Obituary: Professor Phyllis Auty

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PHYLLIS AUTY was a pioneer of post-war East European studies in at least two senses: as a joint-founder of an academic enterprise which put Yugoslavia on the scholarly map in Britain and North America, and as a woman who helped blaze a trail for other women in the new field.

Intrepid women such as Paulina Irby, Edith Durham and Rebecca West had been disproportionately prominent in awakening the English-speaking world to the Balkans, but they did so as private, not to say eccentric, individuals. Auty took on the promotion of Yugoslav studies from an institutional base: as Lecturer in the history of the Danubian lands (1947-69) and Reader in the history of the South Slavs (1969-74) at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in London University and, until her retirement in the late 1970s, as Professor of Modern History and Head of Department at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Auty was born, one of four children, into the family of a Quaker schoolmaster in Rotherham in 1910. She went up to St Hilda's College, Oxford, in 1928. An aspiring medievalist, she received a BA in History in 1931 and commenced postgraduate research under Professor Sir Maurice Powicke. She was in Hamburg studying German in 1933 when the Nazis came to power, an event which contributed to her decision to switch to Modern History after taking her BLitt in 1934.

Embarking upon what turned out to be a short career as a grammar school teacher in Henley-on-Thames, Auty also began to work part-time in adult education for Oxford University and to travel widely in Central Europe. The latter enthusiasm she shared with her younger brother, Robert. He was already a Modern Languages don at Cambridge with a developing passion for the Czechs, and would later become the Professor of Comparative Slavonic Philology at London and Oxford Universities in turn.

Phyllis Auty belonged to that company of scholars which discovered its vocation during wartime service. As a consequence, the fostering of public understanding of the transformation taking place under Communist rule was as important to her conception of academic endeavour as was pure scholarship.

In fact, it was the Fabian pamphlets, contributions to Chatham House publications, conference papers, chapters in collective volumes and works of popular history - most notably, her 1970 biography of Tito - which came to fruition, while the projected monographs fell by the wayside. Regular travel in the Balkans, the collection of source materials, interviews with political leaders and the practice of the "higher journalism" for the Economist, Observer and Financial Times loomed larger for her than did university teaching, administration or politicking.

War service also opened to Auty - as to many other women - doors which might otherwise have stayed firmly shut. Her extensive travels in Central and South-Eastern Europe before the war, latterly as an organiser for Oxford's Delegacy of Extra-Mural Studies, meant that she could qualify as an expert on the region for several branches of a burgeoning wartime bureaucracy.

Working first for the BBC (dealing with news and talks to Central and South-Eastern Europe), then for the Foreign Office's Political Intelligence Department (as an editor at the Middle East radio station broadcasting into the Danubian states) and, finally, for the War Office (as a political intelligence officer specialising on Yugoslavia at Allied Forces Headquarters in Cairo and Bari), Auty both confirmed her status as an expert and transcended the confines within which women traditionally toiled. After the war, she served for two years as an information officer for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), analysing economic developments in Eastern Europe.

The new field of Soviet and East European Studies, driven by cold war imperatives, also proved welcoming to women, and SSEES seems to have employed a far larger proportion of them on its staff than did other British institutions of higher education at the time.

Auty's prominence among them was enhanced by the Tito-Stalin split in 1948 and Yugoslavia's emergence as the acceptable face of Communism. Not only was it possible for her to establish cordial links with Yugoslav scholars and institutions, to work in Yugoslav archives and to interview Tito himself in 1951, but the split permitted those who had - like Auty - argued the case for backing Tito in the war to bask in the glow of their own perspicacity. Auty was neither a romantic Tory nor an obviously clubbable woman, but she nonetheless became a leading member of socialist Yugoslavia's British fan club.

She did not publish extensively until the 1960s, perhaps because she had two small adopted sons to raise following the end of her brief marriage to an accountant, James McBurnie. But books and substantial contributions to edited volumes emerged regularly from 1965, including a popular history of Yugoslavia, a volume of readings on the economic and social history of South-Eastern Europe, one full-scale and one short biography of Tito and a symposium on British policy towards wartime resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece. Visiting professorships in the US and Canada now came her way.

Admiration in the West both for Tito and for self-management socialism were in the ascendant in the late 1960s. The Yugoslav regime, for its part, needed to cultivate its Western friends following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. This conjunction permitted Auty to interview Tito again and at length in 1968 and to produce in 1970 a biography which fitted the temper of the times and enjoyed a long shelf-life in paperback. Although gushingly enthusiastic in places, it remains a valuable book: scholarly, accessible and (now) poignant.

Phyllis Auty was eight years old when Yugoslavia was born. She outlived the country by seven years. She did not take its demise too tragically, having been far readier than most foreign specialists to consign the Yugoslav experiment to history.

Mark Wheeler

Phyllis Auty, historian: born Rotherham, South Yorkshire 27 February 1910; Lecturer, School of Slavonic and East European Studies 1947-69, Reader 1969-74; Professor of Modern History Simon Fraser University, Vancouver 1974-78; married James McBurnie (two adopted sons; marriage dissolved); died Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire 30 April 1998.