In Memoriam: John Hiden 1940-2012

Published: 28 September 2012

The School was shocked and saddened to learn of the untimely death of Professor John Hiden, Senior Honorary Research Fellow in Central and East European Studies since 2003 and one of the leading figures in Baltic Studies since the 1980s. David Smith of CEES writes in memoriam.

The School was shocked and saddened to learn of the untimely death of Professor John Hiden, Senior Honorary Research Fellow in Central and East European Studies since 2003 and one of the leading figures in Baltic Studies since the 1980s. Our thoughts are with John's family and his many friends and colleagues across the world. David Smith from CEES has published the following short piece in memoriam of John, which will appear in either issue 3 or issue 4 of the current volume of Journal of Baltic Studies.


It is impossible in the space of a short essay to do full justice to the life and work of John Hiden, whose untimely passing on 10 August 2012 has deprived us of one of the leading lights in Baltic Studies. Professor of European History at the University of Bradford, where he worked for more than 32 years, John was also Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow from 2003. In the course of his career he forged contacts and enduring friendships across Europe, North America and beyond that are too numerous to list here. It suffices to say that nearly everyone who has worked in our field since the 1980s will have known John Hiden personally, heard him speak at conferences or familiarised themselves with at least some of his extensive published works on Baltic themes. Many more people across the world will know John as a leading authority on German history, where he authored many more works on aspects of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.

It was the study of German foreign policy that first drew John Hiden to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania back in the 1960s. His PhD, awarded by the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London in 1970 examined the place of the Baltic states within Weimar German Ostpolitik. The study broke new ground by seeking to differentiate fundamentally the foreign policies of the Weimar Republic from those later pursued by Nazi Germany. This perspective meant that John could already then appreciate the significance of the liberal Baltic German politician and international minority activist Paul Schiemann, a figure to whom he vowed to return in the future. Eventually published in 2004 and awarded the AABS Book Prize two years later, John’s widely-acclaimed biography of Schiemann was arguably the crowning achievement of a long and distinguished career.

John Hiden defended his PhD during the depths of the Cold War, at a time when Baltic independence must have appeared to many to be a lost cause. The eventual publication of the thesis (as The Baltic States and Weimar Ostpolitik) in 1987, however, coincided with the start of the remarkable set of events that would see Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reclaim their place as sovereign states on the map of Europe just four years later. With discussion of the Baltic case still largely subsumed within Soviet studies, John became one of a small group of scholars able to situate the process of change within a broader European perspective. Together with Alexander Loit, he edited the proceedings of two landmark symposia held in Stockholm during the mid-late 1980s, which appeared as The Baltic States in International Relations between the Two World Wars (1987) and Contact or Isolation? Soviet-Western Relations in the Interwar Period (1991). With Patrick Salmon he wrote The Baltic Nations and Europe (1991, updated 1994), which remains a standard reference text for courses dealing with the international relations of the Baltic Sea region. The work ably demonstrates how the fate of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during 1939-40 was inextricably bound up with that of Europe as a whole, arguing that the existence of these ‘small’ countries (so often dismissed as irrelevant by representatives of the so-called Great Powers) should in fact be understood as a ‘European necessity’. A further key work of this period, co-edited with Thomas Lane, was The Baltic and the Outbreak of the Second World War (1992). 

It was with Thomas Lane that John Hiden ran the Baltic Research Unit (BRU), which he founded at Bradford University in 1988. In an era in which UK universities are increasingly obsessed with measuring the non-academic ‘impact’ of research, it is worth recalling the very substantial role that BRU had to play in shaping British government policy towards the re-emerging Baltic states and making UK business circles properly aware of the opportunities afforded by these new markets. Through constant visits, conferences and work on the BRU’s acclaimed Baltic Briefing John came into contact with many of the leading political and academic figures of the new independence era. Lennart Meri, with whom John worked to arrange an early economic audit of Estonia by Bradford City Council, remained a close acquaintance, as did Mart Laar. Jüri Luik, Einars Repše, Normans Penke and Leonidas Donskis all spent periods of time at BRU during its 13-year existence. Regular briefings at the Foreign Office meant that John was also well-known to everyone who has served as a UK Ambassador to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the two decades since the restoration of diplomatic relations with these countries. John’s contribution to advancing the academic study of the Baltic countries and assisting in their reconstruction was later duly acknowledged through the award of the Order of Grand Duke Gediminas and the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana by the Presidents of Lithuania and Estonia respectively. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Klaipeda and was appointed a member of the Latvian Historical Commission and the Baltische Historische Kommission.

In the course of the 1990s, BRU became the focal point for Baltic Studies within the UK, attracting two new externally-funded academic posts and creating (in 2001) the UK’s first dedicated Masters Programme in Baltic Studies. This built on the earlier highly successful MA programme in East European Studies which John Hiden established and ran for many years. During this period John also supervised or examined the PhD theses of a good number of the current younger generation of Baltic Studies scholars in the UK and beyond, whilst also convening the weekly PhD discussion workshop at Bradford’s Department of European Studies. An inspiring supervisor, John brought genuine enthusiasm to these discussions and was always ready with constructive advice and encouragement to younger academic colleagues. From the mid-1990s onwards John’s research work focused increasingly on his biography of Schiemann, but he also maintained his interest in historic and contemporary aspects of international relations, contributing actively to a transnational research network on Baltic Sea regional identity (1999-2001) and later to a co-edited work (with Vahur Made and David Smith) on The Baltic Question during the Cold War (2008). With Patrick Salmon, he also undertook the gargantuan task of jointly editing nine volumes of British Foreign Office documents on Scandinavia and the Baltic states, which appeared in 1996.

The work of BRU at Bradford was sadly curtailed in 2001, when financial cuts brought the closure of the internationally renowned Department of European Studies. The unit was, however, later reconstituted at the University of Glasgow, to which John was attached as a senior research fellow in January 2003. In the years that followed, John brought his customary energy and enthusiasm to the development of Baltic Studies at Glasgow. He generously donated to the University library an extensive archive of materials accumulated over the previous decade or more, and this is still much used by student and visiting researchers. John was also instrumental in the start of discussions that led to Glasgow’s receipt of an externally-funded lectureship in Estonian language society and culture. From 2003-2012 John worked on a research project analysing the practice of non-territorial cultural autonomy in the Baltic states during the 1920s and its relevance to wider debates on democratisation, minority rights and European integration in Europe past and present. The findings are presented in the co-authored (with David Smith) work Ethnic Diversity and the Nation State, published in May 2012. As part of this project John participated in policy briefings on cultural autonomy to the Romanian government and the Council of Europe Venice Commission.

As Emeritus Professor at Bradford from 2001, John Hiden also continued his long-standing collaborative work with Martyn Housden on German and Baltic History. A 2008 co-authored work, Neighbours or Enemies?, drew together both strands, looking at the relationship between the German state and German minorities of Central and Eastern Europe in all of its historical manifestations. It was fitting that the two institutions, Bradford and Glasgow, should collaborate to produce a co-edited Festschrift (Forgotten Pages in Baltic History) in honour of John’s career, which was presented at the Latvian Embassy in London in October 2011. It meant a great deal to John that his wife Juliet and children Hugo and Jessica as well as other family members were able to join him on this occasion, alongside many other friends and colleagues from down the years. He will be missed enormously by everyone who knew him and had the privilege of working with him.

David Smith
University of Uppsala and University of Glasgow

First published: 28 September 2012

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