Conference 2011

Winners and Losers in History

The 2011 conference of the Cambridge History Forum was once again held at Selwyn College on 19th March. It is 60 years this year since the Forum was founded and the theme chosen for the conference was 'Winners and Losers in History'. The conference looked at the events of the sixteenth century and twentieth century.

Professor Andrew Pettegree from the University of St. Andrews began the conference with 'The Reformation profit and loss'. This thought provoking lecture looked at how significantly the Reformation developed away from what Luther originally intended in 1517, but also how religion became a key factor in the organisation of European politics in the sixteenth century and the growing secularism of European society. Professor Pettegree saw the 'winners' as the clergy who were offered new opportunities by Luther's protest; European governors who could use religion as a bargaining tool in politics and the cities where power increasingly shifted from Church to the State. Printers were the other significant beneficiary as a distribution network for printed material needed to be developed and the Reformation provides this opportunity. One student commented that this point was an interesting view into "how the Reformation had affected the development of printing", rather than just seeing printing as being instrumental in affecting the course of the Reformation. The 'losers' in his view were the Church itself who lost in both wealth and social standing and some of the ordinary people as the Reformation had encouraged a great degree of scepticism and where people were deciding doctrine for themselves.

 The second talk on 'Who won the twentieth century the Left or the Right?' was from Professor Edward Acton from the University of East Anglia. It is generally perceived that by the end of the twentieth century the Left had failed, whilst the Right were victorious. Professor Acton set out to challenge this view. The basis of Professor Acton's argument was that if you looked at what the Left and the Right stood for at the beginning of the twentieth century and then looked at the situation by the end of the century, the Left had in fact achieved a great deal more in terms of the change that occurred and much of what the Right stood for before the First World War had been swept away. A student said that Professor Acton had created a "stimulating debate challenging our perceptions of how we view the twentieth century." Having presented his view, he then went on to examine why it appears that the Left lost. He looked at the impact of economic structures and the language used during the twentieth century that leads to the belief that the Right had won as well as the dominance of parties from the Right being in government for much of the century. He also argued that much of the way in which this debate in the twentieth century is viewed is from the perspective of the Soviet Union and the removal of the USSR leads to the conclusion that the Right won. Professor Acton argues that these ideas are profoundly flawed, but accepts that they remain deeply embedded in our consciousness. Another student commented that the second lecture had been "an eye opener into the view of political ideologies and how they influence how History is written."

At the conclusion of another very interesting and successful conference, various groups went their separate ways for lunch and further debate stimulated by the lectures.