Acceptance Speech – Bern, 07.11.2003


Eric Hobsbawm

2003 Balzan Prize for European History since 1900

For his brilliant analysis of the troubled history of twentieth-century Europe and for his ability to combine in-depth historical research with great literary talent.

Nothing is more central to the process of science and the academic humanities, which my own language divides, unlike the German Wissenschaft which underlines their unity, than the judgment of those who are in a position to apply the criteria of science and scholarship and those who know the field. In some ways this is even more important in the humanities, where the products of thought and scholarship are harder to separate from the passions of life outside laboratories, archives and seminar rooms than they are in the natural sciences. For obvious reasons, history, and especially the history of Europe since 1900 is a field particularly heavily loaded with emotion and parti pris: national, political, religio-ideological among others. Very few historians of that period – and certainly not I – would claim that they pursued their researches into the 20th century sine ira et studio, and if they did we would not believe them. So a twentieth-century historian is particularly appreciative of a prize awarded by a Prize Committee representing the highest levels of science and scholarship of nine countries. I am aware of the honour of joining the roll-call of historians who have been awarded this prize before, masters, some of them great masters, of what Marc Bloch called ‘le metier d’historien’: Ernest Labrousse and Ernst Gombrich, Dick Southern and Arno Borst – to name but some of those from whom I myself have learned. I thank you for allowing me to join their ranks.
However, there is another reason why I would like to express my thanks. The Balzan Prize has the rare distinction of both looking backwards at a scholar’s past and forward at the future of his field.
It is an exceedingly generous prize indeed – and none of its winners can fail to appreciate its generosity. But what sets it apart from other distinctions is that it allows the prize-winner, especially one too old to continue for very much longer, to devote an equal sum to the advancement of his field through the work of younger researchers. The Balzan Prize Committee has not merely been generous to me, but has given me the wonderful opportunity to be generous to my younger colleagues on a scale I could never have dreamed of. I understand this is a recent innovation in the Prize. I welcome it. It is surely in the spirit of Eugenio Balzan and I am deeply grateful for this entirely unexpected double generosity.
“ Bounty”, that is to say generosity, said Dr Samuel Johnson, the famous English eighteenth century scholar and critic, “always receives part of its value from the manner in which it is bestowed.” Nobody could have bestowed it in a manner more welcome to scholars than the Balzan Foundation. I thank you, not only on my behalf, but in the name of those who will , I hope, be able to share through me in your benefaction.

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