2003 Balzan Prize for European History since 1900
A Historical Retrospect – Bern, 07.11.2003
I have been a professional historian and university teacher of history for well over half a century, and indeed I have never earned my living in any other way. And yet, if I look back on my education, it was in no sense inevitable that I should have become a historian by profession. My original interests at school were literary. The conventional history teaching of a German Gymnasium in the early 1930s did not inspire me and, as I discovered subsequently, did not inspire the teacher of our class, a distinguished expert on the mystery cults of Eleusis and Samothrace. It was designed to instil into the minds of the pupils the names and dates of all the German emperors as well as of the battles of Frederick the Great. Had I concluded my education in a German secondary school, it is not very likely that I would have become a historian, if only because German historiography, however distinguished, was methodologically and also politically conservative. It was dominated by men – there were almost no women – who were more at ease with the memories of the Bismarckian empire than with the Weimar Republic, and many of whom, as we now know, adapted readily to Hitler’s Germany. Unlike the central european natural and social sciences, academic history in Germany and Austria was not decimated by National Socialism. Comparatively few persons formed as historians in that region emigrated. With the rarest exceptions, the younger emigrants who became historians, acquired their university training entirely outside central Europe, including myself.
Had I completed my secondary education in Germany, or anywhere on the European continent, I would almost certainly have passed through that essential phase of the continental intellectual’s formation, the philosophy class of the liceo or gymnasium and, very likely, in he first instance, have studied philosophy. But in England this was totally absent from the secondary school curriculum. Had I studied at the London School of Economics, and not won a scholarship to the ancient and – outside the natural sciences – strikingly traditionalist university of Cambridge, I might have been attracted by one of the social sciences – sociology or social anthropology perhaps – which hardly existed elsewhere in England at that time. But the ancient universities refused to accept the existence of sociology until well after World War II, and Cambridge regarded anthropology (which it bracketed with archaeology) as what was called “a soft option”, i.e. something that could be studied by students who had failed to make headway in their original subject. On the other hand history, though not very demanding intellectually, was regarded as an important part of the formation of the members of the ruling class of a country (England) with a uniquely long record as a unified state within its existing borders, and whose law and mode of government were officially supposed to be based on past precedent, and on continuity adjusted to change by the pragmatic modification of its institutions and political practices. It was not a special form of training for scholarly erudition and future archivists or schoolteachers, but a preparation for governing the affairs of country and empire, or at least for membership of the country’s literate middle and upper classes. In Cambridge it was the subject most likely to be studied by students without clear preferences, and lacking the special qualifications for a degree in classics and the special gifts (notably for mathematics) essential in the natural sciences.
As it happened I had historical interests, acquired (together with passionate political convictions) by a reading of the Communist Manifesto in Berlin shortly before Hitler’s accession to power. This was not provided for in the school programme, either in Berlin or at the grammar school in London to which I moved in 1933. However, my history master there, who had family connections with the pre-1914 generation of Fabian Socialist intellectuals and labour historians, was sufficiently impressed with one of my essays to show it to one of these seniors – was it Sidney or Beatrice Webb or R.H.Tawney? – who thought it promising. I have no intellectual obligation, but an enormous debt of gratitude to this able and devoted schoolmaster, the late Harold Llewellyn Smith, a loyal member of the Liberal Party whose views on history were conventional. Without his encouragement I would almost certainly neither have thought of entering the competitive examination for a Cambridge scholarship, nor could I have succeeded without his advice and assistance. His family and personal connections were later to allow me to practise what was not yet called ‘oral history’ by interviewing ancient survivors for my doctoral dissertation, on Fabianism and the Fabians 1884-1914.
Anyone who is attracted to history by the Communist Manifesto is likely to be interested, first and foremost, by the emergence of the modern world, what Marx called ‘modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society’, and the unprecedented and revolutionary process of globalisation and social transformation inherent to its development. Indeed, most of my writing as a professional historian was to be concerned with this process in one way or another, and specifically with the period since the political and industrial revolutions of the late eighteenth century. In the history faculty of Cambridge of the 1930s there was only one subject that seemed directly relevant to these problems, namely economic history. As it happened, this was also the only field, other than diplomatic and military history, which regarded contemporary phenomena as worthy of academically reputable enquiry. (Social history did not yet exist as a separate subject). Fortunately for young historians critical of the provincialism and the conventionalities of Cambridge history, it was then taught by M.M. (later Sir Michael) Postan, recently transferred from the London School of Economics to the Cambridge chair in Economic History. I cannot exactly say that he was my teacher or anyone’s teacher – he formed no school and had no disciples, not even in his special field of medieval English agrarian history – but his lectures, given in a heavy Russian accent, were inspiring and overflowing with intellectual stimulation. He was our bridge to the wider universe of history, and not only because, as editor of a leading international journal, he knew everyone in the field. Nobody else in Cambridge would have drawn our attention in 1936 to the youthful Annales d’histoire économique et sociale or would have invited Marc Bloch himself to lecture to us. He was the only historian in Cambridge who had been brought up on Marx, Weber, Sombart and the great central and east Europeans, who expounded and criticized their writings, and therefore introduced them to us. Though he rejected the political views of the young student radicals and Marxists who flocked to his lectures, we knew that we learned from him. And he in turn, though a strong anti-Communist, recognized that the radical young were on his side, as they were on Marc Bloch’s, in the fight against historical conservatism. He also invited the more promising undergraduates to his seminar.
Thanks to Postan, to the extraordinary wealth and accessibility of the Cambridge libraries, and to intensive discussions with other undergraduate and young research students, Cambridge was a good place for a first degree in history. On the other hand the University was poorly equipped to train future academic historians in any except the special fields of its resident teachers, and too convinced of its own superiority to allow its postgraduates to be supervised by anyone else. A travel grant, anti-imperialist convictions and friendship with what in those days were called ‘colonial students’ (mainly from Asia and the Middle East) had attracted me to the subject of ‘The agrarian problem in French North Africa’ on which I began to work after my first degree in 1939. The war made it impossible to pursue this field, or indeed any research for over five years – I do not know who would have supervised my dissertation in it – and in any case I abandoned it for personal reasons. The doctoral subject I chose instead was equally outside the Cambridge range and had to be inadequately supervised by Postan, for want of anyone actually qualified in the field. In any case it proved to be disappointing, although it brought me a doctorate. Perhaps the most useful by-product of this research was to plunge me into the first great generation of the scholars who studied the sociology of politics in the era of transition to electoral democracy, which coincided with the period of my thesis and in which some Fabian thinkers took a leading part. However, more directly, it brought me into contact with the writings of the early Fabians on the history of the British working-class movement, and in particular with the ‘Webb Collection’ in the London School of Economics library, the extraordinary wealth of material collected by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the 1890s in preparation for their pioneer books on the British trade union movement. I therefore shifted my interest from the political to the industrial side of the late 19th century labour movement, and found myself a ‘labour historian’. The subject, naturally associated with persons of leftwing opinions, developed rapidly, particularly after the establishment of a ‘Society for the Study of Labour History’ in 1960, in which I took part. This was the field in which I first began to publish in the historical journals, as well as acquiring a research fellowship at my old Cambridge college, King’s College (1949-55). In other respects my connexions with Cambridge University faded, since I had begun teaching full-time in London University in 1947.
Three things compensated for the defects of my formation as a historical post-graduate. First, as a young teacher in a small university department I had to teach, and therefore revise, learn and think about, a vast range of subjects and periods. That is how one was obliged to discover the great models of post-war historiography – Ernest Labrousse, through a stunning course on the French Revolution at the London School of Economics, Fernand Braudel through that historical earthquake, the newly-published La Méditerranée. This was also the time when I, like other British social historians, began to feel the impact of the debates within the then flourishing discipline of social anthropology. As it happens, working out lecture courses on European history was a good preparation for the books of general synthesis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries I was subsequently to write, and lecture courses were to prove a useful way of testing first drafts of later books.
Second, young historians starting their careers after 1945 benefitted intellectually both from the revival of international scholarly life and the (still) comparatively small size of the scholarly community. It was easy for a young historian to get to know almost everybody. In this respect the first two postwar International Congresses of the Historical Sciences (Paris 1950, Rome 1955) were particularly useful, as were the annual meetings of the Economic History Society, in which I was then active, to which (in Postan’s usual style) non-British historians were always invited. I found myself particularly stimulated by contact with the French historians round Fernand Braudel, but also with the very impressive group of Polish historians round Witold Kula.
The third was that probably unique British institution, the Communist Party Historians Group, for, so far as I am aware, no other political party in Europe possessed such a thing. From 1946 to 1956, its members, essentially graduates of the radical 1930s teaching in secondary schools, adult education and universities at the start of their postwar civilian careers, conducted a permanent seminar among themselves on questions of Marxist historical method and interpretation, originally stimulated by discussions on a major text written by the economist Maurice Dobb during the war, the Studies in the Development of Capitalism, which also led to a lively international debate on the transition from feudal to postfeudal societies in Europe. (I contributed some articles on the so-called ‘seventeenth century crisis’ to this, an uncharacteristic and controversial deviation from what was already becoming my chosen period, the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the 1780s to 1914.) The group also planned various projects to mobilize what we considered ‘progressive’ as against ‘reactionary’ forces in the field of historiography and the social sciences. The most successful of these was the foundation of a new historical journal, Past & Present, with which I have been associated since its foundation in 1952. After initial difficulties due to the Cold War, it was to establish itself as an influential voice in the international modernization of historiography in the 1950s and 1960s. In short, the Historians’ Group (which broke up after 1956 in the wake of the international crisis of Communist Parties) was an essential part of my formation as a historian.
In the course of these years I found myself discovering what I wanted to do as a historian. The fundamental theme had long been obvious: the world-transforming development of modern bourgeois-capitalist society, which had to be seen not as a continuous process but as a series of advances broken by periods of crises and restructurations, which I found particularly interesting. Yet I was concerned not so much with this process in itself, but with three of its implications. First, I was fascinated by the problems of synthesis. As I wrote later I wanted “to see the past as a coherent whole rather than (as historical specialization so often forces us to see it) as an assembly of separate topics: the history of different states, of politics, of the economy, of culture or whatever…I have always wanted to know how all these aspects of past (or present) life hang together, and why.” (The Age of Empire, Preface). Second, I was both intellectually critical of the history that focussed on the well-born, the powerful and prominent and emotionally drawn to the common people, whom it neglected. But third, and most immediately, I found myself fascinated by the essential predicament of human beings in periods of social upheaval: how, having been formed by one society’s past, to cope with the problems of living in another.
This accounts for the varied themes of my first books, published between 1959 and 1964. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th centuries (1959), was an exercise in the newly developing field of ‘history from below’ then being developed by a convergence of scholars from a variety of disciplines – from the study or religion and social anthropology to history, sociology, literature and folklore. It attempted to explore the social movements of men and women who “have not been born into the world of capitalism…They come into it as first-generation immigrants, or what is even more catastrophic, it comes to them from the outside, insidiously by the operation of economic forces which they do not understand and over which they have no control, or brazenly by conquest, revolutions and fundamental changes of the law whose consequences they may not understand even when they have helped to bring them about.” The book had some interdisciplinary repercussions and incidentally gave rise to a small but flourishing new field, the social history of banditry. At the same time another book addressed to a non-academic audience explored the connections between industrialization, urbanization, the economics of mass entertainment and an unprecedented cultural innovation: The Jazz Scene 1959)..
A collection of papers from those years published in 1964 as Labouring Men tried to go outside the borders of the straightforward chronological or narrative history of labour movements by concentrating on ‘the working class as such as distinct from their organizations and movements.’ It anticipated the 1960s’ ‘new wave’ of historical interest in classes, although it was more systematically international and comparative than most other studies in this genre. I am essentially drawn to comparative history. All these studies were latively limited in scope, but in the late 1950s an adventurous publisher, George (now Lord) Weidenfeld, offered me the chance for a more ambitious historical synthesis or what Fernand Braudel called ‘total history’. He commissioned a volume on European history from the French Revolution to 1848 as part of a gigantic, and still not entirely complete, internationally co-produced ‘History of Civilization.’ It was published in 1962 as The Age of Revolution 1789-1848. Neither I nor he at the time saw it as the first volume of a three-volume history of the ‘long nineteenth century’, but this is what it proved to be. The second volume was published fifteen years after the first as The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, the third ten years later as The Age of Empire, 1875-1914.
None of these historical projects had taken me far into the twentieth century, unless one counts my only peripherally academic writings on jazz. I became essentially a historian of the long nineteenth century’, and my work on the period since 1914 has only increased the attractiveness of the nineteenth century for me. Indeed, apart from some specialized writings on the history of the Communist movement, in the Einaudi Storia del Marxismo and elsewhere, I did not
concern myself academically with the twentieth century until after I retired from my chair in London in 1982, and even then primarily as an extension of my nineteenth century studies. In effect, I became a historian of the twentieth century in my seventies. My main work in this field, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 is not, strictly speaking, a history of Europe, but of the world. Since it deals with a period when the world ceased to be eurocentric, it is less concerned with the internal affairs of our continent than earlier volumes in the nineteenth century series. Nevertheless, it is the history of a world formed and transformed by European historical development. To this extent the history of Europe is still at the core of the twentieth century. And that history was still rooted in the nineteenth century. As I observed at the end of my nineteenth-century volumes, ‘today’s world as shaped by what we might call the historical landscape left behind by the Age of Empire (1875-1914) and its collapse (The Age of Empire 1875-1914 Epilogue).
I therefore saw twentieth century history as a logical and necessary consequence of nineteenth century development, exaggerating both its continuities and in its discontinuities. The discontinuities are the more obvious. From 1914 (and in certain cultural fields even earlier) until the middle of the century it was dominated by what I called ‘the Age of Catastrophe’, the collapse of what Marx in 1848 had called the ‘epoch of the bourgeoisie’ into global wars fuelled by secular ideologies, revolution, international and internal instability and barbarisation. Even the historical motor driving the world into an era of globalisation, the capitalist economy, seemed for a moment to break down, not least in what was already its dominant country, the USA. I came to see the Soviet revolution of 1917 and the subsequent history of the USSR as a by-product of this collapse, rather than as an answer to it, but nevertheless as politically central to it in three ways. It was an essential element in the ‘temporary and bizarre alliance’ against the forces led by Nazi Germany which forms ‘the hinge of the twentieth century and its decisive moment. Fear of communism provided the motivation – paradoxically – for capitalism to discover an effective way to recover both prosperity and social stability after 1945; and the impact of the communist-governed part of the globe was to be a major force in the emancipation of the colonial and dependent world, and therefore in the contemporary rise of the Asian economies.
My work has not succeeded in explaining the most obscure problem of the twentieth century, the extraordinary acceleration of economic growth and techno-scientific transformation after the end of the Age of Catastrophe. However, I think it has contributed to recognizing the sheer speed and scale of this process, and the fundamental historical rupture it represents, not least the rupture of the tissue of human memories and inter-generational continuity. Since c. 1950 we have lived through the end of the last 10,000 years of human history. In my view this, rather than the wars, revolutions, political and ideological conflicts, will attract the attention of future historians to the twentieth century. I also tried to show that, in spite of local continuities and superficial similarities, the world that emerged from the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ and the fall of the social and political systems that had challenged it, was not and could not be a restoration of anything like the nineteenth century ‘bourgeois society’ of liberal capitalism.
Developments in the last third of the twentieth century, which it is only now possible, though still enormously difficult, to see with the necessary minimum of historical detachment, appear to confirm this. It was already possible to observe, from the late 1960s on, the reversal of the historical development which had, over two centuries, extended the range, powers and functions of the state almost continuously, irrespective of its ideology, and made it into ‘the central institution of politics since the Age of Revolution’. Since the end of the period surveyed in my book this crisis of the state, its powers, functions, legitimacy and its internal and international politics, has clearly deepened. However, at this point the historian must fall silent. We may discern the problems humanity faces in 2003 and explain their historical roots, but prophecy is beyond our scope. Not surprisingly, as a survivor of the twentieth century into the twentyfirst, I have not resisted the temptation to speculate on current developments and their possible future consequences. However, I cannot claim the authority of my profession for such writings.
It is not to be expected that a historian who has reached the age of 86 has sufficient time or physical and mental energy left for ambitious new historical projects in European history since 1900 or in any of his earlier periods. My own plans for future research are modest, and concerned with the earlier phases of the transition to modernity. Insofar as I hope to continue in contemporary history, it will be chiefly as a polemist: against the currently fashionable tendency of new states, regimes, collective identity groups and other vested interests to invent a mythologised or largely imaginary past suited to their purposes, and to impose it through textbooks, historical museums, and other institutionalisations of so-called ‘heritage’. In doing so I hope to continue a line of argument pioneered in the book The Invention of Tradition (1983) co-edited an co-written by me.
However, the generosity of the International Balzan Foundation will enable me to maintain an indirect interest in the history of Europe in the twentieth century by discussions with the scholars engaged in a project on the comparative history of the restoration of ‘normality’ in the ruins of Western and Eastern occupied Europe, in the immediate aftermath of the World War II.