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Gooch, George Peabody (1873–1968), historian, was born on 21 October 1873 at his parents' home, 8 Porchester Gate in Kensington, London, the youngest of three children of Charles Cubitt Gooch (1811–1889), merchant banker, and his wife, Mary Jane (1837–1925), daughter of the Revd Edmund Blake of Bramerton, Norfolk. His father became a partner in the firm founded by the American businessman and philanthropist George Peabody, and honoured Peabody's memory in naming his son. George entered Eton College in 1885, and received a good grounding in the classics, but he did not feel happy there, and from 1888 to 1891 attended the general literature department of King's College, London, while living in his cultured and affluent parental home. His main interest was in history, with English and French literature—and later German—as a close second. He also benefited from the theological and philosophical studies he pursued at King's College. From the various strands of religious opinion represented in the college, blending with his mother's broad-church background, he learned to appreciate that there were many ways of looking at a question. His father died while he was at King's College. As he left the family well off financially, George was able to go to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1891, to study history, initially as a commoner, and then as a major scholar. He obtained a first-class degree in the historical tripos of 1894.

Gooch took full advantage of the facilities offered by his college and university, without being blind to the defects of either. Already as an undergraduate he stood out for his remarkable intelligence and prodigious learning. At that early stage, with his ‘indomitable will’, he made up his mind that his life ‘was to be dedicated … to the service of humanity and the bettering of his mind’; he advocated ‘self-realisation for public Ends’. Gooch had independent means, and ‘in some mysterious way both his learning and his wealth were “dedicated”’ (Powys, 180–93). This outlook gave his life a unity, holding together his historical, political, journalistic, and philanthropic activities. He felt that his favoured social and financial situation put him under an obligation to serve the community. While gaining great personal satisfaction from developing his own intellectual gifts and gathering experience in a number of different fields, he did so to help others.

Gooch won the members' prize with an essay on Daniel Defoe in 1895. He spent some time in Berlin and Paris, reinforcing an interest in Germany and France he was to retain all his life. Lord Acton, then regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, with whom he developed a close relationship, gave him much encouragement. Gooch's first book, published by Cambridge University Press in 1898, The History of English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century, which was well received, arose from an essay for which he was awarded the Thirlwall prize in 1897. He submitted the essay as a dissertation for a Trinity College fellowship, but was unsuccessful in spite of Acton's support. While disappointed, he now took full advantage of the opportunities London offered him.

Philanthropy and Liberal politics

In and around London, Gooch took a professional interest in adult education and social work, participating in the work of Toynbee Hall, the Charity Organization Society, the Church Army, the London city mission, and the temperance movement. He shepherded the homeless, if they were willing, from the Thames Embankment into shelters. His fellow social workers were struck by his deep concern for the poor and by his ‘Christlike’ gentleness and compassion. Throughout his life he helped those who through circumstances had fallen on bad times and befriended them. His social work in the years after leaving Cambridge brought him in touch with a number of like-minded men who were to play an important part in the life of the country. He was critical of the capitalist system and of the upper middle class to which he belonged. Having come to the conclusion during his undergraduate days that society was badly in need of reform, he broke away from his family's Conservative moorings (his elder brother, Sir Henry Cubitt Gooch, was Conservative MP for Peckham, 1908–10). His contacts were to be mainly with the Liberal Party, especially its radical wing, and with Labour.

The left Liberal leanings, which Gooch was to retain all his life, were strengthened by his experiences of the South African War. In The War and its Causes, early in 1900, he was critical of the reasons given for the war, such as the redress of outlanders' grievances. While he was fully aware of the problem facing a patriot disagreeing with a war waged by his country, he regarded the right to express a genuinely felt dissent as essential. In the end his main aim was to help to bring the war to an early close and to work for a just peace. He abhorred the systematic burning of Boer farms during the war and the establishment of concentration camps and in June 1901 he published a pungent critique of imperialism in a collaborative volume entitled The Heart of the Empire: Discussions of Problems of Modern City Life in England.

Gooch's co-operation with opponents of the Conservative government during the South African War led to his parliamentary candidature as a Liberal, and he was elected one of the MPs for Bath at the general election of 1906, which resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberals. He briefly served as parliamentary private secretary to the chief secretary for Ireland, James Bryce, with whom he had collaborated on the Balkan committee. He intervened on the floor of the House of Commons in questions relating to Ireland, South Africa, the Balkans, India, Egypt, and Persia, frequently standing up for individual and minority rights. He backed a limitation of armaments not only in the interest of peace, but also to make more money available for domestic reform. He supported the introduction of old-age pensions, measures against sweated wages, a reform of the conditions of welfare children, and the reduction of public houses and licensing hours. He agreed with the efforts of the Liberal government to curb the power of the House of Lords. He was critical of the policy of the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. The Balkan committee, of which he was chief parliamentary spokesman, was at times dissatisfied with Grey's apparent unwillingness to help the Christians in the region.

Following his defeats in Bath in January and December 1910, Gooch made a final, but also unsuccessful, bid to return to the House of Commons in the Reading by-election of 1913. In the meantime, in 1911, he had been appointed co-editor of a prestigious monthly journal, the Contemporary Review, with the Revd Dr Scott Lidgett, a leading Methodist. When Scott Lidgett became chairman of the company in 1931, Gooch took over the sole editorial direction of the journal, which he relinquished only in 1960. He maintained high standards of reliability and objectivity, and helped to make the journal into one of the leading British organs for international affairs.

Historian

Gooch's parliamentary defeat allowed him to write what was perhaps his finest work, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913). The book demonstrated his mastery of historiography, particularly German, French, and British. His close—but not uncritical—ties with Germany had been strengthened by his marriage in 1903 to Sophie Else Schön, an art student from Saxony. He castigated Treitschke, whom he heard lecture, for his chauvinism. The book admirably laid down a code for historians which he himself practised, emphasizing that the supreme task was to discover truth, which required integrity, particularly in evaluating sources. He rejected the subordination of historical studies to political aims which had marred the work of the great German historians connected with the national movement.

The outbreak of the First World War affected Gooch deeply. Indeed the war was to occupy his main attention for many years, both as co-editor of an important British journal during the hostilities and as a historian studying its origins. While having reservations about the extent to which Sir Edward Grey, in particular, had involved Britain in the affairs of the European continent, he supported her entry into the war once Germany had invaded Belgium, an action he condemned without reservation. He disagreed with John Morley's resignation from the government after a British promise on 2 August 1914 to defend the coasts of France.

In very difficult circumstances Gooch ensured that the Contemporary Review remained a voice of reason, opposing any negative generalizations about the whole German people, urging a quick end to the fighting, and looking to a future reconciliation of the enemies. In June 1915 the journal published ‘German theories of the state’, an address by Gooch in which he pointed out that modern nationalism originated in France and not in Germany. He was especially unhappy about a prevailing tendency to rewrite history ‘in the light of the war’. While rejecting the sweeping condemnation of Grey's policy by the Union of Democratic Control, he sympathized with its aim of preparing for a peace settlement based on justice and humanity.

Gooch supported the movement for the establishment of a league of nations, and recalled with approval the medieval ideal of the respublica christiana, which had been shattered by the doctrine of the unfettered sovereignty of the state. In the summer of 1917, with a detailed examination of British pre-war policy in A Century of British Foreign Policy, he began to lay the foundation for his international reputation as an impartial observer acceptable to moderates on all sides. While he recognized Grey's untiring efforts to avert the outbreak of war, he considered assurances of British freedom of action, though formally correct, as far from conclusive. During his work on the Foreign Office handbooks for the peace conference he did his best to supply material to counter extreme French demands against Germany.

Origins of the First World War

Particularly after the proclamation of German war guilt in the peace treaty, whose terms he regarded as unnecessarily hard, Gooch devoted himself wholeheartedly to the task of elucidating the truth about the origins of the war. He got a unique chance of so doing when his old friend Ramsay MacDonald, as prime minister and foreign secretary in June 1924, asked him to help with a publication on pre-war British foreign policy. Gooch urged that these should consist of documents, rather than of historical narratives, and suggested Harold Temperley as co-editor. After the Labour defeat the new foreign secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain, towards the end of 1924 finalized the arrangements initiated by his predecessor.

The publication of British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914 (11 vols. in 13) was completed in 1938, the whole process taking far longer than either the Foreign Office or the editors had anticipated. Probably mainly due to Temperley's personality, relations between the two parties went through a series of crises during Chamberlain's period of office, which terminated in 1929. Gooch later fully recognized Chamberlain's deep sense of honour. Problems arose through the necessity of obtaining the clearance of friendly foreign governments for documents containing information confidentially conveyed by them. The editors were certainly determined, as they stated in the publication, to resign in case of undue interference by government. Gooch's co-editorship of British Documents as well as of the Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, 1783–1919 (with Sir Adolphus Ward, 3 vols., 1922–3), in which he dealt with the background of the conflict, established him as a leading and internationally recognized expert on the origins of the war. He drew on his wide knowledge of the subject in his Recent Revelations of European Diplomacy (1927), Before the War: Studies in Diplomacy (2 vols., 1936–8), and Studies in Diplomacy and Statecraft (1942).

When Hitler came to power in Germany, Gooch expressed his abhorrence of his rule, as he had done earlier with that of Mussolini. During this period one of his foremost tasks was to help German refugees. As president of the National Peace Council from 1933 to 1936, he reined in the Marxist and ‘complete Christian pacifist’ sections of the organization, while supporting disarmament at a time of intensive German rearmament. Also for some years he backed German claims for a revision of the peace settlement even under the Nazis. He realized only in 1938 that the Nazis had simply made cynical use of the principle of self-determination.

Gooch was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1926, and in 1935 became an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, also receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford. From 1923 to 1926 he was president of the Historical Association of Great Britain. Early in June 1939 he was made a Companion of Honour, but shortly afterwards had to undergo a serious operation. That summer Gooch and his wife moved just outside London to Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire, where they took a house, Upway Corner. During the war Gooch opposed any compromise with the Nazi regime, whose destruction he regarded as essential. The Nazis did not forget his scathing attacks on them, all the more so because they hit home, and put him on a list for immediate arrest in a German occupation of Britain.

Gooch's historical output before the Second World War was prodigious and of high quality. In addition to the works previously mentioned, it included, for example, Germany and the French Revolution (1920), the edition of The Later Correspondence of Lord John Russell, 1840–1878 (2 vols., 1925), memoirs of personalities he had known, such as his fellow politicians Lord Courtney (1920) and Frederick Mackarness (1922), and a popular textbook, History of Modern Europe, 1878–1919 (1923). During the war Gooch turned to what Sir Herbert Butterfield called ‘books about books’ (Butterfield, 334) on eighteenth-century history, beginning with Courts and Cabinets (1944), and going on to the three leading ‘enlightened monarchs’. While stylistically admirable, these books lack the historical depth of his previous work.

Particularly after the Second World War, Gooch adopted a serenity, which is reflected in his autobiography Under Six Reigns, published in 1958, but which did not always characterize him in earlier controversies. The author keeps too much in the background, although on close acquaintance the book yields much interesting information, such as on his religious views. While remaining a member of the Church of England, in the course of his life Gooch gradually moved away from doctrinal commitment. In 1961 he was honoured by a Festschrift, Studies in Diplomatic History and Historiography, edited by A. O. Sarkissian.

Gooch's wife, who had suffered from a series of prolonged illnesses during their marriage, died in 1958. There were two sons of the marriage. After his wife's death, an old family friend, Herta Lazarus, periodically visited from Switzerland for longer periods, keeping his interest in scholarship alive by translating his work into German with him. Gooch received the German order of merit in 1954. Aged ninety and in a wheelchair, he very much enjoyed his audience with the queen in November 1963, when the Order of Merit was bestowed on him. Gooch had a tall, slender figure, with kindly and alert eyes. He died peacefully at his home in Chalfont St Peter on 31 August 1968.

Frank Eyck

Sources  

F. Eyck, G. P. Gooch: a study in history and politics (1982) · G. P. Gooch, Under six reigns (1958) · H. Butterfield, ‘George Peabody Gooch, 1873–1968’, PBA, 55 (1969), 311–38 · DNB · J. C. Powys, Autobiography (1934) · F. Eyck, ‘G. P. Gooch’, Historians in politics, ed. W. Laqueur and G. L. Mosse (1974), 169–90 · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · b. cert.

Archives  

University of Calgary Library, corresp. and papers, incl. notes for articles and publications |  BLPES, letters to E. D. Morel · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · CUL, letters to Lord Acton · CUL, corresp. with Sir Herbert Butterfield · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · LUL, corresp. with Emile Cammaerts · U. Birm., letters to W. H. Dawson · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to Frederick Whyte


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1930–43, NPG · photograph, c.1953, Baron Studios Ltd, London, M53 2M 1101 1

Wealth at death  

£30,385: probate, 29 Oct 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales