Category Archives: HistorySoc

Berlin Trip 2017


The History Department’s 2017 Berlin Trip promises to be a fascinating and rewarding experience. We will be looking at Germany’s history through the prism of Berlin’s architecture, memorials and historic sites.

The trip is expected to include a walking tour of central Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate and imperial sites, a tour of the Reichstag, the Topography of Terror Museum, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall and Documentation Centre on Bernauerstraße, the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison (guided by a former inmate), a tour of subterranean Berlin, a Cold War nuclear bunker, the Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower, a showpiece of Soviet architecture. There will also be opportunities for group leisure activities including shopping, bowling and/or film.

We will be looking at various parts of the story of Berlin through its architecture, art and culture above the ground, as well as below it! A few of the highlights include:

The Berlin underground tour. The 19th and early 20th century construction of the Berlin Underground uncovered historic sites which were preserved, and was then adapted during the wars so that it provides an archeological kalaidescope of Germany’s past: cemeteries, air raid shelters, sewers and even an aircraft factory were built under the surface of the city. In the 1950 and 60s Berlin’s underground was extended to include nuclear fallout shelters. To find out more (though it doesn’t reveal too much!), visit the Berliner-Unterwelten website.

The Story of Berlin Museum. This will provide us with a broad narrative sweep of the whole of Berlin’s history, and in particular we will be exploring the Weimar Period through its artistic expression. The museum also includes a unique Cold War underground nuclear bomb shelter.

The Sachsenhousen concentration camp, which was used primarily for political prisoners between 1936 and 1945. Some 30,000 inmates died there from exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, pneumonia, etc. due to the poor living conditions. Many were executed or died as the result of brutal medical experimentation. Most were Soviet prisoners of war. Most of the buildings, with the exception of the crematoria and the extermination facilities, were then used for the same purpose by the Soviet NKVD until 1950. You can find out more about the camp by visiting the website here.

The Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, which is the site of the main political prison of the former East German Communist Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. A former inmate will be taking us on a guided tour of the establishment.

We will be adding to the itinerary and tweaking it as we get closer to the time with our trip partners TBCB travel who helped us organise the Istanbul trip. In addition to this blog we will shortly be setting up a facebook page/group for participants.

If you want to go on this trip, be sure to attend today’s meeting in M233 and collect a letter and reply slip from Dr Matthews.


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Armistice Day: Rupert Brooke, Gustav Holst, England and the Royal Grammar School

IMG_1847-1Every year we hold our two remembrance assemblies in our main school hall, before the school’s war memorial: a memorial organ donated by Sir Arthur Sutherland in 1923. This year we began with a reading of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier and followed with the choir singing I Vow to Thee, My Country. Here were the thoughts I shared then, about those pieces, our country, the RGS and the Great War.

Gustav Holst was a grammar school boy: Cheltenham Grammar. The music was written in 1918, though it did not become a choral piece and hymn until the 1920s. It was probably first performed in a remembrance ceremony in 1922, the year in which this war memorial was constructed; in ceremonies thereafter, especially when it was published as a hymn in Songs of Praise in 1928, it became a staple of remembrance assemblies. In truth, Holst regretted allowing it to be associated with Cecil Spring-Rice’s poem, The Two Fatherlands, but there was nothing he could do about it: I Vow to Thee, My Country had taken on a life of its own.

Rupert Brooke was a public schoolboy, going to Rugby school. By 1914, he was already an established poet, living in Grantchester, just outside Cambridge. If you know Grantchester, it is a quintessential English village: think a sleepy river rolling through the Cambridgeshire lowlands, the trees, open meadows, timber frames and country pubs. Another of his most famous poems was The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, a hymn to the English village sung sweet:

oh! yet                                                                                                                                                                                      Stands the Church clock at ten to three?                                                                                                                                   And is there honey still for tea?

Brooke’s The Soldier is often contrasted with Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen’s great poem of the pity of war. Brooke is taken as the personification of what Owen called ‘the old lie’: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is certain, though, than none of the men of the Great War commemorated on our war memorial would have heard of Owen, let alone read him; Owen was writing as an unknown, and was to remain largely unread for many years to come. There’s a good chance many would have read Rupert Brooke. Like The Two Fatherlands, Brooke’s verse is often associated with one simple word: patriotism. The patriotism we think of when we think of 1914.

7f937ee76506f067a36b7b1094c24069What happened in 1914 was, indeed, remarkable. As all over Britain the famous pals’ battalions were raised, the volunteers of Kitchener’s New Army came forward on Tyneside too: whether they enlisted into existing territorials like the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers, or the Tyneside Irish and the Tyneside Scottish, or the Newcastle Commercials. Along with others of the city fathers, the headmaster of the RGS, John Talbot, played a key role in the raising of the Newcastle Commercials, the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers, and in their early history. He was gazetted as Major, and went with them to Alnwick for the first few weeks of their training.

Whatever it was persuaded those men to enlist was probably as varied as the men themselves. But there was one notion that the vast majority of them would have recognised: duty. And of them most would surely have felt at ease with the idea of their duty to king, and country. For some, such a simple patriotism sits uneasy. Even if that is the case, we must still surely recognise the draw and emotional power of that shared identity and, even beyond that, a shared, commonly bonded nationhood: in Brooke’s words, ‘the thoughts by England given’.

In 1921, John Talbot proudly announced to the school that 1,114 Old Novos had served in the war: that figure was almost certainly an understatement. They were just a few of the 8.7m men from Britain and her empire who saw service in the First World War. Britain had never fought a war on this scale before, and the losses were terrible. The truth, often unrealised, is that the overwhelming majority came home. Depending on how it is calculated, something around 11% of British servicemen met their deaths in the First World War: 89 out of every 100 came home, the overwhelming majority to live full and active lives.

Most of the Old Novos who came home had what we might think of as normal if unspectacular lives. They had jobs: as schoolmasters, as solicitors, in business or medicine. They had their hobbies and passions: there were presidents of Rugby or Golf Clubs, they were churchwardens, debaters, local councillors. Some achieved prominence. Alastair Smallwood was a boarding school master and then housemaster at Uppingham School; more pertinently, he was also captain of Leicester RFC and capped fourteen times for England, scoring 7 times in 14 Five Nations matches over 5 seasons. Ronald Hall became bishop of Hong Kong, and the first Anglican bishop to ordain a woman, and a founder of Hong Kong’s Cantonese university. There were academics, senior civil servants, leading surgeons. There was even a star of stage and screen, and an impresario, the wonderfully named Tod Slaughter.

Some of them were distinguished soldiers too: in 1921, Talbot with no less pride announced that 100 Old Novos won military decorations or were, as it says, mentioned in despatches. Ronald Hall was the youngest brigade major in the British army, MC and bar. Ralph Pritchard was mentioned in despatches, won a Distinguished Service Order. He was also awarded the Military Cross.

pritchardRalph Pritchard was not as lucky as Ronald Hall. He was killed on 26th April 1918, dying of wounds sustained ten days earlier on the same day as his brother William was killed. Ralph had enlisted as a private soldier in the Newcastle Commercials, before being gazetted a captain of the 4th Tyneside Irish.

The Tyneside Irish and he Tyneside Scottish attacked at La Boiselle on the first day of the Somme. The losses sustained that day by the Tyneside Irish are, in truth, hard to calculate accurately: the best (minimum) estimate might be 596 killed, 1575 killed. Ralph Pritchard was one of those who fought, according to the school roll of honour winning his military cross on that day; his brother William was one of those wounded later on in the same battle. Ralph’s brother officer in the 1st battalion Tyneside Irish, Capt Arthur Thompson, was not so fortunate. In the end, all three men men are commemorated on the school memorial.


Three weeks ago we stood at the grave of Arthur Thompson (left, seated third from left, with his brother officers from the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers). Like Ralph Pritchard and so many Old Novos, he had enlisted in the Newcastle Commercials. Both Pritchards were typical of the grammar school boys who enlisted as private soldiers the grammar school boys but soon, a s the supply of the public school bopys like Rupert Brooke ran thin, were made into officers. Some stayed as private soldiers: some of both kinds were killed; most, like Ralph and William’s brother Henry, got through the whole thing.

On the school memorial are named 158 Old Novos who fought and died in the Great War: the men who did not make it. We began with Rupert Brooke and the archetypal English village. When we stood at Arthur Thompson’s grave, we looked across the gently rolling fields of La Boiselle, across the Somme battlefield, across the fields upon which he had walked, in full kit, into German machine gun fire and artillery. We may no longer feel it is sweet to die for your country. But we may surely admit these men on their own terms: those who were killed, and the hundreds who came home. Like all the Commonwealth War Cemeteries, Ovilliers Cemetery has the look and feel of an English country garden. In Brooke’s famous words, it is a piece of a foreign field that is forever England.

The third verse of I Vow to Thee, My Country is not always sung. It speaks of ‘another country’; that country is heaven:

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

One can but pray for the paths of peace. Or, in Rupert Brooke’s words, ‘the thoughts of England given’:

…and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

In honouring Arthur Thompson and his fallen comrades, all those men who fought and lived, and all those who fought and died, we must surely admit that they lie in body or in heart in a piece of a foreign field that is forever England; forever England, forever Tyneside, and even forever the Royal Grammar School.


You can read more about visiting Arthur Thompson’s grave here

You can also read about the other brothers killed on April 26th, George and Howard Hunter killed on April 26th 1915 here

You can read about the story of the memorial organ here

And about the remarkable Tod Slaughter here

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The History of History: From Making to Manifesto


This is the story of looking back. In the 6th century CE Saint Gregory of Tours wrote the following: ‘A great many number of things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad.’ This article is about how the process of distinguishing those differences has changed throughout time, from its foundation to the present day. It is a story that is on the whole set in Europe, and almost completely dominated by men. Finding common ground between historians is very difficult. We study a wide range of topics and by no means are we united by our views: we are a fearfully argumentative lot. One notable example, for those studying in the Lower Sixth studying the Tudors, is of G.R Elton and the Daily Mail’s ‘rudest man in Britain’, David Starkey. Elton was Starkey’s PhD supervisor and following Elton’s knighthood in 1983 Starkey slated one of his essays, calling it ‘dreary’. Elton responded by calling a collection of essays edited by Starkey ‘absolutely shocking’. Words of packed with venom I’m sure you’ll agree, yet despite all of our wrangling what unites us historians is our story. This is a very long story. This is a very difficult story.

Herodotus was born in the Ancient Greek town of Halicarnassus, now in modern-day Turkey, in around 484 BCE. He was by no means the first person to look back and write about what had happened in the past. There is evidence of this stretching way back to the time of Ancient Egypt, but these stories were often influenced by divinity. The new thinking around the time of Herodotus was to explain things in natural causes rather than in divine causes and he applied this new way of thinking to the field of human affairs. He devoted his life to writing a single work, which he called the Greek word meaning ‘inquiry, research or investigation’- ἱστορία (Historia) and Herodotus clearly set out the aim of this magnum opus in the preface.

(To Ensure) That human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive – and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.’

Herodotus, Translated by Tom Holland

The war the Grecian is referring to is the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century, and he is going to tell you, the reader, how it came about. Then Herodotus opens with a story of a man who wants his bodyguard to watch his wife naked. He goes on to talk about the Egyptians, the Indians and even the Babylonian marriage market, shown below, before eventually getting to the war itself.


For the historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood the work of Herodotus fulfils three of his four criteria of history. The first was that it was self-revelatory i.e. ‘It exists in order to tell what man is by telling him what man has done.’ Secondly, it was humanistic: it focuses on man, not divinity although the God’s do play a role in this work. The final principle is that it was scientific, in the modern sense of the word, in that Herodotus is concerned to convey his evidence. He wants to show how he has come by his information. Now this is so fundamental to the historical method, we often don’t even think of it. At the time this was revolutionary. It resulted in Cicero referring to Herodotus as ‘the father of history,’ which is now commonly accepted by historians.

Thucydides, the other key figure of Greco-Roman historiography, took the methods set out by Herodotus and applied them to his History of the Peloponnesian War, where he reduced the role of the Gods further. Rather than divinity he focused on rationality (a tendency towards reason) and this has arguably been influential ever since. In the Hellenistic period, which covers the period following the death of Alexander the Great to the emergence of the Roman Empire, history as a subject did not develop very much. Grecian methods became more widely adopted and, historians began to expand their time frame. Polybius’ history of the rise of the Roman Empire covered five generations, where as the work of Thucydides covered only one. With the rise of the Roman Empire, history now began to be written in Latin, rather than in Greek. As with the Greeks, two figures dominated the Roman Empire’s contribution to historical thought.

The first was Livy, who R.G. Collingwood advocates as Rome’s only original contributor to historical thought. The contribution of Livy to history was twofold. Firstly, his historical approach was to understand the course of the past through character, looking at morality in great detail. In his History of Rome, Livy highlighted the need for Rome to deal with its moral decline. Secondly, Livy speculated what would have happened if Alexander the Great had attacked Rome, and this is the first known example of counterfactual history.

The second was Tacitus. Opinion still remains split of this figure. Some regard him as the single greatest Roman historian, where as R.G. Collingwood argues that Tacitus illustrated the decline of Roman historiography. Tacitus had a mastery of the Latin language due to his skilled nature as an orator, yet his works are seen as highly opinionated and often factually inaccurate. He agreed in part with his Grecian predecessors in viewing character as something that did not develop. Innate character only truly developed in a time of crisis, shown by his history of Emperor Nero. Overall, it is important to note that where as Rome progressed historical thought it was by no means a revolution. Subtle changes were made to the way history was written, but no major contributions were made to practise.


The revolution did come however, in the form of the man shown above. The advent of Christianity and its subsequent adoption by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE led to the biggest revolution in historical thought since its foundation. The spread of Christian ideas had three effects on historical method. Firstly, with the Bible existing at the centre of Christianity, a far greater preference was brought about for literary sources, rather than oral sources, which classical historians had used quite heavily. Secondly, place was given a far greater importance. This came about from the fundamental Christian doctrine of creation. Just like when he created man, God created the world out of no pre-existing matter and he created this all for a purpose. Thus, a previously thought eternal city such as Rome was no longer looked at in the same way. It was there to complete a purpose and once that was completed it would diminish. The gain to history was immense. Places were no longer taken for granted, but viewed as part of a process. The third effect on historical method came from the universalism of the Christian attitude. In Galatians it is stated ‘there is neither Jew, nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.’ As everyone was part of Gods plan and there are no supporting actors. A Christian cannot be content with Roman or Jewish history or any other partial history for he or she demands a history of the world: a universal history illustrating the development of God’s purpose for humankind. Writing history was immensely popular throughout the European clergy and if you want no better example then look no further to Jarrow.


St. Paul’s monastery, well worth visiting if you can bear crossing the river, was home to the Venerable Bede. Bede is the founding father of British history and furthermore probably the first storyteller in English literature. He was a masterful propagandist and his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (he was one of the first people to refer to us as English) is our prime account for England’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Bede is just one brilliant example of what many abbey’s across Europe were doing: they were writing their story. Probably Bede’s biggest contribution to history was the fact he popularised the BC/AD system of dates. This method of history rooted largely in Christianity remained the same for over 1,000 years. In the Renaissance, science and art developed immensely yet, human history on the other hand remained a playground between the forces of good and evil at a fundamental level, as it had been back in the years of Bede over half a millennia earlier. Perhaps the only major difference is that history began to written more about nations or states and this is because in the Renaissance borders as a concept began to more concrete.

So the status quo in terms of method broadly continued until we get to that great age of seventeenth and eighteenth rethinking the Enlightenment. Voltaire, a leading figure of the period said that ‘history is a pack of tricks that we play on the dead.’ Voltaire spent the majority of his life playing those tricks. He was the first Scholar to write a truly global history in the form of his Essay on Morals, which was not just a history from the perspective of the high culture, but also he tried to focus on every aspect of human life. This method became immensely popular in the 20th century.

Arguably, the most widely read historian of the (Voltaire was a philosopher) Enlightenment was Edward Gibbon and his magnum opus was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A mammoth piece of work of six volumes, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was a continuous narrative from the second century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. All very well and normal yet, what was particularly unusual is the cast of characters. It is not a cast of individuals, nor is it a cast of groups. Instead it is a collective of moral qualities that dominates Gibbon’s narrative. The ultimate lesson from the book is that is was a combination of fanaticism, superstition and religious belief that brought down one of the greatest empires in history. Gibbon makes it clear that this could happen again to the great empires of the 18th century. Some of you will be able to realise that these three qualities were absolutely detested by the 18th century way of thinking. It is so Enlightenment it hurts.

The Romantic era, for me, centres primarily around one thing: the exploration of new and terrifying emotions. Chopin and Mendelssohn were doing just that in music. The same thing happened to History. Well sort of. In 1814 the poet Walter Scott published Waverly– the first historical novel in Western Literature. This made the past engrossing, exciting and engaging and boy did the public lap it up.


Those amongst you who like their train travel will have heard of Waverly train station in Edinburgh and this is just one example to show just how successful the book was. The first edition of one thousand books sold out within two days of its publication. In a letter to her niece Anna, Jane Austen had the following to say about Walter Scott and his story about conflict in the Jacobite rebellion:

‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of the mouths of other people. I do not like him, and do not mean to like “Waverley” if I can help it, but fear I must.’

Jane Austen (1814)

Where as Austen reacted with a slight hint of bitterness, lets say, to Scott’s work, others reacted with a great dissatisfaction and this no one did more so than Ranke. Ranke is arguably the most significant figure in this story for a number of reasons. Firstly, his contribution to the historical cannon was enormous. The photograph below is Ranke in 1877 at the age eighty-two. The year after this photograph was taken Ranke started writing a history of the world, by the time of his death nine years later he had written seventeen volumes. Ranke was outraged by factual inaccuracy in the book Scott’s Quentin Durward, which converted him to the study of history from philology the studying of language in historical sources.


In the preface of his maiden work Ranke wrote the most famous phrase in Historiography ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen.’ According to Richard J. Evans this is widely misunderstood phrase. It does not mean ‘show what actually happened.’ Rather, it means ‘how it essentially was.’ This relates to the first of three major contributions to history that Ranker made. He made history independent from those philosophy and literature across the hallway, saying that the purpose of history was to urge the past for the benefit of the future. Secondly, Ranke went against the Enlightenment philosophy of judging the past from your perspective. He strongly advocated that God made no distinction between periods of history i.e. you had to see it in the light of the time. Finally, Ranke applied methods of analysis learnt from his original profession and hard to believe carelessness was an issue. Ranke said go back to the primary sources; Gibbon for example had used chronicles widely available in libraries across Europe in the research of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ranke said to go and root out the forgeries, and you may think that this is an issue, but this trips up historians time and time again. Arguably the most famous example was the Hitler dairies. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation was damaged following his authentication of these blatant forgeries. Many of the techniques Ranke imposed are a vital part of UK University education in history.


Now we move on into the twentieth century. The light is at the end of tunnel. Ranke’s message that historians needed to use intuition to establish connections between events had been justified upon religious and romantic principles, but in this period we begin to see further justifications for this outside of religion. G.M. Trevelyan, surely with the best facial hair out of any historian, justified this through aesthetic and literary terms. For Trevelyan history was a mixture of research, interpretation and presentation. It is only the former that can be advocated as a truly scientific element. The final two points are arguably artistic: to be a truly great historian you have to be able to write well.

The Romantic era led to a rise in nationalist thinking and this only grew at the beginning of the 20th century. Trevelyan argued that England was the mother of all Anglo-Saxon historians, where as the Prussian school argued that Germany was better than all the others in the field of historical research. As these ideas grew it became clearer that purely scientific history, one that is value free and neutral, was under some doubt. The inter-war years are seen as period of very little development in historical scholarship and this is primarily due to the economic climate surrounding the Great Depression. Only after the end of the Second World War and the explosive economic boom that followed did a new generation of historians enter the market. They looked to go back to the Rankean values and this generation’s mentor was Sir Lewis Namier. Namier completely avoided speculation. His scholarship was painstaking and exact. As you can probably deduce this approach took a long time to bear fruit, but nonetheless in 1929 Namier published his most famous work The Structure and Politics at the Accession of King George III. This book took head-on the Whig interpretation of the 1760’s. Namier looked beyond ideologies to the personal relationships between politicians during the early days of King George III and our loss of America. By investigating these relations Namier concluded that it was the ascendancy of George III, which caused the early political crisis and not the Whig view.NPG x90751; Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier by Elliott & Fry

Now this book had far more wide-reaching implications than the title suggests. It took a while for it to be adopted due to the Second Word War but by the 1950’s and 1960’s it was being viewed by many academics as one of the greatest works by an English historian. Some even viewed that finally we have found the ultimate way doing history. Even E.H. Carr, writer of What is History? wrote that Namier was the greatest British historian to emerge since the war. However, Namier’s methods have since come under great criticism. As early as the 1950’s historians have described him as taking the mind out of history. Namier’s methods began to show flaws when he published in 1960 the huge History of Parliament. This ended up being nothing more a biographical dictionary of all of the MP’s through the 18th century. It flattered those in Westminster, hence why they were more than happy to subsidise it. Richard J. Evans called it the great white elephant of 20th century history.

Now we get to the 1960’s and this period is important in history for two reasons. Firstly, it was a great era of debate regarding the purpose of history primarily through E.H. Carr and Geoffrey Elton. Secondly, there was a major expansion in education in the UK and USA. Universities such as York, Warwick, Stirling and many more were founded in this period. This resulted in far more research being produced and ultimately far more historians. Topics for PhD’s were becoming far more specific and a greater emphasis was placed on cultural and social history. It can be argued that this new hotbed of education led to the rise of Postmodernist history. The issue with postmodernist history is it is incredibly difficult to define. Essentially it centres on the fact that we can never know anything certain about the past. All sources are just interpretations of the past. Postmodernism can further extend to the fact that we can’t write about other cultures we don’t understand. With the rise of postmodernist history many have leapt the defence of their subject, for example Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History.


Alongside the rise of postmodernism, the growth of short-term thinking thanks to the World Wide Web, has caused great concern in the academic field of History. So in October this year Jo Guild and David Armitage, professors at Brown and Harvard University respectively, published The History Manifesto a self-described call to arms arguing that long-term history is a trend back on the rise, thus we should start thinking more in the long-term. The economist and the anthropologist who can dilute their information into tiny bite-seized chunks have replaced the historians at the top table in politics; politicians need to give more weight to the evidence of the historians.

Overall, from all of this we can clearly infer what history is. How we do this, why we do this and what we do it for however, remain ever-looming questions over history as an academic discipline. I’ll bring you back to that opening quote ‘a great many things keep happening, some good and some bad.’ The periods that we look in for those good and bad things eventually end, whether it be the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for the end of the communist history of East Berlin or the Representation of the People Act of 1918 for the history of the suffrage movement. The history of history is one that is never finished. There will always be something new to change it. I wrote at the very start of this article that this is the story of looking back, well perhaps when we are looking back we must always keep an eye on what is coming round the corner.

Further Reading

What is History? by E.H. Carr

In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans

The Practise of History by G.R. Elton

The Histories by Herodotus

Waverly by Walter Scott

The Idea of History by R.G. Collingwood

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