Douglas Johnson

By Evans, Martin | History Today, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Douglas Johnson


Evans, Martin, History Today


WITH THE PASSING AWAY of Douglas Johnson, History Today has lost not just a distinguished historian, but a dear friend who, as a contributor, reviewer and member of the editorial board, was a reassuring presence for successive editors. Instinctively attuned to the magazine's desire to bring the very best historical scholarship to a wide audience, he was always on hand, ready to bounce ideas off in a manner that was warm, witty and academically rigorous. He will be sorely missed.

As a fifteen-year-old pupil at the Royal Grammar School Lancaster in June 1940 Douglas heard the first BBC broadcasts by a then unknown Charles de Gaulle. The general's impassioned call for continued resistance, flying it seemed in the face of all reason, immediately caught his imagination and soon he was proudly wearing the Cross of Lorraine, the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the Gaullist phenomenon. From Lancaster Douglas went up to Worcester College, Oxford in 1942 where he took a history scholarship before attending France's prestigious training ground for academics, the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) in Paris in the late 1940s. At the time the ENS, like the rest of France, was on the front line of the Cold War. Riven with quarrels about revolution, Marxism and the politics of the French Communist Party (PCF), then the largest party in France, it was a hothouse atmosphere within which the young Douglas thrived, acquiring the beginnings of a deep knowledge of the PCF's inner workings. No less importantly it was at this moment that he met his wife and future co-author Madeleine Rebillard, herself a student at the ENS.

Back in Britain Douglas got his first post at Birmingham University in 1949 where he rose to become professor and then chair of the history department. Clues to his intellectual interests can be found in those formative years, in particular the lifelong friendship he forged with Richard Hoggart, the pioneer of cultural studies. The two subsequently wrote a book together on Europe and in this sense Douglas was never a narrow-minded historian. Like Hoggart he always wanted to explore the complex relationship between culture, ideas and history.

Birmingham, therefore, was a stimulating environment and these years saw Douglas produce his major research on the historian Guizot, Guizot: Aspects of French History 1787-1874 (1963), and a study of the Dreyfus Affair. Likewise it was during these years that he really made his mark as a commentator on Gaullism, writing perceptive pieces on de Gaulle's new French Revolution for the likes of The Spectator and New Society. In 1968 Douglas was appointed as Professor of French History at University College London (UCL) where worked until his retirement in 1990, taking in a stint as dean of the arts faculty.

Throughout this time Douglas was a tireless champion of History Today, becoming an editorial board member in the 1980s, a crucial moment in the magazine's history. Having just been let go by Longmans, who wanted to close it down, the magazine needed to reposition itself in the commercial world in order to survive. Douglas understood the challenge perfectly. Never an ivory-tower historian, he always wanted to make history relevant to a lay readership, above all by highlighting the connection between the past and the present.

Consequently he pointed the editors towards interesting new historians; championed the need to open up the magazine's pages to social, cultural and feminist history whilst contributing a number of elegantly written pieces on various aspects of France that were invariably shrewd and perceptive. One, published in July 1983, on the use of anecdotes as historical evidence, is a real gem; though three in particular repay reading. The first from January 1981 examines de Gaulle's role as a maker of the modern world; the second, from May 1989, which formed part of a special issue to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution, analyses the arguments about the Counter-Revolution and the Terror; while the third from July 1986 looks at the career of Fernand Braudel.

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