This Valedictory Lecture marks my retirement from the post of Regius Professor of History at Cambridge and, more generally, the end of my career as a university teacher; so it prompts above all reflections on my career as a university teacher. It began at the University of Stirling in Scotland in 1972, and it did not begin well. In my first ever seminar, confronted by a class of first-year undergraduates to whom I had set reading on the origins of the French Revolution a week before, I was greeted by a stony silence in response to every question I posed. ‘Why aren’t you talking?’, I asked – ‘Have you done the reading?’ They nodded. Eventually one of the bolder spirits piped up. ‘Well surr’, he said, ‘It’s like this: we havenae spoken to an English pairsson befoore!’ The following weekend I asked my Scottish colleague and friend Alan Forrest how he got them to talk. ‘Easy’, he said: ‘I memorise the Scottish football results. “Seven-nil for Hamilton Academicals on Saturday”, I say: “Fantastic goal by McGuigan!’ ‘And – ?’ I asked. ‘And then I steer the conversation round to the French Revolution.’ It was a trick I never quite mastered.
Stirling was a steep learning curve, and an induction session led by Donald Bligh, author of a recently published book entitled What’s the Use of Lectures?, in which he proved comprehensively that they were of no use at all, did not help much, not least because his own lecture was so tedious that most of us gave up listening after twenty minutes, as his book indeed predicted we would. What I did learn is that while organization, clarity, structure and coherence are important for the lecturer, what really counts are enthusiasm, passion and originality if you want to hold an audience’s attention and be of some use to them. I gradually learned by experience some of the tricks of the trade in seminar leading, though like everyone else I basically had to learn on the job. Acting lessons from Vanessa Redgrave, voice training at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and, much later, at a time when I had become dissatisfied with my lecturing technique, training sessions with the wonderful Diana Dent, a retired thesp, helped a lot too. I hope that despite many years of giving the same lectures on different occasions, my own attention doesn’t fade faster than that of the students, and I trust that I never fell so low as to conform to the old adage that lectures have the tendency to go from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without going through the mind of either.
This was the seventies, and among the teenage undergraduates at Stirling there was a leavening of mature Glaswegian trade unionists, all either Communists, like, at the time, John Reid, who later became Home Secretary under Tony Blair, or anarchists, or on the left of the Labour Party, and two seminars I ran, one on Marxist historiography, with John Morrill before he came to Cambridge, and one on the history of anarchism, provided enormous intellectual and political excitement, reaching a high point in a debate staged between Marx and Bakunin, which replicated one I had heard during my postgraduate years at St Antony’s College Oxford between the Marxologist Chimen Abramsky and the editor of Bakunin’s collected works Artur Lehning: ‘You were just sitting in the British Museum when I was organizing revolutions all over Europe!’ – ‘You were a total failure in everything you did, your politics weren’t based on any kind of scientific principle!’ The result, needless to say, was inconclusive.
These experiences made me realise how exciting it could be to teach mature students, as indeed it was much later, in the 1990s, at Birkbeck College in London. I remember for example one class where I asked why the seemingly unprepossessing Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had managed first to get elected as French President then establish himself as the Emperor Napoleon III: ‘Easy’, said one student who worked as an advertising executive during the day: ‘Poor product, but great packaging’.
Teaching, at Birkbeck, at Stirling, and at the University of East Anglia, where I spent the years 1976 to 1989, posed the challenge of being asked to explain one’s views with clarity and conviction to an audience of sceptical, sometimes unenthusiastic and often under-prepared students, and answer difficult questions about one’s own arguments, sometimes revising them in the process. By the early 1980s I was teaching a combination of general European history, mostly in the nineteenth century, and survey courses on modern Germany and Austria. From 1982 I taught a document-based final year Special Subject on Nazi Germany, transferred it to Birkbeck and then to Cambridge; the course eventually became the basis for my three volumes on the Third Reich, just as my European history lectures at UEA, at Birkbeck and at Columbia University in New York in 1980 form the starting-point for the book I’m writing at the moment on European History from 1815 to 1914.
The state of play in European History in the 1970s was indicated by the fact that the survey course on European Social History at East Anglia was taught by the French, Spanish and Italian historians, all of them followers of the Annales school, with its emphasis on the longue durée. The parallel survey course on European Political History was taught by the Russian and German historians, who worked on twentieth-century military, diplomatic and revolutionary history.
A way of overcoming my sense of frustration at being trapped in a course on European political history and not being allowed to teach social or economic history was presented by John Savile, then at the SSRC, who encouraged me to set up a series of international workshops on German social history, that produced half a dozen volumes of essays, and forged close links between young British and young German historians in the process, to our mutual benefit.
The influences were not just Anglo-German. The Annales school also had an impact on my own generation of PhD students and young lecturers, naturally enough since many of the postgraduates researching at Oxford under the supervision of Theodore Zeldin were among my friends. The English Marxist historians, particularly Christopher Hill, and Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, were just then in the course of publishing their most influential works. And then there was the History Workshop movement, originated by Raph Samuel, which generated a huge sense of excitement during its annual conferences along with its weekly seminars in the social history group, at St Antony’s, where you could learn an enormous amount about the processes and pitfalls of historical research, particularly reading state-generated sources ‘against the grain’, a lesson that stood me in good stead when it came to ploughing through thousands of police reports in the Hamburg State Archives later on.
All of this generated with a wealth of example the conviction that people make their own history, even if it’s not under circumstances of their own choosing; they do not have it made for them. I decided in my doctorate to apply this insight to the history of modern Germany. I had already become interested in the recent German past through growing up on the outskirts of the East End of London, where as a child I saw the bombed-out rows of terraced houses and wondered about the people who had caused this terrible damage, played with the gas-masks in my uncle’s air-raid shelter, and listened to my parents and their friends swap reminiscences of the war. It seemed important to ask why the Germans had behaved as they did in 1914-18 and 1933-45.
The still-dominant British view of the reasons for the rise of Nazism was represented by A. J. P. Taylor’s The Course of German History, which saw it in terms heavily influenced by his mentor Sir Lewis Namier as deeply embedded in the German past. Taylor was an almost constant topic of conversation amongst us undergraduates at Oxford, although he no longer lectured there. His taste for controversy was both fascinating, and, as I discovered for myself in later life, infectious. Like the wartime propagandists, Robert Vansittart and Rohan Butler, Taylor saw Nazism adumbrated in evey shadowy corner of German political consciousness since the days of Martin Luther, or at least the time of the rise of German nationalism in the nineteenth century.
But even more exciting was the approach in German history represented by Fritz Fischer and his pupils and their allies in the so-called Bielefeld School, led by Hans-Ulrich Wehler. Fischer, whose Griff nach der Weltmacht, translated into English in 1968 as Germany’s Bid for World Power, was the first book fully to reveal the enormous extent and ambition of Germany’s aims in World War I, including not only the complete domination of Europe but also the displacement of the British Empire as the global hegemon. Fischer broke a taboo in the German historical profession that had been undamaged since 1918 by reading back this ambition to the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Previous German historians had maintained a consensus, directed against the war guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles, behind the view that Germany was no more responsible than any other country for the war, and did not intend to use it to conquer the rest of Europe. Fischer completely destroyed the second of these propositions, but the first remained hotly contested. In the ensuing very public controversy Fischer gave as good as he got.
I was an undergraduate in Oxford when he first gave a visiting lecture, whose importance was underlined by the presence of virtually every modern historian of note in the university. I determined to devote my PhD to the long-term analysis of a liberal movement of social reform from the 1890s to the 1930s as a case-study of liberal values in Germany, to see if they existed, and if and when they decayed, weakening the resistance to Nazism. At the suggestion of Jill Stephenson, who had just finished a dissertation on women in Nazi Germany, I chose the feminist movement.
What I discovered was a large, well organized and in parts radical movement that put into question the whole idea of Wilhelmine Germany as a static, hidebound, docile and conservative society, the antechamber of the third Reich. But I also found that the liberal values of the movement came under severe attack in the last few years before the outbreak of the war, and went into a serious decline in the Weimar Republic until it fell victim to the aggression of the Nazis, whom many of its members supported. Its trajectory began in a similar way to that of other feminist movements, but diverged significantly from about 1912, and to underpin the comparative element in the analysis I also published a study of the more radical Social Democratic women’s movement, showing how it was not supported by the Marxist left as previous historians had argued, but marginalized by it as an irrelevance to the class struggle; and a short comparative book, building on the course I taught on the topic. I recently saw the book described in a bibliography as ‘older, but still useful’, which is nowadays how I like to be thought of myself.
When I presented my doctoral research at a conference on Imperial Germany in 1977, Wehler was dismissive: ‘what difference do a few emancipated women make?’ he asked rhetorically. Fischer, a charismatic figure whom I got to know when I was based in Hamburg for a year, was far more welcoming than other senior German historians, who thought my PhD topic either eccentric or irrelevant: ‘Terrific!’ he exclaimed when I told him about it, ‘Grossartig!’ It was a telling example of how he inspired his pupils with his enthusiasn and support.
Yet in evenings spent drinking with his assistants and those of his local conservative rival Egmont Zechlin, such as Volker Ullrich, who thought like them, it became clear that Fischer had responded to criticisms of his arguments not by modifying them but by radicalizing them, until he saw Germany deliberately launching the First World War as a bid for world power planned at a secret meeting held by its leading generals and statesmen long before, in December 1912.
It was wonderful in my early twenties to be part of such a crusading atmosphere, but my own research and that of my contemporaries like David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley was turning up empirical evidence about Imperial Germany that was beginning to undermine the cause. With a vibrant associational life and a hyperactive political culture, Wilhelmine Germany, as we argued in a book of essays I edited, in 1978,was far more than ‘a puppet theatre, with Junkers and industrialists pulling the strings, and middle and lower classes dancing jerkily across the stage of history towards the final curtain of the Third Reich’. We pitted British history from below against the Fischer-Wehler view of an Imperial Germany as an authoritarian state and hierarchical society dominated by an aristocratic elite, and created a considerable controversy among German historians as they reacted allergically to this unexpected criticism from the left, and from young historians based in another country.
Two other influences gave pause for thought as well. The first was the dazzling and alarming figure of Richard Cobb, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, whose long years in France had convinced him that to study a foreign country you had to acquire a ‘second identity’, in his case French as well as British. His doctoral students were everywhere, all of them mesmerized by the romantic idea of becoming French. Applying this idea to the study of Germany was rather less romantic, but so strong was the prevailing ‘us and them’ mood among the older generation of British historians that it was virtually inevitable we should react against it and pursue the seductive and ultimately illusory project laid before us by Cobb. For many months during my doctoral research I spoke only German and mixed only with Germans; I lived in a commune in Berlin, where my essential Britishness came to the fore when the bathroom door was removed to help build socialist personalities and combat individualism among the commune’s members. While briefly living the lifestyle immortalized by the alternative cartoonist Gerhard Seyfried, I learned here too to gain some distance from the views of the people I mixed with, many of which seemed to me quixotic and without much relation to the realities of the modern Germany I had come to know.
The second influence, equally paradoxical, was the early work of Perry Anderson in the New Left Review, which portrayed Britain, much as Harold Wilson was doing in a more moderate and pragmatic way in the Sixties, as a hidebound, hierarchical, backward-looking society where the bourgeois revolution had failed to run its course. In the light of this argument, listening to Wehler and the Bielefeld School holding up Britain as a liberal utopia from whose path to modernity Germany had so fatally deviated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was startling indeed.
Anderson’s famous claim that ‘the British working class needs theory’ was unrealistic, to say the least, but it was certainly true that history needed theory, a lesson also imparted in the famous 1966 special issue of the TLS on ‘new ways in history’. Yet theory’s relation to the remains the past leaves behind for us to read is not one-way, but a dialogue, in which we use those remains to test the theories we are trying to apply. I tried to demonstrate this by example in my study of capital punishment in German history, Rituals of Retribution, which employed the empirical evidence together with concepts and analytical tools drawn from other disciplines such as anthropology to interrogate the grand theories of Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault and Philippe Ariès over the longue durée, stretching from 1532 to 1987. Here the challenge was to use a variety of analytical tools to explain why what seemed on the face of it to be cruel and barbaric punishments survived through the first half of the nineteenth century, along with the ritual practices associated with them, an exercise that meant finding the rational in the seemingly irrational, as Hobsbawm and Thompson had done with subjects such as banditry, millenarianism and food riots. The subject was eminently political, but required the tools of social and cultural history to do it justice.
It was particularly important to disregard conventional intradisciplinary boundaries and see what would come from mixing up various historical subdisciplines and approaches together. Thus in my postdoctoral research I made a point of linking economic, demographic, social, medical, political and cultural history in a local study, conceived along the lines of the classic French regional monographs, examining the commonly accepted opposition of liberal British values and Prussian authoritarianism through a study of state and society in the great cholera epidemic of 1892 in the liberal city of Hamburg. The epidemic in what was known as Germany’s most English city revealed a dogmatic adherence among the mercantile elite to the principles and practices of free trade and the minimal state, republicanism and bourgeois self-confidence, combined with a willingness to intervene in society only to police dissent and stifle attempts to bring about democratic change. It was perhaps not wholly irrelevant that I was writing the study during the heyday of Thatcherism in the 1980s. At any rate, the opposition of bourgeois liberal Britain and aristocratic authoritarian Germany seemed to me in the light of all this as little more than a product of British wartime propaganda.
In thinking of history as a broad and capacious discipline, I was following the lead of the Regius Professor in Oxford during my time there, Hugh Trevor-Roper, who for all his appalling snobbery and reactionary politics exerted a major influence through his extraordinarily wide interests, extending from witchcraft in the sixteenth century through inventions of Scottish tradition in the eighteenth to the nature of Nazi ideology and the ethos of Hitler’s entourage in the twentieth. He seemed to know boundaries neither of language nor of culture in his work, and he was the very opposite of the narrowly conventional diplomatic and political historians who still dominated the scene in the fifties and sixties. In the Oxford of the sixties and seventies his was on the whole a liberating influence on the younger generation of historians, many of whom he went out of his way to help.
It was also incidentally Trevor-Roper who invented the practice of Regius Professors delivering a Valedictory Lecture. And his influence was significant in another much more important respect. He saw the Regius Professor very much as a public office, a view shared both in principle and in practice by his successor Sir Michael Howard. It seemed obvious, looking at their examples, and at those of leading German historians like Hans-Ulrich Wehler who wrote regularly for the press and broadcast frequently on radio and television, that historians could make an important contribution to public debate. It was not true that they were merely destined to observe it.
At the same time, they showed that engaging with the public did not have to compromise academic standards or sacrifice scholarship for money. It’s a difficult tightrope to tread, and not all the public historians of our own time have managed to stay on it. However, in the short book, Cosmopolitan Islanders, that emerged from my inaugural lecture here in Cambridge, I hope I showed that many British historians who have written for a wider public have managed to pull off bridging the gap between academic history and popular history, unlike the majority of their colleagues on the European continent.
Here too, the links between teaching, research and publication have been vital ones. Cosmopolitan Islanders emerged from an optional course I taught on the M.Phil. in Modern European History that I set up here in Cambridge, while the first book I published that had an impact beyond the walls of the ivory tower, In Defence of History, grew out of a course of lectures delivered in the mid-1990s to the Birkbeck joint degree in Philosophy, Politics and History that I was asked to deliver when the previous lecturer, Roy Foster, left for a Chair in Oxford.
It was this book, published in 1997, combined with the chapters on the Third Reich in Rituals of Retribution, that prompted the London solicitor Anthony Julius to ask me to act as an expert witness for the defence in the libel action brought by David Irving against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history. The three-month trial, and the two years of preparation that went into the defence, vindicated the ability of the historian to distinguish between fact and invention, genuine historical documents and falsified ones, reasonable interpretations grounded in the evidence from politically prejudices from ones rooted in the manipulation and distortion of the evidence. Irving was defeated, and Holocaust denial and its exponents were discredited. Needless to say, of course, the Holocaust denial community rejected the court’s findings, but in doing so they only earned the ridicule and contempt of the media.
The trial was a very public event, and signalled the fact that history plays a greater and more prominent role in our national life in the early twenty-first century than it has done for many decades. Public history is now an accepted part of British culture. Politicians in particular have begun to use it to further their ideological purposes in ways that they have not done before, certainly not in the years when Tony Blair, probably the least historically conscious of all modern British Prime Ministers, was in power. In particular, an invented patriotic narrative of British history has come to be regarded by some politicians as a way of fostering a positive sense of national identity, and overcoming the imagined divisiveness of a multicultural society.
These views were expressed above all in the draft History National Curriculum produced by Michael Gove in 2013, which proposed to force on students and teachers an ideologically loaded version of British history, to the exclusion of the history of any other part of the world, depriving them of the opportunity for free discussion and critical thinking which are the core elements in history teaching and learning. Names and dates were to replace the teaching of analytical skills that Ofsted reports showed students enjoyed so much in history lessons: making up their own minds. Fortunately through the combined efforts of the Historical Association, the British Academy’s History Sections, and the Royal Historical Society, the Secretary of State was forced to withdraw his proposals and substitute for them a broader, more permissive and more professionally based national curriculum that that sees history education as helping to produce a new generation of citizens who are at ease in a globalized world and able to think for themselves.
In the past few months, however, the argument has erupted again, this time over Michael Gove’s attempt to turn the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War into a narrow-minded and jingoistic orgy of patriotic self-congratulation. Central to this position is the assertion that the war was started deliberately by Germany and aimed squarely against Great Britain. In January this year, he asserted that ‘those who fought were not dupes but… committed to defending the western liberal order’. He blamed what he called left-wing historians for denigrating the patriotism and courage of the troops by portraying the war as a misbegotten shambles. Those supposed left-wing academics included, of course, myself. ‘Richard Evans’, said Mr Gove, ‘may hold a professorship, but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’ (Ouch!)
In replying to this unprovoked attack, I pointed out that one of Britain’s allies was the despotic regime of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia, hardly a beacon of the western liberal order, and that 40 per cent of adult males in 1914 still didn’t have the vote, so defence of western democratic values was hardly on the agenda in 1914. And of course far from the actual conduct of the war being condemned as a misbegotten shambles by left-wing academics, it was first portrayed as such by the right-wing Tory MP Alan Clark in his book The Donkeys, a biting critique of the incompetence of the British generals in the conflict. Yet other right-wing commentators have entered the fray in defence of Mr Gove, including Max Hastings, whose book Catastrophe portrays the war as the direct result of German expansionism, and Boris Johnson, who responded to the Opposition spokesman on Education, himself a trained historian, by declaring: ‘If Tristram Hunt seriously denies that German militarism was at the root of the First World War, then he is not fit to do his job, either in opposition or in government, and should resign’.
Arguments of this sort are not being rehearsed in other European countries. And yet they are now being used again in Britain. And the cultural turn in historical studies has added a new dimension to them. For example, James Hawes’s recent book Englanders and Huns portrays the outbreak of war in 1914 as the inevitable outcome of decades of mounting rivalry and hatred between the two nations. The book points out that many British writers and travellers to Germany throughout the nineteenth century found the country dirty and backward and its inhabitants lacking in social graces, bound to state authority and social hierarchy, and that many Germans found the British arrogant, stand-offish, unwilling to compromise with local customs or speak the German language, and prone to ostentatious displays of their wealth and their supposed superiority.
But of course this wasn’t a unique feature of Anglo-German relations. It’s true of British relations with every other Continental country too. As Robert and Isabelle Tombs show in their marvellous book That Sweet Enemy, the British found the French over-talkative, vainglorious and boastful, corrupt and decadent, their politics unstable and their taste for revolution a threat to peace. The Fashoda incident, when British and French expeditions met head-on in North Africa, almost led to war, until that is, the French withdrew. A British cartoon portraying the French explorer as an organ-grinder’s monkey caused as much offence in France as a French cartoon showing Britain as the wolf in the Red Riding Hood story did in Britain. The British political world was obsessed with Russia, fearing that as it expanded across Central Asia Russia was aiming to invade India: this was what ‘the Great Game’ was about. In 1912 a British Foreign office mandarin wrote: “It would be far more disadvantageous to have an unfriendly France and Russia than an unfriendly Germany. [Germany can] give us plenty of annoyance, but it cannot really threaten any of our more important interests’. Russia, by contrast, could. Germanophobia in Britain, like Anglophobia in Germany, was a product, not a cause of the outbreak of war.
And then there were of course as many positive opinions of Germany among the British and Britain among the Germans as negative ones. Miranda Seymour’s recent book Noble Endeavours indeed tells the story of ‘four centuries of profound, if rivalrous, friendship’ between Britain and Germany in an account that is as one-sided as the thesis of centuries of hatred is. Recent research, also benefiting from the cultural turn, has stressed the breadth and depth of cultural exchanges, economic interpenetration and social interaction between Britain and Germany before the war. So whatever else it was, the outbreak of war in August 1914 was not the inevitable outcome of decades of Anglo-German hatred.
As late as 1912, there was a strong current of opinion in Britain that regarded the Kaiser’s Germany as a friend. Indeed, British popular opinion following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th June 1914 was resolutely against taking any action. It was initially pro-Austrian, blaming the Serbs and saying they had to arrest all the culprits. The Daily News (“Why we must not fight”) said there was no conflict of interest between UK and Germany. Crushing Germany would lead to Russian dictatorship over Europe. The Anglo-German naval arms race had ended in a resounding victory for the British that had exposed the essential irrationality of Tirpitz’s plans. The idea that the Kaiser and his ministers and generals planned a war at the famous ‘war council’ of December 1912 has long been exploded: there was no paper trail leading onwards to July 1914. There is no evidence of any German intention or plan to attack Britain and its Empire before the infamous September Plan of 1914.
Only on 2nd August did Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey persuade the cabinet that a German invasion of France and violation of Belgium neutrality would be a casus belli. In their recent books, for my money by far the best that have appeared so far on the origins of the war, Chris Clark and Margaret MacMillan, with differing emphases, have charted the course of events that led to war, and I don’t want to go over them again here. One way not to study the conflict, of course, is to try and posit alternatives to what actually happened: all this gives us is wishful thinking, usually of a politically motivated kind, as I argue in my latest book, Altered Pasts; it does not help us understand why the war broke out, though the main proponent of the idea that Britain should not have fought the war at all, Niall Ferguson, is a self-proclaimed man of the right, as Michael Gove might like to note.
What I want to stress here is that to ask why a general war broke out in Europe specifically in August 1914 is to ask a different though obviously closely related question from that of why a general war broke out in Europe at all; and both questions are posed by the general history of Europe from 1815 to 1914 that I’m writing at the moment.
Here, surely, it is important to take a step back from the sequence of events and look at what James Joll, who was Sub-Warden of St Antony’s when I was there as a graduate student, called the unspoken assumptions that lay behind the actions of the statesman, generals and diplomats a century ago assumptions that one can now expand from Joll’s original list to include notions of masculine honour, Social Darwinist views of international relations as a struggle between races for the survival of the fittest, popular militarist and nationalist passions fanned by the new mass-circulation press and by vocal and well organized pressure groups, fear of degeneracy and decline, and a widespread fear, in an age of assassination, of appearing weak in the face of the spreading menace of individual terrorism. And of course there was the widespread though far from universal belief that the next war would be quickly and easily won, like the wars of German unification in the 1870s or indeed almost all the wars of Europe in the nineteenth century. Nobody seemed to take cognisance of the example of the American Civil War or the invention of barbed wire, in 1874, and the portable machine gun a decade later, developments that turned the scales in favour of defence.
The cultural turn has played a part in viewing 1914 in this broader perspective. And if we look back at the past fifteen or twenty years, there are two further historiographical developments that place the outbreak of the First World War in a new light. The achievement of Fischer and his followers was to set the First World War in a long-term social and political continuity going back at least as far as the middle of the nineteenth century but also, crucially, moving forward to the coming of the Third Reich. But recently the global turn in historical studies has generated new perceptions of these problems. In my own case, these have come particularly from the 30 or so PhD students I’ve had the privilege of supervising at Cambridge.
Many of these have reflected the global turn in historical studies, which has generated a shift of perception in historical studies that has increasingly placed the nation-state in a broader, transnational context, looking not only at how it related to other nation-states but also how it was affected by wider developments. Nazism for example appears in recent work as an ideology drawing on sources from many countries from Russia to France, Italy to Turkey, rather than being the culmination of exclusively German intellectual traditions, as used to be the case.
The global turn has also enabled us to see 1914 not as a clash between European nation-states, but as a struggle between empires, whether they were global, like the British or the French, or land-based, like the Russian, the Turkish or the Austro-Hungarian. In the European political culture of the early twentieth century, imperial and naval rivalries generated mutual mistrust and suspicion that found their expression in the decisions taken by statesmen in 1914, whatever the precise terms in which those decisions were justified. What lay behind these was the dream of empire, a dream that for Germany turned into a nightmare after 1914, as one colony after another was taken from it; a reminder that the war was indeed a world war, it was not, as too many commentators in this country seem to think, a war confined to the narrow lines of the trenches on the Western Front.
The reason why public debate and commemoration in Britain seem, at the moment at least, to be limited in this way is linked to the second recent historiographical trend, and that is the growing imbrication of history and memory. It is now almost impossible to write about the Third Reich in the years of its existence, 1933-1945, without also thinking about how its memory survived into the postwar era, the transformations it underwent, the silences and evasions it sometimes generated. The controversy that has erupted in Britain about the outbreak of the First World War registers in a similar way the invasion of history by memory, generated by the attempt by some politicans to conscript historical memory into the service of national identity, a national identity defined as entirely separate from, and in opposition to, the collective identity of Europe. When memory becomes myth, it’s the historian’s duty to interrogate it; but historians also have a part to play in bringing their knowledge and skills to bear on the issues of reparation and restitution that memory often raises, as I’ve discovered in my work on the Spoliation Advisory Panel, which advises the UK government on claims for the restitution to the families of their original owners of artworks looted during the Nazi era. Public memory is now a central part of political culture, and this offers historians opportunities as well as challenges.
Public memory often coalesces round notable anniversaries, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power, in 1983, was the occasion not only for one of the most intensive and widespread debates about history but also for one of its most notorious forgeries. I discussed earlier the influence of Hugh Trevor-Roper on historical studies, and since he more or less invented the idea of the Valedictory Lecture, it’s appropriate perhaps to end with him. Famously, of course, after a career spent exposing the forgeries, falsifications, errors and misdemeanours of others, he was royally hoisted by his own petard when he became the first historian publicly to identity the spurious ‘Hitler Diaries’ forged by Konrad Kujau and published in the Sunday Times, although it’s often forgotten that he was also the first historian publicly to cast doubt on their authenticity. It damaged his reputation almost irreperably, though it is now being restored by the posthumous publication of a series of superb books, and compulsively readable letters and diaries which reveal him to be, perhaps unexpectedly, one of the great nature-writers of our age.
But the person who, in this country at least, suffered most, was the editor of the Sunday Times who paid for the diaries and published them, Frank Giles, who was dismissed from his post with the empty title of Editor Emeritus. At the ceremony held to mark the occasion, Giles asked the newspaper’s owner, Ruper Murdoch, what the title meant. ‘Well, it’s Latin, Frank’, Murdoch said: ‘The E is for out, and the meritus means you deserve it’. The Cambridge rule is that professors become emeritus professors on the 30th September following their sixty-seventh birthday. Mine’s on the 29th. So as I head towards the status of Emeritus Regius Professor, I would like to thank all the students I’ve taught for all that they’ve given me, far more, I’m sure, than I’ve given them.