In Memoriam: Professor Robert Allan Spencer

September 2, 2022 by Margaret MacMillan

Professor emeritus Robert Allan Spencer (b. 1920) passed away in Ottawa on August 28, 2022. Professor Spencer was a stalwart and devoted member of the History Department for many years. He joined it in 1950 when it was still in the old Flavelle House, now much altered as the Faculty of Law. While he welcomed the growth of the Department he never came to like Sidney Smith. He told his tutorial students—in those days tenured faculty held tutorials for their undergraduate students in their offices—that every time he heard the fire sirens on St George Street he hoped they were coming to Sidney Smith. He reassured us that he had worked out what to do. Selected books would go out the window first, then our essays, and finally, when the pile looked big enough, us.

Bob—as some of us learned to call him when we grew older—was born just after the First World War and served in the Second. One of my fondest memories is seeing him sitting with the handful of remaining veterans at the 75th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landings in 2019. He marched down to the beach looking much younger than his ninety-nine years. As an artillery officer in the Canadian Army serving in the 15th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery he survived some of the toughest battles in the latter stages of the war, landing in Normandy in late July 1944 and taking part in the ferocious battles around Caen. His regiment fought on into Belgium and the Netherlands and in 1945 was part of the Allied forces invading Germany. Spencer stayed on after the war as part of the occupying troops and became fluent in German as well as deepening his growing interest in German and European history of the 19th and 20th centuries.

He had just finished his B.A. at McGill in 1941 when he became a soldier. Perhaps he discovered his vocation as an historian at the end of the war when he was tasked with writing the history of his regiment’s service. While most units produced dry, factual and short accounts, Spencer’s draft was some 300 pages long complete with maps. It became his first publication when it was published in Amsterdam. “A book of good quality,” said a reviewer in the Canadian Historical Review, “with excellent features.” Spencer was later to work with the noted historian of war, Charles Stacey, on the official history of the Canadian army in the Second World War.

Spencer completed his professional training with an M.A. at the University of Toronto in 1957 and a doctorate at St John’s College in Oxford. As a member of the History Department he was an energetic colleague, taking on a number of administrative duties. In 1976 he became director of the Centre for International Studies at Trinity College and in his tenure, which lasted until 1986, helped to build it into a centre of research, discussion and teaching. He was a devoted teacher who supported his students fully, encouraging those who were interested to go on to do graduate work. While much of his research and teaching focussed on Germany he also had an abiding interest in NATO and Canadian foreign policy. His publications include Canada in World Affairs: from UN to NATO, 1946-49 (1959), Canada and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (1984) and Perceptions of the Federal Republic of Germany (1986). In 2010 he published A European Affair: Memoirs. With his fellow German historian Ralph Flenley he wrote Triumph and catastrophe, 1939-1945 and The German phoenix, 1945-1963, and in 1968 he brought out a new edition of Flenley’s Modern Germany, for a number of years a standard text, adding chapters on the war and the post-war years up to the 1960s.

From 1959 to 1984 he was editor of the International Journal. In addition he was a founding member of and long-time participant in a variety of capacities from Secretary to President in the Atlantic Council of Canada, one of a number of such organizations devoted to fostering better public understanding and knowledge of NATO, and played an active part in developing the Atlantic Brücke, an annual Canadian-German symposium. Among his awards were the Canadian Forces Decoration, the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal, the Netherlands’ Liberation Medal, the French Legion d’Honneur and Germany’s the Goethe Medal and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit. He was also made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

In 2016, a number of history graduates from the University who were celebrating their 50th anniversary decided to have a special history dinner. We invited our remaining professors, several of whom came, and we finally had the chance to tell them what we should have said years ago, a thanks for the excellent education they gave us. Among them were John Cairns, also recently deceased, and Bob Spencer, who had travelled by bus from Ottawa and intended to go back the same way. He seemed indestructible and indefatigable and very nearly was. He will be much missed at the end of a remarkably long, busy and productive life.