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The making of an historian: Paul Williams discovers how Robin Mowat found his path in life in the turbulent 1930s.

Even at this distance the 1930s stand out as a particularly fateful decade. The rival ideas of fascism and communism fought it out in a world rocked by the Great Depression, captured whole countries and nearly destroyed Europe in the process. For a student like Robin Mowat, later a historian, it was an exciting and perplexing time to be young.

Mowat's search for meaning, largely revealed through letters he wrote home at the time, is chronicled in his new book, An Oxford family remembers.

Mowat was brought up in Oxford, where his father, RB Mowat, taught history at Corpus Christi College. Mowat senior wrote many books, the most successful and popular being his History of Great Britain. In 1928 the family moved to Bristol, when RB was appointed Professor of History at Bristol University. There can be no doubt that the father's interest in contemporary history (he was an ardent advocate of the League of Nations) rubbed off on the son.

At school Robin Mowat was fascinated by William Morris, the 19th Century arts and crafts pioneer. His interest in socialism continued after he went up to Oxford in 1931 to study history. He went to hear HG Wells and Harold Laski at the Labour Club and joined the (far left) October Club especially so that he could hear Bernard Shaw lecture on socialism in the Soviet Union.


In the summer vacation of 1932 he visited Germany--just a year before Hitler came to power. While he was there he found himself getting depressed. He felt his life was drifting. `I realized that I was simply out for my own satisfactions and gratifications, and considered this to be an inadequate basis for living.' When he got back to Oxford, he resolved, he `would take the Bible down from the shelf and try to see what it was all about'.

Back in Oxford he was stirred by the plight of the Jarrow Hunger Marchers, who passed through Oxford on their way from northeast England to London to protest against unemployment. This led him, in the summer of 1933, to visit South Wales and Birmingham to see what was being done to relieve unemployment.

Meanwhile, that Easter, he had seen fascism at first hand, in Mussolini's Italy. He visited the great Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution in Rome. Though critical of Mussolini and his politics, he found it an intriguing experience.

Mowat remembers his investigations into unemployment as `rather frustrating'. They convinced him that he could only do something about the problems of the day by `joining with others in some dynamic movement that was tackling them in an effective way'. This led him to take a closer look at the work of the Oxford Group, the forerunner of MRA and Initiatives of Change. Their slogan, `New men, new nations, a new world', struck him as `the best piece of logic I had heard since I came to Oxford. You couldn't have a new world without new men and women, and if this movement could produce them, I would be for it.'

The Oxford Group advocated the practice of taking time in silence to `listen to the inner voice'. Mowat decided to experiment. `Besides recognizing some things that I could put right (such as returning to their rightful owners all the books on my shelves that didn't belong to me), I began to see the need of facing less tractable defects, whose existence I had never recognized before, such as my conceit and pride.' He wrote to his father, `it's simply a method to live the Christian life', but added it was difficult because it involved the decision `to surrender one's life entirely to God's will'.

Mowat responded to the Oxford Group's wide vision. `The emphasis isn't so much on saving individual souls--let alone one's own--but on saving civilization,' he wrote of one conference. His decision to throw in his lot with the Group `marked a watershed in my life, the prelude to a moment of truth. Fears and inhibitions fell away and a new spirit came in.'

Still fascinated by the debates of the decade, Mowat attended the Fascist Annual Dinner in Oxford to hear the British leader, Sir Oswald Mosely. `I was repelled by the Fascist policy of selfish isolation--it had never struck me so acutely before.'


After leaving Oxford he spent a year teaching at Radley School before enrolling as an exchange teacher at the Teacher Training College in Dortmund, Germany, to brush up his German. By this time, 1935-6, the Nazis were in power and all the students had to be members of party organizations. `Great discussions went on, many of the students being unconvinced of the official ideology.' He wrote home that `there is a great fight on between the Church and the State'.

During the War, Mowat worked at the Middle East Intelligence Centre in Cairo, Egypt--where he met his wife, Renee--and became the officer in charge of Army Education in the Cairo area. He went on to lecture in history at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University), where he became Head of the Department of Humanities. His fascination with the ideas which shape history is reflected in his books, which include Climax of history; Middle East perspective; Ruin and resurgence: Europe 1939-65; Creating the European Community and Decline and renewal: Europe--ancient and modern.

* `An Oxford family remembers' by RC Mowat, 12 [pounds sterling], New Cherwell Press, Oxford, 2002, tel: 01865 310216. ISBN 1-900312-60-3
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Title Annotation:Biography
Author:Williams, Paul
Publication:For A Change
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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