Eric Hobsbawm, MI5 and the politics of history

This post was contributed by Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. He also writes at the Many-Headed Monster.

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most influential historians of the last century and late President of Birkbeck, was under surveillance by MI5 for at least two decades. Last Friday, the National Archives released the formerly secret files documenting how the security services monitored Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill from the 1940s onwards. To their credit, the archives have actually digitised some of the files, so you can now read the MI5 reports for yourself.

Both Hobsbawm and Hill were members of the British Communist Party and this explains why they were of such interest to MI5 during the Cold War. Indeed, they were part of the famed Communist Party Historians Group, a cluster of brilliant scholars that also included E.P. Thompson and Raphael Samuel, whose History Centre is closely tied to Birkbeck. Hobsbawm came to Birkbeck as a lecturer in 1947, a few years after the surveillance began. His communist affiliations apparently blocked his path to a post at Cambridge, the conventional destination for a historian of his calibre at the time, but he was much more welcome at Birkbeck and here he honed his craft by writing magisterial histories of revolutions, capitalism, imperialism and global conflict. However he did not limit himself to the ‘big picture’. My own love for his work began when I read his essay on ‘political shoemakers’ and he also wrote a surprising amount about modern jazz. As an MI5 officer wrote in 1962, Hobsbawm broadcast on an eclectic range of topics on the BBC: ‘Some recent talks were entitled ‘Sicilian Peasant Risings’ and ‘Robin Hood’.’

The fact that he was watched by the British security state should not be surprising. Any communist connection was enough to justify a police file during the Cold War. Hobsbawm was, however, not a compliant party man. He was, in fact, a constant source of irritation and worry for the party’s national leadership. Although several commentators have – with some justification – criticised him for remaining a member of the CP even after the extent of Stalin’s terrible crimes became known, Hobsbawm hardly towed the party line. His open criticism of Soviet aggression in Hungary in 1956 and his other public critiques led the party leaders to consider expelling him.

Ultimately, Hobsbawm’s constant involvement in radical politics made him an obvious target for MI5. Would he still be monitored if he were alive today? Perhaps not. The label of ‘communist’ is not such a security bugbear as it once was. Yet it is odd to find Martin Kettle suggesting that it would be unlikely any historians writing today would be worrying enough to the state to justify surveillance. There are many historians across the country whose search for justice and a better world takes them beyond the classroom and into the streets to protest against British government policies. Right here at Birkbeck, we continue to build links with community groups and networks of activists. As recently as this week, our own Dr Becky Taylor published a poignant piece on the recent history of homelessness and squatting that took the story right up to the present with the Focus E15 Mothers occupation in Newham.

We at Birkbeck take pride in offering opportunities for anyone – whether a student, an activist or even a dusty old historian – to not only build up their knowledge of the contentious issues of the day, but also to speak out about them. Birkbeckers are keen to critique conventional wisdom and express their dissent, even if it means risking the possibility of ending up in a file in the National Archives marked ‘secret’.

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Mrs. Waac

This post was contributed by Dr Kate McLoughlin, Reader in Modern Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities.

(c) Birkbeck, University of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI was recently interviewed by a journalist from BBC Radio London 94.9 about Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (right), a remarkable Birkbeck pioneer. Gwynne-Vaughan was born Helen Fraser in 1879, a Scottish aristocrat, and spent her childhood in various exotic locales where her step-father acted as British Consul: Corsica, Stockholm, Oporto, Algiers. Frustrated by the constraints imposed on Victorian girls, Helen battled with her mother to be allowed to study science at university. She passed the Oxford Entrance Exam but Oxford was better known for humanities and, in any case, did not award women degrees.  So Helen read botany at King’s College, London, and, at the age of 30, became head of the botany department at Birkbeck -– the youngest candidate for the post and the only woman.  She married the previous head of department.

When war broke out in 1914, Helen wanted to work in a mobile hospital ‘on a really dangerous front’. In 1917, she was invited to become co-Director of the newly-formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – –the so-called WAACs. In France, she was a firm but sympathetic leader of the ‘Tommettes’. The French called her ‘Mrs. Waac’ and the servicewomen called her ‘Remember’ as she began so many of her speeches to them with that word. In 1918, she was appointed head of the Women’s Royal Air Force and a year later made a Dame.

After the First World War, Helen returned to Birkbeck and became its first woman professor of botany in 1921. Her research was into fungi, and specifically its reproducibility. A fungus found only in Aberdeenshire – where she had had her coming-out ball was named Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii in her honour. In the Second World War, she led the Auxiliary Territorial Service and was made a Dame for a second time – this time a Dame Grand Cross. She died in 1967, aged 88.

Birkbeck owns a gorgeous portrait of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan in her red and gold doctoral gown by Philip de László (see above). The interview with BBC Radio London will be broadcast in November, to coincide with Armistice Day commemorations, and a longer version will be posted on the website.

Biographical source: Molly Izzard, A Heroine in Her Time: A Life of Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan 1879-1967 (London: Macmillan, 1969).


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Birkbeck 190 years on

190 years since George Birkbeck announced his plans for an evening educational institution in London, Vice-Master Professor Philip Dewe reflects on how the College stays true to the mission and vision of its founder.

190 years ago today, George Birkbeck called a meeting at the Crown and Anchor tavern on the Strand in London, to discuss the idea of establishing  a Mechanics’ Institute to educate London’s working population. That Institute went on to become Birkbeck College. Therefore, today seems like a very good moment to reflect on where the College is today, and how it has responded to modern-day challenges in making education available to working people in London.

When George Birkbeck announced his plans they met with fierce opposition from some quarters and accusations that he was “scattering the seeds of evil”. Some groups feared that “if you educated the sailors to the level of the captain then you would provoke a mutiny”. Luckily, in 2013, the benefits of a highly educated population have been more universally embraced, but that does not mean that as London’s only specialist provider of part-time and evening education the College no longer faces challenges.

A particularly acute recent challenge was the 2012 increase in tuition fees across England, as higher education institutions responded to the withdrawal of government funding for undergraduate courses. Across England, part-time enrolments decreased and at Birkbeck we thought long and hard about how we could continue to make higher education available to working Londoners in a model that met their needs and aspirations as learners. We decided that this year we would expand the number of courses that we offered in an accelerated version – three years for an undergraduate degree, rather than the four years of our traditional courses, but still taught in the evening to enable our students to earn money, gain work experience or raise families during the day.

When George Birkbeck published a notice in The Times to announce his public meeting at the Crown and Anchor he didn’t anticipate that nearly 2,000 men would turn up, crowding the tavern and spilling out onto the Strand. This year, the College has seen another inundation of students, hungry to learn and keen to take advantage of our prestigious teaching and to learn from our research-active lecturers. Demand for our new three-year programmes has been incredibly strong. The students  that we have recruited onto these new programmes are similar in background to those who would previously have signed up to our four-year courses and I am delighted that we have been able to provide increasingly flexible study models for the students for whom our sort of provision is most appropriate. It is the ability of the College and our staff to develop and provide increasingly flexible study models that has enabled us to weather the latest storm and will enable us to continue going from strength to strength while offering something unique within the UK higher education sector.

Nearly two centuries on from the Crown and Anchor meeting, George Birkbeck’s rallying call that ‘now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge’ is as powerful and relevant as it was at the time. Having seen how the College has adapted and changed to face this challenge and those that have come before it, I think that we can confidently say that we have stayed true to the founding  mission, and I am proud that we are a College that George Birkbeck would still recognise from his proposal on this day in 1823.

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