By Jane Caplan
This document is perhaps not a radical object in the strictest material sense. It’s a pocket diary, two by four inches, issued by the Yorkshire Insurance Co. for the year 1945. It belonged to my father Isador Caplan, a 33-year-old lawyer, son of a rabbi, then in the seventh year of his marriage to my mother Joan. He gave it to me a few years before he died. He kept this little diary separately from his office engagement diary; it was used to note private appointments – mainly political and campaign meetings, and social get-togethers with friends and family members – as well as for occasional longer comments. It’s not a daily record but something more intermittent and fragmentary, an incomplete mosaic of the political and personal events of that year.
What makes it eligible for this slot, in my mind, is that its usually terse entries, written in a tiny, neat hand, record moments in an exceptional year for a man of my father’s generation and political commitment. This was the last year of the war and the year Labour won the general election, and they leave a trail of traces in this little book. And traces are left too of a less notable event, but one of considerable importance to me, to which I’ll return.
In 1945, my parents were living in Staines, Middlesex, and my father was a partner in a firm of Mayfair solicitors. My parents had both moved progressively further left in the course of the war, and by 1945 they were between them active in the Labour Party, the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society, the Socialist Medical Association, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, the National Council for Civil Liberties and similar groups. Many diary entries record an impressive, unremitting calendar of meetings, chiefly the local Labour Party and the Haldane Society’s Executive Committee, on which my father served.
Longer comments add a little more evidence of the political currents on the left, including my father’s frustration at the difficulties of establishing a Progressive Front and the blockage of a more radical Labour platform in the run-up to the July general election. For example, the entry on February 4, after a Labour Party meeting at Staines Town Hall, notes the withdrawal of a member with the comment ‘damn the ban on the C.P. [Communist Party].’ Later, in April, he records the expulsion of another party member, presumably for the same reason.
In February my father is appointed a Haldane Society delegate to the Labour Party annual conference (as a child I remember being intrigued by the report of that conference on our bookshelves, with its long list of delegates from enticingly obscure local micro-unions of already forgotten trades). The conference takes him from May 25 to 29 to Blackpool, his home town, where, along with vain efforts to promote the Progressive Front, he tries unsuccessfully to drum up support for readmitting the leftwing barrister and ex-Labour MP D. N. Pritt, who had been expelled from the Labour Party in 1940.
He returns from the conference disappointed at the steamrollering of the Progressive agenda as the election machine moved into gear, but he spends all his spare time till July working for the Labour Party and is ‘too busy w[ith] election work’ to celebrate some anniversary with my mother on June 29. On polling day, July 5, he records that he is his ‘usual pessimistic self’ – but then, on July 26: ‘ELECTION RESULT’ in capitals, underlined and in red: ‘Labour sweeps the board – wildest expectations exceeded. All our gang called in for drinks’, and – given the character of my father’s job – ‘office clients w[ith] long faces’.
Then there is the war. The first entries bring the war home. On January 9, the note ‘11.0 – Post 26 – new night and new hrs’ refers to my father’s ARP duties, and his schedule is regularly entered. But the notes become more extensive in the spring, as the fighting accelerates towards the Allied victory. On March 21 ‘Rhine crossed at Reinigen [Remagen]!’. April 7, when he is slated to attend the ‘C.P.’s Crimea Conference’ at the Staines Railway Hotel, also brings one of the longer and most deliberative entries: ‘As Concentration Camps over-run the whole press is full of the fantastic horror & cruelty seen at first hand – but few appreciated that they started & for 6 yrs. were fed with the bodies of Jewry and anti-Nazi Germans’.
As the war rolls to victory, other milestones are predictably recorded: ‘Blackout lifted to-night’ (April 23); ‘Allied and Russian armies meet on Elbe’ (April 25); ‘Mussolini summarily executed by Italian patriots on Saturday w[ith] many of his present and old gang’ (April 30); and on May 2 another long entry, with three lines scored in the margin: ‘Laval and Deat interned in Spain [.] Hitler reported dead – Adm[ira]l Doenitz Fuhrer. Berlin falls in flames. German armies in Italy and Austria surrendered … unconditionally – Denmark cut off. Sirens officially ended … Celebrated last night w[ith] a spot of our Reine Pedauque brandy saved for 5 ½ yrs.’
Over the next few days come entries on the surrenders of German armies in north- west Germany, Holland and Denmark, rumours of capitulation, and finally on May 8: ‘VE Day … Opened our victory treasures – tinned peaches & cream, olives, almonds, brandy etc.’ The entry for August 6, by contrast, is sober: ‘The Atomic Bomb – on Hiroshima [.] the next war will be the annihilation of man.’ With a note of the Nagasaki bomb two days later, this is the final explicit comment on the war.
And then there is the family. Dropped in among these entries on politics and the war are records of family events, most of them social occasions, but others that create a compact double-handed narrative which gives this little book its poignant personal resonance for me. March 21 may have recorded the Allies’ crossing of the Rhine, but also that ‘Joan [my mother] goes into Nursing Home’. The entry for March 23 explains why, and continues the double story: ‘Amanda Jane [that’s me] born at 3.10 a.m. … Cycled over – Joan looking grand. Montgomery’s push over Rhine began yesterday’ (my mother’s and Montgomery’s pushes seem to have been equally successful.)
Through the rest of the year, family events are given their due alongside the war, the Labour Party and the other political campaigns. My sister is given her first tricycle; my ballooning weight is recorded; my parents manage their first outing to ‘the flicks’ since my birth (a Fritz Lang film); my father’s younger brother decides (like my father in 1939) to risk his family’s wrath and marry a non-Jewish woman; my mother weans me and my parents get a weekend away in London for the first time, to see Ralph Richardson in Henry IV Part II; my sister gets her ‘first post-war toy’, a metal wheelbarrow from Hamley’s in Regent Street. So my life begins, and theirs continues.
I can’t claim any great significance for my father’s diary as a historical source. I’m sure it could be replicated in many other families, and for historians of the period it would be usable only as one among many such documents. But reading his record of my own beginning, directly alongside the nightmare ending of the war and fascism and the emerging hopes of a progressive political future, was a small act of confirmation: not only of the layering of the political and the personal in my parents’ lives, but also of who I became as the child of these radical parents and as a historian of Nazi Germany.
I cannot remember who it was who suggested that the period immediately before your birth carries an especially mysterious magnetism, giving the childhood question ‘Where do I come from?’ a historical as well as existential dimension. I certainly felt this magnetism as I grew up, and my parents’ contributions to the battle against fascism helped to pave my own path to the kind of politics I believe in, and the field of history I chose to work in. My father’s diary, when I was able to read it almost fifty years later, has given me a miniature and revealing map of where that path started.
Jane Caplan is Emeritus Professor of Modern European History at the University of Oxford and Visiting Professor of History at Birkbeck. She is also an editor of History Workshop Journal.