Obituary: Robert Cecil
Wednesday 02 March 1994
IN 1948, after three years as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington, Robert Cecil returned to London as No 2 in the American Department of the Foreign Office. The head of the department was none other than Donald Maclean, on whom Cecil later wrote a definitive biography, A Divided Life (1988), in which, incidentally, he claims that as a mole Maclean did more actual harm to British interests even than Philby. I recall his telling me of his surprise at the way, typical perhaps of the disconcerting impact on officialdom of Maclean's defection, that he himself was never once interrogated on the subject. He was, however, promoted into Maclean's place in 1951.
'Robin' Cecil was a historian by training - with scholarships at both Wellington College and Caius College, Cambridge - who had joined in 1936 the Consular Service, which was amalgamated with the Diplomatic Service by the end of the Second World War. During the war itself he was home-based, including an assignment in MI6 that was to provide him with valuable insight into the intelligence world, on which he became something of an authority.
After his spell as head of the American Department he was moved to Copenhagen in 1953. Thereafter came a new avatar, as a German expert (he was fluent in the language), with his being made Consul-General in Hanover, and then Cultural Counsellor in Bonn. In 1959, when he was appointed CMG, he went back to the United States as Head of the British Information Services in New York: and finally for six years he headed the Cultural Relations Department of the Foreign Office, a post for which he proved exceptionally well qualified.
At that point Cecil decided that, rather than accept any orthodox diplomatic post on offer, he would transfer to academic life. In 1968 he was appointed Reader in Contemporary German History at Reading University, where he also succeeded Professor Hugh Thomas (now Lord Thomas of Swynnerton) as Chairman of the School of Postgraduate European Studies. During this time he wrote two significant works: The Myth of the Master-Race (1972, a study of Alfred Rosenberg and Nazi ideology), and Hitler's Decision to Invade Russia, 1941 (1976). In neither case did elegance of style belie scholarly content.
Two further books, likewise of a historical cast, were Life in Edwardian England (1969), and The Masks of Death (1991), a study of Victorian attitudes, based partly on family papers, and evincing a distinctive philosophical outlook. In addition he had published two short collections of his own poems, which in an unassuming way expressed his sensitive and thoughtful personality, as well as his sense of humour. He was indeed a man of unusual quality, notable for intellectual integrity, wit and an original mind that found some outlet in unfamiliar directions, such as a passing enthusiasm in youth for the once-noted diabolist Aleister Crowley, and in later life his chairmanship of the Institute for Cultural Research, an educational charity especially interested in Sufism. And he continued fully active to the last, from his home in Hambledon, in Hampshire.
Robin Cecil was for 60 years one of my closest friends, a relationship unimpaired by his marriage (in 1938) to an old flame of mine, Kathleen Marindin, who survives him with a son and two daughters. Apart from his intellectual interests, and a love of gardening shared with her, he was also fond of chess, at which en revanche I usually had the satisfaction of beating him.
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