Conference 2019

‘Regime Change(s)’

In stark contrast to last year, the Weather-Gods smiled on the Cambridge History Forum’s annual conference this year. On Saturday 9th March over a hundred members and guests gathered at Selwyn College to listen to three papers on the topic of ‘Regime Change’. Drawn from the medieval, early modern, and modern periods the programme served to enhance understanding of the popular A Level topics, whilst also providing the opportunity to broaden students’ historical horizons into periods which they have not studied.

The first paper, ‘England, 1399: from Richard II to Henry IV’, was delivered by Dr Andrew Spencer (Murray Edwards). This was perhaps the less well-known period to be covered in the programme, but this in no way detracted from the insightful and engaging disposition on what some have come to term one of England’s ‘weirdest’ kings. In a biographical portrait of Richard II, Dr Spencer described the young, self-important monarch as a sovereign with unlikely heroes and with no clear heir; having acceded to the throne at the age of 10 he spent much of the 1380s trying to reclaim power from the hands of his own nobles and counsellors. The wonderful depictions of divine monarchy shown in the Wilton Diptych and the famous Westminster portrait were used to illustrate the insecurity of the King – the first being intended only for private use by the King, and the latter as a presumptuous assertion of the King’s god-like status redolent of an Orthodox icon. In exploring Richard II’s fall from power Dr Spencer had usefully begun by quoting from Shakespeare and the Bishop of Carlisle’s question: ‘What subject can give sentence on his king?’ In so doing the legal problem inherent in removing a king was clearly established and the lecture proceeded to outline the means by which Richard II, the last of the Plantagenets, was deposed by the Lancastrian Henry Bolingbroke. Dr Spencer outlined the many abuses of Richard’s reign as laid down in the ‘The Record and Process’ – the document that listed the reasons why the Lancastrians felt confident in deposing the King. Accusations of favouritism, financial oppression, coercion and untrustworthiness were all themes that would echo again in the second lecture on the English Revolution of 1649. Dr Spencer continued to explore how the regime change of 1399 was achieved, namely through Richard’s renunciation of the crown and Henry’s claim to be the natural heir through lines of descent. In getting Richard to renounce his claim, this regime change was essentially effected as a legal transition of power within medieval constitutional norms. The lecture concluded by assessing the relative success of the regime change. It showed that although Bolingbroke himself became tainted by accusations of regicide and oath breaking following Richard’s murder, his son, Henry V’s success at Agincourt and the peaceful transition of power to Henry VI thereafter indicated the overarching success of the regime change.

The second lecture, ‘The English Revolution of 1649’ by the Forum’s President, Dr David Smith (Selwyn), explored how Charles I experienced a similar fate to that of Richard II, but only this time it was less a transition of power and more a ‘revolution’, leading as it did to the abolition of the monarchy. Dr Smith outlined how regicide and republicanism had been far from anyone’s mind in 1642 when the first civil war began, but had increasingly emerged in the minds not only of radicals like the Levellers, but also in the minds of the Army leadership. Charles I’s actions in the period 1646-48 following his defeat in the first civil war were shown to be pivotal in establishing Charles Stuart as a duplicitous ‘man of blood’. In drawing on such biblical rhetoric the army leadership, including Oliver Cromwell, increasingly became convinced that Charles was himself the problem, and despite some preference for a forced abdication, Charles’ reluctance to co-operate helped lead to his trial and execution. Dr Smith also pointed out that a pivotal point in the path to regicide was the Army’s purge of Parliament on 6th December 1648 as not only did it remove those MPs eager to reach a settlement with Charles, but it saw the remaining ‘Rump’ MPs claim Parliament was itself sovereign. The lecture concluded by exploring how the new Republican regime was dogged by people’s inherent attachment to monarchy as a form of government, and how, once the person changed (in this case to Charles II), it was possible to undergo ‘regime restoration’.

The final lecture of the series took us to the twentieth century and a paper on ‘The Nazi takeover in Germany, 1933/4.’ Dr Hanno Balz (Trinity Hall) gave an energetic and thought-provoking talk that established the notion of regime change in Weimar Germany as a process of transformation and handover of power rather than a forceful or revolutionary seizure of power in the traditional sense. In highlighting Hitler’s commitment to achieving power through legal means, Dr Balz pointed out that a key ingredient was the fact that the German people were far from committed to democracy, and that a latent thirst for a ‘strong-man’ prevailed in a period of economic and social crisis. It was argued that from 1930 onwards there was a drift from democratic forms of government in favour of Chancellors that ruled through Article 48 of the constitution – the emergency right of the President to rule by decree. Against this backdrop the German political, social, military and industrial elites increasingly came to see Hitler as ‘their man’, something that Dr Balz argued was pivotal in explaining how the Nazis were able to transfer electoral success into achieving actual power. The irony that Germany had the best funded and well-organised communist movement outside of the USSR and yet was unable to halt the Nazi rise to power was pointed out; in doing this Dr Balz showed how the failure of the left-wing to form a ‘people’s front’ helped explain why forces of the right were increasingly successful. Having explored the weakness of the Weimar regime, the context of international factors, and the demographic of Nazi voters, the lecture illustrated how the recruitment of 50,000 auxiliary police from the ranks of the SA and SS served to dominate the election of March 1933. This action, along with the Enabling Act, revealed how the Nazis effectively infiltrated, replaced or replicated the state institutions. Dr Balz concluded by pointing out that the Night of the Long Knives was the means by which Hitler prevented a second revolution, built a ‘consensus regime’, and thus preserved a regime change that was, in reality, a handover of power.

The programme concluded with a forum discussion, with all three speakers fielding questions from the audience, drawing out similarities and differences from the topics. The questions and discussion explored how far the regime changes examined were evolutions rather than revolutions, how far the failing regimes had failed to imagine their own demise, the degree to which the aims of the protagonists had been lost along the way, and how far public opinion played a role in the process of regime change. Following the panel discussion, members and guests were invited to continue the discussion with the speakers over lunch, and those who were interested were invited to join Dr Smith on a tour of Selwyn College and the History faculty.

March 2019