Last night, an estimated 750 guests joined us at St Paul's Cathedral in London for our 'Open Society under Threat? A Warning from History' event, which featured a panel discussion and the official launch of a new edition of Darkness over Germany by Amy Buller.
The event was organised by Cumberland Lodge and the St Paul's Institute, and chaired by our Principal, Ed Newell.
Speakers included Dr Rowan Williams, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Professor Maiken Umbach, with excerpts from Darkness over Germany read by actress Tamsin Greig, and closing responses from Lord Stern and Professor Kurt Barling.
After opening words from Ed Newell and an excerpt from Darkness over Germany to set the scene, Dr Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke about the spread of populism, nationalism and extremism in current times and the lessons we can learn from the experiences of German people in the 1930s, as recounted in Darkness over Germany. He described Buller's work as "a really remarkable book by a very remarkable woman" who was driven by her Christian faith.
He spoke of the spiritual vacuum that had emerged in the inter-war period in Germany and the risks of a generation growing up in that environment and seeking a magical 'problem-solver' to meet their needs. He also spoke of the consequences of the collapse of politics, including the collapse of a society's ability to argue well and to negotiate. He warned that talk of a crisis tends to produce a crisis, and that political optimism is often the best weapon for defeating intolerance.
Professor Maiken Umbach, Professor of Modern History at the University of Nottingham, went on to talk about the similarities and differences between current world events and the political and social situation of the 1930s.
She argued that history never repeats itself, but it can still serve as a repository of memories and weapons that people draw upon in the present, to serve their own ends, for good or for ill. She also said that we need to have a better understanding of democracy as a vehicle for open debate, if we are to have a chance at challenging politics of hate.
Baroness Butler-Sloss, who is a Member of the House of Lords and was the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, spoke of Amy Buller the woman, pushing boundaries in a male-dominated world. She said Buller was "obviously exceptional, extraordinary, and female..." , "authoritarian and terrifying", but with a real compassion for the people of both England and Germany, that drove her to challenge the dichotomies of collective good and collective evil.
The opening speeches were followed by a panel discussion and a range of questions from audience members, young and old, including questions submitted on paper and via Twitter.
The event was brought to a close with personal reflections from two further speakers. Lord Stern, President of the British Academy and IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) gave an account of the impacts of the world wars on his own family. His grandmother died in a Nazi concentration camp near Riga in Latvia, after his grandfather had died of injuries sustained in fighting the German Emperor (Kaiser) in World War I. His own father escaped from Germany during World War II.
Lord Stern went on to speak of the economic pre-conditions for the rise of extremism in the 1930s and the economic challenges facing societies today, for example in light of the looming crisis of climate change.
Professor Kurt Barling, Professor of Journalism at Middlesex University London and author of the foreword to Darkness over Germany: A Warning from History (2017), responded with his own experiences of growing up in an Anglo-German family affected by the divisions created by World War II, and called on the audience to heed the warnings of history.
He spoke of the challenges of fake news, echo chambers and closed minds to a free and open society, and asserted that 'bad history' should not knowingly repeat itself. Whilst we tend to cherish freedom of speech in our society, it is really the freedom to debate that is most crucial in maintaining a tolerant, peaceful and inclusive society.
A retiring collection taken on the night raised £773 to help support our Amy Buller PhD Scholarship, which will run from September 2017 until August 2020. We are grateful to everyone who contributed so generously.
The new edition of Darkness over Germany, which has been published by Arcadia Books as Darkness over Germany: A Warning from History, is available to purchase directly from Cumberland Lodge at the discounted price of £12.
It is also available from all major book sellers, including the major online retailers, for £15, in e-book and paperback formats. It features a foreword by Professor Kurt Barling and an afterword by Ed Newell.