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Learning lessons from history

Patricia Clavin BA PHD, FRHistS, FBA is a Zeitlyn Fellow at Jesus College, and a Tutor in History and Professor of International History at the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and Royal Historical Society, and a Foreign Member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.


Professor Patricia Clavin


Patricia has published widely and her work has been translated into Spanish, Russian, German, Italian, Polish and French. In 2015, Patricia was granted a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, and in the same year was awarded the British Academy Medal for her book Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations, 1920-1946 (Oxford, 2013), applauded as a “landmark achievement that has transformed understanding”. She also supports the work of the Foreign Office Research Analysts.

How did you come to be at Jesus College?

I studied Modern History at King’s College, London, and then taught at Keele University. I joined Jesus College in 2003, because the faculty was looking for a historian with expertise in international relations. 

I teach Modern European and International History also supervise graduate students working on the history of international relations after 1890, with a particular focus on the history of global capitalism, international organizations, the origins of war, and the nature of security.

I am quite surprised I became a historian. I always liked world literature, but I think I was also motivated because I wanted to make sense of my background. My father was in the Irish Guards, and my mother was German. They met in the 1960s when my father was stationed as part of the British Army of the Rhine. We moved a lot as a family, and my background was unusual in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK when I grew up. My parents had both experienced difficult childhoods and poverty in their respective countries, and I think it made me interested in the effects of conflict, and the power of international markets on the everyday lives of people.

Briefly describe your research

Most of my research focuses on the history of international relations in the 20th Century.  Since I began my career I have explored the history of Europe, the First World War and the Great Depression, the origins and economics of the Second World War, and the role of major powers in the world economy, among other topics. One of my earlier books was Modern Europe, 1789 – Present which covered the whole of Europe from the French Revolution onwards. I co-wrote it with Asa Briggs the famous historian. I was in my twenties and he was in his seventies then. He was a brilliant writer and treated me as an equal. He was generous with his time and advice, and I learned a lot from him.

As my research has progressed, I have become particularly interested in the history of international relations and the organizations that come about and exist to maintain security. I’ve been very fortunate to have research support from outside college from a number sources over the years: Tim Sanderson and the Calleva Foundation – both major donors to the History Faculty; as well as the AHRC, the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust. One result has been my book Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations, 1920-1946  which looks particularly at the League of Nations and examines in great depth its place in the history of 20th century diplomacy and cooperation.

For a long time the League of Nations was seen as a failed organisation, and its importance has been underestimated. Until very recently, accounts by historians have looked at it from the outside, but I was able to go through the archives of the organization in Geneva and look at it from the inside for the first time. I opened the lid on a previously closed box, and showed that the League had a much wider role than just resolving disputes between countries and preventing war – which of course it was unable to do in the 1930s. 

What is particularly interesting about this topic?

One of the areas I focused on was the League’s Economic and Financial Organisation (EFO) which was established to promote economic cooperation, but which also had an effect on political and social issues. In the 1920s and 1930s, the League of Nations began to argue that although people thought that security was about controlling weapons and protecting national frontiers, you could not separate disarmament and border issues from economic and social questions because capitalism collapsed during the Great Depression.  Right-wing parties – the Nazis and Italian fascists – were on the rise and so was Soviet communism and left-wing parties in Asia and America.

There was a realization that international organizations needed to work towards a positive interpretation of security through international cooperation to bring about food security, improve housing and environments, water and energy supplies, because if people’s basic needs were met, there would be less conflict. They recognized many of these local issues also needed to be addressed at a global level. 

After 1919 there was a new wave of democracies, generating the expectation that states had to be answerable to more people than ever before – not just the elites – and there was a evidence of conflict everywhere, moving from the local level up to the international. It was evident in the Spanish Civil War and political violence and discord across central and eastern Europe after 1918.

Women were also campaigning for, and being awarded, the vote (apart from in France and Switzerland), and this allowed them to become more active in social political movements. Women were highly influential in fostering an agenda of international cooperation, and issues like health, nutrition and the price of food were vital to them. 

Much of this has been forgotten because when people study the Second World War they only learn about Hitler, Versailles and borders. Most accounts of history are written by men who overlook the international influence of the women who helped to improve things globally. Many women campaigners, such as Dorothy Buxton and Eglantyne Jebb, were very young, student activists, and their achievements are marginalized.

Some of these issues are explored in a book I co-edited with Glenda Sluga, Internationalisms – A Twentieth Century History, which looks at internationalism as a driver of transfomation for a range of global issues including health, education, feminism, slavery and more.

What do you hope will be some of the impacts of your work?

I hope that it encourages people to ask fundamental questions about international organizations, and about international cooperation generally. There have been moments when history has been very popular but in the last 50 years or so people are no longer learning lessons from the past. People feel burdened by it and imagine that the pace of the modern world and globalization is a new phenomenon. Previous eras seem to have no relevance, but we can always learn from history. 

A new topic I am researching is about security in food and medicine. It is a fact that when lines of communication, information and resources across nations break down, people suffer very quickly, no matter how ‘developed’ they are. Immediately, after the First World War, Austria could not get any food or medicine and suffered a great humanitarian crisis. Important lessons were learned at the time about how Austria was stabilised – some of them went into the founding the IMF, for instance. Since the Second World War, we have taken international cooperation and communication for granted; Austria’s forgotten history shows that if we lose it we can become very vulnerable, and the political costs are very high.

I would also like to see more women engage with the history of war and security, which has for so long been looked at from a male perspective.

What other projects are you working on?

As well as my teaching, I’m engaged in a variety of other activities. I am working with the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin, facilitating the new Oxford Berlin collaboration. I also work with the Foreign Office. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) work with academics and government to open up channels of communication and exchange knowledge. In the USA, they have always had professors from their universities going to work in the offices of state. Here, the Civil Service has traditionally worked fairly independently from the Academy, so it’s quite a new initiative.

I also regularly attend and speak at conferences across the world, and recently I made a programme for Radio 4 on the Cult of King Tut, examining why Egyptomania became such a global obsession in the 1920s with the discovery of Tutankahmun’s tomb, the social and political background that sparked the interest, and its influence on fashion, decor, music and all aspects of popular culture. I wrote an essay to compliment the programme for its online publication too. (http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20191029-king-tutankhamun-the-tragic-cause-of-the-pharaohs-cult)

2019 was also a big centenary year, and I’ve been busy speaking at international conferences and giving lectures on the Paris Peace Conference, and the founding of the League of Nations. I co-hosted a conference at King’s College, Cambridge recognizing Keynes unique contribution and gave the Pimlott lecture at Kings College, London in July, for instance, which will be published in 20th-Century British History in 2020. I also gave a lecture at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton on the history of Britain’s relations in Europe in March as part of their series on the Impact of the Past.

I have been doing some new research on the history of global trade, and the evolution of trade law. I’ve co-authored an article on the subject with a former graduate student of mine, Madeleine Dungy, which will be appearing in the leading US journal Diplomatic History in the new year.

I will also be delivering the Annual History Lecture at the LSE entitled ‘The LSE and the genesis of Global Governance’ on 11 February, and speaking on the opening panel of a conference at Chatham House on the theme of ‘Securing and Defence 2020. A New Era of Strategic Competition’, on 12-13 March 2020.