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90th Birthday of Asa Briggs

Last Thursday, May 19th, was the 90th birthday of Asa Briggs. His outstanding contribution to history was marked that day with a colloquium held at the Institute of Historical Research in London. Organised by the IHR’s head Miles Taylor and introduced by David Cannadine, the day looked in detail at three fields in which Briggs has made major contributions: the study of the Victorian age; his relationship with public history, in particular the BBC as well as his 60-year involvement with History Today; and his role in the creation of Sussex University and the Open University, as well as his reorganization of the University of Leeds’ history department during the 1950s.

Briggs is still active; his latest book, Secret Days: My Life at Bletchley, has just been published by Frontline Books. It tells of the young Asa’s role in the highly secretive establishment that, according to some, shortened the duration of the Second World War by as much as two years. The culture of secrecy became so ingrained among the people who worked at Bletchley that even Asa’s wife, Susan, Lady Briggs, was unaware of his role until the 1970s. Briggs paints vivid portraits of the many brilliant characters who were fixtures at Bletchley, including the mathematical genius Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, the architect of the ‘Hut’ system. He pays tribute, too, to the many women who worked at Bletchley, often in tedious roles, but ones absolutely crucial to the work carried out there. Most of all, he tells us why historians were so valued at Bletchley. In a codebreaking establishment it is obvious why mathematicians and scientists are important, but why historians? Briggs worked on German activity in Yugoslavia and it was his ability to empathise, to inhabit the minds of others that allowed him to predict with great accuracy what the enemy would do next. He writes of how he got to know those Germans, of how he wished to meet them after the war. It is that remarkable empathy that is the hallmark of the great historian and it is evident in all of Briggs’ work. Our profile of the great man, published in the January 2011 edition of History Today, was titled ‘A Very Open Intelligence’. That sums Asa up.