Spotlight on Conan Fischer
May 2, 2014 Leave a comment
Conan Fischer is New Zealand born and lived in Australia, England, and Germany before eventually settling in Scotland in 1979. He studied at the University of East Anglia, where the presence of two outstanding academics, Michael Balfour and Volker Berghahn, motivated him to specialise in German history. He went on to complete a DPhil at the University of Sussex on the Nazi Stormtroopers’ rank and file membership, supervised by Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, before moving first to the University of Aston in Birmingham (1976), then joining Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh (1979), followed by the University of Strathclyde (1989), and the University of St Andrews (2010).
He authored and edited a series of books and articles focusing on Nazism and Communism as oppositional movements in the inter-war German Republic; the first of these, Stormtroopers. A Social, Economic and Ideological Analysis, 1929-32 (1983), is reappearing this year in the Routledge Library Editions: Nazi Germany and the Holocaust series. In addition to further research-based works on Nazism/Communism, such as The German Communists and the Rise of Nazism (1991) and (ed.) The Rise of National Socialism and the Working Classes in Weimar Germany (1996), Conan has always been keen to write for a broad readership, completing a commissioned textbook for the Manchester University Press New Frontiers in History series: The Rise of the Nazis (1st edit. 1995, 2nd edit. 2002). He is contemplating an extended third edition in due course.
This work on Nazism saw collaboration with colleagues in Germany and England, including Jürgen Falter (FU Berlin & Mainz) and Detlef Mühlberger (late of Oxford Brookes University) and he was also a keen advocate for the European universities’ Erasmus and Socrates-Erasmus exchange schemes. He set up a multilateral staff exchange, which for him opened the way to invaluable links with Hans Mommsen, Klaus Tenfelde, and Wolfgang Helbich at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum.
By this time Conan’s research was turning towards the Weimar Republic’s struggle for survival immediately after Germany’s defeat in the First World War. He focused on the history of a protracted Franco-Belgian military occupation of Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr District from 1923-1925. Once seen simply as an effort to extract reparations, it is increasingly accepted that French objectives extended to the break-up of Germany, through the creation of autonomous or even independent Rhenish (and Bavarian) states. The resulting struggle saw the Ruhr’s civilians engage in a grim campaign of passive, civic resistance against the occupiers, at enormous personal cost and ultimately at great political cost to the German Republic. The resulting monograph, The Ruhr Crisis 1923-1924, appeared in 2003.
Yet, in the midst of the Ruhr crisis, there were glimmers of hope, of a mutual recognition on both sides of the Rhine that things could not go on like this, that Franco-German rapprochement was central to Europe’s peace and security. Conan is now completing a second ‘Franco-German’ book, A Vision of Europe: Franco-German Relations during the Great Depression 1929-1932, which accentuates the more positive aspects of relations during this time. It investigates the sustained effort by Paris and Berlin to forge a bilateral customs, business and social union as the cornerstone of a united Europe, which culminated in a formal agreement in September 1931. During 1932, for a complex mix of reasons, the whole scheme crashed and burned. The official records of this story fill metres of shelf space in the foreign office archives in Berlin and Paris, yet have been virtually ignored by historians – possibly too focussed on the rise of Hitler.
Aside from this research-based work, Conan collaborated with Alan Sharp (University of Ulster) to organise a major conference on the aftermath and consequences of the 1919 Versailles peace treaty between Germany and the Allies, the proceedings of which appeared in 2005 as a special edition of the journal Diplomacy and Statecraft, and then in edited book form as After the Versailles Treaty. Enforcement, Compliance, Contested Identities (2008). By then he had been commissioned to write a general history of earlier twentieth-century Europe for the Blackwell History of Europe series, which appeared in 2011 under the title Europe between Democracy and Dictatorship 1900-1945. Perhaps predictably, this book has quite a lot to say about Nazism, and places the Franco-German relationship centre stage in Europe’s recent story.
Conan has always enjoyed teaching and postgraduate supervision and during his career has offered a wide range of undergraduate classes on European and German history, and on historiography. Since arriving at St Andrews he has enjoyed lecturing on several undergraduate courses, most recently on Themes in Late Modern History (MO1008), but his teaching has focused on the postgraduate Late Modern History MLitt programme, including a contribution to the module Crossing Borders; European History in Transnational Perspective (MO5710). He is also currently supervising two PhD research students, one working on inter-war British diplomacy and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, and the other on the role of rumours in the Third Reich’s wartime Jewish ghettos.
Beyond university life Conan has pastimes which sometimes look suspiciously like outgrowths of things academic. This includes an obsessive interest in politics, for a decade as a party political activist, and then in a more informal way. This has stretched to running and writing up the proceedings of an international, British Council funded conference in Germany, ‘Scotland: Prospects for a Nation Reborn’ which took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1997 devolution referendum. Conference verdict? ‘Ça depend.’ But leaving aside politics, Conan loves film, travel, living in Edinburgh, and is a keen hillwalker: the Skye Cuillin have been survived thanks to a no-nonsense guide and there are just 19 Munros to go.