Professor Alfred Gollin

Official historian of 'The Observer' and author of acclaimed books on Milner and early air warfare

Alfred Gollin, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was one of the most talented historians of his generation. He had the rare distinction of receiving the unqualified praise of A.J.P. Taylor and was one of the few American academics to have an entry in Britain's Who's Who. His friends included the Labour cabinet minister John Strachey and the once famous historian George Dangerfield, whose gratitude he earned when he found him in quiet retirement in Santa Barbara and arranged for him to teach at the university.

Freddie Gollin was born in 1926 in New York, the second son of a Russian Jewish refugee brought up in dire poverty on the edge of the Bowery. In 1943, at the age of 17, Gollin joined the US Army, ending the Second World War in an armoured field artillery brigade in Germany.

Through an arrangement with Oxford University, whereby the US Army could select one or two soldiers in each division to study there for a term, Gollin found himself "guarding SS men one day and walking in Oxford High Street the next". His Oxford tutor, Sir John Myres, subsequently recommended him for a History BA degree at New College, which at that time boasted such star Fellows as Alan Bullock and Isaiah Berlin. When Gollin met his first wife, Gurli, then looking after the infant daughter of Lord David Cecil, Goldsmith Professor of English Literature, she was wheeling the baby round the college gardens.

In 1950, Gollin won the New College Essay Prize. After graduating, he was appointed, through a senior History Fellow, David Ogg, to an Extraordinary Lectureship. This overlapped with seven years as official historian for The Observer, during which he gained an Oxford DPhil for his thesis "History of The Observer, 1905-1910" and a succession of major research fellowships and awards. From 1959 to 1961 he taught and researched at the University of California, Los Angeles, and from 1966 until 1994 was Associate and Full Professor, at Santa Barbara, with responsibilities for UC's teaching programme in London.

His first book, The Observer and J.L. Garvin (1960), established him as a leading authority on early-20th-century British history. His lucid and sensitive grasp of the English political mind in that period enabled his readers to absorb, with pleasure as well as understanding, the most complex events.

Contrasting with his classical written style, his packed, electrifying lectures were alive with colloquialisms - as was his conversation, which abounded in exclamations like "Button your lips!" and "Don't let them get you, kid!" His arresting husky voice, the consequence of a childhood throat operation, was quieter than most lecturers', and audiences, enthralled by the suspense and surprise in his narrative, paid the closest attention to every word. His magnetic qualities as a teacher were recognised at UCLA in 1960, when he was elected best professor of the year, and in 1990, at UCSB, "Great Gaucho Professor".

For his sense of historical drama he owed much to Lord Beaverbrook, whose own style of writing history in the making impressed Gollin powerfully. Beaverbrook admired and liked him and threw open the Lloyd George papers, and other collections that he owned, for Gollin's study of Lord Milner, Proconsul in Politics (1964). Other notable works followed. In 1968 Gollin received a Doctorate of Letters at Oxford in recognition of his outstanding scholarship. Later he wrote two groundbreaking and intensively researched works on air warfare: No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 (1984) and The Impact of Air Power on the British People and Their Government, 1909-14 (1989).

Proconsul in Politics is still the defining analysis of the once-idolised Milner, who has been generally blamed for the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899. Over the years, Milner's widow, Violet, had donated his papers and personal treasures to New College, Gollin's interest in this much-disputed imperialist was aroused:

a friend asked me why I wanted to become concerned with "That vile brute", while another acquaintance of great charm told me that I should discover what a great and good man Lord Milner was. It seemed clear the subject was not devoid of controversy.

His level-headed portrait highlighted Milner's humanity and exceptional administrative talents but equally his inability to understand his opponents' point of view. The Labour politician Richard Crossman told Gollin, "I always disliked Milner and this book tells me why." A.J.P. Taylor described it as an historical contribution second to none. Most reviewers agreed with him, as would most historians today.

Although Gollin's father and uncles received little education other than the "hard knocks" variety, the family preserved high moral standards - a yardstick for him and his brother Eugene in their rise to academic eminence, and fundamental to his outlook. Gollin was profoundly shocked by historians whom he felt to be untrustworthy on facts and was rigorous as a teacher in insisting on truth to the documents. A free spirit, he remained, in the Vietnam era, staunchly patriotic - which cost him popularity; but he also loathed official interference with individual conscience and enjoyed a fight for what he felt to be a student or a colleague's rights. He did not forgive or forget easily; and he would go generously out of his way to defend a young writer against an unfair reviewer.

Freddie Gollin was a tall, fine-looking man, with an elegant, high-shouldered figure and strong features. Although he was very private, shying away from talk about his life and achievements, the impression he gave was frank rather than inhibited. His many devoted pupils, academic and otherwise, were forever grateful for his expert guidance and encouragement, his awesome integrity and his words of praise - much valued, because not lightly spoken.

Hugh Cecil

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