Proxy wars amid the groves

June 6, 1997

Richard Clogg explains the 1920s case of the London University professor forced to quit by his Greek paymasters and why the saga may be repeated elsewhere

Some years ago I looked into the circumstances surrounding the "involuntary" resignation in 1924 of the young Arnold Toynbee from the Koraes chair of modern Greek and Byzantine history at King's College, London. It was a resignation which followed a monumental row that split the arts faculty from top to bottom. But when I asked to see the minutes of the University of London's board of studies in history for the early 1920s I was told that these, like those of the Special Branch, were closed for 100 years. An appeal, to the then chairman of the board, eventually led to a special dispensation to inspect these routine papers.

Why are universities so reluctant to open up their records to public scrutiny? They certainly have their fair share of scandals. Few in academic life are unaware, for instance, of the shenanigans that can surround academic appointments: the identikit portraits masquerading as job adverts; the single-minded ruthlessness with which academic patrons promote the interests of their proteges; the manipulation of appointments boards; the eccentric short lists; the vicious disciplinary turf wars; the meddling of donors and related skulduggery.

For my research I was grateful that Toynbee had kept meticulous notes of the fracas. When I approached him in the mid-1970s he was amenable to having the ashes of this long forgotten controversy raked over and agreed to show me his files, but before we could meet he suffered a devastating stroke. A few days earlier, in July 1974, he wrote to me: "There is nothing confidential about (the papers), as far as I am concerned, but, though they are now ancient history for me, they do have a permanent interest because of their bearing on the perennial question of academic freedom".

After Toynbee's death his personal papers were deposited in the Bodleian Library, out of bounds to researchers until William H. McNeill completed the authorised biography. Toynbee's widow, Veronica, however, did allow me privileged access to the Koraes chair files since her husband had himself been prepared to make these available to me.

Nowadays academic intrigue and back-biting, not to mention back-stabbing, tends to be done by phone and email. But, thankfully, pen, paper and typewriter were the means of communication in the early 1920s and I was able to unearth plenty of material reflecting the views of all the parties to the controversy. Besides Toynbee's own papers, there was a substantial amount of material in the college archive, together with a bundle of papers in the office of the principal of the university.

These I was allowed to make use of provided that the then Koraes professor and my head of department, Donald Nicol, gave his imprimatur, which he did. But were I to contemplate such a project today college regulations on access to records would mean that I should have to wait until 2004 before starting my research. By the time the book appeared there would be a strong chance that I myself should be dead.

The college archive contained the references for those who put in for the chair when it was established in 1919. Although the president of Magdalen, for instance, lauded John Jackson, as "a modern Porson with Porson's genius for Greek of every sort", he went on to say that he had gone "on the bust" on being elected a fellow of the college. The president had requested the principal of King's, Ronald Burrows, to destroy the reference once he had read it. Fortunately he did not. There was also a reference for one of the candidates from Geoffrey Fisher, the future Archbishop of Canterbury but at that time headmaster of Repton. In writing of C. A. Scutt that he might make a more favourable impression if he had a better set of false teeth, Fisher reinforced the rather unattractive image projected by his public persona.

The records, of the subscribers' committee which represented the rich Greeks who had put up the money for the chair and who retained an element of control until as late as 1961, also survived. In the library that he endowed in Athens, the papers of Joannes Gennadius, a former Greek minister in London and an overbearing presence on the board of advisers for the chair, yielded rich pickings. So did those of R. W. Seton-Watson, who, as Masaryk professor of central European history, was Toynbee's principal antagonist in the college.

As a result, I was able to piece together an extraordinary tale of academic and political intrigue. Principal Burrows was a starry-eyed philhellene, committed to the cause of the charismatic Greek statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos, and his vision of a Greater Greece arising from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Burrows had a special interest in Greek affairs and was keen to establish a chair primarily devoted to modern Greek history. He energetically set about fund-raising among his rich Greek friends. Sir Basil Zaharoff, the enigmatic arms salesman popularly known as the "Merchant of Death", turned him down on the not unreasonable grounds that he had already endowed five university chairs. But others, including Venizelos himself, rallied round in support of Burrows's project of establishing a chair, the primary function of whose holder, as he saw it, would be to act as a propagandist for Greece. From the outset, Burrows had his eye on the young Toynbee as its first incumbent. A brilliant scholar, Toynbee had, as a war-time propagandist in government employ, made all the right anti-Turkish noises, penning tracts with titles such as "The Terrible Tyranny of the Turk". But Toynbee initially demurred, wondering whether he was enough of a philhellene to hold down such a chair. And, indeed, like not a few classicists before and since, Toynbee had taken against the modern descendants of the ancient Hellenes, when he had first come into contact with them during his 1911-12 Wanderjahr in Greece.

In letters to his mother Toynbee railed against these "dago hangers-on of Europe". His time in Greece instilled in him a greater appreciation of "the soundness of race prejudice" as well as a determination "religiously (to) preach mishellenism to any philhellene I come across". Notwithstanding these misgivings, Toynbee, clearly the outstanding candidate, was duly appointed to the chair. This he took up in October 1919, a matter of months after the victorious Allies had allowed Greece to occupy a sizeable chunk of western Asia Minor. It was not long before Toynbee, who was scarcely overburdened with teaching, was off to see whether the Greeks were capable of treating their newly acquired Muslim minority any better than the Turks had treated their Christian populations.

He soon concluded that there was not much to choose between them and, in despatches to the Manchester Guardian, painted a grim picture of atrocities committed by the Greeks. He followed this up with The Western Question in Greece and Turkey. In this book, written in the space of a few months, he argued that Greece's Anatolian adventure was inevitably doomed, as very soon proved the case. His sympathy for the Turkish nationalists was manifest: the Kemalists were the underdogs whose case was going by default. He was bent on righting this wrong.

Toynbee's strictures against the Greeks enraged the Greek donors. This was not surprising, for in putting up the money for his chair, they thought they were buying a chair of Greek propaganda and, indeed, unbeknown to Toynbee, they had been granted some rights of oversight over the chair.

The row that ensued in both college and university was furious. Seton-Watson led the charge against Toynbee: he was fearful that Toynbee's views would upset the edifice of foreign government subsidy that propped up the newly established School of Slavonic Studies at King's. Seton-Watson's own chair was funded by the Czech government and in 1940 both the Yugoslav and Romanian governments offered to pay his salary. So fraught was his initial five-year term that Toynbee had little option but to resign. No sooner had he done so than he was offered a chair at the University of Istanbul by the grateful Turks. The Greek subscribers threatened to withdraw their endowment and the chair was only narrowly saved.

In a bid to avoid controversy, King's College and London University, against the intentions of the chair's founders, have since only appointed those interested in the calmer waters of Byzantium or literature rather than the treacherous shoals of Greek modern history and politics.

Once my book on the affair, Politics and the Academy, had been published it was soon brought home to me that probing the murkier depths of the institution that employs you is not the smartest of career moves. My head of department reported that he had been harangued at a dinner party by a London Greek to the effect that I had "got Toynbee all wrong", presumably by failing to denounce him as a latter-day janissary. A Greek former student told me that the book had given her a sleepless night worrying that the Turks would exploit it in their propaganda. I poured cold water on this notion but she was proved at least partly right. I understand that students of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara do indeed pore over what is deemed a text book study of Greek perfidy.

More ominously, Stanford Shaw, professor of Turkish and near eastern history at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote to congratulate me on my "courage" in writing the book and to recount the problems he had had with Armenians who contested his views on the Armenian massacres. He had received death threats, his house had been bombed, and the UCLA campus had been overrun with Armenians baying for his dismissal.

The varied reactions to the book prompted in me an abiding interest in the academic study of academic politics (a neglected and underfunded field if ever there was one) and, in particular, of the interface between academic and "real" politics. For some years since I have been intermittently engaged in a study of what I term "ethnic" chairs; chairs funded by foreign governments, ethnic minority communities or rich individuals, with the aim, explicit or implicit, of securing academic legitimacy for a particular view of the history and culture of a given country. The Koraes chair, the mother and father of such "ethnic" chairs, from the outset was engulfed in controversy and came close to collapse within a few years of its foundation. The much more lavishly endowed Onassis Centre for Hellenic Studies established at New York University in 1987, has recently run into difficulties.

It has been predicted that the scandal of the Koraes chair is waiting to happen on many United States campuses. I fear this may be so, for the academy is increasingly becoming a battleground for the fighting of proxy wars. Certainly Politics and the Academy should be read as a cautionary tale by the academic entrepreneurs who now wield such power in the British university system.

Richard Clogg is a fellow of St Anthony's College, Oxford. He was formerly professor of modern Balkan history at the University of London.

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