diplomatic history

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diplomatic history was likely to rank higher in prestige in the late 19th cent. when Britain was still a major world power and while entry to the Foreign Office remained an ambition for many undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge. It had the advantage as a subject for study that it looked at evidence from different points of view, demanded some knowledge of languages, and raised interesting problems of causation and contingency. Governments also encouraged the study of diplomatic history by preserving and then making available diplomatic archives, and often subsidizing publication in order to justify policy. Among the leading exponents in Britain of diplomatic history were G. P. Gooch (1873–1968), Charles Webster (1886–1961), author of The Congress of Vienna (1919) and a study of Castlereagh (1931), and H. V. Temperley (1879–1939), who produced a celebrated study of Canning (1905) and collaborated with Gooch to edit British documents on the origin of the war 1898–1914 (11 vols., 1926–38). Its weakness was that it was often taught in isolation from the rest of history as a self-contained study. Its post-1945 decline was in part a consequence of competition from other aspects of the subject, and in part that many found it unsatisfying—‘the record of what one clerk said to another clerk’, in G. M. Young's comment. The collapse of language teaching in schools also made it difficult to do more than study selected (and pre-packaged?) documents in translation. Though diplomatic history remains an important branch of historical study it seems unlikely to regain its former prominence.

J. A. Cannon