Obituary: Lord Bullock (Filed: 03/02/2004)
The Lord Bullock, the historian and first Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, who died yesterday aged 89, wrote compellingly about the central horrors of the 20th century.
His literary career opened and closed with two related large-scale works. In 1952 he published, as his first book, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. His colleague, and at that time friend, A J P Taylor, wrote in his review that this biography "triumphantly" filled a waiting gap, and that Bullock had "put himself in the front rank of contemporary historians". This life of the great dictator has naturally been amplified since, but some of its judgments have remained unsurpassed.
Nearly 40 years later, Bullock published, as a kind of sequel, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991). Conor Cruise O'Brien praised this book as "a superb achievement" technically, "something of a tour de force", although he also lamented the lack of deep imaginative insight.
In between came several other books, although only one of them was of the first magnitude. This was the life of the union leader, Labour politician and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, published in three volumes (1960, 1967 and 1983). This time Taylor was a little less eulogistic, calling Bullock "a biographer in the Victorian manner: solid, accurate, exhaustive", and judging the second volume no more than "competently done", if suitably ponderous for its subject. Bullock himself considered the first volume the best historical work he had produced.
The 23 years between the first and last volumes of the biography reflected Bullock's other preoccupations, as a don and university administrator. In 1952 he resigned from his previous Fellowship to become Censor of St Catherine's Society. That was, as its name implies, a non-collegiate body of the university, and had as yet no buildings of its own.
Under Bullock's guidance, "St Catz" became Oxford's first new undergraduate college to be founded in the 20th century.
Bullock successfully raised funds from big business. Buildings were commissioned from a well-known Danish architect and sprang up on a group of fields between St Cross church and the Cherwell. At the time, the new college was greeted enthusiastically, and later John Keegan was able to call it "that rare thing, a wholly successful modern building".
It was said that, under Bullock's mastership, a college was created in which there was no atmosphere of malice. His tenure as Master - from 1960 until his retirement in 1980 - was in some ways the central achievement of his life.
His talent as an administrator was more widely displayed in the years 1969 to 1973, when he served as Vice-Chancellor of the university. This was the first time that Oxford had appointed a full-time Vice-Chancellor for a four-year term: previously, the job had been held by Heads of Houses in turn, who combined it with their college duties.
Bullock was a true committee man. He once remarked, on the importance of the order of a committee's agenda: "You must always give them something to gnaw on at about number three. Then, after they've had a good argument about it, you can slip your own thing in at number four."
In 1972 he was made chairman of a Committee of Inquiry set up by the Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, into reading standards in schools. The report made a total of 333 recommendations for improving those standards. It carried the unmistakable Bullock stamp of common sense, advocating reading clinics in all areas, but rejecting the idea - then fashionable with the educational establishment - that children should not be taught to read before reaching the mental age of six.
In 1976 Bullock was commissioned by the Labour government to inquire into the delicate subject of industrial democracy. Bullock had been a lifelong man of the moderate Labour Right, until 1981, when for a time he joined the SDP. The Bullock Report was published in 1977, and made far-reaching proposals for "workers' control". Workers were to be given seats on company boards equal to those of the shareholders' representatives. Even more in tune with the spirit of the age, these worker-directors were to be chosen through recognised trades unions.
But that spirit was already changing, and the Bullock Report was a period piece almost before it appeared. In the event, the Callaghan government greeted the report politely, and then completely ignored it. Bullock had come at the end of a period in British history; the age of corporatism and collectivism, of the "national co-operation" supposedly personified by Ernie Bevin as the wartime Minister of Labour. All of this was about to be swept away by the tide of Thatcherism.
Alan Louis Charles Bullock (Louis after Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles after Dickens) was born at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, on December 13 1914; his father was a gardener and Unitarian minister, his mother a lady's maid. Alan revered his father - a Liberal who campaigned for Lloyd George and at one stage contemplated a career in politics. When Alan was still a baby, the family moved to Lancashire; when he was 11, his father became minister at a chapel in Bradford, and the boy was educated at Bradford Grammar School before going on to Wadham College, Oxford, where he read the unusual combination of Classical Greats and Modern History, taking Firsts in both. Asthma kept him out of the services, and he spent the war working for the BBC, where he ended as European Talks' Editor, and broadcast a weekly commentary.
This led him almost inexorably into the field of contemporary history - his original interests had been in ancient history, and then the 17th century. After the war, and despite the warning of J C Masterman (then Provost of Worcester and one of the most influential Oxford figures of his time) that "if you really want a career as a historian, you'd better stop this", Bullock plunged into the German archives and the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials. Out of this research came the Hitler biography which made his name. In 1945 he had become a Fellow of New College, where he was Tutor in Modern History and Dean until 1952, the year in which he published his biography and moved to the incipient St Catherine's, where he was to spend almost 30 years.
The history of the Third Reich was Bullock's special field, and he wrote long introductions to several of its strange literary products: The Ribbentrop Memoirs (1954); the Schellenberg Memoirs (1956); and The Early Goebbels Diaries (1962). In 1956 he was an editor of The Liberal Tradition: Fox to Keynes, and in 1971 he published a popular history of The 20th Century.
Writing was interwoven with administration and committee work. Bullock was a Wolfson Trustee; a director of the Observer; chairman of the Research Committee of the Royal Institute of International Affairs; chairman of the Friends of the Ashmolean, and of the Tate Trustees. He was also, in tandem with Sir William Deakin, editor of The Oxford History of Modern Europe.
It was when some of these commitments became less pressing that he was able to produce another book, a fascinating curiosity in its way. Sitting on a beach in Portugal while on holiday, Bullock read the Times Literary Supplement with no dictionary to hand. It was finding the words "hermeneutic", "heuristic" and "hermetic" in close company which made him decide to produce his book (co-edited with Oliver Stallybrass and published in 1977) A Dictionary of Modern Thought - a new edition, on which Bullock collaborated with S Trombley, came out in 1999. He followed it with the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thinkers, co-edited with B R Woodings (1983).
Although Bullock sometimes found himself bracketed with his contemporaries, he went out of his way to distinguish himself from them. "I've never had a group of young men about me, as Jack Plumb or Geoffrey Elton did in Cambridge," he once said. "I've never formed a school."
Equally, and with characteristic modesty, he maintained that his Oxford colleagues A J P Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper "are both better writers than I am".
It was true that he lacked the pyrotechnical brilliance of the one, and the elegance and wit of the other. But he sometimes showed better judgment. He was not for a moment taken in by the "Hitler Diaries"; and it was a "painful disagreement about Hitler which led to a breach with Taylor: I worked very closely with him at one time". Together they had started the Recent History Group at Oxford after the war, and it was Bullock who commissioned Taylor to write his Struggle for Mastery In Europe for the Oxford University Press. But after their disagreement, "we never saw each other again".
Nor did Bullock pretend to any over-arching philosophy of history. He did not play with ideas, or stray down the fashionable bypaths which led away from traditional, chronological narrative history. His own verdict of himself was both unassuming and fair: "I couldn't write great literature, but I could do a workmanlike job as a historian."
He became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1967, was knighted in 1972 and created a Life Peer in 1976.
He received honorary doctorates from at least eight universities, and was an honorary fellow of five other colleges at Oxford apart from St Catherine's. Upon his retirement there, both he and his wife were made honorary fellows.
Alan Bullock married Hilda (Nibby) Handy, also from Bradford, in 1940. They had three sons and two daughters, one of whom predeceased him.
Obituary: Alan Bullock (From the Beeb)
Along with AJP Taylor, AL Rowse and Hugh Trevor-Roper, Alan, later Lord, Bullock belonged to a generation of historians who were comfortable in academic circles but also adept at popularising their studies.
Lord Bullock: Popular historian
Alan Bullock was born in Bradford on 13 December 1914 and was educated at Bradford Grammar School. Winning a scholarship to Oxford, he returned there after World War Two - during which he worked for the BBC's European Service - to lecture and went on to become vice-chancellor in 1969. His best known works were a book on Hitler and a three-volume biography of Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour government. But it was his chairmanship of two high-level inquiries which brought him his first taste of national fame, and controversy.
Alan Bullock (r) on The Brains Trust
The report on the teaching of reading, A Language for Life, published in 1975, found no evidence of a general decline, but said that a concentrated effort was needed to raise standards. It was criticised for complacency.
The 1977 Bullock report on industrial democracy - much leaked in advance - was more controversial. It proposed the election of worker-directors in companies employing more than 2,000 people. The CBI did not like it, the unions had reservations, and the Conservatives - then in opposition - rejected it. While interpreting history is inevitably controversial, and Lord Bullock was a man with ideals, his work was distinguished by its intellectual honesty.
In 1960 he became the first Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, a post he held for 20 years, and he was vice-chancellor of the university from 1969-73. Though Lord Bullock naturally felt comfortable in academic circles, he was also adept at popularising history, especially through the mass media. Lord Bullock said there were times when the historian also had a duty to counter lies, such as the one which asserted there was no Holocaust.
Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel lives was a best seller
His magisterial Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives presented a refreshing and insightful approach to, often overlooked, aspects of the dictators' characters. Among his other interests, Bullock had been chairman of the trustees of the Tate Gallery and a director of the Observer newspaper.
He was knighted in 1972, and was made a life peer in 1976. Lord Bullock was a founder member of the SDP, and for a time was party spokesman on education in the Lords. He was a believer in the nuclear deterrent and also believed that, but for Britain, Stalin would have taken control of much of Western Europe after World War Two.
Alan Bullock regularly appeared on radio and television broadcasts, and was a regular on the radio Brains Trust in the immediate post-war years. Lord Bullock was married and had five children.
Obituary from the Guardian:
Lord Bullock of Leafield
A prolific and public-spirited historian, he founded an Oxford college and defined the nature of tyranny and evil in the 20th century
The historian Alan Bullock, who has died aged 89, was one of the most versatile and engaging public figures produced by Britain in the second half of the 20th century. "Bullock by name, and Bullock by nature," he liked to say of himself. He was a powerfully built man, and some people found him domineering. Others, especially those who worked with him to found St Catherine's College, Oxford, thought him little short of a hero.
Bullock first caught the public's attention in 1952, with his biography Hitler, A Study In Tyranny, which, in its revised edition (1964), remains both a standard work and an absorbing piece of modern historical writing. The book on which his reputation as a historian rests, it played to his strengths as a biographer who had the knack of penetrating the minds of others. He went on to become, in 1960, founding master of St Catherine's, the only new college for both undergraduates and graduates built in Oxford in the 20th century, and also the first to be divided equally between students of science and the arts.
People who worked with Bullock came away convinced that he loved committees. He enhanced his reputation by chairing high-profile inquiries into the teaching of English (1972-74) and industrial democracy (1976). Although, at times, he could seem wilful and overbearing, his closest friends and colleagues saw him as, at heart, a man of consensus. He was a popular chairman of the Tate gallery (1973-80) and other public bodies, and a favourite among journalists at the Observer, joining it as a trustee (1957-69) after the 1956 Suez operation, which both he and the paper opposed; from 1977 to 1981, he was a director of the paper.
He was Oxford's first full-time vice-chancellor (1969-73), serving during a difficult period of student unrest. His build, strong voice and irrepressible Yorkshire accent gave him an air of strength that was quite undonnish. This served him well when it came to keeping unruly undergraduates within limits.
Accent notwithstanding, Bullock was born in Wiltshire, the only child of parents who were in service near Bath, as a gardener and a maid; his father, Frank Bullock, was also a famous Unitarian preacher. The family soon moved to Bradford, where young Alan came under the influence of the city's well-known Liberalism. The Bullocks were poor but high-minded, and spent what money they could on buying books and going to concerts. Father and son were close; by the time Alan was 16, they were talking together in Latin.
He went on to Bradford grammar school, sharing a desk with a girl called Hilda Yates. The romantic, poetry-writing teenager fell in love with his neighbour and later married her. Friends thought this the best decision he ever made. Lady Bullock - known to everyone as Nibby - was a supportive wife and, possessing a mind as acute as her husband's, a lifelong intellectual companion. Her part in his achievements was recognised when St Catherine's made her an honorary fellow.
Bullock won a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied for five years to win a rare double first in classics (1936) and modern history (1938). Asthma disqualified him from military service, but he spent a satisfying second world war at the BBC Overseas Service, where he learned, and enjoyed, the arts of black propaganda.
Afterwards, he went back to Oxford as a modern history fellow at New College (1945-52). He believed the university underrated his chosen speciality, but he contributed powerfully to its recognition when, using the abundant transcripts of the Nuremburg trials, he wrote his Hitler biography.
Almost 40 years later, Bullock returned to the subject with his thousand-page tome Hitler And Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991, revised 1998). His definition of evil was "the corruption of people to behave in an inhuman way". His Hitler is ready to destroy anyone and anything in pursuit of abstract ideas. Stalin, Bullock argued, frightens us both because he justified his bloody methods as the only way to modernise a backward society and because of his extreme paranoia.
Friends warned Bullock against attempting this double biography, fearing it would flop. Some doubted the two lives were, in any meaningful sense, parallel; a handful felt Stalin was beyond the grasp of this very English Englishman. His colleague Norman Stone said Bullock's Stalin came out "like a Sheffield city councillor running amuck, and beheading the aldermen".
This was unfair, for Bullock had grasped that Stalin's personal malice marked him out from Hitler, who was astonishingly tolerant of inadequate colleagues. Asked the frivolous question as to which of the dictators he would have preferred spending a weekend with, Bullock replied promptly, "Hitler, because although it would have been boring in the extreme, you would have have had a greater certainty in coming back alive." The book was generally a critical success, and indisputably a commercial one, not least because of the clear English that was the hallmark of its writing.
Bullock began work on another book in the 1950s, a three-volume biography (1960, 1967 and 1983) of Ernest Bevin, the postwar Labour foreign secretary and a Bullock hero, whose character, in some respects, was remarkably like his own. He also made a stir as a teacher of history who seemed in touch with the outside world, and won a reputation in the lecture halls equal to that other Oxford star AJP Taylor. Bullock's lecture on Gladstone, delivered in a compulsive boom and packed with moral passion, is still remembered by those who heard it decades ago.
Also in the 1950s, he began the work of converting the moribund St Catherine's Society (designed for students too poor to join a proper university college) into a full-blown Oxford foundation. The time was auspicious. Industry had money to invest in education, and there was a boom in the population of student age. People had become aware of the importance of science to social and economic progress, and of the way in which Oxford, like most universities, was biased against it.
Brandishing his novel idea of a college with as many scientists as students of the arts, Bullock almost singlehandedly persuaded companies to stump up the £2m he needed. World-famous names like Esso and Lockheed funded both buildings and scholarships. Bullock trod on many toes in the process (some of then belonging to his own fellows) and he caused horror among traditionalists by choosing the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen to put up the buildings on a fine riverside site.
Jacobsen insisted on designing everything - from the cutlery, and tables and chairs, to the buildings them selves. Critics said, and still say, that the generous use of glass robs the undergraduate rooms of privacy, and causes summertime overheating. Others find the college elegant, though, curiously, the office occupied by Bullock until his death was unappealing, and almost a rebuke to modern achitecture.
His committee skills were brought to bear chairing the inquiry into reading and other uses of English, and its report, A Language For Life (1975), made a great impact. Bullock once vowed to write a book on the art of chairmanship because democracy, he liked to say, "is not about making speeches. It is about making committees work."
Bullock certainly needed all his skills when investigating industrial democracy. He himself approved the idea of workers taking part in the management of their companies, but he faced entrenched opposition from employers. When the committee began its work, he was optimistic he could bring the two sides together; traditionalists and progressives in education, he recalled, were much further apart when the teaching of English inquiry had begun.
Bullock thought worker participation was an idea whose time had come - and was as inevitable as the passing of the first Reform bill of 1832 - but not even his skilful manipulation could persuade his members to produce a united report in 1977. To his lasting regret, industrial democracy vanished from Britain's public agenda.
He was made a life peer in the year of that inquiry, 1976. In 1981, he joined the Social Democratic party, and he continued giving lectures till 1997. His last books were a biography of his father, Building Jerusalem (2000) and a single-volume biography of Ernest Bevin (2002).
This successful public figure was nowhere more successful than in his private life. Nothing horrified him more about Hitler and Stalin than the barrenness of their lives at home, indeed the absence of real home lives at all. He was a singularly happy family man, and is survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter; another daughter predeceased him.
· Alan Louis Charles Bullock, Baron Bullock of Leafield, historian, born December 13 1914; died February 2 2004