E.J. Hobsbawm: History and nationalism

Roundup: Talking About History

[Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm (born 1917) is a British historian and author. This is an excerpt from a paper given as a lecture opening the academic year 1993-4 at the Central European University in Budapest. It was addressed to a body of students essentially drawn from the formerly communist countries in Europe and the former USSR.]

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 that 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 legitimises. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn’t have much to celebrate. I recall seeing somewhere a study of the ancient civilisation of the cities of the Indus valley with the title Five Thousand Years of Pakistan. Pakistan was not even thought of before 1932-3, when the name was invented by some students. It did not become a serious political demand till 1940. As a state it has existed only since 1947. There is no evidence of any more connection between the civilisation 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 the 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 that 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 fertiliser into an explosive. This state of affairs affects us in two ways. We have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticising 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 anti-positivist 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 Aodhya, 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 Aodhya 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. ...

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Dale B. Light - 10/14/2007

What Hobsbawm fails to note is that Marxists, too, have constructed useful, if often fanciful, histories that support their ideological biases. The act of imagining a usable past is by no means confined to those on the political right.

Jason Blake Keuter - 10/14/2007

historians aren't as important as Hobswawm wishes...the kind of nonsensical nationalist jingoism he regards as historically inaccurate is, in fact, testimony to the irrelevance of historians. It is actually politicized historians - a contradiction in terms - who believe that something other than truth is at stake in the writing of history that end up corrupting it for the kind of ends Hobswawm criticizes in this piece. Of course, Hobswam himself is guilty of corrupting history, as he is a believer of internationalism, which truly has absolutely no historical precedent. Nationalism is at least connected to the tribal identities it attempts to supplant and therefore historically continuous and explicable. Further, it is not the uniform disaster that Hobswawm wants it to be; outside of the third world it is a potent force. Internationalist communism, on the other hand, has absolutely no historical precedent and thus has no role in informing historical inquiry.

Hobswawm's unstated lament is that he wishes idenities were formed on the basis of historical fact - in other words, scientific socialism which argues that anything other than communism is built upon a false consciousness, which is a by-product of intellectuals beholden to the dominant class that controls the economic base of the society.

Tiresome....and untrue...and he's right about the disasters that wrongheaded historians can create and the most recent spate of such disasters comes from his ideological compatriots - Marxists.