Obituary: Professor James Joll
Monday 18 July 1994
TO DESCRIBE James Joll as 'a diplomatic historian', or even as a historian of international relations, is to give a misleading impression of the range of his interests and his unusually eclectic approach to what can sometimes be a rather tired subject.
Joll's real focus was the history of ideas broadly conceived - philosophical, ethical and aesthetic, as well as political - and the interface between this and the political history of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. He firmly believed that history was made by people rather than by dispassionate forces. But he also believed that one could not understand why people act as they do unless one also understands the influences that moulded their minds.
Although he wrote half a dozen important scholarly works, he will probably be best remembered for his inaugural lecture as Stevenson Professor of International History at the London School of Economics in 1967, 'The Unspoken Assumptions'. In that he showed how, if one is to understand the minds of the statesmen whose decisions brought about the war of 1914, it is necessary first to understand the basic assumptions on which they based those decisions - assumptions probably absorbed 40 years earlier. If one does not appreciate this, reading the documents by which diplomatic historians set so much store is largely a waste of time. Much labour would have been saved if the American political scientists who made so much work for themselves studying the 'crisis management' of 1914 had read the 5,000 wise words of that lecture.
James Joll belonged to the generation of scholars whose careers had been interrupted and largely moulded by their wartime service. A fluent German speaker, he served with the German section of SOE and on demobilisation was recruited by the Foreign Office to help edit their series of documents on German foreign policy under the direction of Sir John Wheeler Bennett, whom he briefly succeeded as Editor-in-Chief. His interest and expertise in German history was thereafter to be central in a range of interests that had always been wide and grew steadily wider.
As an undergraduate at Oxford he had not in fact read History: he had read Greats. When in 1946 he was invited to return to his old college, New College, it was to teach, not History, but Politics. Even more important to him than these subjects, however, was the interest in political ideas that he had absorbed from his friends and mentors, Herbert Hart and Isaiah Berlin; while to crown all these there was a deep and informed love of the arts, and above all, music. This last was not simply passive: Joll was an outstandingly good piano player, and kept in practice throughout his life.
This enviable range of interests and talents goes far to explain a breadth of intellectual sympathies that few of his professional contemporaries or successors were able to match. They might have been exploited to even better effect had Joll not in 1950 been selected by Bill Deakin to be his principal assistant in setting up St Antony's College, where he was to serve as Sub-Warden for 17 years.
It would not be too much to say that Deakin and Joll created St Antony's between them. Certainly they were the principal formative influences over the first, and most important, generation of its graduates, drawn as they were from all over Western Europe. Joll's talents as an administrator and his selfless dedication as a teacher meant that for many years he gave up to his college and his pupils talents that were meant for mankind, and the works that be published during this period, The Second International (1955), Intellectuals in Politics (1960), The Anarchists (1964), though original and penetrating, were comparatively brief. But of almost equal importance with these was the part he played in introducing to the English-speaking world the work of Fritz Fischer on the origins of the First World War, and his subsequent judicious monitoring of the controversy to which that gave rise. It is largely thanks to this that his reputation in Germany stands as high, if not indeed higher, as it does in Britain.
Joll was a central and popular figure not only in St Antony's but in Oxford as a whole, moving as easily among philosophers as he did among historians. But 20 years was enough. Even in an atmosphere as stimulating as that provided by St Antony's, college life can be stifling for a bachelor don. In 1955 he had met the young painter and art historian John Golding, and began with him a deep and fruitful relationship that was to last until his death. Golding worked and taught in London, and there they established a household which increasingly became the centre of both their lives. Joll was thus happy to leave Oxford in 1967 when he accepted appointment to the Chair of International History at the LSE, in succession to the diplomatic historian WN Medlicott.
A new phase began in his life, which was to be marked by the magisterial study of Europe Since 1870 (1973), which still holds its place as the most comprehensive and readable survey of that complex and turbulent era. It was to be followed by his equally definitive study, The Origins of the First World War (1984), which he published shortly after his retirement from his Chair. But he kept his old interests alive, and in 1977 published a superb brief study, Gramsci.
James Joll was a delightful companion and teacher; friendly, modest, funny, with an infectious enjoyment of the good things of life that did not conceal the seriousness of a dedicated professional and a deep sense of moral rectitude that surfaced on two occasions. The first was when he led a public protest by his Oxford colleagues against the Suez invasion. The second was when he gave shelter to his old friend, John Golding's teacher and colleague at the Courtauld, Anthony Blunt, and rode the tide of press vilification that resulted.
His own 'unspoken conviction' was that one should not betray one's friends. But it involved confronting the dilemma which those friends present if they betray their country, and with it the political system it embodies and that makes such private loyalties possible.
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