Sir Peter Hall, diplomat who represented British interests during the break-up of Yugoslavia – obituary

Sir Peter Hall, then ambassador to Argentina, greeting Diana, Princess of Wales, in Buenos Aires, 1995
Sir Peter Hall, then ambassador to Argentina, greeting Diana, Princess of Wales, in Buenos Aires, 1995 - Eduardo Di Baia

Sir Peter Hall, who has died aged 85, served as ambassador in Belgrade during the early years of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

When he was appointed in November 1989, cracks were already beginning to show in the country’s federal structure. In January 1990, when the Slovenes and Croats walked out of the annual congress of the governing League of Communists, the cracks became a chasm.

In Hall’s view, blame for what happened in the 1990s had to be apportioned widely, though he singled out the German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher for particular criticism. Against the advice of the German ambassador in Belgrade, Genscher had been “almost fanatical in his support for an independent Croatia”, Germany having, as Hall put it, a “rather unappealing connection [with Croatia] from the Second World War”.

Although Hall regarded some sort of Croatian independence as inevitable, he believed that pressure should have been applied on Croatia to assuage the fears of the substantial Serbian minority. Instead, encouraged by Germany, “there was a sort of triumphalist new Croatia using the sort of chequerboard symbols that had been so popular there in the Second World War. Indeed, everything was done to make the Serbs in Croatia alarmed. They were a tough, gun-happy mob anyway, so the mixture was an extremely dangerous one.”

If Croatia was difficult, Bosnia, as Hall recalled in a 2002 interview with the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme, was “an absolute bonfire waiting to be lit”. It was a cauldron of ethnic hatred: Croatians, Muslims and Serbians all had “a well-justified loathing” of each other, and “with historical justification”.

Hall had frequent dealings with Slobodan Milosevic, whom he regarded as “evil”, but he felt the president of Serbia was less driven by virulent nationalism than by an addiction to power, which made him more open to reason than the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Slobodan Milosevic, pictured in 2000
Slobodan Milosevic, pictured in 2000 - SASA STANKOVIC

Asked whether he thought membership of the EU might eventually help the component parts of the former Yugoslavia to live together, Hall was not optimistic. “Slovenia will, I think, have no difficulty [and] will be, in economic terms, a sort of colony of Austria. Croatia will be largely dependent on Germany. [But] it’s very difficult to see Bosnia, Montenegro or Serbia ever functioning inside the EU.”

Peter Edward Hall was born on July 26 1938 in Peterborough to Bernard Hall, a bank manager, and Monica, née Blackbourn. He grew up near Spalding in Lincolnshire, then Portsmouth.

From Portsmouth Grammar School he won a scholarship to read modern and medieval languages at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

During his National Service before he went up, Hall took a Russian course at the Joint Services School for Linguists, and at Cambridge he continued with Russian – but “rather bizarrely”, he recalled, he chose Serbo-Croat as his second language.

Joining the diplomatic service after graduation in 1961, Hall had to mug up Polish in a few months for his first overseas posting, to Warsaw in 1963. A Pole told him: “You speak quite good Polish but you have got this dreadful Russian accent.” He found that this made him an immediate object of suspicion: “The loathing for anything to do with Russia was so marked and so strong.”

From 1966 to 1969 he was in Delhi, where he noticed that the chip on the shoulder that some Indian officials bore about the colonial past seemed to be deepest among the more Anglicised ones who wore Savile Row suits and sent their children to British public schools.

He greatly admired Britain’s High Commissioner, the former Labour MP John Freeman, whose no-nonsense approach was demonstrated in a terse telegram he sent to London after carrying out instructions to call on India’s prime minister Mrs Gandhi to argue against nuclear development in India on the grounds of non-proliferation: “I saw Mrs Gandhi this afternoon and spoke in accordance with instructions. Her manner was frosty and unhelpful throughout and I am convinced my representations will have no influence on Indian policy. Freeman.”

Peter Hall, left, in discussing the Falkland Islands question in Buenos Aires with economist Anna Szterenfeld and Argentine foreign minister Guido di Tella in 1996
Peter Hall, left, in discussing the Falkland Islands question in Buenos Aires with economist Anna Szterenfeld and Argentine foreign minister Guido di Tella in 1996 - Reuters

From 1969 to 1972, back in London, Hall was involved in Britain’s efforts to join the EEC, specialising in the agricultural aspects of the negotiations and relations with Australia and New Zealand. He particularly admired the New Zealand negotiators, who fought very hard for good terms for lamb and dairy products “and got them, to put it brutally, at our expense”. The Australians, by contrast “appeared not to wake up to the implications until a hopelessly late stage and then started to complain loudly and publicly with many references to Gallipoli”.

He admired Sir Geoffrey Rippon, who had the responsibility of negotiating Britain’s entry. Hall recalled how when he presented Rippon with draft minutes of meetings after Rippon had enjoyed “a pretty good lunch with a very large cigar”, Rippon would tell him: “I’m not sure that is precisely what I said, but it is certainly what I ought to have said.”

Yet Hall felt that France’s leader Charles de Gaulle had not been wildly wrong in claiming that “British history was not entirely or easily compatible with a European continental association.”

After a short posting in Venezuela, Hall spent five years (1978-83) with the British Information Services in New York and Washington, where he was involved, under Britain’s ambassador Sir Nico Henderson, in trying to get American public and political opinion on side during the Falklands War with Argentina.

Hall was concerned that Americans would regard the conflict as “a faintly ludicrous Gilbert and Sullivan cocked-hat thing”, but, he observed, Britain was lucky “because, putting it in very broad terms, the Left-leaning wing of US opinion, to the extent that there is such a thing... regarded the Galtieri regime as dreadful, jackbooted dictators, whereas the Right wing of American opinion regarded the conflict as a monstrous insult to their kith and kin in the UK.”

Back in Britain, Hall served as head of the Foreign Office’s research department then chief of assessments staff in the Cabinet Office before being posted as ambassador to Belgrade in 1989, following a sabbatical year at Stanford University.

His final posting, from 1993 to 1997, was as ambassador to Argentina, which, despite the rumbling Falklands issue, he found “enormously welcoming”.

Hall was appointed CMG in 1987 and KBE in 1993.

In 1972 he married Marnie Kay, and after his retirement they bought a house in France and went travelling. She survives him with a daughter.

Sir Peter Hall, born July 26 1938, died June 12 2024

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