Obituary: Michael Hughes

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The Independent Online
Michael Hughes, historian: born Wirral, Cheshire 3 March 1942; married Yvonne Bagnall (one son); died Greifswald, Germany 23 May 1993.

MICHAEL HUGHES was one of the most gifted historians working in the ever-extending field of German history.

His interest in Germany began in his undergraduate days at Queen Mary College, London, where he obtained a well-deserved First in history. It continued with his postgraduate work in London; in 1969 he completed a Ph D thesis on the supreme court of the Holy Roman Empire, the Imperial Aulic Council, and its jurisidiction in the conflicts between the princes of East Frisia and Mecklenburg and their territorial Estates - the local 'parliaments' which exercised a very powerful influence.

His thesis broke entirely new ground, based on meticulous research in the local German archives and those of Vienna. In 1988 it was published in a modified form by the Royal Historical Society, with the title Law and Politics in 18th-century Germany. Together with several German works it led to a complete revaluation of the role of the Holy Roman Empire in the 18th century, which had been denigrated by earlier historians.

That Hughes also had much wider interests was shown by his book Nationalism and Society - Germany 1800-1945, which was published in 1988. German nationalism, as proved by the events of recent years, is a very difficult plant, and the book was rightly sceptical of the many myths surrounding it. On a topic still controversial among German historians, Hughes as an outsider documented the many facets and the virulent growth of German nationalism, which is so very different from its counterparts in other European countries. Like his other book, it was very well reviewed, especially in Germany. As one reviewer stated, it 'will be of great value to teachers of German history'.

A more general book, Early Modern Germany, 1477-1806, appeared in 1992. Hughes's interest in modern nationalism even extended to Irish history: his book The Partition of Ireland: the roots of the modern Irish Problem is due to be published later this year. But his main interest always remained modern Germany, and at the time of his death he was working on a new project, funded by the British Academy - the politics of the peasants of East Frisia and their attitudes to the growth of National Socialism. It meant a return to the region of East Frisia on the North Sea which he knew so well from his earlier work. Hughes proved that a historian need not be a narrow specialist, but could also tackle big, controversial subjects.

In 1969 Hughes was appointed lecturer in the history department of the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth. There he was for a time a member of the Senate and of the Board of European Studies. But he was also very active in local politics, as a Dyfed County Councillor, as secretary to the Cardigan Constituency Labour Party, and as an adviser to the Aberystwyth Citizens' Advice Bureau. He was promoted Senior Lecturer in 1990, and more recently he moved to LSU University College Southampton. He died when he was a visiting professor at the University of Greifswald in Pomerania.

Hughes was rather reticent and sensitive; he did not like to push himself forward. His tragic death occurred at a time when he was in the midst of new and highly promising work.