Peter Pulzer

Peter Pulzer is Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration at Oxford and a fellow of All Souls. He is the author of Political Representation and Elections in Britain and is currently working on a study of the West German party system.

‘I was only obeying orders.’ It is difficult to pronounce these words in English, except with a comic German accent. They symbolise for most people an unquestioning subordination to authority that is peculiarly German and that seems to offer a simple explanation for the horrors of the 20th century. There is a German word for this, Kadavergehorsam, which the dictionary translates as ‘blind obedience’, but which literally means ‘obedience unto death’. Sometimes this archetypally German conformity has a surreal touch. A Czech colleague once told me that on a research visit to Leipzig he had seen a street-cleaning van sprinkling away during a rainstorm. At that moment, he told me, he realised why there had been two world wars.


Peter Pulzer, 9 January 1992

After the intoxication of liberation comes the hangover. East Germans are less happy than of the day the Berlin Wall was opened. The cost of basic needs – rent, fuel, food – has gone up, jobs are being decimated. Their Western brothers and sisters, who embraced them on 10 November 1989, seem intent on telling them how to run their lives and reluctant to share their affluence with them. Polish national unity, impressively symbolised by Solidarity, has disintegrated into apathy and multi-partism: fewer than half the Poles turned out to vote in the first free parliamentary election and no party got more than one-eighth of the votes cast. Czechs and Slovaks are close to breaking up the state that was the one working democracy in inter-war Central and Eastern Europe. Of the organised thuggery in Romania and the civil wars in the Caucasus and Yugoslavia the less said the better.

Do we need a constitution?

Peter Pulzer, 5 December 1991

‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’

After the Wall

Peter Pulzer, 23 May 1991

The other wall, the mote famous and aesthetically more distinguished one, the one designed to protect China from the barbarians, inspired Kafka to one of his most profound reflections: ‘Try with all your might to comprehend the decrees of the high command, but only up to a certain point; then avoid further meditation.’ I do not suppose the rulers of the German Democratic Republic studied Kafka. They were merely nature imitating art. For a time they managed to inhibit meditation among their subjects, though without inducing comprehension. When meditation resumed, so did comprehension, for reasons Kafka would have been the first to grasp. The rest we know.

Head over heart for Europe

Peter Pulzer, 21 March 1991

‘We should have to contend with the ordinary Englishman’s almost innate dislike and suspicion of “Europeans” … Intensive re-education would be needed to bring this section of the public to realise that in the modern world even the United Kingdom cannot stand alone.’ The words are those of a committee of civil servants convened to advise the Macmillan Government in 1960 on the pros and cons of joining the ‘Six’. The paper has just been released under the thirty-year rule.

Diary: In East Berlin

Peter Pulzer, 19 April 1990

The man in the S-Bahn was disappointed by the way the election campaign was going. He had hoped that for the first time in his life he would be offered a rational debate on the issues of the day; that the different parties and politicians would declare their principles and their policies, as in a well-ordered marketplace. Instead they merely slanged and denounced each other. And yet I thought he had acquired the first prerequisite for a functioning democracy: scepticism.

City of Blood

Peter Pulzer, 9 November 1989

Robert Wistrich’s book is about the Jews of Vienna in their golden age, Steven Beller’s about the city’s culture in its golden age. You could be forgiven for thinking that these amounted to the same thing. Not all Viennese Jews were cultural heroes, and not all Viennese cultural heroes were Jews. But the overlap is impressive and in need of explanation. W.E. Mosse’s is about the German economy in its first golden age. The overlap with creative Jews is less overwhelming here but it, too, is worthy of investigation.

Mrs Thatcher’s Universities

Peter Pulzer, 22 June 1989

For most of this year some of my colleagues have been taking ‘industrial action’, either refusing to mark scripts and examine theses, or to disclose the marks they have awarded. They have now abandoned this, but that does not invalidate the question: what on earth is going on? What are academics doing, taking industrial action?


Peter Pulzer, 4 September 1986

The Reading Room of the British Museum is now completed, and if London had nothing but this hall of the blessed, scholars would make it well worth their while to make a pilgrimage here. All the sorrows of the outside would disappear in the mighty rotunda, and it is so quiet in this region of the eternal spirits that one can follow a thought into one’s inmost recesses … Never has wisdom been made so comfortable for the student. Each one has a place, with a desk and accessories, and he needs only to signal for the folios to come floating down from every region.


Peter Pulzer, 20 February 1986

We have at the moment a Conservative government. It is in some disarray over clashes of personality and questions of political style, but also on matters of political principle. There is a genuine dilemma for an administration dedicated both to the strengthening of national defence and to leaving the future of manufacturing capacity to the sovereignty of the shareholder and the logic of the market. Defence suppliers have only one customer; defence procurers only a handful of suppliers. Their relationship is political and any decision about it is going to be political. There is a Tory solution to such a dilemma: intervene, even if it offends against the sanctity of private property. There is a neo-liberal solution: don’t intervene, even if it means refusing to fly the flag. There is a Peelite solution: do not blink at the inevitable, but call it the national interest. There are many reasons for Mrs Thatcher’s failure to embrace any one of these unambiguously, but one of them is the struggle between pragmatism and dogma that has invaded British political discourse. Are British politics still defined by the old Anglo-Saxon landmarks, or have we ‘joined Europe’?

Finding a role

Peter Pulzer, 5 September 1985

May 1915 saw the end of the last purely Liberal government in Britain. October 1964 saw the defeat of the last aristocrat to head a Conservative government by a Labour Party dedicated to regenerating the country through the ‘white heat of technology’. Each event marked, in its way, a decline of power. The first saw the disappearance of a liberal individualist state, governed by a caste of liberal individualist gentlemen. The second ushered in a government that sealed Britain’s withdrawal from Empire with the liquidation of all military commitments East of Suez.

Vienna discovers its past

Peter Pulzer, 1 August 1985

A city without a past is a city without a future. It may exist as a set of buildings, but not as a culture. But not every city with a past has a future, except as a set of buildings. The springs of innovation may dry up, the crossroads that first gave it its importance may no longer lead anywhere. It is then that a city that still has a present most needs its past, but that is also the moment when it has most reason to fear that past. There are no doubt many cities in this condition – with a little insight and a dose of malice each of us could draw up impressive lists. But everyone’s list would surely include Vienna.’

From Old Adam to New Eve

Peter Pulzer, 6 June 1985

The history of modern Britain is to a considerable degree the history of the Tory Party, Europe’s – and perhaps the world’s – oldest political party. Or at least the equal oldest party, since it is unusual for the supporters of the status quo to initiate partisan politics. Conservative politics are reactive, a poor second best to the conservative’s preferred condition, one of no politics at all. Conservatives organise only when challenged. But whenever one dates the origins of the British party system, whether with the attempt to exclude the Catholic James from the succession to Charles II, with the rivalry between the Younger Pitt and Charles James Fox, or with the battle over Parliamentary Reform in the 1830s – Lord Blake prefers the second of these – it is evident that the two parties arose simultaneously. They have not shown equal powers of survival. Whiggery has long disappeared, though 20th-century Conservatives have included a few Whiggish eccentrics. The Liberal Party of David Steel bears little resemblance to it, except in some residual link with religious dissent and the geographical periphery. The old-style Labour Party inherited some Whig nostrums, especially in foreign policy and constitutional matters. The Tory Party, on the other hand, has survived, metamorphosed but whole.’

The Oxford Vote

Peter Pulzer, 7 March 1985

The last ten years have seen a major expansion in the education service. The next ten will see expansion continue – as it must, if education is to make its full contribution to the vitality of our society and our economy.


The Oxford Vote

7 March 1985

SIR: May I reply briefly to some of Dr Bramwell’s more specific points (Letters, 18 April), leaving on one side the question of Oxford’s guilt for all the evils of post-war Britain, from high-rise flats to membership of the Common Market?1. No one sought ‘revenge’ on the Prime Minister. But since the Butskellite consensus had – for better or worse – gone, we thought...


Eric Hobsbawm, 8 April 1993

Most of world history until the later 18th century could be written without more than marginal reference to the Jews, except as a small people which pioneered the monotheistic world religions, a...

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