Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

book - genesis nationalismIn his memoir Rebellions, Tom Dunne gives what I suspect is the enduring image of T. Desmond Williams (1921–87), professor of modern history in UCD for nearly 40 years, for many students who encountered him in his later years. Dunne writes, after noting Williams’s eccentric teaching methods, ‘I was never very interested in the already old-fashioned diplomatic history he taught, and never felt the brilliance or understood his awesome reputation as a “world-class mind”.’ Williams, according to Dunne, forsook an unrivalled opportunity to publish on German history of the pre-war and Second World War period, and was ruined by his appointment as professor at the age of 28, which removed any incentive to publish. This is Williams as an unfulfilled and largely peripheral figure. By the 1970s, when I studied in UCD, Williams was a fleeting presence around the history department, to be seen shambling through the corridor in slippers, chain-smoking. He suffered from a very debilitating disorder, which clearly limited what he could do physically; there was never any doubt how sharp he was mentally. He was also, I suspect, only really interested in that small number of students who would go on to pursue history at a professional level, and for whom he could pave the way to Cambridge. He didn’t publish a great deal. That which he did publish, for instance on Irish history, was very good, but it didn’t impress as coming from a different league to that of his peers. Nonetheless, his awesome reputation endured.

J.J. Lee, in Ireland 1912–1985, gives a fuller account of Williams as a young man. On returning to Ireland in 1949, Williams threw himself into Dublin intellectual life with ‘demonic energy’, editing the fortnightly Leader from 1951 to 1955, a real effort to engage Irish intellectuals of the time—as distinct from technocrats, as now—in public discourse. In Lee’s estimation, Williams contributed over 200,000 words to the Leader, produced a 50,000-word piece on neutrality, and co-wrote an introduction to a book on the Irish Famine. These, says Lee, bear the stamp of a major historical mind, something also borne out by the range, authority and sheer intellectual power of his lectures on American and European history, as well as international relations. Williams’s time with the Leader came to a precipitate end when he accused the Irish minister to Spain during the Second World War, Leopold Kerney, of engaging in collaboration with the German government. Kerney sued and won; many people nonetheless still believed that Kerney had been up to no good. Lee very much sees Williams as a lost genius who left too little behind to make the major contribution he might have made, not least the broadening of Irish history’s remit to contemporary and comparative history.

Williams’s reputation was based on his early career: victim of a childhood sporting accident, he had been educated at home by his parents; his father, the professor of education in UCD, taught him German, while his mother taught him French. His starred performance as an undergraduate was topped by the brilliance of his MA, supervised by Professor John Marcus O’Sullivan, an expert on German philosophy, on the origins of National Socialism. He also qualified as a lawyer. On the evidence of The genesis of National Socialism he would have made a formidable Supreme Court judge. In 1944 Williams went to Cambridge, then to British intelligence, and after the war, with nominal military rank, he went to examine the Nazi foreign ministry archives. He returned to Cambridge as a research fellow, looking set to stay there, before returning to Ireland to take up O’Sullivan’s now vacated chair.

A belated chance to assess Williams’s early reputation for brilliance has now been provided by the publication of his MA by the Belfast Historical and Educational Society, with an introduction by Brendan Clifford of Athol Books. This is not an MA in any conventional sense; it is a book, divided into six chapters: political history, political science, religion, economy, race and law. The word ‘genesis’ in the title is apposite: Williams ranges across intellectual sources from all over Europe, from the early modern period to contemporary times, to map the origins and consequences of totalitarian thought: he, in his own words, uses them as a mirror to demonstrate a common European theme, not a uniquely German mind-set. The command of sources—historical, philosophical, juridical—by a man in his very early twenties is phenomenal. The BHES have left the text in its original rough and ready form; for that they are to be commended.

This book reveals just why Williams’s reputation for startling brilliance was so well earned. It also reveals the quality of intelligence available to the Department of External Affairs via O’Sullivan and Williams as to what Nazism actually was, even when the general public was being kept well and truly in the dark. Finally, the chapter on race—or, more accurately, racialism, something with which Williams has emphatically no truck—is a pioneering investigation in Ireland into a subject that still bedevils us today.

Are there any more hidden Williams treasures? There are rumours of a near-complete text on an early modern intellectual bishop, but I have no idea. If so, it should surely see the light of day. Meanwhile, many thanks to the BHES and Athol for publishing and distributing something unique in Irish intellectual history.


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