Robert Knight BA, PGCE, PhD, FRHistS
Senior Lecturer in International History
I studied history at Cambridge and Würzburg before completing a PhD in International History at London University (London School of Economics). My early research was on British foreign policy in the early Cold War, with particular reference to the occupation of Austria. Then I became more interested in the internal dynamics of post-war Austrian society, in particular the legacy of National Socialism. In 1988 I published an edition of Austrian cabinet discussions about the restitution of ‘aryanised’ property and Jewish Displaced Persons. Its title - “I am in favour of stringing things out” (“Ich bin dafür, die Sache in die Länge zu ziehen’) - summed up the attitude of most Austrian politicians of the time. The book helped undermine the view that Austria had been a collective victim of National Socialism.
I have published journal articles about aspects of Austrian history in The Journal of Modern History (University of Chicago), The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, The Journal of Contemporary History and elsewhere.
At the time of the controversy over the war-time career of Kurt Waldheim I wrote an article in the Times Literary Supplement (Waldheim in Context: Austria and Nazism) which prompted the then Austrian Foreign Minister (Peter Jankowitsch) to appeal to16 Austrian historians to refute my ‘hair-raising theses’. None did.
I have also been involved in public debates about the British hand-over from Austria of Cossacks and anti-communist, collaborationist groups at the end of the war. In 1986 reviewed Nikolai Tolstoy’s work (unfavourably) in the Times Literary Supplement, which led to a lively correspondence. I also provided expert testimony to the High Court in the libel case of Aldington versus Watts and Tolstoy (1989), which the former won. Much more recently (October 2016) I wrote to the TLS about the striking lack of interest shown by Tolstoy, and other more significant writers, in the misdeeds of Cossacks units in Yugoslavia and northern Italy. I have also written for The Guardian and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
In 2006 I gave the sixth Glasgow University Holocaust Memorial Lecture on Austria and the Holocaust – coming to terms with the past?
Between 1998 and 2002 I was the international member of the Austrian Historians’ Commission, which published a final report and 49 supporting reports on Nazi expropriation and post-war restitution and compensation policies. I wrote about this on the BBC history website (Austria and Nazism: owning up to the Past).
Since 2010 I have been a member of the advisory board of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust research in Vienna.
My study of the Carinthian Slovenes – Slavs in Post-Nazi Austria: the Politics of Assimilation, 1945-1960 is published by Bloomsbury Academic. It explores attitudes towards a Slav minority in a society which had accepted or actively supported National Socialism in the belief that German was inherently (culturally and racially) superior to Slovene. The book also seeks to place provincial, national and Cold War politics in the wider debate about the possibilities, and limits of liberal understandings of individual and collective rights. It.uses a range of previously untapped sources, including Slovene communist records and Austrian cabinet discussions.
In the course of teaching at institutions ranging from Vienna University to Shadsworth High School (Blackburn) I have learnt that successful teaching involves posing genuine problems to students and stimulating them to engage in debate. For example in teaching Cold War Europe, I focus on controversial questions such as: how concerned was the West about communist rule in Eastern Europe? Did the nuclear deterrent work? There is not necessarily a right answer to these questions, the point is to stimulate students to research and marshal evidence independently, and deploy logic in a systematic way in order to address them.
I also use oral history into my teaching of the Cold War, inviting guest eye witness speakers: for example Polish refugees talking about fleeing from Poland in December 1945, or a British soldier talking about the security situation at the Berlin Wall. I obtained a Loughborough University Teaching award to support this in 2014.
In my module on Nationalism I explore disagreements about the nature of nations and nationalism through a close reading of key texts. These range from Gottfried Herder, who saw language as the expression of a nation’s ‘soul’, to Houston Chamberlain, an English-born racist who became a German citizen (and influenced Hitler). This course also covers liberal thinkers like John Stewart Mill as well as the contemporary analyses by Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Anthony Smith and others.
Slavs in Post-Nazi Austria
Carinthian Slovenes and the Politics of Assimilation, 1945-1960
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (9 Feb. 2017)
Author: Robert Knight
Robert Knight's book examines how the 60,000 strong Slovene community in the Austrian borderland province of Carinthia continued to suffer in the wake of Nazism's fall. It explores how and why Nazi values continued to be influential in a post-Nazi era in postwar Central Europe and provides valuable insights into the Cold War as a point of interaction of local, national and international politics.
I have published an article in German on one aspect of my book in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse (Spektrum) in 8 October 2016 under the title ‘Politics of Disturbance’ (Politik der Unruhe)
I have received grants to support my research from the British Academy (Elizabeth Barker Fund), the British Council and the Slovene Academy of Science.
My current book project investigates how Austria and West Germany took a different paths in the 1950s in ‘dealing with’ the legacy of National Socialism.
With the help of Alison Mott I set up the Loughborough History and Heritage Network which acts as a forum for debate, discussion and information for local history groups and interested individuals. In 2015 we organised a local history and heritage day (The Future of the Past). I have also worked closely with the local studies group, helping in an event commemorating the Luddite disturbance of 1816 and the Hastings Family (2017).