Jonathan Conlin gets to know “a great gigantic historian” fallen on hard times.

Jonathan is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Southampton and co-founder of The Lausanne Project.

Like many of my generation, I first encountered Arnold J. Toynbee not through his massive A Study of History (1934-54), but via his critics: Hugh Trevor-Roper and particularly Elie Kedourie’s Chatham House Version (1970), which introduced Toynbee as the dean of a school of moralistic flagellants who presented Britain and the West as “aggressors and everyone else as victims”.[1] It was only when I read a 2014 essay by the sociologist Krishan Kumar that I decided to order the early volumes of the Study and (full disclosure!) the D. C. Somervell one-volume abridgement (1946) on Abe.[2]

A Study goes cheap. I was reminded of how little I had paid for a shelf of equally heavy tomes by an earlier British historian, Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-1892). Both Freeman and Toynbee were fascinated by the patterns of history, understood as a series of analogies across vast gulfs of time and space. Both wrote at considerable length in a stylized manner which lends itself to parody. And both were precocious swots who became fluent in ancient Greek at a disturbingly young age. While still at Winchester Toynbee decided his life’s mission was to follow in Herodotus’ footsteps, as a second “great gigantic historian.” [3]

Freeman and Toynbee were fascinated by the patterns of history, understood as a series of analogies across vast gulfs of time and space. Where Freeman wrote microhistories of race, however, Toynbee’s macrohistory was one of “civilizations”.

The pair also shaped Anglophone public opinion on the “Eastern Question”: Freeman during the “Bulgarian Horrors” and in books such as The Ottoman Power in Europe (1877), Toynbee with the 1917 “Blue Book” on the Armenian Genocide. Whereas Freeman’s brief trip to Herzegovina in 1875 simply confirmed him in his views of “the terrible Turk”, Toynbee’s repeated journeys to Istanbul, Smyrna and other parts of Anatolia between 1921 and 1923 transformed his perspective.

Rather than being the riddle an irresponsible “Orient” set the sharpest diplomatic minds of occidental Powers, the “Eastern Question” became The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, the title of Toynbee’s 1922 study of “the shadow upon the rest of humanity cast by Western civilization.” The book argued that western ideas of “nationality” (“a question of sentiment, not of language or race” for Toynbee) had misled eastern “civilizations” to sell their birthright for a mess, not of pottage, but of genocide and proxy wars.

The book was widely reviewed by the British press, the Daily Mirror comparing it to Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace [4] Many readers were familiar with Toynbee’s Guardian reports of the 1921 Yalova Peninsula Massacres. Coming from a lifelong philhellene, the inaugural holder of the Koraes Chair in Greek History at the University of London, Toynbee’s reports were hard to dismiss as propaganda. Toynbee made the Koraes chair (endowed by London’s Greek merchant elite) too hot to hold him. When grateful Turks offered him a chair at Istanbul University, he seems to have given the idea serious consideration.[5]


As he writes in The Western Question, “mutually indispensable neighbours” had been led to kill one another, with repercussions felt in the west, where the Armenian genocide had supposedly inspired equally unprecedented atrocities, from Northern Irish sectarianism to the lynch-mobs of the United States. Seen this way “the contact of civilizations” (to quote the book’s subtitle) harmed both sides, leaving them struggling to find a “modus vivendi”.

“Orientals have no greater predisposition to atrocities than other people”: indeed, were one to plot them, Toynbee claimed, “the two curves of atrocities and Westernisation would practically coincide.”

The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1922), p. 266.

The Western Question should be read alongside his later work The World After the Peace Conference (1926). This succinctly demonstrates how the same “Industrial System and Principle of Nationality” that had brought the European Powers mastery of the world by 1914 was now tearing them apart. As in The Western Question Toynbee presents the history of Islam as following a path analogous to that of Christianity, albeit with a certain time lag: “The corporate feeling of the Sunni community down to 1914,” he claimed, “was comparable to that of the Latin Church down to the first years of the fourteenth century.”[6]

Eager to find out what if any role Toynbee played at Lausanne, I consulted his papers at the Bodleian Library. Letters by his wife Rosalind written aboard the Red Cross vessel steaming around Yalova are compelling. Confronted with scenes “that [Joseph] Conrad could describe better than anyone else”, she described Arnold as “torn between his affection for Greece with all the happy associations it has and feeling that he has got to fight it now.”[7] There are also papers from September 1922 relating to his policy briefing for the Labour Party, urging a peace conference to include both Istanbul and Ankara governments (as well as Russia), at which he proposed offering the Turks Eastern Thrace in exchange for a demilitarized Straits under League control.


But the most striking letters are from Toynbee’s second tour in April 1923, this time as correspondent for the American monthly Asia. In Istanbul he found novelist Halide Edib Adıvar and newspaper editors such as Yakub Kadri (İkdam) vying to offer him hospitality. Adıvar clearly made a strong impression: “I think she sees the National Movement, and her own part in it, melodramatically, like a sort of super-cinema.”[8] Kemal also made an impression at a dinner held on 12 April:

[Kemal] is undoubtedly a great man. Without his doing anything, he makes the impression of being different from the rest when you come into the room – which I think is a sure outward sign of being genuinely something beyond the ordinary. He has a formidable way of knitting his brows at anyone who talks to him – a little like a leopard preparing to spring.

Arnold Toynbee to Rosalind Toynbee, 13 April 1923. Toynbee Papers, Bodleian Library MS13967/54.

Toynbee met Ismet the following day. He then toured the ruins of Smyrna, discussing “western civilization” with Hüsni Bey, mutesarrif of Manisa. At some point in late April he travelled home by rail – via Lausanne, where he spent less than twenty-four hours. It had been a short stay, albeit long enough for Toynbee to learn snatches of Ottoman (which he proudly inserted in letters home) and be welcomed as a champion of “the New Turkey”. Although he reconsidered in the wake of a return trip in 1948, in 1923 Toynbee felt Kemal was right to answer the “western question” with “herodianism” (full-scale westernization) rather than “zealotism”.[9]

Although I have yet to determine which avenue to explore in my own research, I can’t help but feel that Kumar is right: it is time for this “gigantic historian” to make a comeback.


[1] Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version ed. David Pryce-Jones (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004), xvi.

[2] Krishan Kumar, “The Return of Civilization – and of Arnold Toynbee?”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 56.4 (2014)

[3] William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 31.

[4] “Professor Toynbee”, Daily Mail, 20 September 1922.

[5] McNeill, Toynbee, p. 120.

[6] Toynbee, The World After the Peace Conference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926), p. 75.

[7] Rosalind Toynbee to Gilbert Murray, 28 May 1921. Toynbee Papers, Bodleian Library. MS13967/50/1.

[8] Arnold Toynbee to Rosalind Toynbee, 2 April 1923. Toynbee Papers, Bodleian Library. MS13967/54.

[9] For Toynbee’s 1923 reports see “Islam and the Western World”, Asia 23.2: 83-88, 132, 134, 137; “The Caliphate”, Asia 23.6: 407-11, 455-7; “Meeting the Turk Half-Way”, Asia 23.8:577-581, 609-11; “New Economic Aims in Turkey”, Asia 23.9: 660-3, 686-7; “Angora, Cinderella-Metropolis of Turkey”, Asia 23.10: 714-8, 764-6. See also “The East After Lausanne”, Foreign Affairs 2.1 (1923): 84-98; “The New Status of Turkey”, Contemporary Review 123: 281-9.

Further Reading

Cemil Aydin and Burhanettin Duran, “Arnold J. Toynbee and Islamism in Cold War-era Turkey”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 35.2 (2015).

Alex Bremner and Jonathan Conlin, eds., Making History: Edward Augustus Freeman and Victorian Cultural Politics, Proceedings of the British Academy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Krishan Kumar, “The Return of Civilization – and of Arnold Toynbee?”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 56.4 (2014).

Arnold Toynbee, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A study in the contact of civilisations (London: Constable, 1922).

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History abridged D. C. Somervell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948).

A. Nuri Yurdusev, “From the Eastern Question to the Western Question: Rethinking the Contribution of Toynbee,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 14.3 (2005).

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