Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’ project and the project
officer, Danny Millum, will be speaking to Professor Sir Ian Kershaw
about his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and
academic profession of history.
Professor Kershaw, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Ian Kershaw: I was born in Oldham, just outside Manchester in April 1943. I went to St Bede’s College in Manchester – a Catholic grammar school – known to aficionados as the last bastion of pre-Renaissance scholasticism. It was an excellent school, which converted me in the sixth form to History. I really wanted to do modern languages but French was the only language available, which I took alongside Latin. History was my third, makeshift, subject. However, we had a wonderful History teacher (a Catholic priest, who later went on to be a Bishop) who got us involved in work on the Reformation, and I was inspired by that to the extent that I then changed my interests from languages to History. Since we were dealing with the period when Christian unity in Western Europe was dramatically ending, I wanted to move backwards in time, to the Middle Ages, rather than forwards.
So when I was at the University of Liverpool, where I did my undergraduate degree, I did everything I could that was medieval. I then went on to Oxford to do a DPhil, where again my topic was a medieval one, though I moved from the ecclesiastical history that was my main interest as an undergraduate to social/economic history.
While at Liverpool, I had discovered an important manuscript at Chatsworth, and did my DPhil on that at Merton College, Oxford. This 1000 page manuscript contained the accounts of Bolton Priory, an Augustinian priory in Yorkshire from 1286 to 1325, and I wrote an analysis of that for my thesis, entitled Bolton Priory: The Economy of a Northern Monastery, published by OUP in 1973. In 2001, I helped to produce an edition of this document as well. I’m still waiting for Hollywood to make an offer for the film rights!
From Oxford I got the first job I applied for, which happened to be back at Manchester. It was wonderful for me to go to such a renowned school of history to become a medievalist there, and for six years to teach medieval history, little thinking that in those six years I would undertake the first stages of converting to a historian of modern Germany. I made that big jump in 1974. I don’t think you’d be able to do it now with the RAE – it was difficult enough then.
So from 1975 I taught modern history at Manchester, where I went up the internal ladder, and in 1987 I moved to the chair of Modern History at Nottingham. I then came to Sheffield in 1989 and I’ve remained here ever since as chair of Modern History.
PO: So we’ve covered there my next question, which would have been how you came into the profession, and I would like to come back to the question of your conversion from medieval to modern. But I wondered if I could ask you something more about your influences, whether any teachers particularly influenced you, or any thinkers?
IK: Well, the first influence was my History teacher at St Bede’s, who was Father Geoffrey Burke, a marvellous teacher and I owe him a lot.
And thereafter, the first main intellectual influences, who are very important to me, were my tutors in medieval history at Liverpool. I was extremely fortunate, as I knew nothing about it in those days and had just applied at random. In fact, my school wanted me to go to Cambridge and do a Cambridge scholarship and I declined to do that, and I just happened to end up at Liverpool.
But I didn’t know that Liverpool had this wonderful galaxy of stars
of medieval history at the time and I profited massively from that.
So my big influences I suppose then – and they were formative ones –
were Professor Christopher Brooke (who later on went to become the Dixie
Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge), a great guiding light
for me; Henry Mayr-Harting (who later became the Regius Professor of
Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, and was a terrific inspiration as
a teacher and an expert on central medieval ecclesiastical history);
Robert Markus (my personal mentor at Liverpool and later on the Professor
of Medieval History at Nottingham – a great expert on early medieval
church history, with whom I studied a Special Subject on ‘The Age of
Pope Gregory the Great’); Dorothea Oschinsky (little known but much
treasured by those who knew her, who guided my first steps into the
social and economic history of the Middle Ages); Alec Myers (a fine
expert in later medieval English history); and Donald Matthew (who wrote
brilliantly on the Norman conquest). I hope I haven’t missed any out.
When I went to Oxford I moved within medieval history into a slightly different tack, working on this thesis on the accounts of Bolton Priory. And a lot of people that I knew or admired at Oxford were important to me.
I’d single out probably as one outright inspiration (though not a close contact of mine) Richard Southern, who was then the leading medievalist at Oxford and a fantastic teacher. More directly, Barbara Harvey (who later on wrote important works on the Westminster estates and on the Black Death) was then a Fellow of Somerville College. She was a good friend and mentor at the time.
My own supervisor was little known, but again extremely important to me then. Eric Stone was tutor at Keble College, and I think he had only written one article in his entire career, but it was a brilliant article and I was one of the few people to have read it. It was on profit and loss accountancy at Norwich Cathedral Priory – an absolutely formative piece.
PO: Not an RAE type man?
IK: [Laughs] Not an RAE type man, thank goodness. Eric Stone had a brilliant mind, and I learnt a lot from him. So those were the important figures at Oxford.
Another figure working in this field who was important to me at the time was Edward Miller at Cambridge, who actually had been at Sheffield, though I didn’t know him in his Sheffield manifestation.
I should mention two other important characters. Michael Postan at Cambridge, whose work was very influential (I should also mention Postan’s one time research assistant, Jan Titow, who was also excellent in this field and wrote some seminal essays. Later on he came to be a colleague of mine at Nottingham in the short time I was there), and last but not least Rodney Hilton. I knew all his works when he was at Birmingham and was much influenced and inspired by what he had written, and later on by him personally because he was an extraordinary individual and an absolutely leading light in this area. His reputation has remained intact to this day.
I think probably those were the key figures in medieval.
PO: And the last two you mentioned were economic historians…
IK: All the last few that I mentioned – Barbara Harvey, Edward Miller, Eric Stone, and then Postan, Titow and Hilton – were economic historians. In medieval history in general, the people that I thought were the key figures – not my personal influences, my personal tutors and so on – but the people whose works I really admired most and profited from most at the time, were Southern (who I’ve already mentioned) and Dom David Knowles, who was then at Cambridge and whom I had the great privilege of meeting a time or two. I think his works on the monastic and religious orders may well be the works I would take with me if I went on my desert island.
When I moved to modern history it was a very different ball game altogether.
PO: You’ve said that nowadays you think it’d be very difficult for someone to make the transition that you’ve made. Was there any precedent in the past for people moving between different disciplines within history to such an extent?
IK: I think there were a number of people who did move quite a way. I don’t know enough about their personal backgrounds to be able to say, but Knowles himself started as a classicist and then became Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. There were one or two people who moved from the medieval period to later periods, I think around the time that I did, but I can’t remember now their names or precise details about them.
Certainly it was extremely unusual and hard to do at time, to jump about seven centuries. I know nothing about the stuff that happened in those seven centuries between my periods!
I had to apply for a completely new job that had been created, absolutely independent of me, at Manchester University. I wasn’t going to apply for this job because I had no qualifications for it being a medievalist. I’d published already in medieval history but I’d published nothing in modern history, and undertaken at that point no serious research in it. My colleagues at Manchester, as I learnt subsequently, had agreed that should I apply for this job, they would grant me an interview (I suppose to save face) but the commitment would go no further than that.
I wasn’t going to apply for it, but a friend of mine who wasn’t on the panel and had no connection with it, said ‘Well, why don’t you throw your hat in the ring? You’ve nothing to lose’, so at the very last minute I did. I was treated as a complete outsider to the extent that they sent me an invitation to go to the interview with a map of Manchester and of departments on the back, and a form for travel expenses on which I claimed about 16p for the bus ride.
I learnt subsequently which rising starts were in for that job, but against daunting competition ultimately they gave me it. And I’ve never been more grateful because that allowed me then to shift completely. I had one schizophrenic year where I taught both medieval and modern, and never knew whether the students were coming in to do the origins of the open field systems or the rise of Hitler. But once that was out of the way I could concentrate on modern history.
Another formative influence on me as a teacher was my German teacher at the Goethe Institute in Manchester, where I began learning German in 1969. It just started off as a hobby for one hour a week, as something to use on a summer holiday, but I became completely inspired by my German teacher there, Frau Spät.
She was a marvellous teacher and she enthused me and all the rest of the class with not just the German language, but on everything connected with Germany – with politics, literature, art, culture, and of course history. It was through the language that I became increasingly drawn to German history and moving away from medieval. Then I got the chance to go to Germany in 1972 for the first time on an intensive language course. By then my language was improving, soon improved very rapidly, became serious, and eventually very good.
PO: To the extent where you could read sources in the original language?
IK: I could read and write and speak – was absolutely fluent by then and that was largely her doing, which meant that I was then able linguistically to make this big jump. But of course without that possibility of moving jobs I would have been stranded, so the wonderful thing was that I got this job at Manchester in modern history at the same time as this invitation to work on this major research project on Bavarian society under Nazism that was just beginning in Munich, where they welcomed me with open arms when they saw that I was planning to carry out research on German popular opinion in the Third Reich. It was an enormous research project and brought me into contact with all the major German historians. So in answer to your question on the modern end, my major influences were almost all German, not English or British at all.
PO: I was going to ask you – with regards to influences I suppose – who would be the other English historians who have at least worked in this field?
IK: Well, there were four people in England at the time who were tremendously important to me as a novice in the field. Firstly, Alan Milward, who at the time was the Professor of European Studies at Manchester and had written extensively on the German war economy and so on. Tim Mason, who was then at St Peter’s College, Oxford and had made a mark through his unorthodox Marxist work on the German labour movement in the Third Reich, was very helpful to me at this time, and his work was also very important to me, and inspirational.
The third person formerly had this very room in which we’re sitting – William Carr – and he had been at Sheffield for many years. I didn’t replace him – he retired and I came subsequently. But I knew Bill Carr from the 1970s onwards and he was always a very good friend, and a very good mentor to me. In those early years, he too was very important. And the fourth person I’d single out would be Jeremy Noakes, who has really made a big mark in this field in this country, and produced indispensable collections of documents used by all students including my own, who will be using them at this time tomorrow morning! Jeremy Noakes’ works were very stimulating and drew me to do this sort of work when I began in the mid 1970s.
But I think the key intellectual influences for me in my work on German history have actually been German, people who – for the most part – are not well known in this country but are absolute stars in their own. I’d single out there Martin Broszat, a wonderful historian, with whom I had the privileg of working on the Bavaria project from the 1970s onwards, and Hans Mommsen from the great Mommsen dynasty, a very close friend of mine as well as a good mentor in this area.
Thirdly, Hans Ulrich Wehler, at the present time the doyen of German historians, who is just fantastically productive. It’s amazing that his work isn’t translated or better known here, because he’s written maybe two dozen highly regarded books. He’s at the pinnacle of the profession in Germany, but here he’s still relatively unknown.
PO: How does that work, comparatively…? You say that these German historians are unknown here, but obviously in your case you’ve been invited to speak in Germany and you’ve worked in Germany. Are the Germans more welcoming and knowledgeable about English historians? Or are you a special case?
IK: Well, I think I do have an unusual place in this, although there are other English historians who work on Germany and are also known in Germany – Richard Evans, Chris Clarke, Jeremy Noakes, Jill Stephenson and Richard Overy to name just a few. German historians, unlike for example French and probably British historians, have been extraordinarily open since the 1960s to influences from outside and they regard that as an enrichment, rather than somebody muscling in on their patch. I did these two huge volumes on Hitler which were enormously well received in Germany. I just wonder what sort of a reception somebody German would have got if they had come here and written two big volumes on Churchill, or the reception in Paris for an Englishman who had produced two big volumes on de Gaulle.
So I think there is an intellectual welcoming element to the German historical profession, which I haven’t experienced so much elsewhere, including here. I think it is true to say that they are aware of the major players in British historiography in a way that we are not generally well aware of the key players in Germany, and that is a big difference and a deficiency on our part.
I’ve worked so intensively on German history over so many years with these people – as I said, I started it off by working on a German project in Munich – that I have had the advantage as being seen as an outsider, but with detailed insider knowledge and that’s given me a sort of a double benefit.
PO: And you said you started off working on a project in Germany. In this country, history tends to be an individual rather than a collaborative (as in the sciences) pursuit. Is that the same in Germany?
IK: It is by and large, but I think given the structure of the profession and the structure of funding for it there was always, at least in recent memory, a tendency to look for project work as well as the individual work. So the people that we’re mentioning – Broszat and Mommsen in particular, less so Wehler I think – have tended always to be involved in teamwork as well as do their own things.
One thing is that if you’re a German professor, by and large you’re not in a department like this. There are about thirty colleagues here in this department and each of them is in a sense an independent scholar. They have their teaching and administration to do, but their own research is their own business in a way, the RAE notwithstanding. The department takes an interest in it but ultimately that individual will do that work independently, although now we have teamwork and projects and so on here too.
In Germany though, when I was there for a year in Bochum as the Visiting Professor of Contemporary History I was actually for a short time the only person who had a tenured contract. Mine was going to run out because I was coming back to England, but I was deputising for Hans Mommsen and he was then paid as a German civil servant, as Professor of Modern History. Practically everybody else was on some form of temporary contract. And part of his job was to get the funding from some research body or other to provide for them to stay on, which they could only do by working as assistants on some team project. That’s the way it tended to operate.
I started on the enormous project I mentioned earlier with big funding from the Bavarian government and the federal German government. It was called ‘Resistance and Persecution in Bavaria, 1933 – 1945’, and could easily have become a rather stereotyped work on these two things, on resistance and on persecution. But the genius of Martin Broszat, the Director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Germany where I worked and also the Director of this project, was to see the possibility of using the term ‘resistance’ in its widest conceivable sense, so it didn’t just mean putting a bomb under Hitler’s table or some sort of organised Communist resistance.
He used it to embrace all sorts of actions you wouldn’t necessarily think of as resistance at all. For example, if somebody says ‘Heil Hitler’, and you say in return‘Grüss Gott’ or ‘Guten Tag’, so you ignore the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting. What this broadening did was to turn it into a social history project and for the first time you had a real attempt to understand how German society had behaved in that regime. It’s amazing they took so long, as it was the mid 1970s, thirty years afterward, but the social history of Nazi Germany was then still in its absolute infancy and this project was the breakthrough.
PO: So prior to that, how were the histories of Nazi Germany being written?
IK: Well, of course there were many good attempts at various points of the history of Nazi Germany, but they tended to still be institutional histories. For example, if you looked at resistance, there was the early emphasis on the conservative resistance and the church resistance, big institutions or groups like the army that plotted to kill Hitler. It had moved on in the 1960s to illegal underground organisations like the Communists and the Social Democrats. But looking at the underground organisation in Dortmund or in Essen was still basically institutional history.
At the level of ordinary people, it hadn’t really gone very far. Early works on Nazi Germany had tended to see the population as bamboozled through clever propaganda or terrorised into submission. Either way it looked as though a small group of people were able to dominate a society which was relatively helpless in the face of either mass persuasion attempts or mass terror attempts. The dominant mode of interpretation was totalitarianism.
That started to break down in the sixties, but it was still at the level of more or less institutional history until the seventies. Then, with the Bavarian project, began what the Germans call ‘history from below’ for the first time. I think it’s quite possible that there were influences that came from here from social history such as E.P. Thompson, maybe mediated in part through Tim Mason and his work on the German working class.
Mason’s work was certainly influenced by Thompson, and he was known in Germany and wrote in German. Writing in German, incidentally, is also a key thing to getting your stuff published in Germany. And Mason did that as well, as did I later on. Mason therefore maybe helped to mediate this social history from England which then flooded into Germany at that time and helped to influence these people.
Whichever way, whether native or imported, the fact of the matter is that from the 1970s onwards this history from below caught fire: they called it Alltagsgeschichte, which is the history of everyday life. It’s a clumsy term in English. And interestingly, though we started by looking at oppositional forms of behaviour, we encountered in practice more conformity and consensus. So from beginning as a concentration on opposition, the project became increasingly dragged into ways in which this regime, this society, had collaborated with their rulers.
PO: So it had broken out of the bounds of the original project.
IK: Yes, yes.
PO: Obviously you’re describing there a change in the way in which history is pursued. Subsequent to that, what would you say the main controversies amongst historians have been in this area?
IK: In Germany, practically every aspect of Nazi Germany sparked enormous controversy, and I’ve written about these at great length in my book on the Nazi dictatorship, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, which I published in 1985 and has subsequently gone through several updated editions.
I came to write that book following a conference at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park in 1979, attended by most of the big names in Germany. I was a complete apprentice at this stage. I was struck by was the ferocity of the debates and the polarisation into two groups who couldn’t see eye to eye with each other at all. This was actually on the place of Hitler in that regime, and on the question of whether it was ideologically driven by Hitler’s own intentions, or whether it had to be seen as something that was an almost chaotic development driven by structural determinants within that regime, with Hitler as a ‘weak dictator’.
Those debates dominated the 1980s and went on well into the nineties. Was Hitler just presiding over a regime that was beyond his automatic control, and without any clear intentions, or did he from the word go know what he was aiming at? That was the central issue.
Another enormous debate in Germany from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War was the question of the extent this regime was dominated by big business. You had Marxist interpretations from East Germany saying that Hitler was more or less a marionette dictated to by the forces of big capital, and many more subtle variants of that saying that this regime ultimately worked in the interests of big finance and big capital.
PO: The manifestation of capitalism?
IK: Yes, yes. And so the primacy of economics versus the primacy of politics was a key issue. Mason, who as I said was an unorthodox Marxist, was a very important influence on those debates because he had published an article called ‘The Primacy of Politics’ in the mid-1960s in an east German journal. This set the cat amongst the pigeons there, as Mason, coming from a Marxist vantage point, argued that this was an extraordinary regime which broke the rules of Marxism and ultimately came to impose a primacy of politics. He got into some hot water with his erstwhile east German colleagues, and that was an important debate.
Within the question of intention versus structure, you had then all sorts of important sub-themes, like how did the Holocaust emerge? When I was at Cumberland Lodge in 1979 the conference was on the Führer state. Yet there was not a single paper on the Holocaust or on the Second World War.
In fact there had been, at that time, remarkably little attention paid directly and explicitly to the Holocaust. Of course among professional historians there were no apologists and no one was ignoring it, but it hadn’t become the central focus of research which it became from the eighties onwards, with a big debate being the question of how the Jews came to be killed. Was this a consequence of Hitler’s intentions he had since he entered politics in 1919, or did it emerge more or less through the vagaries of political processes in 1940/1941?
Then there was the question of Hitler’s foreign policy: was this a matter of a one way street that Hitler had set out to go down at a very early stage, or was it pushed and pulled by things outside Hitler’s control? Did he aim to have just the European conquest or was it aimed at global domination? These are all sub-debates that rumbled on beneath that central debate.
In the German context, it was a very different sort of debate to anything I’d ever experienced before or since in England. Here we of course have historical controversies, and these seem to be the meat and drink of sixth form history a lot of the time. For instance, were the gentry rising, falling or standing still in the early modern period? Of course, there are significant debates but they are conducted, generally speaking, in a very gentlemanly and very scholarly fashion.
In Germany, these debates that I’ve just mentioned are naturally at one level academic debates carried out on the rules of evidence like any other debate is, but they have an overlay of politics, of morality, of ideology (there’s certainly ideology in the case of East Germany versus West Germany) which you can’t encounter here, and that gives them a vibrancy and a heatedness which we don’t experience in this country. I’ve never come across anything that was quite like the atmosphere then, in the seventies and eighties. It’s died down to some extent now because a new generation has come along to replace the so-called Hitler Youth generation who had actually experienced Nazism at first hand and then later on become professors of history and wrote about it.
But there is still that edge in Germany. Everything that is done there has a present day significance, which means that historians in Germany can regularly appear on the front pages of newspapers with articles on past and present topics, because what they’re doing is connected to the way in which that society addresses the huge problems of its past and the big shadow of Hitler. That came out in enormous force in 1986 with the so-called ‘Historians’ Dispute’, the Historikerstreit, which was instigated by the claim of Ernst Nolte that Hitler and the Nazis were a reaction to the prior crimes of Leninism and Stalinism. You can see the apologia that’s built into that – the Nazis were bad but they weren’t as bad as Stalin, they were reacting.
PO: And weren’t responsible I suppose?
IK: And weren’t ultimately responsible, and the only thing that’s unique about the Final Solution is the method of killing. So that initiated this almighty row that rumbled on for several months in 1986, with practically every leading German historian involved. Not a single new fact was discovered. It was actually not history as such that was at stake, it was the German present and debates about current morality and the place of the Holocaust within that. And as I said, amazingly in a way, public interest in the Holocaust was only then beginning to take off in Germany (and elsewhere for that matter) in the way that we’re used to it now.
PO: Another development came with the reunification of Germany and the release of records that had previously been in Moscow or East Germany that western scholars finally had access to. Did that shift the terms of debate?
IK: Yes it did, quite significantly I think. First of all, masses of material were available that hadn’t been available before and you could therefore discover a whole number of things in detail about the German occupation of the eastern territories, and to some extent about the genesis of the Final Solution. For example, discovery of plans for the crematorium and gas chambers at Auschwitz enabled a precision to be brought into the way in which Auschwitz-Birkenau was developed in 1941 and ’42 which hadn’t been there before.
A whole number of things were opened up with these reports. For instance, a brilliant regional study of Belorussia was written by a German historian, Christian Gerlach, not too long ago about the way in which the Germans planned for mass starvation and this would have been impossible without access to sources in Moscow. And there are many other things like that – my own Hitler biography profited massively from the availability of Goebbels’ complete diaries, the total run of which was discovered in Moscow only after 1990.
So the opening of the eastern archives helped to shift the way in which history was undertaken. I think one of the main ways was in helping to relocate the focus away from this earlier intentionalist versus structuralist debate and push it on to the actions of those who tend to be called the perpetrators. It seems amazing, but until the 1990s systematic work on on these people hadn’t really been undertaken.
Sometimes big breakthroughs come from unusual directions. In 1979 for instance Holocaust research (which I’ve told you was was really very late in getting underway) was fired initially not by some major piece of historical research but by a very trite TV film which was actually called ‘Holocaust’, a four part TV series which came and went in this country without too much attention but was sensational in Germany. It was like a soap opera, with an SS family living next door to a Jewish family and of course they later encounter each other in a death camp. Terribly trite and historically hopeless, but what it did was to focus the imagination in ways that had not been done before and help to inspire that shift into work on the Holocaust. Schindler’s List later did something like that for the Holocaust as well, but the move to study the perpetrators I think was pushed along not by a film but by the book by Daniel Goldhagen that came out in 1996, called Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
It’s not a good book. I think Goldhagen was a sociologist or political scientist rather than a historian, but that’s neither here nor there in a way. The book was one of the great simplifications, arguing basically that Germans had been thirsting for well over a century to get rid of the Jews, and Hitler comes along and they’re able to do it. So Germany’s almost a nation of little Hitlers. It’s far too crude and far too simplistic but, again, Goldhagen got away from structures, processes and abstract developments down to talking about particular individuals, and what they did to Jews.
Focusing upon individuals and the perpetrators in this way helped to bring a shift, back in the 1990s I think, away from structural processes and functional developments into looking at how individuals actually used the choices which they had, and the role that ideology played in influencing these individuals. Whereas the structural-functionalist approach had tended to play down ideology, now ideology was back in a big way. Not in the crude sense of more or less sole concentration on a demonic Hitler who’s obsessed by visions of evil Jews, and who determines thereby the entirety of world history, but rather in the sense in which a set of ideas can affect even an entire generation, so you have people who suck in these ideas at school and at university and then later on come to lead task forces, Einsatzgruppen, of the security police.
PO: How they percolate through…
IK: How they percolate through and then how that affects
their careers, chances, and so on – almost a social history of ideological
influences and how these then operate.
So attention shifted from Hitler, Himmler, Heidrich, Goebbels and Goering, down to the middle and lower echelons of these groups who were actually doing it. What was motivating them, and how were they acting?
To some extent that trend is still going on but of course there are disputes about to what extent you can assess the level of ideological input and whether these people were simply functionaries doing their job and ideology helped them along – a need to believe for career advancement and so on. That’s a sub-debate going on. I think there’s been a big shift though, in that way.
PO: And I’ve also read psychological approaches to German history as well, I can’t remember who by, but someone had focused on the idea of an archetypal Prussian male and the way in which that archetype then fed in to producing the generation of people who were ready for Hitler. Is this the sort of thing that you’ve encountered at all?
IK: I’ve encountered those things, but I think that psychological approaches of that sort, and other sorts, have tended to be not very influential and have not been regarded as persuasive by most historians, who tend to look for other mechanisms whereby these sorts of values become socialised, not through individual or group psychology so much as by being exposed in universities or schools or something, and then exposed of course in Nazi formations. There were a whole variety of reasons why people join Nazi movements. They often weren’t necessarily anti-Semitic beforehand but became anti-Semitic after.
They may also have seen the connection between that and careerist advancement.
There’s a big book that came out in Germany a few years ago called The Generation of the Unbound by Michael Wildt that looks at the upper echelons of the leadership of the security police, and then traces back their earlier development. It’s like a group biography in a way of quite a few dozen of these characters, maybe getting on for 100 of them. You trace it back and see what their schooling was like, what sort of families they came from – their sociology – and see how eventually Hitler comes to power, in the time of big depression of course, and opportunities open up in the police, so it’s actually a good career to go into. These people are coming up with university degrees, doctorates sometimes, certainly on the whole good educational backgrounds, and they take up jobs in the police and get set into this ideological framework of racial cleansing of Germany. By 1940 and ’41, they’re pushing for top places in the security police and then off they go entering Russia in 1941, leading the mass slaughter of Jews – these men who have studied law, history and philosophy.
PO: So it’s a complex set up.
IK: It is, yes. It is. And the complexity has grown in the work that has gone on since the early stuff on Nazi Germany. There were some very good early works written, don’t get me wrong, but in general terms it’s become a more complex rather than a more simple understanding of what went on.
PO: I guess in line as well with much of the rest of history.
IK: Yes, yes.
PO: I wanted now to change the focus and ask you a few questions about the profession in general. And I wanted to start with asking if you’ve observed any particular trends in the popularity of different periods or approaches in your time in the profession?
IK: Well, this isn’t based on any statistical analysis, just observation and anecdote really, but I suppose that what has been a bit noticeable is that the modern end – particularly the twentieth century – has become increasingly popular amongst students. To the extent almost that earlier periods have been, if not neglected, then pushed more and more into the shade.
When I started off the history of the 20th century was important, naturally, but in 1968 that century was only just more than halfway over and even the Second World War was a bit too close to home, so we didn’t have to spend much time on that. I think my own undergraduate work ended about 1914 – if it got that far. The 19th century was then very big, and isn’t now. Most students don’t want to do the 19th century. It will come back in due course, but at the minute it seems a long way away and the twentieth century is dominated by the two wars and the Holocaust. I think that the shift in student interest to the 20th century has become more pronounced as we’ve gone on.
The Tudors and Stuarts still have some currency, but I don’t think they are anything like as big as it was in the sixties and seventies, and the 1970s saw a decline to some extent. Continental history has declined too, I think, and the secularisation of society to some extent means that the Reformation is more difficult to teach and students are less interested in religious history more generally.
I think they’re some of the shifts that I would see as having happened in the last thirty, forty years.
PO: What about economic history?
IK: Well, that’s good that you point that out, because economic history as it was is more or less dead now. If you look at history as a profession between maybe the 20s and the end of the 60s, or maybe even later, the end of the 70s – in that half century economic history was crucial and for a while was regarded as avant garde.
But already when I started in Manchester in 1968 I think economic history was on the defensive. Things were moving away from old economic history in terms of the way it had been taught before, with its concentration on England and industrialisation. And then you started finding students voting with their feet, and already in the 70s their numbers were starting to decline. I remember that at Manchester we tagged social history onto economic history because it sounded a bit sexier, whereas economic history sounded a bit off-putting.
PO: Hmm, a bit dry.
IK: Students were getting a bit put off by it. So social history was added on – it became ‘soft’ economic history in many respects. I think when the financial squeeze started on universities (pre-RAE, in the Thatcher years in the eighties) there was pressure to amalgamate economic history and ‘straight’ history. In Manchester, economic history was always part of the main department and I liked that, but when I went to Nottingham there’d just been a merger between the former economic history department there and mainstream history, and the same thing happened here in 1988 just before I came. The trend was the same everywhere.
Economic history in the old sense is now very much a fringe activity – it’s been replaced by cultural history. I should have mentioned that before. That’s a very important development of course.
PO: And talking about these institutional changes, I was wondering if you had any other views on changes, maybe since the 1960s, that have occurred in the university sector?
IK: Well, one thing is obviously the vastly increased numbers of students that you have now, so when I look to when I started in the 1960s, and into the 70s, it was an unbelievably closed system compared with what we have now. The numbers of students at that time were tiny. But it was good in the sense that you had time then to deal with students and now you don’t have that – it’s much more regimented and structured than it used to be. There was then a sort of open door policy – students would drop in and you’d say ‘Do you fancy a coffee?’ and go off and chat to them.
Educationally, that was probably very good. It sounds like you were just idling away your time but I think that some of the best intellectual discussions in my experience arose quite informally over a coffee, or over a pint of beer more likely. They arose in that sort of way – informally and spontaneously, not just in structured seminars. So I think that’s one change – the increased numbers of students means that the informal contact with students has declined.
I’m sure younger colleagues would have a slightly different view on that and say you can still preserve the personal contact to some extent, but my experience is nevertheless that this has declined – though my feeling may admittedly be just a sign of growing old! I keep good contact with my own students, but nonetheless it’s difficult given the numbers to have the same sort of contact that you had with a quarter of that size in the 1970s.
I think the students’ experience has correspondingly altered. We have large numbers of subjects available for them and they are in general, in a department like this, very well taught. The students like the courses they do for the most part. But I sense that there’s a more functional approach to it now on the part of the students – that they know what they have to do to get their mark. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. That’s absolutely natural and commendable in many ways, and for the most part the students are hardworking, they do good work, and they get good marks. But there isn’t much thinking outside the box. There isn’t much time to explore other things, and it tends to be I think much more channelled, much more blinkered. Blinkered is a very negative term and I don’t mean to sound negative, but I think the chance to explore things which aren’t directly linked to the topic that you’re doing or your dissertation has slightly disappeared compared with what I experienced at the start. I’m not saying it’s for better or worse, I think it’s just different.
And the other thing, which I’m sure we can’t avoid mentioning, is the impact of the RAE, since I think that has altered the way in which staff view their work and has therefore had some impact upon the way in which departments function. The RAE has greatly intensified the inbuilt tension between the demands to get your research publications completed and out, and the demands of teaching.
Everybody comes into a job which is both teaching and research (together with some bits of administration that have to be done to keep the show on the road), but increasingly now compared with what it used to be I think people see their own research as being the absolutely be all and end all. If they don’t see that instantaneously, they do after a short time because they arrive in a place like this, very keen, idealistic, wanting to teach, and then realise very rapidly if they don’t know already that they need to have some space and time to do their research and writing, and they’re not going to get that in an increasingly crowded university academic year.
The only way in which you can get a big research project like a book written is to get research leave away from the university, so the first thing that happens is that either the head of department says, ‘We want this book for the RAE and therefore put yourself in for these research grants’ or else the person does that under his or her own volition and says, ‘What I need to do is get away from here because I’ll never get this book written if I’m here with a full teaching load’.
That’s the same everywhere. You have to escape teaching duties now to get on, whereas in the more leisurely yesteryear if you said ‘Well, I’m writing a book on something or other’, nobody took the slightest interest – in my experience anyway. No professor came to me and said, ‘What is it you’re doing?’, or I think you should approach this publisher or should do this or that or other’ or ‘Do that project first and not this one’ or ‘Be sure that you’ve got it out by two years from now’. Absolutely nothing. There was benign disinterest. But it was disinterest just the same.
There were always those people like me, who were very keen on the research writing side of the profession. I didn’t need anybody to beat me over the head and say ‘Get this published’, I just did it anyway. But I knew colleagues, extremely good teachers and good colleagues in every respect, who didn’t have that inner drive that I obviously had, and yet they were still in all respects very valuable members of the department.
And we all felt that we had time to talk to each other, to learn from each other, to do these things. I don’t mean to make it sound like an idyll because there were many things wrong with it, but it was different from the experience of today where a young academic starting out knows from day one that he or she has to deliver on the research front at the same time as being up to scratch as an excellent teacher amid all these rules, regulations and controls, and has also to be able to do administration. Back then you had plenty of people who were absolutely hopeless when it came to administration and one or two people who weren’t that hot either at teaching or research. But now you’ve got to be a good all-rounder,and I think the pressures have increased therefore on younger colleagues – although when I look at the pressures in the outside world they don’t seem like real pressures just the same [laughs]!
PO: [Laughs] It’s all relative isn’t it?
IK: It certainly is!
PO: I just wanted to ask you a little bit further about the relationship between teaching and research, and again, do you think that that’s changed?
IK: Yes, I think it has. In a department like this, I look round and I see only very good and dedicated teachers who do a great job for their students. And I don’t see the students being let down or their teaching experience being diminished in anyway, but I do think that the relationship has shifted, partly for the reasons that I’ve already given, which is that the teachers too are – not exactly straitjacketed – but pushed into certain channels through the demands of research.
In my younger years when I was at Manchester, I taught on practically everything, every period of history. As a medievalist I actually taught from the Roman Empire up to the Reformation! Then as a modern historian, although my field was 20th century and in particular Germany, I actually taught on everything from the Reformation up to Harold Wilson’s government. So I actually taught everything – not with equal expertise I hasten to add – from Diocletian’s inflation up to Harold Wilson.
Now, if somebody comes in and says, ‘We’ve got this big course that we need teaching. You’re an expert on the twentieth century but we really need you to do some tutorials on the 18th or 19th century.’, you’d say ‘Hang on. You’ve just told me to get this book written for the RAE. Now you’re saying I’ve got to spend all my time boning up on the stuff I’m no expert on.’ So there is a tension there and I think what that means is that, by and large, people are now teaching more and more – far more than I used to – on the period of their own research expertise. On the one hand of course, very good. On the other hand, over a long period of time, a) a bit boring and stultifying and b) I’m really glad that I was more or less forced to do things outside my own area, because that widens horizons and opens up all sorts of approaches which then come to bear on your own work as well. So I think that’s maybe a little bit of a downer, that we have become somewhat narrower in our area of expertise.
PO: And I suppose that’s a consequence as well of the increase in literature that’s being produced?
IK: Of course, there’s a vast outpouring of literature in all areas and no expert can keep on top of it. In an area such as the one I work on of course, it’s totally impossible. The stuff just showers out, and it’s absolutely inconceivable that anybody could be on top of that.
But it’s not just the range of literature because even going back thirty or forty years, there was too much literature to cope with. You just had to deal with things in a way that made sense of larger periods of history
Maybe that’s another thing we could regard as a change that’s taken place partly as a result of the way in which universities have moved to modularisation. There’s become sort of a partialisation of the history curriculum. It’s not exactly pick and mix but there has been fragmentation and also concessions to the chunks that the students want to do, on the whole the small, bite-sized pieces. Students love special subjects, but aren’t so keen on the big panorama subjects because they’re hard and they can’t get a grasp on them properly.
Tutors, for their part, like teaching special subjects and the smaller areas, and they’re not so ready to teach the big, wide-ranging topics. And because we’re in a market economy where students say, ‘Well, I don’t like the look of the syllabus at Sheffield so I won’t bother applying, I’ll apply to Nottingham instead’ – or vice versa – then you are almost compelled by these market forces to do what the punters want you to do.
So there is a way in which for a whole variety of reasons the syllabus has become more postmodern in this regard, more broken up into bits and pieces. Naturally, it’s totally impossible to think that you can start at the end of the Roman Empire, with the Barbarian conquests, and go right through to the modern day, and that this would somehow be better. But the ways in which connections in history and understanding change over time can get missed, and the experience of studying history becomes fragmented.
I think that students go out now often with a very good, detailed knowledge of whatever it is they’ve chosen to specialise in, but maybe without as good a grasp as used to be the case of large interconnecting areas. We’ve tried to address that incidentally in this department, with a course which we introduced a few years ago. I actually pushed for it to be introduced. It’s been, I think, by and large a success but the students grumble about it a lot of time because it moves very fast. It’s called ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’ and is obviously not a blow by blow chronological account, but seeks out thematic long term changes that are taking place from the end of the Roman Empire right through to the modern era. I think it’s quite an interesting course, and one that’s taken off in good measure.
PO: That sounds interesting, That sounds a little bit like when I spoke to Penelope Corfield and she was predicting the return of a long history, and diachronic and synchronic timing. Looking at history in different ways I suppose.
IK: Well, I think that may well happen in certain respects. I don’t want there to be a complete reversion of course. One thing that we’ve tried to do now, another innovation that we’ve got in this department starting next semester is an attempt at longer options. So the options are not just so short and partialised, but long-ranging, often comparative options. And that again is a move back in that direction.
You can’t and shouldn’t move back to what the curriculum once was, but I think this type of partialisation beginning in schools has gone at a pace now where school pupils have no sense of chronological development. They do something on the Norman conquest and the next thing’s on the Vietnam War or something. My eldest granddaughter, who’s twelve, has had this experience at her school. Of course she’s not specialising in history, and she’s still very young, but I think she was doing the ancient Egyptians and then the next week she was doing Henry VIII, and hadn’t the faintest idea of chronological development.
PO: Very confused ideas.
IK: Yes. That’s right. University history is of course hardly like that, but I think courses such as this ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’ might come in a little bit more to provide a context in which then these special subjects and smaller areas of history are studied.
PO: Yep. That makes sense. Talking about schools, I just wanted to ask as well if you’ve noticed any changes – I suppose changes within the undergraduates that you might see – that have arisen because of changes in the way that history’s taught at schools?
IK: I couldn’t really answer that question very convincingly on the basis of any evidence; I suppose that I get a lot of students now who say, ‘Oh, Nazis, yes, I want to do that because I did it at sixth form’ and maybe at secondary school as well, which I don’t think is a very good thing at all.
I was talking to a group of sixth form teachers who specialise in German history a couple of months ago, and I was quite saddened by some of the things they were telling me about the concentration on German history, going right back to primary school even. Their starting point was that history should be about breaking down prejudices but in actual fact these kids are fed a dose of Hitler and Nazis and Holocaust, Germans doing terrible things to Jews and others, right from the time they’re at primary school. They’ve never seen a German, they’ve no idea who Germans are, they just know they do terrible things to people called Jews (and don’t know in reality who they are either).
The teachers said part of their job was trying to debunk these stereotypes that have come up, but of course, I said ‘Well, should it really be the job of a sixth form teacher to be spending time debunking prejudice? If you had a course on the Reformation, would you somehow think it your job to engage in this in a non-historical way by debunking Catholic or Protestant prejudices?’ ‘Oh no, we’d teach that as straight history’, they said. So there’s a difference there.
I find that emphasis very lamentable I must say, although it’s my area. It’s good that people have some knowledge of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, obviously, but I think the extreme emphasis on it is actually of very doubtful value.
The second thing I think which has changed probably at school, and feeds into university is they there is very little English history taught (British history in a wider sense but I think it’s English history I really mean) compared with earlier. So their knowledge of English history, the history of their own country for the overwhelming number of students, is very limited.
Their subsequent interest in English history is also diminished because what they want to do and what they’re able to do at university is the sort of sexy stuff that they’ve already done at schools. In a way, what it breeds is a level of intellectual conservatism. People do what they think they’re good at, what they’ve done well at at school and what they have the chance to do again in these little segments.
PO: You’ll stay where you feel comfortable, often.
IK: Yes. And I think the unwillingness to take risks is further enhanced by the extent to which student’s work is now heavily based upon course assessment. This is not an argument against course assessment. It’s a very good thing and we shouldn’t just go back to exams. But when I was a student we didn’t have course assessment and we were encouraged to try things out and if you made a mess of it, well, too bad, but you learnt something by making a mess of it. Whereas now really what counts is the mark.
PO: And you can’t afford to do something you don’t know about…
IK: Or something that’s hard and you might mess up. So again it pushes you to a level of conservatism I think, which I find slightly a shame and a bit problematical in certain ways.
PO: Often these things have unintended consequences I suppose.
IK: Yes, they do, yes. Definitely.
PO: And I also want to ask you, on a slightly different tack, about the relationship between academic history and popular history and if you’ve observed any changes there?
IK: Well, I’ve been involved in quite a number of TV programmes and series, so I suppose I’ve been involved in popular history. I think there has been a lot more of it, unquestionably.
In a way it’s easy to forget that people like A .J. P Taylor and to some extent Trevor-Roper – Taylor in particular – made their mark through popularising history. Taylor was a good historian anyway but he became well known through the way in which he popularised it, partly through television and partly through writing books which had a popular appeal. And there’s been a strain of popular history that goes right back to somebody like Macauley I suppose.
But television and the splurging out of television into so many channels and so many specialist channels has led to, it’s hard to deny, an increased offering of popular history compared with what used to be the case only a few years ago. A lot of this in general terms is a good thing. You look at magazines like BBC History and History Today. History Today’s been around a lot longer and I think is a slight cut above BBC History in its offerings, but BBC History serves a purpose. It sells 50,000 or more copies each time and obviously appeals to a market.
And these TV programmes – when we did ‘The Nazis: A Warning from History’, ‘War of the Century’ and ‘Auschwitz’, I think we got an average of about four million viewers a show on that. And that’s a lot for a specialist documentary.
PO: Or for any show.
IK: Yes. And I think that may be altering again now with the proliferation of TV channels. You’d really struggle now to get that sort of viewer quotient, and this may damage the quality of the programmes, because the controller of BBC2 or whatever channel is prepared to give you money on the basis that you’re going to get the viewer figures. You don’t get the money and therefore the programmes are made more cheaply or you don’t get the programmes on at all.
But I think there’s been a lot of good popular history. Look at things like Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ – who could say that’s a bad thing really? There’s some rubbish among TV historical documentaries, certainly, but, by and large, there’s an awful lot of good stuff as well and my own view is that more historians ought to try to break into this. There’s still an element of snobbishness about it I think, saying, ‘This is real history and that’s just popular stuff’.
PO: Do you think that snobbishness is increasing or decreasing?
IK: Impossible to say. I don’t know if it’s always been there, I don’t know if it’s any different. I think a lot of historians are prone to dismiss television history, see it as dumbing down for the masses, and claim it’s not really what we’re about. But I couldn’t say whether it’s more or less than it used to be – it’s impossible to judge that.
I think the more enlightened of them think this is an area that it’s worthwhile getting into. It doesn’t mean to say you have to travesty what you’re trying to say. You simply have to put it in terms that non-specialists can understand. After all, we’re writing history not nuclear physics, and it ought to be accessible to large numbers of people. If it isn’t, then you have to think of the way in which you’re expressing your knowledge. If you’re only writing for your own little coterie of people then maybe you’re missing out on something.
I mean, ‘The Nazis: A Warning from History’ has reached – with videos and DVDs and so on – more than 50 million people. There’s no history book, however good it is or how much a bestseller, that’s going to reach 50 million people. TV’s a powerful medium – it’s a shallow medium, admittedly, but a powerful one and the best thing is to utilise it.
Also there’ve been some big successes by British historians in recent years writing books which are perfectly good scholarly books (they have all the footnotes, they’ve done all the work) but are written in a style that makes them more accessible. They’re read by a lot of people, and what’s wrong with that? That’s not popular history in the sense of dumbing down. It’s actually making good history more accessible.
If history amounts merely to writing miniscule articles or narrow monographs that are read by nobody except a tiny group of experts then something is going wrong, however important it is that those monographs and those specialist articles are seen to be written. I don’t think one should supplant the other but that there’s room for both in this very big mansion. We need to have the popular history as well, of course, as sustaining the research basis on which the popular history can draw.
PO: And that seems to lead me quite well to the last thing that I wanted to ask you: to ask whether you had any views on the future of the profession and/or the discipline?
IK: Oh, heavens. Insofar as I have any expertise, it’s only on the past not the future! Well, one thing that’s taken place is the fragmentation of history as a discipline. That’s been a development that’s gone on with increasing rapidity since the end of the Second World War. It continues to be the case, with the splintering into all sorts of different periods. So I think that history as a unitary discipline, in the way that it existed maybe in the period between the wars and the years soon after that, has now gone.
The notion that a group of experts controls history and that they all think broadly alike on the way it should be done went out of the window by the seventies. Maybe a bit later, but certainly by the nineties it was dead and buried, and the trend started much earlier than that I think – maybe even going back to the fifties and sixties.
Proliferation will continue, partly spurred on by the popularisation of history and through television and everything else, so that good history can be done by people who’ve nothing to do with the academy. And why should it be the preserve of a number of so-called experts?
The other thing I think, in terms of the sorts and areas of history which are going to be concentrated on, is that there’s always a close connection between present interest and what you do in the past. So although the ability of young people coming up now to read languages other than English has declined dramatically in the last 20 or 30 years, I’m sure that when linguistic expertise gets a bit more up to par some people will see the way forward and will learn obviously hard languages like Arabic and Chinese. And trends in global history and global comparative history will become more important than they have been and become less Eurocentric, driven by external events.
We have to look at the outside world and not just transnational history which is very voguish at the present time, the interest in the Empire and imperial history etc. But I think an interest in other parts of the world which haven’t been so mainstream in our interest so far is bound to come in with a more global perspective starting to influence histories.
PO: An interest in their histories?
IK: Yes. Not necessarily just as national histories but as world history in distinction from the history of whatever specific bit of the world, or, say, European history, let alone just British history. And I think even in our country that British history might be a little bit more on the defensive as a subject area within universities – anyway, as straight British history in the way we used to know it.
In schools, as I’ve already said, it’s already on the defensive. The space for learning history in schools is now very limited and clearly you have to pick and choose. Obviously it’s very important that young people know about things outside their own country, but if time’s very limited it may be a start is to learn something about the things which are most immediate, important and relevant and then, where time allows, to move outside it. I’m naturally not saying there should be total of overwhelming concentration on British history but some sort of British history element is important, so that young people have a basis for a sense of citizenship of this country.
PO: It seems ironic given that that’s one of the onus’s that our political leaders…
IK: Absolutely, yes. And yet they play down history at precisely this time, and history being marginalised in schools doesn’t fit at all well with that aim that they have. I don’t want history to be used instrumentally of course, but just think that a knowledge of history is an essential part of getting the type of collective memory (contested collective memory, admittedly) which is vital to an understanding of where your society’s come from and where it belongs. Without that it’s impossible to see that these various nods towards Britishness or whatever they are are going to have any meaning.
So, a vague notion about where it’s going, but only when you come to the history of the crystal ball will we see if it was any good!
PO: I think you’re probably right. Professor Ian Kershaw, thanks very much indeed for that.
IK: Great pleasure.