R. C. Mowat

Prophetic historian

Wednesday 10 May 2006 00:00 BST

Robert Case Mowat, historian: born Oxford 11 May 1913; married 1942 Renée Sutton (one son, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Oxford 1 April 2006.

R. C. Mowat was a historian who saw the world from a spiritual and, indeed, prophetic perspective. Through his 11 books, he sought to discern the cultural or civilisational struggles in history, particularly in 20th-century Europe and the Middle East.

While still a student, Mowat had been inspired by the philosophy of history. His outlook owed much to Arnold Toynbee, and he was also influenced by Albert Schweitzer. He believed - and it was the context for most of his writing - that the West was in a crisis; although it was technologically advanced, it was morally decadent and in need of spiritual renewal. He worried about the decline of family life and erosion of absolute moral standards on which he believed civilisation depended.

Change was possible, though; influenced by Toynbee, Mowat believed that renewal in history was normally brought about by the influence of "creative minorities". These ideas were evident in a series of books: Climax of History (1951), Decline and Renewal: Europe ancient and modern (1991), Modern Prophetic Voices (1994) and Spiritual Forces in International Politics (1998). Discussing Modern Prophetic Voices in The Times, William Rees-Mogg described Mowat's call for prophetic intervention in modern society as "very persuasive".

Robert Case Mowat was born in 1913 in Oxford, where he attended the Dragon School, going on to Marlborough College. He went up to Hertford College, Oxford, in 1931 to read History. History was very much in the family; Mowat's father, R.B., was appointed Professor of History at Bristol University in 1928, and his brother Charles became well known for his work on 20th-century Britain. As a student, "Robin" Mowat himself won the Gladstone Memorial Essay Prize in 1934 for an essay on "Mr Gladstone and the Oxford Movement".

At Oxford Mowat was intrigued by socialism, and impressed when the hunger marchers passed through Oxford in the autumn of 1932. However, he increasingly believed that society's problems needed a spiritual solution, and was drawn into a lifelong involvement with the Oxford Group, subsequently called Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change). Mowat saw the Oxford Group as a "method of trying to live the Christian life", and was struck by its emphasis on personal change as a key to national change; he once said that its slogan "New men, new nations, a new world" was the best piece of logic he had heard since he came up to Oxford.

After leaving Oxford, Mowat taught at Radley School near Oxford, in Dortmund, Germany, as an exchange student, and at Clayesmore School in Dorset. During the Second World War, he worked at the Middle East Intelligence Centre at GHQ, Cairo, and served with the British Military Mission as Lecturer in the Middle East at the Egyptian Staff College.

From 1947 to 1958, he was Senior Lecturer at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and from 1958 to 1963 he taught at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. From there he moved to the Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University), where he became Head of the Department of Arts and Languages at a time of rapid expansion. He retired in 1978.

The focus of much of Mowat's writing was Europe. Probably his best-known books were Ruin and Resurgence, 1939-1965 (1966) and Creating the European Community (1973), the latter being a regular item on undergraduate reading lists. Mowat believed that post-war European reconstruction was the work of a creative minority of spiritually minded people. He noted that many of the shapers of the European Community (men like Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi) were people with strong religious convictions, their ideas drawing on continental Protestantism, radical Catholicism and Anglo-American evangelism.

As well as Europe, Mowat was greatly interested in the Middle East, and the growing dialogue between the religions. He met his wife Renée, who was from the Egyptian Jewish community, while he was in Cairo; she was in the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, and they were married in a military wedding in 1942.

His Middle East Perspective (1958), in which he sought to convey a "sympathetic understanding of the peoples and nations of the region", was followed by a DPhil on "Lord Cromer and His Successors in Egypt" (1970); and he was also involved in a charitable initiative called the British-Arab University Association.

Between 1991 and 2004, Mowat and his late son David, a playwright, ran a small publishing house, New Cherwell Press, which published a succession of personal testimonies on the spiritual life, as well as some studies of international conflict.

Mowat's account of the Mowat family in the 1930s, An Oxford Family Remembers (2002), is full of delightful vignettes: in May 1941, on a ship going to Durban, Mowat offered lectures to staff officers and their men covering the Crusades, the French Revolution and Napoleon, as well as contemporary Europe; 1956 found him trying to build bridges of understanding with Egyptians during the Suez crisis; and in 1967 he was teaching English to primary-school children on the Gilbert and Ellis Islands while visiting with his family. Mowat had wide interests: he loved music and was a gifted painter.

Robin Mowat sometimes gave the impression of absent-mindedness. He worried some of his friends by insisting, well into his eighties, on bicycling through Headington, Oxford, to collect his pension. Thankfully, Renée brought common sense (and a gift for hospitality) to what was a very attractive partnership.

Philip Boobbyer

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