We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Max Beloff (1913–1999), by Sydney O'Meara, 1976 Max Beloff (1913–1999), by Sydney O'Meara, 1976
Beloff, Max, Baron Beloff (1913–1999), historian, was born on 2 July 1913 at 21 York House, Fieldway Crescent, Islington, London, the elder son in a family of five children of Simon Beloff, general merchant, and his wife, Marie, née Katzin. and [see under ] were his younger sisters. His parents were Orthodox Russian Jews who had emigrated to Britain in 1903. He was brought up speaking English as his first language in a multilingual household, his parents speaking Russian to one another, and also Yiddish and German. He also spoke fluent and grammatical French (though with an accent and a sentence structure that was Churchillian rather than Parisian), as a result of a year in Switzerland.

Education and early career

Beloff was educated at the progressive King Alfred School in Hampstead (where his sister Renee was later a teacher) before attending St Paul's School, London, where he showed a particular aptitude for classics and history. After six months in Germany and Danzig he went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, as a scholar, where he read history. He won the Gibbs scholarship in modern history in 1934, graduated with first-class honours in modern history in 1935, and was elected a senior demy at Magdalen College in the same year. He then studied for a B.Litt. on seventeenth-century English history, with G. N. Clark as his supervisor. In 1937 he became a junior research fellow at Corpus Christi College. On 19 March 1938 he married Helen (b. 1915/16), daughter of Samuel Dobrin, barrister; they had two sons.

Beloff was appointed an assistant lecturer in history at the University of Manchester, specializing in seventeenth-century history, in the summer of 1939. He served in the Royal Corps of Signals in 1940–41, and was invalided out, returning in 1941 to Manchester, where he added American history to his teaching. In 1946 he returned to Oxford as Nuffield reader in the comparative study of institutions, holding a fellowship at Nuffield College from 1947. In 1957 he was elected Gladstone professor of government and public administration, with a fellowship at All Souls College.

History and politics

Beloff was a teacher of and writer on politics in the old British tradition, treating politics from the point of view of a historian, both of political developments and of political thought. For his ‘intellectual autobiography’, he chose the title An Historian in the Twentieth Century (1992). He disliked the concept of ‘political science’ as it was conceived in the United States and copied in Britain, and was disliked by many of its practitioners at a time when even some groups of British historians copied the French school, the Annalistes, in the search for a value-free ‘hard’ and ‘scientific’ history. But the subtitle of his autobiography—‘Chapters in intellectual autobiography’—revealed the anomaly of his position. Few historians of his generation thought of themselves consciously as ‘intellectuals’, a concept which seemed more akin to the use of the term ‘intelligentsia’ for a recognizably separate class of politically minded, educated, and politically and culturally active persons in Russian and Soviet society.

Whether as a historian of events, of structures, or of ideas, Beloff was profoundly bound to the written word. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he was not tempted into public debate either on radio or on television. The range of his writings revealed his belief in the ability of the trained intellect to range across topics of government and politics, political thought, modern and contemporary history, and international affairs. Nor did he restrict himself to English and American history. He was as much at home with the detailed monograph as with the popularization of history; his Thomas Jefferson and American Democracy (1948) and The Age of Absolutism (1954) were excellent examples of the kinds of book called into existence by the development of secondary education following the 1944 Education Act.

Beloff's two-volume study of British imperial decline, Imperial Sunset, 1897–1942 (1969 and 1989), showed him embracing the new concentration under younger historians on the multi-biographical approach to the political decision makers, though his abandonment after twenty years of what was originally intended to be a three-volume work showed that he found the enormous expansion of personal data required by this approach uncongenial. His method was always the condensation of data into a single, scaled-down vision. The Breughelian accumulation of numbers of individual scenes into an enormous canvas was not something which appealed to him. His writings on international politics reflected the same development. His earliest work, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 1936–1941 (1949), a two-volume monograph, and for decades the standard work on the subject, developed out of his work as a historical adviser to a Chatham House study group. His later works—Foreign Policy and the Democratic Process (1955), New Dimensions in Foreign Policy (1961), and The United States and the Unity of Europe (1963)—were essentially contributions to the debate on democracy and foreign policy provoked by dissident western voices in the first full decade of the cold war, dealing as they did with concepts and positions rather than with narrative expositions.

Later career

Beloff retained his ability to write history, especially to re-examine events in the history of his own times, until the end. But from 1970 onwards his main energies were drawn into resisting the nationalization of university education begun under Anthony Crosland and continued throughout the 1970s. In 1974 he abandoned Oxford (though retaining a fellowship at St Antony's College, from 1975 to 1984) to become the first principal of the University College of Buckingham, a privately financed institution of higher learning set up to show what university education could become if freed from direction from and financial dependence upon the government of the day. He saw it successfully established, and its independence guaranteed; the college was awarded a royal charter, enabling it to award degrees, in 1983, four years after Beloff's retirement. His success made him a hero to the new toryism of Margaret Thatcher, winning him a knighthood in 1980 and a life peerage, as Baron Beloff, in 1981. But Mrs Thatcher's government proved in practice to be at least as dirigiste in matters of higher education as its Labour predecessor; Beloff opposed dirigisme of any kind, and swiftly broke with the Conservative Party and remained a trenchant critic of its university policy until his death.

In later years Beloff became an outspoken opponent of the European Union, and in particular of continental federalist ideas. He compared the parliamentary vote on the Maastricht treaty with the French national assembly voting for Pétain and the Vichy regime, and in 1996 published Britain and the European Union: Dialogue of the Deaf, in which he argued that British membership of the European Union was incompatible with the survival of its tradition of liberal constitutionalism. He also engaged in numerous other controversies, ranging from what he considered the harmful consequences of Britain's premature abandonment of its imperial role to the quality of performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company. A month before his death he again sparked controversy by comparing the rise of Tony Blair to that of Adolf Hitler.

A short, pugnacious man, Beloff ‘was never able to participate easily in conversations without serious intellectual content, and could strike those who came into contact with him as impatient and forbidding’ (The Times); he was nevertheless generous in assisting younger scholars. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1973, held honorary doctorates from Pittsburgh University (USA), Bishop's University (Canada), Bavdoin College (USA), the University of Aix-Marseilles (France), and Manchester, Oxford, and Buckingham universities, and was an honorary fellow of Mansfield and Corpus Christi colleges, Oxford. He died of heart failure at St Thomas's Hospital, Lambeth, London, on 22 March 1999, and was survived by his wife and their two sons. A commemoration was held in the Codrington Library, All Souls College, on 19 June 1999.


Beloff was a historian by training; but his concept of history was resolutely bound by concepts of national history and national historiography, expanded to take in the concept of ‘European history’. He never crossed the boundary into international history. He wrote of the foreign policies of nations, not of the interplay between the actions of nations. He never entered the history of wars and their origins. He did not write on the history of international movements and institutions, apart from the old Commonwealth. Nor did he tackle the history of international law as the attempt to embody and formulate the conventions and compacts necessary to any kind of multinational arrangement. He matured under a particular stage of British historiographical development, learned from some of the great names, including Sir George Clark, Maurice Powicke, and Denis Brogan, and he read extensively and almost avariciously the works of his successors. Perhaps his most striking book of essays was entitled The Intellectual in Politics and other Essays (1970). He was pre-eminently a political intellectual of a recognizably European type among historians. He attracted a good deal of ill-natured carping from among those writers on politics who felt disadvantaged in the face of his historical knowledge. But his achievements were solid, and his books will continue to repay those for whom content is more important than the style of the moment. There are those who have tried to link his achievements with the Jewish community in Britain. But although he never made any attempt to disguise his Jewish origins, and played his part in Jewish academic institutions such as the Wiener Library, he wrote as a British and European intellectual, and not as a self-proclaimed member of the Jewish community, and his allegiance was primarily to the tradition of Oxford University scholarship.

D. Cameron Watt


M. Beloff, An historian in the twentieth century (Yale, 1992) · The Times (24 March 1999) · Daily Telegraph (24 March 1999) · The Guardian (25 March 1999) · The Independent (26 March 1999) · Daily Telegraph (30 March 1999) · WWW · private information (2004) · personal knowledge (2004) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


photograph, 1973, repro. in The Times · S. O'Meara, photograph, 1976, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · photograph, 1983, repro. in Daily Telegraph (24 March 1999) · N. Libbert, photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in The Independent