me to teach because a Swedish translation of one of my books was being used as the basic textbook in a history course.
This was a time of great expansion in the historical profession, and many new societies were being founded. In 1979 I was a founder member of the German History Society, serving on its committee until 1988, and as Chair from 1989 to 1992; and I also joined the Social History Society (I left it in 2003 when I felt it was focusing too much on British history and was no longer of much use to my work). In 1980 I became a member of the Association for the Study of German Politics, leaving it in 2005 when the cost of subscribing to its journal no longer seemed to be justified in view of the fact that the Association had long since lost its originally historical approach to modern German politics.
In 1979 I received a grant from the SSRC/DFG Research Exchange Scheme for Social Scientists, spending the time researching in Berlin. The following year, 1980, I was awarded an Institute of Historical Research grant from the Twenty-Seven Foundation, and in 1980 I was again a DAAD Research Scholar, this time at the Free University of Berlin. The following year I became a Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Free University of Berlin (renewed 1985, 1989). I also received British Academy overseas conference grants in 1980 and 1982, both for conferences in the USA.
In 1983 the Chair of European History at the University of East Anglia became vacant on the retirement of Werner Mosse; I applied for the job and was appointed Professor of European History, University of East Anglia, Norwich, a post I held until 1989.
Visiting positions during this period included a spell in 1986 as Visiting Fellow, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra; the stay included a lecture tour of New Zealand, funded by British Council and Goethe Institute lecturing grants. In 1987 I was British Council Visiting Fellow at the Karl-Marx-University, Leipzig, GDR, researching the history of the death penalty.
In 1987 I published “Death in Hamburg”, a project for which I received a British Academy Small Research Grant in 1985; the book won the 1987 Wolfson Literary Award for History and the 1989 William H Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine. It resulted in my being appointed to the Hamburg Senate’s committee to organize the centenary commemoration of the 1892 epidemic, at which I gave the principal address in the City Hall; this was rewarded in 1993 with the Medaille für Kunst und Wissenschaft des Senats der Freien-und Hansestadt Hamburg (civic medal for cultural services).
In 1989 as a result of an internal London University inquiry into the History Department at Birkbeck, it was decided to fill the Chair of History vacated by Roderick Floud; I applied and was appointed. Thus from 1989 to 1998 I was Professor of History, Birkbeck College, University of London, serving as Vice-Master of the College 1993-97 and Acting Master in 1997 after the appointment of the Master, Baroness Blackstone, to the Blair government.
In 1993 I was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. I became a Member of Modern History Section of the British Academy; in 1995-8 served on the Academy Activities Committee; in 1995-8 on the Meetings Committee; from 2001-4 on the Section Standing Committee as Chairman of Section 2001-4, which made me ex officio a Member of the Humanities Group.
In 1994 I was awarded the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History for the 20th-century sections of my (then unpublished) book on capital punishment in Germany. In 1993 I was DAAD Senior Research Scholar, University of Karlsruhe. In 1994 I was also awarded £69,000 from Wellcome Trust for ‘Disease and the Social Order in Modern Europe’ for Dr Dorothy Porter;
1996 a British Academy Small Research Grant; in
1997 British Academy 3-year postdoctoral fellowship for Dr Laurence Cole, £71,312.
Other grants included (1991) a Lecturing grant from the British Council (Hamburg and Amsterdam) and in 1993 a Lecturing grant from Anglo-German Society, Bonn as well as, in 1996, a British Academy overseas conference grant.
In this period I also began judging book prizes: from 1995 onwards as a Member, Panel of Judges, Wolfson Literary Awards for History; from 1996 until 2014 as a member of the Panel of Judges, Fraenkel Prizes in Contemporary History; from 2011 until my retirement I was Chairman of the Judges’ Panel, and I instituted a major change in the requirements for the Prizes in 2012. From 1996 to 1969 I was a member of the Panel of Judges of the short-lived René-Kuczynski-Preis für Geschichte; this was funded by Thomas Kuczynski through a Foundation and was awarded to the best book of the year on German social and economic history; it foundered when disputes between the other judges made it unworkable.
From 1966 to 1969 I was a Patron of the Holocaust Exhibition Wing of the Imperial War Museum. This involved checking through the captions on the exhibits. I suggested numerous changes, not all of which were accepted (especially in the area of German resistance, which I thought the exhibition short-changed).
In 1997 my experience of being a Vice-Chancellor (Birkbeck is an independent, degree-awarding body like the other Colleges of London University, directly funded by the HEFCE, so the Master is ex officio a member of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, now Universities UK), convinced me I would not be able to write any more History if I continued down the managerial road, so when the Professorship of Modern History at the University of Cambridge became vacant on the retirement of Derek Beales, I applied for the position and was appointed on the recommendation of the Board of Electors without either an interview or a presentation.
I deferred taking up the post until I had completed my term at Birkbeck and seen in the new Master, Tim O’Shea. On arrival in Cambridge in 1998 I was also elected a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where I remained until 2010.
I had two visiting posts in this period. In 2006 I served as Golo Mann Distinguished Visiting Professor at Claremont-McKenna College, California; and in 2007 I was Visiting Distinguished Miegunyah Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. In 2008 I also attended by invitation the Fourth Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates in Jordan, organized by King Abdullah and Elie Wiesel.
A number of honorary fellowships were awarded in this period. In 1998 I was elected an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford; in 1999 an Honorary Fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London; and in 2011 an Honorary Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge.
In 2000 I was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 2010 I was appointed one of the Founding Fellows of the Learned Society of Wales.
In 2005 and 2006 I was a History Honoree in the Los Angeles Times Book Awards; this honour, for, respectively, the second and third volumes of my Third Reich trilogy, involved being flown out for an Oscars-style ceremony in LA, where the five Honorees in each category, including History, attended a gala award ceremony and reception in a movie theatre; I didn’t win the prize on either occasion, but it was great fun all the same.
Grants during this period were mainly for research fellows to work with me. In 1997 I was awarded a British Academy 3-year postdoctoral fellowship for Dr Laurence Cole, £71,312, to work on the later history of the Habsburg Monarchy.
Over the years I have acted as a referee and consultant for Oxford University Press (Oxford and New York), Cambridge University Press, Weidenfeld, Harvard University Press, Macmillan, Yale University Press, Berg, Harper-Collins, I.B. Tauris, Penguin, Boxtree Books, Unwin Hyman, Blackwell, Polity Press, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Rowohlt Verlag, etc..
I have also been a referee for research project proposals for SSRC/ESRC, Wellcome Trust, National Endowment for the Humanities (USA), British Academy, Humanities Research Board, Israel Science Foundation, Leverhulme Trust, and University of Manchester research fund. As a member of the Standing Committee of the Modern History Section of the British Academy I refereed all applications in the field for postdoctoral research fellowships, research leave, and similar schemes, as well as recommendations for the British Academy Book Prize (successful in 2001), and as Chairman of Section H10, I co-ordinated the views of the Standing Committee in these areas.
I have acted at various times as External Assessor for Chairs in Universities of Kent, Strathclyde and London. I also act frequently as an invited and independent assessor for tenure and full professorship applications in American and Australian universities and for readerships and personal chairs in British universities, as well as for Research Fellowships in Cambridge. I am regularly consulted by Search Committees for major chairs in the USA (most recently, for the ongoing search for a senior German historian to replace Ute Frevert at Yale).
In the last decade and a half have been awarded several grants for visiting fellows of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation:
- 1998-9 £26,000 Feodor Lynen postdoctoral research fellowship, Dr Wolfram Kaiser.
- 2001-2 £26,000 Feodor Lynen postdoctoral research fellowship, Dr Olaf Blaschke.
- 2003-4 £26,000 Feodor Lynen postdoctoral research fellowship, Dr Ulrike Lindner
- 2009-10 £26,000 Feodor Lynen postdoctoral research fellowship, Dr Patrick Schmidt
- 2010-11 £26,000 Feodor Lynen postdoctoral research fellowship, Dr Kim Priemel
- 2010-14 €105,000 DAAD grant, “Promoting German Studies in the UK: Germany and the World in the Age of Globalization”
- 2013-14 £52,000 Feodor Lynen postdoctoral research fellowships, Dr Anne-Kristin Sass and Dr Wencke Meteling
In 2013 I applied for and was awarded a Leverhulme Programme Grant on “Conspiracy and Democracy”. The total sum awarded for the 5-year programme was £1,584,611. As Principal Investigator on the project, which is based at CRASSH in Cambridge, I manage a programme with two co-investigators and seven postdoctoral researchers. The project’s website is at www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org.
In 2008 on the retirement of Quentin Skinner I applied for the Regius Professorship of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Prime Minister Gordon Brown had devolved the appointment of all 28 UK Regius Professors on to their respective universities, requiring them only to submit to him the name of the appointee (who had to have accepted the post in writing) for forwarding to the Queen. I was the first Regius appointed under this new procedure; after a presentation to the Faculty of History I was interviewed by a panel chaired by the Vice-Chancellor and including four external assessors (from Oxford, London, Harvard and Yale) and was appointed to the post by the Queen in October 2008.
Since journalists found it incomprehensible that ‘modern history’ at Cambridge began with the fall of the Roman Empire, and there were already Chairs of Modern and Medieval History at Cambridge, I immediately began the process of dropping the word ‘modern’ from the title, in conformity with practice in Oxford for some years; this took a year and required the permission of the Faculty Board, the General Board of the Faculties, the University Council, the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister and the Queen.
In 2010 I was elected President of Wolfson College, Cambridge, for a seven-year term. Since the Colleges and the Faculties are quite separate in Cambridge, unlike in Oxford, it is possible to hold this post in conjunction with a Professorship in the University. I retired from the Regius Professorship on reaching the statutory age in 2014 but continued at Wolfson College until the end of the term of office in September 2017. .
In 2006 and 2008 I gave public lectures as Visiting Professor of History, Gresham College, London. The College was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1597 to provide free instruction for the citizens of London; there are no examinations or courses as such, just lectures, all of which are available on the College’s website. In 2009 I was appointed Professor of Rhetoric, one of the original posts from 1597; nowadays this is used to provide lectures on History or Politics. My three-year term of office was extended for a fourth year in 2012. In 2014 I applied for the post of Provost of Gresham College and was appointed for an initial three-year term, renewable for another three years from 2017.
In 2014, in recognition of my successful campaign to force the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Michael Gove, to withdraw his proposals for revising the National History Curriculum, I was awarded the Norton Medlicott Medal of the Historical Association. In 2015 I was awarded the British Academy Leverhulme Medal and Prize for services to German history.
In 2012 I was appointed Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, for services to scholarship.