E.J. Hobsbawm: The New Threat to History

The following lecture was given in 1993 at the beginning of the academic year at the Central European University which just moved to Budapest then:

"It is an honor to be asked to open this academic year of the Central European University. It is also a curious sensation to do so, since, though I am a second-generation English-born British citizen, I am also a Central European. Indeed, as a Jew, I am a characteristic member of the Central European diaspora of peoples. My grandfather came to London from Warsaw. My mother was Viennese, and so is my wife, though she now speaks better Italian than German. My wife’s mother still spoke Hungarian as a little girl and her parents, at one stage of their lives in the old monarchy, had a store in Herzegovina. My wife and I once went to Mostar to trace it, in the days when there was still peace in that unhappy part of the Balkans. I have had some connections with Hungarian historians myself in the old days. So I come to you as an outsider who is also, in an oblique way, an insider. What can I say to you?

I want to say three things.

The first concerns Central and Eastern Europe. If you come from there, and I assume that almost all of you do, you are citizens of countries whose status is doubly uncertain. I am not claiming that uncertainty is a monopoly of Central and East Europeans. It is probably more universal today than ever. Nevertheless, your horizon is particularly cloudy. In my own lifetime every country in your part of Europe has been overrun by war, conquered, occupied, liberated, and reoccupied. Every state in it has a different shape from the one it had when I was born. Only six of the twenty-three states which now fill the map between Trieste and the Urals were in existence at the time of my birth, or would have been if they had not been occupied by some army: Russia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, for neither post-1918 Austria nor post-1918 Hungary is really comparable to Habsburg Hungary and Cisleithania. Several came into existence after World War I, others since 1989. They include several countries which had never in history had the status of independent state-hood in the modern sense, or which had it briefly—for a year or two, for a decade or two—and then lost it though some have since regained it: the three little Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, not to go further eastward. Some were born and died in my lifetime, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

It is perfectly common for the elderly inhabitant of some central European city to have had the identity documents of three successive states. A person of my age from Lemberg or Czernowitz has lived under four states, not counting wartime occupations; a man from Munkacs may well have lived under five, if we count the momentary autonomy of Podkarpatska Rus in 1938. In more civilized times, as in 1919, he or she might have been given the option of which new citizenship to choose, but since the Second World War he or she has been more likely to be either forcibly expelled or forcibly integrated into the new state. Where does a Central and Eastern European belong? Who is he or she? The question has been a real one for great numbers of people, and it still is. In some countries it is a question of life and death, in almost all it affects and sometimes determines their legal status and life chances.

However, there is another and more collective uncertainty. Most of Central and Eastern Europe belong to that part of the world for which diplomats and United Nations experts since 1945 have tried to devise polite euphemisms: “underdeveloped” or “developing,” that is to say, relatively or absolutely poor and backward. In some respects there is no sharp line between the two Europes, but rather a slope to the east and to the west of what we might call the main mountain-range or crest of European economic and cultural dynamism, which ran from northern Italy across the Alps to northern France and the Low Countries, and was prolonged across the Channel into England. It can be traced in the medieval trade routes and the distribution map of Gothic architecture, as well as in the figures for the regional GDP within the European Community. In fact, today this region is still the backbone of the European Community.

However, insofar as there is a historical line separating “advanced” from “backward” Europe, it ran, roughly, through the middle of the Habsburg empire. I know that people are sensitive about these matters. Ljubljana thinks of itself as a great deal nearer the center of civilization than, say, Skopje, and Budapest than Belgrade, and the present government in Prague does not even wish to be called “Central-European” for fear of being contaminated by contact with the East. It insists that it belongs exclusively to the West. However, my point is that no country or region in Central and Eastern Europe thought of itself as being at that center. All looked somewhere else for a model of how really to be advanced and modern, even, I suspect, the educated middle class of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. They looked to Paris and London, just as the intellectuals of Belgrade and Elias Canetti’s Ruse in Bulgaria looked to Vienna. And this, although by most accepted standards the present Czech Republic and parts of the present Austria certainly formed part of the advanced industrial part of Europe, and culturally Vienna, Budapest, and Prague had no reason at all to feel inferior to anywhere else.

The history of backward countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the history of trying to catch up with the more advanced world by imitating it. The nineteenth-century Japanese took Europe as their model, the West Europeans after World War II imitated the American economy. The story of Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century is, broadly, that of trying to catch up by following several models one after the other and failing. After 1918, when most of the successor countries were new, the model was Western democracy and economic liberalism. President Wilson—is the main station in Prague named after him again?—was the region’s patron saint, except for the Bolsheviks who went their own way. (Actually, they too had foreign models: Rathenau and Henry Ford.) This did not work. The model broke down politically and economically in the 1920s and 1930s. The Great Depression eventually broke multinational democracy even in Czechoslovakia.

A number of these countries then briefly tried or flirted with the fascist model, which looked like the economic and political success story of the 1930s. (We are inclined to forget that Nazi Germany was remarkably successful in overcoming the Great Depression.) Integration in a Great-German economic system did not work either. Germany was defeated. After 1945 most of them chose, or found themselves being made to choose, the Bolshevik model, which was essentially a model for modernizing backward agrarian economies by planned industrial revolution. It was therefore never relevant to what is now the Czech Republic and to what was until 1989 the German Democratic Republic, but it was relevant to most of the region, including the USSR.

I do not have to tell you about the economic deficiencies and flaws of the system, which eventually led to its breakdown, and still less about the intolerable, the increasingly intolerable political systems it imposed on Central and Eastern Europe. Still less do I have to remind you of the incredible sufferings it imposed on the peoples of the former USSR, particularly in the iron age of Joseph Stalin. And yet I must say, although many of you will not welcome my saying so, that up to a point it worked better than anything since the breakup of the monarchies in 1918. For most of the common citizens of the more backward countries in the region—say Slovakia and much of the Balkan peninsula, it was probably the best period in their history. The system broke down because economically the system became increasingly rigid and unworkable, and especially because it proved virtually incapable of generating or making economic use of innovation, quite apart from stifling intellectual originality. Moreover, it became impossible to hide the fact from the local populations that other countries had made far more material progress than the socialist ones. If you prefer putting it another way, it broke down because ordinary citizens were indifferent or hostile, and because the regimes themselves had lost faith in what they were pretending to do. Still, however you look at it, it failed in the most spectacular manner between 1989 and 1991.

And now? There is another model which everyone rushes to follow, parliamentary democracy in politics and the extremes of free market capitalism in economics. In the present form it is not really a model, but chiefly a reaction against what has gone before. It may settle down to become something more workable—if it is allowed to settle down. However, even if it were to do so, in the light of history since 1918 there is not much likelihood that this region, possibly with marginal exceptions, will succeed in joining the club of the “really” advanced and up-to-date countries. The results of imitating President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher have proved disappointing even in countries which have not been laid waste in civil war, chaos, and anarchy. I should add that the results of following the Reagan-Thatcher model in the countries of its origin have not been brilliantly successful either, if you will permit a British understatement.

So, on the whole, the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe will go on living in countries disappointed in their past, probably largely disappointed with their present, and uncertain about their future. This is a very dangerous situation. People will look for someone to blame for their failures and insecurities. The movements and ideologies most likely to benefit from this mood are not, at least in this generation, those which want a return to some version of the days before 1989. They are more likely to be movements inspired by xenophobic nationalism and intolerance. The easiest thing is always to blame strangers.

This brings me to my second and main point, which is much more directly relevant to the work of a university. Or at least to that part of the work which concerns me as a historian and a university teacher. For history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented. Indeed, in the nature of things there is usually no entirely suitable past, because the phenomenon these ideologies claim to justify is not ancient or eternal but historically novel. This applies both to religious fundamentalism in its current versions—the Ayatollah Khomeini’s version of an Islamic state is no older than the early 1970s—and to contemporary nationalism. The past legitimizes. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn’t have much to show for itself. I recall seeing somewhere a study of the ancient civilization of the cities of the Indus Valley with the title 5000 Years of Pakistan. Pakistan was not even thought of before 1932–1933, when the name was invented by some student militants. It did not become a serious political aspiration until 1940. As a state it has existed only since 1947. There is no evidence of any more connection between the civilization of Mohenjo Daro and the current rulers of Islamabad than there is of a connection between the Trojan War and the government in Ankara, which is at present claiming the return, if only for first public exhibition, of Schliemann’s treasure of King Priam of Troy. But 5,000 years of Pakistan somehow sounds better than forty-six years of Pakistan.

In this situation historians find themselves in the unexpected role of political actors. I used to think that the profession of history, unlike that of, say, nuclear physics, could at least do no harm. Now I know it can. Our studies can turn into bomb factories like the workshops in which the IRA has learned to transform chemical fertilizer into an explosive. This state of affairs affects us in two ways. We have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticizing the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular.

I need say little about the first of these responsibilities. I would not have to say anything, but for two developments. One is the current fashion for novelists to base their plots on recorded reality rather than inventing them, thus fudging the border between historical fact and fiction. The other is the rise of “postmodernist” intellectual fashions in Western universities, particularly in departments of literature and anthropology, which imply that all “facts” claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions. In short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental. We cannot invent our facts. Either Elvis Presley is dead or he isn’t. The question can be answered unambiguously on the basis of evidence, insofar as reliable evidence is available, which is sometimes the case. Either the present Turkish government, which denies the attempted genocide of the Armenians in 1915, is right or it is not. Most of us would dismiss any denial of this massacre from serious historical discourse, although there is no equally unambiguous way to choose between different ways of interpreting the phenomenon or fitting it into the wider context of history. Recently Hindu zealots destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya, ostensibly on the grounds that the mosque had been imposed by the Muslim Moghul conqueror Babur on the Hindus in a particularly sacred location which marked the birthplace of the god Rama. My colleagues and friends in the Indian universities published a study showing a) that nobody until the nineteenth century had suggested that Ayodhya was the birthplace of Rama and b) that the mosque was almost certainly not built in the time of Babur. I wish I could say that this has had much effect on the rise of the Hindu party which provoked the incident, but at least they did their duty as historians, for the benefit of those who can read and are exposed to the propaganda of intolerance now and in the future. Let us do ours.

Few of the ideologies of intolerance are based on simple lies or fictions for which no evidence exists. After all, there was a battle of Kosovo in 1389; the Serb warriors and their allies were defeated by the Turks, and this did leave deep scars on the popular memory of the Serbs, although it does not follow that this justifies the oppression of the Albanians, who now form 90 percent of the region’s population, or the Serb claim that the land is essentially theirs. Denmark does not claim the large part of eastern England which was settled and ruled by Danes before the eleventh century, which continued to be known as the Danelaw and whose village names are still philologically Danish.

The most usual ideological abuse of history is based on anachronism rather than lies. Greek nationalism refuses Macedonia even the right to its name on the grounds that all Macedonia is essentially Greek and part of a Greek nation-state, presumably ever since the father of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, became the ruler of the Greek lands on the Balkan peninsula. Like everything about Macedonia, this is far from a purely academic matter, but it takes a lot of courage for a Greek intellectual to say that, historically speaking, it is nonsense. There was no Greek nationstate or any other single political entity for the Greeks in the fourth century BC; the Macedonian empire was nothing like the Greek or any other modern nation-state, and in any case it is highly probable that the ancient Greeks regarded the Macedonian rulers, as they did their later Roman rulers, as barbarians and not as Greeks, though they were doubtless too polite or cautious to say so.

Moreover, Macedonia is historically such an inextricable mixture of ethnicities—not for nothing has it given its name to French mixed fruit salads (macédoine)—that any attempt to identify it with a single nationality cannot be correct. In fairness, the extremes of emigrant Macedonian nationalism should also be dismissed for the same reason, as should all the publications in Croatia which somehow try to turn Zvonimir the Great into the ancestor of President Tudjman. But it is difficult to stand up against the inventors of a national schoolbook history, although some historians in Zagreb University, whom I am proud to count as friends, have the courage to do so.

These and many other attempts to replace history by myth and invention, are not merely bad intellectual jokes. After all, they can determine what goes into schoolbooks, as the Japanese authorities knew, when they insisted on a sanitized version of the Japanese war in China for use in Japanese classrooms. Myth and invention are essential to the politics of identity by which groups of people today, defining themselves by ethnicity, religion, or the past or present borders of states, try to find some certainty in an uncertain and shaking world by saying. “We are different from and better than the Others.” They are our concern in the universities because the people who formulate those myths and inventions are educated people: schoolteachers lay and clerical, professors (not many, I hope), journalists, TV and radio producers. Today most of them will have gone to some university. Make no mistake about it. History is not ancestral memory or collective tradition. It is what people learned from priests, schoolmasters, the writers of history books, and the compilers of magazine articles and TV programs. It is very important for historians to remember their responsibility, which is, above all, to stand aside from the passions of identity politics—even if they also feel them. After all, we are human beings too.

How serious an affair this may be is shown in a recent article by the Israeli writer Amos Elon about the way in which the genocide of the Jews by Hitler has been turned into a legitimizing myth for the existence of the state of Israel.* More than this: in the years of right-wing government it was turned into a sort of national ritual assertion of Israeli state identity and superiority and a central item of the official system of national beliefs, alongside God. Elon, who traces the evolution of this transformation of the concept of “the Holocaust” argues, following the recent minister of education of the new Israeli Labor government, that history must now be separated from national myth, ritual, and politics. As a non-Israeli, though a Jew, I express no views about this. However, as a historian I sadly note one observation by Elon. It is that the leading contributions to the scholarly historiography of the genocide, whether by Jews or non-Jews, were either not translated into Hebrew, like Hilberg’s great work, or were translated only with considerable delay, and then sometimes with editorial disclaimers. The serious historiography of the genocide has not made it any less of an unspeakable tragedy. It was merely at variance with the legitimizing myth.

Yet this very story gives us ground for hope. For here we have mythological or nationalist history being criticized from within. I note that the history of the establishment of Israel ceased to be written in Israel essentially as national propaganda or Zionist polemic about forty years after the state came into being. I have noticed the same in Irish history. About half a century after most of Ireland won its independence, Irish historians no longer wrote the history of their island in terms of the mythology of the national liberation movement. Irish history, both in the Republic and in the North, is producing brilliant work because it has succeeded in so liberating itself. This is still a matter that has political implications and risks. The history that is written today breaks with the old tradition which stretches from the Fenians to the IRA, still fighting in the name of the old myths with guns and bombs. But the fact that a new generation has grown up which can stand back from the passions of the great traumatic and formative moments of their countries’ history is a sign of hope for historians.

However, we cannot wait for the generations to pass. We must resist theformation of national, ethnic, and other myths, as they are being formed. It will not make us popular. Thomas Masaryk, founder of the Czechoslovak republic, was not popular when he entered politics as the man who proved, with regret but without hesitation, that the medieval manuscripts on which much of the Czech national myth was based were fakes. But it has to be done, and I hope those of you who are historians will do it.

That is all I wanted to say about the duty of historians. However, before I close, I want to remind you of one other thing. You, as students of this university, are privileged people. The odds are that, as alumni of a distinguished and prestigious institute you will, if you choose, have a good status in society, have better careers, and earn more than other people, though not so much as successful businessmen. What I want to remind you of is something I was told when I began to teach in a university. “The people for whom you are there” said my own teacher, “are not the brilliant students like yourself. They are the average students with boring minds who get uninteresting degrees in the lower range of the second class, and whose examination scripts all read the same. The first class people will look after themselves, though you will enjoy teaching them. The others are the ones who need you.”

That applies not only to the university but to the world. Governments, the economy, schools, everything in society, are not for the benefit of the privileged minorities. We can look after ourselves. It is for the benefit of the ordinary run of people, who are not particularly clever or interesting (unless, of course, we fall in love with one of them), not highly educated, not successful or destined for success, in fact, nothing very special. It is for the people who, throughout history, have entered history outside their neighborhoods as individuals only in the records of their births, marriages, and deaths. Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities. But the world is not made for our personal benefit, nor are we in the world for our personal benefit. A world that claims that this is its purpose is not a good world, and ought not to be a lasting one."

Copyright © 1993 E.J. Hobsbawm