Obituary: Professor Callum MacDonald

Dale Carter
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:26

To read Callum MacDonald's work is to be reminded of why we train historians, and of why we study the past.

His scholarship covered a vast geographical field, from the United States and Latin America to Asia and Europe. It also displayed his numerous authorial talents. To read, say, his first book on Czechoslovakia under the Nazis, The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich (1989), is to be in the hands of a gifted diplomatic and military historian as well as a sensitive biographer of human diversity: the notorious and the hapless, the brave, the unsung and the innocent. Yet these wide-ranging interests and skills were united in many ways. All of his work is distinguished by a seemingly effortless marriage of chronology, thematics and analysis, a clarity never purchased at the expense of complexity, and a mastery of sources which engenders confidence in discussions of sometimes controversial issues.

MacDonald was born in Eaglesham near Glasgow in 1947. Having achieved a first class honours degree in History at Edinburgh University, he moved on to New College, Oxford, where a Kennedy Research Fellowship enabled him to work on a pioneering study of American appeasement during the late 1930s, for which he gained a DPhil from Keble College in 1974. A year as Assistant Lecturer in History at Liverpool University in 1971-72 and a Fellowship at the Salzburg Seminar preceded appointment in 1975 as Lecturer in History at the Joint School of Comparative American Studies at Warwick University.

Thereafter, research uncovered and teaching disseminated materials that would form the basis for a string of publications: first in scholarly journals, then in book form.

The United States, Britain and Appeasement, 1936-1939 appeared in 1981. Further extensive archival work, voracious reading and incessant writing led next to Korea: the war before Vietnam (1986), an influential study of diplomacy in a Cold War turned hot; and the briefer yet now-standard Britain and the Korean War (1990).

While continuing to work on the United States and Korea, MacDonald in the late 1980s developed a major project on Czechoslovakia under the Nazis. The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich was published in 1989 to widespread critical acclaim, its meticulously researched account and analysis of the May 1942 assassination by Czech parachutists of Hitler's man in Prague earning its author both honours and respect from Czech Brigade veterans of the struggle against the Axis. More recently, the project yielded Prague: under the shadow of the Swastika (1995), an extensively illustrated book, film and exhibition on the city and its people during the occupation, completed with the film-maker Jan Kaplan.

Work on, and frequent visits to, Czechoslovakia were accompanied during the early 1990s by the research and writing of a study of Nazi wartime expansion into the Mediterranean. The Lost Battle: Crete 1941 (1993) added further to our understanding of 20th- century history, as did published articles resulting from earlier extensive research into Argentina's relations with the United States, Britain and Germany between the 1930s and 1950s. His latest work focused on the Sino- Japanese conflicts of the 1930s which preceded and helped prompt the more general Pacific War.

Perhaps most of all, his work bears the unstated but tangible moral integrity and urgency of purpose which informed and helped sustain his scholarship and life. The sensitivity towards tyranny, injustice and bravery which drew him to those Czechs of another generation who gave everything to liberate their country was at one with the generosity of spirit he displayed in quite different circumstances towards so many in his own life. In 1989, surviving Czech Brigade veterans gathered to decorate MacDonald at a ceremony beside the memorial to Heydrich's assassins erected in his adopted home town of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, near which the parachutists had been based before their mission almost 50 years earlier.

Callum MacDonald enjoyed many things, from cooking and entertaining to detective fiction and Roy Orbison. But among his loves, few meant more to him than children and none gave him as much pride and pleasure as his own sparkling family.

Characteristically, in the face of serious illness he displayed the same qualities with which he had previously so enjoyed health. His death from cancer at the age of 49 has robbed the academic world of one of its most gifted and productive scholars.

Callum Alexander MacDonald, historian: born Eaglesham, Renfrewshire 11 November 1947; Lecturer in History, Warwick University 1975-87, Senior Lecturer 1987-91, Reader in Modern History 1991-94, Professor of Modern History 1994-97; FRHS 1989; married 1976 Alicja Szczepura (two daughters); died Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 24 January 1997.

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