J. M. Roberts

J. M. Roberts

John Roberts was one of my tutors when I was an undergraduate at Merton College, Oxford, in the early 1960s. I owe him an abiding debt for his determination to convince me that I should not confine my interests to the years before 1200. My interest in World History was sparked by his History of the World, first published in 1976. Still cocooned in the complacent conviction that nothing is worth writing about unless one can write about it on the basis of first-hand knowledge of the primary sources,  I would not have read it if it had been written by almost anyone else. I was pleased to be asked by the then editor of History Today, Peter Furtado, to write this obituary

J. M. Roberts, 1928 – 2003

John Roberts, who died on May 30, 2003, did more than any British historian since Trevelyan to advance the public understanding of history. As editor of Purnell’s History of the Twentieth Century, published in monthly parts between 1967 and 1969, and author and presenter of the television series The Triumph of the West (1985) he reached audiences that dwarfed those of his History of Europe (1996), The Twentieth Century (1999) and even his History of the World (1976, now in its fourth edition), which made world history respectable, and not only respectable but popular. He did not succumb to either of the political extremes which were fashionable at different times in his life, and did not reduce his history either to sweeping generalities and over-arching hypotheses or to great men (or women) and saloon bar aphorisms. He made his appeal not by cultivating personal mannerisms or picking quarrels with other historians, but by offering strikingly clear, accurate and vivid but intellectually serious accounts of big subjects, resting on and reflecting the highest standards of contemporary scholarship. Perhaps that is why, despite the success of The Triumph of the West, he never became a regular ‘tele don’.

John Roberts’ curriculum vitae  is almost a caricature of the great and the good. Public school (Taunton) and Oxford, a First in History (1948), Prize Fellow of Magdalen College (1951-53) and Fellow and Tutor of Merton (1953-79), Vice-Chancellor of Southampton (1979 – 84) and back to Merton as Warden (1984 – 94); C.B.E., Cavalier of the Order of Merit of Italy, Governor of the BBC, Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and of the Rhodes Trust, active in numerous educational, cultural and charitable boards and foundations; author of ten highly regarded and widely read books, editor of the English Historical Review, and of the Oxford History of the Modern World and the New Oxford History of England. It is a formidable list, which correctly conveys his great abilities, enormous dynamism, and acute sense of public duty. It hardly conjures the portrait of a man who seemed always on tip-toe, quivering with barely-contained energy, whose square build, short curly hair and piercing eyes could easily seem intimidating, but who was in fact the most thoughtful and sensitive of men, the most relaxing and amusing of companions, palpably sustained after his marriage in 1964 to Judith Armitage, who survives him, by the inner serenity of great happiness.  To undergraduates he was a legend in most of the ways possible – a brilliant, dazzling and demanding tutor, not only endlessly patient with their personal and intellectual problems, but prepared to throw all his passion and charm into dissuading the perverse or misguided from wasting the one talent that his charity invariably discerned. As Senior Proctor he was responsible for undergraduate discipline in 1968, and Oxford escaped lightly from the turbulence of that year.

Roberts began as an historian of the French revolution, to which, like Richard Cobb, he was introduced by J. M. Thompson, and his first book, two volumes, with Cobb, of French Revolution Documents (1966), was followed in 1978 by a characteristically lucid and thoughtful introductory essay, The French Revolution (2 ed. 1997). His doctoral thesis had been on the Napoleonic Cisalpine Republic, where he encountered some of the bizarre characters and phenomena that provided the subject matter of The Mythology of Secret Societies (1972). That secret, or at least secretive, associations with political goals proliferated in nineteenth century Europe was not news; it was typical of Roberts to see that the interesting question that they raised was not about the societies themselves but why educated, socially comfortable and otherwise rational people were willing to attribute so much – including the French Revolution itself – to their influence: ‘it is always disturbing when intelligent people seriously talk nonsense.’ This was a concern that became increasingly central to his view of the function and responsibilities of professional historians. A penetrating discussion of the climate which had permitted the growth and acceptance of totalitarianism in the 1920s and ’30s, in his influential textbook, Europe 1880-1945 (1967, 3 ed. 2000), commented that ‘academic historians seemed to have little to offer an intellectual public which welcomed the works of Spengler or A. J. Toynbee. In this they embodied the growing disjunction between the Mandarin specialist and the lay intellectual…. What seems clear in retrospect was that one form of the trahison des clercs of the age was the specialist abandonment of cultural leadership to the charlatans. The hungry sheep looked up and were not fed.’ (pp. 467-8)

Feeding the hungry sheep became the main goal of Roberts’s writing, and led directly to his most original and most influential book. World history has become very big business, both intellectually and commercially, in the last twenty years or so. It would be quite wrong to imagine that it was so, or obviously about to become so, when Roberts turned to it in the 1960s. On the contrary, so far as it existed at all world history was regarded by professional historians as a branch of metaphysics or (if possible, worse) sociology. Spengler and Toynbee had given it a thoroughly bad name, and the brilliant popularisation of H. G. Wells (A Short History of the World, 1922) had served only to underline the impossibility of writing sound, objective, let alone academic history on such a scale. Toynbee’s wartime assistant, W. H. McNeill, had published The Rise of the West in 1963, but had little immediate impact on professional historians in Britain, and not much more in North America. When it began to be rumoured that Roberts was writing a History of the World people thought it was a slightly malicious joke. When he produced it, in 1976, even the scoffers could not withhold their admiration for its accuracy, its grasp of current scholarship, the clarity of its structure and precision of its detail, the balance and shrewdness of its judgements. Of course it is obvious, with hindsight, that a far broader approach to the past was on the way than was reflected in the curricula and publishers’ lists of the 1960s, and it was increasingly becoming accepted (for instance, through the influence of the Annales school) that big questions could not always be studied within the confines of short periods, though many still maintained that in that case they should not be studied at all. But by the technical excellence and intellectual honesty of his work Roberts also contributed incalculably to the very considerable extent that it has now become accepted within the academic mainstream, in principle and slowly but increasingly in practice, that the discipline of History cannot be equated with the history of Europe and its satellites.

Indeed nowadays he may seem, ironically enough, more vulnerable to the charge of ‘Eurocentrism’ than of painting with too broad a brush. Though he was never chronologically blinkered, his view of European and of world history was very much that from the age of enlightenment and revolution in which he began. ‘The Enlightenment injected into world history impulses towards rationalism and humanitarianism never since eradicated (though sometimes gravely threatened). It gave Europeans a new optimism and a new sense of what they could do. It created the idea of the independent intellectual. It forged principles which were to animate for two centuries reformers and liberals (a word not yet available as a noun in 1800) which would spread not only throughout Europe but round the world. Most successful ideas (good and bad) of the twentieth century can be traced back to it. Finally it created a culture of believing in the fact of progress.’ (History of Europe, 237). It remained his view, as he put it in the closing pages of his History of Europe, that ‘world history, if that is the story to be told, and not the history of some parts of it, has in fact to be understood over the last few centuries in eurocentric terms. Europe was the original source of the most powerful of the prime movers of world history for most of that time.’ (582) This did not mean that he considered European history as such intrinsically more, or less, worth studying than the history of any other part of the world: he insisted repeatedly that it was not. The Triumph of the West was perhaps an unfortunate title for his lively and compellingly presented television series. It was, for Roberts, a description, not a value judgement: he did not represent western hegemony as the reward of superior values, or as in any sense a culmination or unambiguously beneficent outcome of world history. He saw the notion of an ‘end of history’ as intrinsically absurd, and was scathing of historians who set themselves up as prophets. Historical change was far too long, too complicated, and too dependent on the wills of human beings themselves, to lend itself to prediction, and he never forgot that it continues. A striking feature of all his general books is the calm prescience with which he notes the intractability of the problems and the depth of the dangers that remain unsolved, or have been created, by the long developments that he has traced – and his confidence that ‘self-destruction of the human species seems improbable because the human being is a reflective, as well as a tool-making, animal.’ (Twentieth Century, 843)
Roberts wrote for ‘the intelligent layman’, and in the preface to his last book quotes Norman Hampson: ‘if historians cannot reach that audience there is not a great deal of significance in what they say to each other.’ His work, and especially his History of the World, exposed the hollowness of the refrain that large-scale history could not be written in conformity with the highest professional standards – and therefore destroyed, though it has not laid to rest, the oldest and safest excuse of his professional colleagues for declining to engage in the classroom or in print with issues that exceed the conventional boundaries of place and period. Not all of them have been equally grateful, but it is not Roberts who is diminished by the absence of his name from the Fellowship of the British Academy. None stands higher among those who in the last generation have largely freed our discipline from the shackles of what one of his Merton colleagues, the philosopher John Lucas, called the squirrel theory of history – the notion that the business of the academic historian was to excavate kernels of fact from provincial archives, and bury them again in the stacks of the Bodleian Library.