“During the First World War King’s College of the University of London became a leading centre for the study of Russia and Eastern Europe. Its principal, Ronald Burrows, a committed philhellene and devoted admirer of the Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, had a particular interest in the promotion of Byzantine and Modern Greek studies. It was Burrows’ enthusiasm, supported by Venizelos, that led to the establishment in 1919 of the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature. The endowment for the chair was raised by a group of wealthy Anglo-Greeks, while the Greek government provided an annual subsidy. The 29-year-old historian Arnold Toynbee was chosen as the first incumbent of the chair.
“In 1921 Toynbee, on leave of absence, covered the Greek-Turkish war in Asia Minor for the Manchester Guardian and reported on the atrocities committed by Greek troops. On his return he wrote The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, which appeared in the summer of 1922 shortly before the rout of the Greek forces by the Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Toynbee’s writings and his growing sympathy for the Turkish cause enraged the Greek donors of the chair who, grouped in a Subscribers’ Committee, put strong pressure on the college and university authorities. Toynbee also came under fire from an influential group of colleagues. The cumulative furore forced Toynbee to resign from the chair in 1924 at the end of his first five-year term.
“Now the papers of the major protagonists have enabled a detailed reconstruction to be made of the interaction of international and academic politics. The controversy has some contemporary relevance as it touches on fundamental questions of academic freedom and on the problems inherent in the reliance of academic institutions on outside sources of funding.”
Toynbee, apparently, had not known of the existence of the Subscribers’ Committee when he took the chair. Modern parallel: denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, at DePaul University, Chicago, in 2007. Did Toynbee’s views on Israel eventually marginalise him in the US? When did the lobby tighten its grip?
The fifth chapter in McNeill’s biography is about Toynbee’s changing views of near-eastern politics and how events there in the ’20s confirmed him in positions he had taken in the Foreign Office towards the end of the First World War; and about his changing ideas on history before and during the King’s years, and how they were leading him towards the Study. It is hard not to feel some sympathy with the Greeks in the row in which it all culminated. Were they being so unreasonable?
Ancient Greece in the King’s entrance hall (Sophocles by Constantin Dausch, a copy of a Roman copy, the Lateran Sophocles at the Vatican; Sappho by Ferdinand Seeboeck, original; both commissioned by Frida Mond, wife of Ludwig, and passing to King’s on her death in 1923)