At the end of the great war, British politicians turned to academics to help the nation comprehend that enormous catastrophe for the democratic ideals of the previous age. History then appeared to many to hold the key to understanding what had happened on the battlefields of Flanders.
The subject's "lessons" might also help statesmen reconstruct a more stable international order. The realm's own archives contained proper records for scholars to work upon - not simply British scholars but also their cousins and wartime allies from North America and from the Empire. Otherwise, students might well be attracted back to Berlin, to Heidleburg and to Gottingen and imbibe more of the malignant propaganda purveyed by German historians.
In this revanchist and anxious climate Professor Arthur Pollard's proposal to the University of London in 1920 to found an Institute for Historical Research found widespread support. Goodwill from politicians did not, however, produce funds which were eventually (after appeals in The Times) secured from private donations. The institute opened in April 1921. Three months later the first of 65 annual Anglo-American conferences held under its auspices was convened in London. Delegates, including participants from 30 major North American universities and nearly all British universities heard an opening address from H. A. L. Fisher, MP , a historian in his own right but then president of the Board of Education. They proceeded to an evening reception at Lady Astor's; took tea at Lambeth Palace and were entertained to dinner by Her Majesty's Government.
Once established, the tradition of a grand Anglo-American cum Imperial occasion continued between the wars. In 1926 Prime Minister Baldwin addressed the conference and in 1931 delegates were asked by Ramsay MacDonald not to be "too highbrow".
Interrupted by the second world war, conferences resumed in 1947. Their Anglo-American character was sustained by the special relationship and forging of numerous transatlantic friendships among historians. Postwar conferences became less public, more academic occasions. By the 1970s, with the fragmentation of historical discourse, a myriad of topics and approaches contended for attention and the traditional format for the organisation of a metropolitan conference for around 400-500 historians in "sections" (medieval, diplomatic, parliamentary, economic, ecclesiastical etc) no longer met the needs of the profession. The notion of addressing a grand theme through plenary lectures and seminars then became the dominant basis for constructing this event.
Since 1921 few British, American and latterly European historians of distinction have not appeared at an Anglo-American. This year's conference is concerned with "Religion and Society" and the programme embraces traditional, as well as postmodern approaches to religious history.
Patrick O'Brien Patrick O'Brien is director of the Institute of Historical Research, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year