Eighteenth Century English: ‘The Continual Corruption of our English Tongue’.   Leave a comment


Modern Standard English was achieved when writers began to use prescribed and agreed forms of vocabulary and grammar, regardless of the dialectal variety that they spoke in everyday life. As a result, regional and class dialects, which were themselves no less rule-governed and systematic than the agreed standard form, were increasingly regarded as inferior to it. In the eighteenth century, there were major shifts and changes in attitudes towards, and beliefs about, the standard language and the dialects. The linguistic changes which took place from the beginning of the eighteenth to the end of the twentieth century were relatively few and far between.

During the eighteenth century, many pamphlets, articles and grammar books were published on the question of correcting, improving and, when and if possible, fixing the language in printed form. One word that recurred time and time again in referring to the state of the English language was corruption. It can be found in the following text, an extract from an article by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in the journal The Tatler. The complete article took the form of a supposed letter written to Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq;


There are some Abuses among us of great Consequence, the Reformation of which is properly your Province, tho’, as far as I have been conversant in your Papers, you have not yet considered them. These are, the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers, the great depravity of our Taste, and the continual Corruption of our Style…

These two Evils, Ignorance and Want of Taste, have produced a Third; I mean the continual Corruption of our English Tongue, which, without some timely Remedy, will suffer more by the false Refinements of twenty Years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing Hundred…

What Swift disliked most were certain new colloquial words and phrases, together with fashionable features of pronunciation, all part of spoken rather than written usage. He specifically condemned these as features of Style, that is, of deliberate choices of words and structures from the resources of the language. At the same time, he referred in general to the Corruption of the English Tongue, an evaluative metaphor that implied worsening and decay, as if the style he disliked to hear could affect everyone’s use of English in both oral and written forms.

This attitude of condemnation, focusing on relatively trivial aspects of contemporary usage, was taken up time and time again throughout the eighteenth century, and continued until the late twentieth century. It is important to study it and its effects, one of which was that non-standard varieties of the language tended to become stigmatised as substandard, while Standard English was thought of as the English language, rather than as the prestige dialect of the language.

The written language and speech of educated men and women of the south-east, especially in London, Oxford and Cambridge, was the source of Standard English. This was the sixteenth century writer John Hart’s best and most perfite English and George Puttenham’s usuall speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London. The following text from James Beattie’s Theory of Language of 1774, given in facsimile, illustrates the establishment of this choice:



Swift’s concern for the state of the language, as he saw it, was so great that he published a serious proposal for establishing some sort of ’academy’ to regulate and maintain the standards of the English language, similar to the Academie Francaise which had been set up in 1634. The arguments used were similar to those he had expressed in The Tatler in 1710, but he also added the idea of ascertaining the language, fixing, making it certain, so that it would not be subject to future corruptions. Below are some facsimile extracts from his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue; in a Letter to the Most Honourable Robert, Earl of Oxford, and Mortimer, Lord High Treasurer of Great Britain, 1712:


Swift thought that the century from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 to the beginning of the Civil Wars in 1642 was a kind of ‘Golden Age’ of improvement in the language, although he also believed that it had not yet reached a state of perfection. This belief that languages could be improved and brought to a state of perfection was a commonly held one among Swift’s contemporaries, though it is not widely believed in our time. Confusion between language and language use caused one to be identified as synonymous with the other, so that a period of great writers is often referred to as a period of ‘greatness’ for the language. Swift identified and associated styles which he disliked with corruption of the English language.

Swift’s assertion of the concept that language need not be ‘perpetually changing’, and that ascertaining or fixing the English language was desirable was disputed by Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who published his Dictionary in 1755. He referred to Swift’s proposal in the preface to the dictionary, revealing himself to be sceptical of the possibility of success, although he shared his belief in the concept of perfection and corruption of language:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, will require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.

… tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration: we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.

Some writers of what has become known in Literature as The Augustan Age believed that a state of Classical perfection would be achieved some time in their forseeable future, but later eighteenth century grammarians placed it in the early and mid-eighteenth century language of writers like Addison, Steele, Pope and Swift himself. The period is known as the Augustan Age because it was compared with the period of the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD, when great Latin writers like Virgil, Horace and Ovid flourished. The language and literature of Classical Rome and Greece still formed the foundation of education in the nineteenth century. Writers in English copied the forms of Classical literature, like the epic, the ode and dramatic tragedy, while the Latin and Greek languages were models of perfection in their preserved, unchangeable state, to which it was hoped that English could aspire and attain. The influence and sound of Latin and Greek helps to Swift’s dislike of ‘Northern’ clusters of consonants.

Of course, the vernacular Latin language of the first century had continued to change, so that after several centuries its several dialects had evolved into French, Italian, Spanish and the Romance languages. But Classical Latin was fixed and ascertained, because its vocabulary and grammar were derived from the literature of its greatest literary period. This state seemed to scholars and writers to be in great contrast with contemporary English, and so, following Swift’s call, many of them sought to improve the written vernacular language. Somewhere, either in the past or the future, lay the perfect form of the English language.

In contrast to the second half of the seventeenth century, there were few references to the language of the ordinary people in the writings of the eighteenth century ‘grammarians’. Anselm Bayly wrote in 1772 that it was beneath a grammarian’s attempt to study colloquial English dialects. Neither were writers whom they admired necessarily taken as models of good English. Authors’ writings were subjected to detailed scrutiny for supposed errors. Grammarians sometimes spoke of the Genius of the Language or the Idiom of the Tongue as a criterion for judgement, the word ‘genius’ meaning sometimes ‘character’ or ‘spirit’, sometimes simply ‘grammar’. However, in practice, this latter concept meant no more than the intuition of the grammarian: what he felt sounded right, expressed in the Latin term Ipse dixit (he himself says). Sometimes this reliance on personal opinion was clearly stated, as in the following extract from Robert Baker’s 1770 Reflections on the English Language:

It will be easily discovered that I have paid no regard to authority. I have censured even our best penmen, where they have departed from what I conceive to be the idiom of the tongue, or where I have thought they violate grammar without necessity. To judge by the rule of ‘Ipse dixit’ is the way to perpetuate error…

… even by Swift, Temple, Addison and other writers of the highest reputation; some of them, indeed, with such a shameful impropriety as one must think must shock every English ear, and almost induce the reader to suppose the writers to be foreigners.

Their ‘crime’ was apparently the misuse of prepositions! Baker condemned Ipse dixit as used by these ‘best penmen’, but not when applied to himself. Appeals were often made to ‘Reason’ or ‘Analogy’, but grammarians were not always consistent in their arguments. They recognised that the evidence for the vocabulary and grammar of the language must be derived from what people actually wrote and spoke, which they sometimes referred to as ‘custom’. The one eighteenth century grammar book which had a particular influence on later grammars published for use in schools was Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762. Lowth’s attitude was ‘prescriptive’ – that is that he laid down what he considered to be correct usage, as illustrated by the following extract from his book:

Grammar is the Art of rightly expressing our thoughts by words, etc. … The principal design of a Grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that language, and to be able to judge every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not, etc …

The words ‘propriety’ and ‘rightly’ are important here because Lowth was not describing the language in its many varieties, but prescribing what ought to be written in a standard variety of English, and pointing out the ‘errors’ and ‘solecisms’ with examples from authors like Milton, Dryden and Pope. He described other varieties of usage only in order to condemn them. The following text, given in facsimile, is an extract from the preface to his work, typifies this particular attitude to language use. What people actually say or write, even though they may be socially of the same background, the ‘highest rank’ of eminent authors, is subject to Lowth’s prescriptive judgement. The second text below is an example of Lowth’s prescriptive method as stated in his book, in which he is stating the use of ‘will’ and ‘shall’, together with a short extract from his preface:

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Lowth’s book was intended for those who were already well-educated, as can be inferred from his preface in which he stated that… Grammatical Study of our own Language makes no part of the ordinary method of instruction which we pass thro’ in our childhood… His use of the first person plural implies that his readers, like him, would have studied Latin and Greek – the ancient… learned languages – at grammar school. This, however, did not provide them with knowledge of English grammar, even though they lived in a polite society and read English literature, an activity not followed by most of the population at that time. Lowth’s style of writing, like that of the other grammarians, was very ‘formal’; its vocabulary and structure were unlike that of everyday language. Below are two short contrasting examples of eighteenth century writing, the first from Thomas Hearne’s diary, Remarks and Collections (1715), and so in an informal prose style, and the second from a literary journal, The Rambler, written by Samuel Johnson in July, 1550. Literary prose adopted its own fashionable choices from the language at different periods, while ‘ordinary’ prose, in both speech and writing, continued generally unremarked upon:

MAY 28 (Sat.) This being the Duke of Brunswick, commonly called King George’s Birth-day, some of the bells were jambled in Oxford, by the care of some of the Whiggish, Fanatical Crew; but as I did not observe the Day in the least my self, so it was little taken notice of (unless by way of ridicule) by other honest People, who are for K. James IIId. Who is undoubted King of these Kingdoms,… ’tis heartily wish’d by them that he may be restored. (Thomas Hearne)

The advantages of mediocrity

Health and vigour, and a happy constitution of the corporeal frame, are of absolute necessity to the enjoyment of the comforts, and to the performance of the duties of life, and requisite in yet a greater measure to the accomplishment of any thing illustrious or distinguished; yet even these, if we can judge by their apparent consequences, are sometimes not very beneficial to those on whom they are most liberally bestowed…

The standard language recognised by the eighteenth century grammarians was that variety used by what Swift called the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation – polite in the sense of polished, refined, elegant, well-bred. By definition, the depraved language of the common people was, in every sense, viewed as inferior. George Campbell expressed this with great clarity when he wrote in his Philosophy of Rhetoric that:

No absolute monarch hath it more in his power to nobilitate a person of obscure birth than it is in the power of good use to ennoble words of low or dubious extraction; such, for instance, as have either arisen, nobody knows how, like ‘fib’, ‘banter’, ‘bigot’, ‘fop’, ‘flippant’ among the rabble, or ‘flimsy’, sprung from the cant of the manufacturers …


Samuel Johnson (above) was equally dismissive of common speech in the Preface to his Dictionary of 1755:

Nor are all words which are not found in the vocabulary, to be lamented as omissions. Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, the diction is in great measure casual and mutable; many of their terms are formed for some temporary or local convenience, and though current at certain times and places, are in others utterly unknown. This fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.

These comments clearly show that the divisions in eighteenth century society were marked as much by language as by birth, rank, wealth and education. If the language of the common people was regarded as inferior by the educated upper classes, so too were their ideas and thoughts equally devalued. Language was regarded as ‘the dress of thought’ or, using another common metaphor, ‘the mirror of thought’. It was believed that there was a direct correlation between good language and good thinking. On the one hand was the dominant social class, the Gentry, whose language and way of life were variously described as polite, civilised, elegant, noble, refined, tasteful and pure. On the other hand were the laborious and mercantile part of the people, shopkeepers and hackney-coachmen, the rabble, whose language was vulgar, barbarous, contemptible, low, degenerate, profane, mean, abject and depraved.

This view was reinforced by a theory of language that was called Universal Grammar, the belief in a direct connection between language and the mind, or soul, and in the superior value of abstract thought over the senses. For students of language today, the differences between Standard English and regional dialects are viewed as linguistically superficial and unimportant. The same meanings can be conveyed as easily in one as in the other, although we cannot, in everyday life, ignore the social connotations of regional and non-standard speech, which are still very powerful in conveying and maintaining attitudes. However, in the eighteenth century, the linguistic differences between refined and common speech were held to match fundamental differences in both intellect and morality. The gulf between the two was reinforced by the fact that education was in the learned languages, Latin and Greek. The classical Greek language and literature were judged to be the most ‘perfect’.

As it was believed that the contrasts between the refined language of the classically educated class and the vulgar language of the common people mirrored equal differences in intellectual capabilities, and also in virtue and morality, such beliefs had social and political consequences. These can be demonstrated by the fact that, during the long years of warfare with France (1793-1815), there was marked political oppression of popular movements for reform, and ideas about language were used to protect the government from criticism. For example, the notion of vulgarity of language was used to dismiss a series of petitions before Parliament calling for reform of the voting system. If the language of the labouring classes was, by definition, inferior, incapable of expressing coherent thought and of dubious moral value, then it was impossible for them to use language properly in order to argue their own case:

Liberty of speech and freedom of discussion in this House form an essential part of the constitution; but it is necessary that persons coming forward as petitioners, should address the House in decent and respectful language.

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 779)

The following extract from a 1793 Petition to Parliament from Sheffield shows that while the spelling and grammar were perfectly correct, the Members of Parliament may have considered its style and tone as indecent and disrespectful:

Your petitioners are lovers of peace, of liberty, and justice. They are in general tradesmen and artificers, unpossessed of freehold land, and consequently have no voice in choosing members to sit in parliament; – but though they may not be freeholders, they are men, and do not think themselves fairly used in being excluded the rights of citizens…

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 776)

To the modern reader, this would appear to be not only accurate but also appropriate in its use of English. Indeed, one contemporary commented that he suspected that the objection to the roughness of the language was not the real cause why this Petition was opposed. To gain an idea of the relative ’roughness’ of working-class language from the time, we should contrast the above with the following anonymous protest letter against the closure of common land, from the Combin’d Parish of Cheshunt… to Oliver Cromwell Esquire (the pseudonym for their local landlord)… 27 February 1799. It uses non-standard spelling, punctuation and grammar, which would have provided Parliament with an excuse for its dismissal, had it come before them.

We right these lines to you… in the Defence of our Parrish rights which you unlawfully are about to disinherit us of… Resolutions is maid of by the aforesaid Combind that if you intend of inclosing Our Commond Commond fields Lammas Meads Marches &c Whe Resolve before that bloudy and unlawful act is finished to have your hearts bloud if you proceede in the aforesaid bloudy act Whe like horse leaches will cry give, give until whe have split the bloud of every one that wishes to rob the Inosent unborn. It shall not be in your power to to say I am safe from the hands of my Enemy for Whe like birds of pray will prively lie in wait to spil the abode are as putrified sores in our Nostrils. Whe declair that thou shall not say I am safe when thou goest to thy bed for beware that thou liftest not thine eyes up in the most mist of flames…

(Quoted in E. P. Thompson (1963), The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 240.)

It sets the tone for the letters of the later Luddite, Swing and Rebecca rioters. At the same time, writers such as Tom Paine, in his The Rights of Man (1792) and The Age of Reason (1794) and William Cobbett (1763-1835), were able to demonstrate that men of humble origins could also argue effectively in Standard English. From 1785 to 1791, Cobbett, a farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, served in a regiment of foot in Canada, leaving the army when he failed to bring some officers to trial for embezzlement. Although receiving an elementary education as a young man, he had little knowledge of ’grammar’. However, his ability to write in a fair hand procured him the role of ’copyist’ to the regimental Colonel and commandant of the garrison:

Being totally ignorant of the rules of grammar, I necessarily made many mistakes in copying, because no one can copy letter by letter, nor even word by word. The colonel saw my deficiency, and strongly recommended study… with a promise of reward in case of success.

I procured me a Lowth’s grammar, and applied myself to the study of it with unceasing assiduity, and not without some profit: for, though it was a considerable time before I fully comprehended all that I read, still I read and studied with such unremitted study that, at last, I could write without falling into any gross errors. The pains I took cannot be described: I wrote the whole grammar out two or threetimes; I got it by heart; I repeated it every morning and every evening, and… I imposed on myself the task of saying it all over once every time I was posted sentinel. To this exercise of my memory I ascribe the retentiveness of which I have since found it capable, and to the success with which it was attended… that has led to the acquirement of that little learning of which I am the master.

(The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, 1796)

Cobbett was convinced that without this ability to master standard grammar, no young man of humble origins could ever hope to aspire to anything beyond mere trade or agriculture. Without grammatical knowledge, it was impossible to learn to write properly, and the ability to speak correctly would be a matter of chance. All well-informed persons, he wrote, would judge a man’s mind according to the correctness of his speaking and writing, at least until they had other means of judging. He followed up his conviction in this by writing a grammar book which took the form of a number of letters addressed to his son.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. 

Basingstoke: Macmillan. 

Denis Healey   Leave a comment

Originally posted on Nick Baines's Blog:

Denis Healey is dead at 98. He was the best leader Labour never had. He was also the last of a generation of politicians who had a hinterland to their political life.

The best (and the first) political autobiography I ever read was Healey’s The Time of My Life. In it he prophesies against the trend for career politicians who had never done anything else. He also claimed that politicians who had no experience of war were more likely to send the country into war than those who had endured its realities. Healey had fought – latterly at Anzio – and knew its cost.

He was right. Politicians with amnesia or no cultural/historical hinterland are dangerous. Speaking with very bright Germans in Liverpool today (I am chairing the Meissen Commission), it is worrying that the intellectual and cultural insularity of so much UK politics makes our political discourse so…

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Posted October 4, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

Harvest Home Revisited – How did it become a Church festival?   Leave a comment


Above: Old methods still in use in Warwickshire (near Coventry) in 1933

This weekend, churches everywhere are celebrating the Harvest  – but strange as it may seem, the Harvest Festival as we know it is a tradition that’s less than two hundred years old, and was invented by a local vicar in the tiny (but beautiful) North Cornish Parish of Morwenstow.

Mechanisation has undoubtedly taken most of the romance out of the harvest season, but it was not so long ago that the last loaded wagons drawn by a team of horses, with garlands, ribbons and flowers, rolled back to the farm to begin the Harvest Home, with good food, dancing, singing and general merriment. As the last wagon rolled to a halt a young reaper would shout:

We have ploughed, we have sowed,

We have reaped, we have mowed,

We have brought home every load,

Hip Hip Hip – Harvest Home!

Then the cakes and beer came out and – on with the dance. For this evening, master, rector and labourer sat down with no distinction between them, and there would be visitors from other farms, since the farmers pooled their labour at this time. Much of this disappeared with the replacement of the horse by the tractor, yet such is the sense of heritage and tradition that Harvest Home continues to be linked with Harvest Thanksgiving in parish churches throughout England and Wales.

The Church had for hundreds of years taken an interest in the Harvest customs. A peal of bells from the tower would greet the harvest, wheat and other produce had been blessed in the church and even the corn dolly was allowed to grace the church door, although it was soon transformed into a cross. The Sixteenth Century Reformation discouraged this, but in 1843 the vicar of Morwenstow issued a notice inviting parishioners to receive the Sacrament in bread of the new corn. This morning’s Harvest Thanksgiving service broadcast on BBC Radio Four came from Wallingford in rural south Oxfordshire, and recalled this event:


The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker was a somewhat eccentric man. He was not what you might call a conventional priest, refusing to wear clerical black, instead wearing a purple three-quarter length coat, and underneath the coat a thick fisherman’s jersey, to show people that, like Jesus, he was a ‘fisher of men’. On top of this he wore long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and apparently kept a pig as a pet.

Hawker became famous for giving Christian burials to shipwrecked mariners washed up on the shores of the parish, and was often the first to reach the cliffs when there was a shipwreck.

In 1843 he began a tradition which lives to this day. One September day, he nailed up, in the church porch, an open invitation to his parishioners…

“Let us gather together in the chancel of our church…and there receive in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls.” 

A few days later, on 1st October, the first Harvest festival took place, during which bread made from the first cut of corn was taken at communion. From these humble beginnings, Harvest festivals are now celebrated in churches throughout the world.

For many years, Thanksgiving became an ‘Evensong’ service in parish churches, but the was suitably decorated all day long with all God’s gifts around us, as the popular hymn, We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land… has it. The Harvest Festival is still one of the best-attended services in churches of all denominations throughout Britain, especially popular with children and families, with the ‘gifts’ presented and displayed often then given to local charities. In recent decades, the other ‘harvests’ of the sea, mining and manufacturing have also been recognised, especially in coastal and urban districts.


Posted October 4, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice   Leave a comment

Originally posted on hungarywolf:

Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice

Why do schools generally start back a week later, after the summer break,  in Britain, compared with Europe and the USA?

English: Corn dolly corn maiden English: Corn dolly corn maiden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This has to do the grain and hop harvest in Britain which isn’t finished until the end of the first week in September. When compulsory elementary education was introduced to the age of thirteen or fourteen just before the First World War, harvesting the new grain was still very labour-intensive. Although threshing had been mechanised in the 1830s, the crops were still mainly cut by hand well into the twentieth century, so ’all hands’, including those of children of all ages, were required to cut the corn and gather it in quickly, especially if the weather was changeable and showery. Even after Britain became a largely urbanised country…

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Posted October 4, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

Raise the song of harvest-home!   Leave a comment

Originally posted on hungarywolf:

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My last blog was about the secular folklore of harvest. For me, as for many Christians, harvest festivals are not primarily about these ancient country customs, but about giving praise for our gifts from God. One hymn which appears in almost every hymnbook is Come Ye Thankful People, Come. It’s probably the most popular hymn with congregations, though We Plough the Fields and Scatter is perhaps best known for most people in Britain, from their schooldays singing in assemblies.

English: Henry Alford (1810-1871) English: Henry Alford (1810-1871) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Henry Alford (1810-1871), who wrote the words above, was born in Bloomsbury, London, the son of an Anglican clergyman and himself became Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained till his death. A Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, he was a distinguished scholar and wrote many books, including a commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he…

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Posted October 4, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History   Leave a comment

Originally posted on Imperial & Global Forum:

Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Photo by Lee Miller. Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Photo by Lee Miller. Featured in the Guardian.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the ambiguous legacy of Free Trade England to the long fight for Swiss suffrage, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

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Posted October 3, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

From Berlin to Baghdad: Autumn 1990   Leave a comment

3 October 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany…

In the early summer of 1990, the conditions to be attached to German reunification were hammered out. The Soviet Union failed to secure a transitional period  in which the military forces in East Germany retained “associated membership” in the Warsaw Pact, an obvious nonsense, or an agreement on a hard-line plan whereby for three to five years the other powers would oversee Germany’s conduct. In London in early July, a NATO summit made a declaration of non-aggression with the Warsaw Pact nations. That helped the cause of German reunification, and Germany, meanwhile, helped itself by confirming its borders with Poland, promising to limit the future size of a German army, agreeing not to station nuclear weapons in East Germany and offering to pay the costs of removing half a million Soviet troops from the former DDR and resettling them in Russia. Kohl and Genscher went to Moscow together, and at a press conference on 16 July, Gorbachev declared, “whether we like it or not, the time will come when a united Germany will be in NATO, if that is its choice. Then, if that is its choice, to some degree and in some form, Germany can work together with the Soviet Union.”


Above: West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (second from right), with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.

This extraordinary statement was, as Chancellor Kohl put it, “a breakthrough, a fantastic result.” A fortnight earlier, at the Twenty-eighth Party Congress, Gorbachev had been ferociously attacked by party hard-liners for letting the Baltics go, for weakening the Warsaw Pact, and for undermining the ideological foundations of  the Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party. He was, nevertheless, re-elected its general secretary, and continued to commit the Soviet Union to uprooting the cornerstone of its security policy since the end of the Second World War. On 3 October, East and West Germany were joined; Germany was reunited.  The crowds and flags in the pictures below show that this was a popular political reunification, at first, within the European Union. The security and economic issues would be addressed later.


Above: Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, 3 October 1990. Crowds celebrate as Germany is re-united.


Some historians say the Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall came down in October 1989: others say it was when the Soviet Union publicly reconciled itself to seeing a reunited Germany, whose invasion and defeat in 1941-45  had cost the Union more than twenty million dead, in military alliance with the West. Since Germany had always been at the epicentre of the Cold War in Europe, Gorbachev’s statement in Moscow on 16 July has a strong claim to be considered the decisive moment of the Cold War’s ending. However, there was still much unfinished business, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 marked the beginning of what has become known by historians as the ‘Second Cold War’, so too the summer of 1990 also marked the beginning of two conflicts which still remain to be resolved, one in the Persian Gulf and the other in what, then, was still part of the USSR, in the Ukraine.

Gorbachev had, almost immediately, to cope with two desperately difficult tasks at home, in what was still, just, the USSR. He was trying, as fast as he could, to reform an economy and system of government that had become a way of life. Just the prospect of radical economic restructuring threatened social chaos and caused immediate fear and distress. To go from a command economy, where everyone did as they were told by the centre, to one that operated without central planning and control, leaving prices to market forces, was to travel a pathless route into unknown territory. Not many wanted to go that way, and the few who did had no route map by which to arrive at a clear destination.

On 20 July a “five hundred day” economic programme to move the USSR towards a market economy was published. It proposed the sale of large numbers of state enterprises, the dissolution of state collective farms, currency reform and new banking system. But Gorbachev’s nerve failed him, and the reforms were not introduced. Uncertainty was only making matters worse, and the Bush administration steadfastly refused to provide aid to fund the programme up front, saying that it would only give it as a reward for implementing reform, not as an inducement. Moreover, concerned that Gorbachev might be deposed, the US continued to maintain a state of full military preparedness.


Above: Ukrainians protest at continued Soviet domination.

At the same time Gorbachev was also trying, against all the odds, to hold the Union together, when it seemed that every single member state, in turn, was seeking independence. On the very same day that he was declaring German reunification and NATO membership a foregone conclusion, the Ukraine declared its sovereignty, followed by Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Tadzhikistan in August, and Kazakhstan and Kirghizia in October. In October, too, both Russia and the Ukraine declared their state laws sovereign over Union laws.  The Supreme Soviet declared this invalid in November. Gorbachev proposed to set up a new central government that would have in it representatives from the fifteen Soviet republic. By the end of November, he proposed a new Union Treaty: a Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics, with loosened ties between each republic and the central Soviet government. In other crucial matters the Supreme Soviet had taken giant strides; on 1 October it passed a law guaranteeing freedom of worship and on 9 October legislation was brought in to set up a multiparty system.  The media too were freed from state control.

While Gorbachev was dealing with these ‘domestic’ issues, the superpowers’ commitment to peaceful collaboration was severely tested by events in the Persian Gulf region. On 2 August the army of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s brutal Baathist dictator had overrun neighbouring Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran, and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Several thousand Russians worked in the country. The invasion and annexation of Kuwait had taken the Kremlin, the White House and the world by surprise. On 2 August, BBC journalist John Simpson, who had been eye-witness to most of the tumultuous events of 1989-90, was on holiday in southern France. Within three hours of hearing on the radio that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, he was on a plane back to London. Not for another six months was he able to take another day off.


Above: August, 1990. The Iraqi army, on the orders of Saddam Hussein, invades and annexes Kuwait.

James Baker and Eduard Schevardnadze, who had been meeting in Irkutsk, had flown to Moscow. Baker had been anxious to ensure that the Soviet Union would stand with the United States in its condemnation of the invasion and support whatever action it eventually would take against it. Although Iraq had long been an ally of the Soviet Union, and the initial reactions of Gorbachev and some of his colleagues against an alliance, Shevardnadze stood with Baker at Vnukovo Airport the next day. Together they told the press that the two great powers were “jointly calling upon the rest of the international community to join with us in an international cut-off of all arms supplies to Iraq.” Superpower confrontation had become co-operation. For James Baker, this was the Cold War’s ending: for others it was the first joint act of security policy in the post-Cold War world.

By the end of August, the United States had begun to despatch land, sea, and air forces to Saudi Arabia in Operation Desert Shield, to discourage Iraq from a further invasion. The UN Security Council voted the first of a dozen resolutions demanding Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. However, by the end of the year, Shevadnadze had personally paid the price for the USSR’s concessions in Eastern Europe and on Germany, and support for the United States in the Persian Gulf. He had been offered up as a scapegoat by Gorbachev to the conservatives. Knowing that he was about to be kicked upstairs as vice president, he resigned and returned to his native Georgia.

In September 1990, John Simpson returned to Britain from Baghdad for a short break, if not a holiday. The first poster he saw was ‘Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam’. “Some of us”, he thought, “have been writing and broadcasting about the unpleasantness of Saddam Hussein’s regime for years, while the British government regarded Iraq as a good customer for weaponry of all kinds.” He went back to Baghdad after about a week and was there until November 1990. He commented:

Iraq seemed to me like a hijacked plane, being flown to an unknown destination. A man whom scarcely anyone wanted as their president was holding a gun to the pilot’s head, and the passengers and the rest of the crew were terrified to say a word or stop him. The fact that British industry, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the British government, had supplied the hijacker with his gun and the bullets for it made it all the worse. 

In November (19-21), NATO and Warsaw Pact leaders met in Paris to sign a historic treaty setting reduced levels of conventional forces in the whole of Europe (CFE) from the Atlantic to the Urals. Disarmament was no longer simply about the ‘superpowers’ controlling the numbers of nuclear warheads. Negotiations had become multi-lateral and multi-faceted.


Following a visit to Brussels by Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky at the end of June (see picture above), on 16 July, József Antall had become the first Prime Minister of a Warsaw Pact country, Hungary, to meet with the Secretary-General of NATO. He met Manfred Wörner at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. From that point on, the Hungarian Ambassador in Brussels maintained permanent contact with NATO’s relevant authorities. As democratic reform began to take hold in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe, the United States and other Western Countries agreed to help with the tremendous financial burden of restructuring the former ‘satellite’ countries and preparing them for global integration. In October 1990, Prime Minister Antall made an official working visit to Washington, during which President Bush noted the resumption of American business investment in Hungary. He asked Congress for 300 million dollars in economic aid for Eastern Europe. He also asked the IMF to extend five billion dollars in loans to Eastern European countries to compensate them for increased oil prices following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush also announced the end of travel restrictions on Hungarian diplomats in the US, and that a Hungarian Consulate General would be opened in Los Angeles.

It was against this background that, in Paris, the sixteen member states of NATO and the six member states of the Warsaw Pact countries published a Joint Declaration on non-aggression in which they stated that they no longer considered themselves as enemies. This was immediately followed by a visit by the Secretary-General to Hungary where he held talks with President Árpád Gönz, PM József Antall and members of the government. Wörner also gave a presentation to the Foreign Relations Committee and the Defence Committee of the Hungarian National Assembly. By the end of November, Hungary had been accorded the status of associate delegation by the North Atlantic Assembly (NATO’s ‘Parliament’, meeting in London), together with other Central European countries.

On the same day, 29 November, the United Nations passed Security Resolution 678, authorising the use of force in the Gulf if Iraq was not out of Kuwait by 15 January 1991. As the Cold War ended with the former ‘satellite’ states freely placing themselves under the NATO umbrella, the conflict in the Middle East was about to go up in flames, quite literally. Together with the break-up of the Russian sphere of influence and the Balkan wars, this was to dominate the next generation of international relations.


Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War.  London: Transworld Publishers.

Rudof Joó (ed.) (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


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