David was born in the inter-war years in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1933. His father John Arthur Childs was a caretaker at Bolton Trustee Bank (TSB), who had volunteered in 1916 (The Great War), served with the Yeomanry, 1924-28, and later commanded No. 3 Company, the East Lancashire Boys’ Brigade. After serving as a special constable during the Second World War, John was elected councillor in 1946 and later Alderman. He served as Mayor of Bolton 1962-3. David’s mother, Ellen (née Haslam) was a cinema projectionist before marriage.
His aunt, Florrie Haslam, was a leading member of the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies‘ football team until the women’s game was effectively shut down by the Football Association in the early 1920s. She then had a successful career in nursing. He has one sister, Margaret, who became a secondary school teacher and still lives in Bolton with her husband, who was a senior lecturer in public health at Salford Technical College. David is married to Monire, a photographer, and has two sons who are also both married with children.
David was educated at Thornleigh Salesian College and the Wigan & District Mining & Technical College in Lancashire. He later progressed to and graduated from the London School of Economics in 1956 before spending a year at the University of Hamburg on a British Council Scholarship. He completed his PhD at the University of London in 1962 whilst working part-time as a journalist for Associated Television.
David’s anti-communist views had been developed by works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, as well as his early visits to Germany. The first was in 1951, to the communist-organised Festival of Youth & Students in East Berlin. He travelled again to East Berlin just after the rising of June 1953 when the Soviet Army was used to crush the workers’ revolt.
After completing his PhD, he turned to academic work and was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Nottingham in 1966. He was promoted to Senior Lecturer, and then Reader in 1976 before becoming a Professor a few years later. By this time, he was well known for his books on Germany and Britain, and for his book Marx and the Marxists – An Outline of Practice And Theory.
In 1983, David was appointed chairman of the Association for the Study of German Politics and conceived the idea for an Institute of German, Austrian and Swiss Affairs at the University of Nottingham, that focussed on politics and society rather than language and literature. It was founded in 1985 with the help of John H. Gunn, a City of London financier and graduate of the university and the Institute’s purpose-built centre was opened by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989. As its director from 1985–92, the Institute hosted numerous lectures and conferences with keynote speakers from across Europe talking on themes such as the Austrian Resistance to National Socialism, and Ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union.
David took early retirement from the University in 1994. He continued to serve as a member of the committee of the British-German Association until 1997.
The Fall of the GDR
With his years of study and numerous visits to the GDR and constant surveillance David had become an enemy of the state and as such the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, monitored his activities not only on visits to East Germany but also in the Britain and further afield, for example his appearance at a conference in Bradford in 1983 was meticulously documented in the Stasi archives. He was put on a Stasi Fahndung/Untersuchung (investigation) list and denounced in DDR publications as a ‘British Imperialist East researcher’.
David later discovered the file that the Stasi had on him, which covered a 10-year period, revealed that he had, in fact, been spied upon by two British spies, who were both British academics. It also revealed that he was regarded by the East German secret police as one of their most serious opponents in Britain, and shortly before the collapse of the GDR, he was to have be banned from travelling to the country.
David was one of the few who predicted the Fall of the Berlin Wall and of the East German Republic (1989), concluding after several visits that it was unsustainable. He made such a prediction at a conference at the University of Dundee in 1981. As Professor Marianne Howarth later found in the East German archives, a secret report on this had been duly sent back to East Berlin.
David delivered the same ‘Dundee’ analysis at the German Historical Institute in London, 24 November 1987, and elsewhere. He also predicted early German reunification and outlined a plan in an interview with Peter Johnson on the West German radio Deutschlandfunk in April 1988, but faced ridicule from other domestic and international academics and commentators.
When he later spoke at the ‘Pacific Workshop On German Affairs: The Two Germanies at Forty’ (Long Beach, California) about the likely collapse of the GDR, he was again met with strong opposition and derision. However, the organiser, Professor Christian Soe, invited him back, after German reunification, in 1991, writing,
‘We are happy that David Childs, who in April 1989 took a minority position in clearly diagnosing the moribund condition of the East German system, returns to give us a post mortem…’
In an article written the day before the opening of the Berlin Wall, and published in the Yorkshire Evening Post, 9 November 1989, David again predicted full German reunification and welcomed it. The following day The Guardian newspaper wrote, ‘It would mean that a dangerous situation in the heart of Europe has been liquidated…’