July 05, 2020
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'History Is No Longer Necessary'

The eminent historian, 87, reflects on the reasons for the "murderous barbarism of the twentieth century", and on what the 21st might hold for humanity, if its leaders do not find a way to make a break with the past.

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'History Is No Longer Necessary'
'History Is No Longer Necessary'

History's greatest living star, Eric Hobsbawm, best known for his study of the rise of capitalism, the nation-state and the age of empires, was in Delhi last week for the Nikhil Chakravarty memorial lecture. In an interview with Prem Shankar Jha, the eminent historian, 87, reflects on the reasons for the "murderous barbarism of the twentieth century", and on what the 21st might hold for humanity, if its leaders do not find a way to make a break with the past:

Prem Shankar Jha: In your memoirs, Interesting Times, while describing how you became a communist you asked the question "In the 1930s, seeing what was happening around us in the world, where else was one to turn? Where could one discern any hope?" I would like, in a sense, to turn that question around and ask you, what happened to the world, then, that made people forget their humanity? What dehumanised human beings to the point where they were able to systematically plan and carry out the extermination of millions of their fellow humans?

Eric Hobsbawm: I think it can be traced back to the effect of the first world war. That was the first time that war was fought on an industrial scale. It was the first war in which the productive power of industry was harnessed to the task of killing one's enemies. The Germans called the battles that took place 'battles of mass destruction'. But at the same time, the use of modern technology for warfare implied the beginning of a degree of barbarisation. This was particularly a result of the war in Europe.

For example, poison gas was developed by a loyal German scientist, Haber (who was, incidentally, a Jew) as a way of 'solving the problem of the western front' (where both sides threw hundreds of thousands of troops into suicidal attacks but essentially remained where they were). The First world war thus introduced the element of unlimited destruction into war and society. This concept became so deeply rooted that it passed into language as 'Total War'. This concept became central even to Lenin's thinking.

The second element was ethnic nationalism. By the time of the war the belief that the standard political goal was to form a 'nation state' based upon a 'people' with a more or less homogenous ethnic composition was deeply embedded. This too was reinforced by developments after the first world war. Woodrow Wilson's championship of freedom amounted to this for he envisaged freedom for ethnic nationalities. Ethnic nationalism in a sense emptied the older concept of the state. The Old Powers were used to living with a multiplicity of different cultures. They were inclusive in nature. But the ethnic state believed that some belonged in it, while others were outside it.

A very good example was the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a series of nation states. The Ottoman empire was inherently tolerant and drew few distinctions between Muslims, Jews, Kurds and Christians. But the moment it came to an end and the Turkish nation state was born, it adopted the policy of assimilate or eliminate. It eliminated the Armenians. It also arranged for the en masse expulsion of the Greeks in a population exchange of Greeks for Turks, living in, what became, Greece, in 1922. Nation state formation therefore necessarily implied the concept of ethnic cleansing. In its most extreme form it legitimised genocide.

The third element that contributed to the catastrophe of the thirties and forties also had its roots in World war I. This was the breakdown of the 19th century liberal belief in unlimited, all-purpose progress. In the 19th century it was believed that there was a way forward towards more civilised behaviour. In politics, it meant growing constitutionality, and in international relations, greater civility in arrangements between states. A good example of the former was the gradual disarming of the civilian population and the limitation of coercive power to the state and its agents. Another is the aversion to torture to extract information. All states, even imperialist powers, believed that there had to be a different, and a better way to obtain information. Trial and punishment had to be operated in a different way. Let me remember how strong this tradition was. There was a time when the US did not want to have a secret service. It was born of the now quaint sounding belief that gentlemen did not read each other's letters. In the 20th century these traditions, born of the enlightenment, have gone into decline.

The rules of behaviour were based on the common laws of civilisation and were codified in the Hague Convention of 1907. But the 20th century has seen a gradual but constantly losing battle between these conventions and the actual practice of states towards their own and others' subjects. Every war has seen these conventions flouted, and after each war there has been an attempt to reinstate these norms of behaviour. Thus, after the First World war we had the Geneva Convention. We had more Geneva conventions after the second. But the actual force of these conventions has been steadily weakened, because of their non-observance, often by the strongest states.

If you add these three things together - all born out of the experience of the First World war, you will understand why the 20th century became the most murderous century in human history. Winning at all costs became its central preoccupation, and the cost has been horrifying.

There was a brief moment, between the sixties and the eighties, when it had looked as if we might be gradually finding our way back towards more civilised behaviour. In the Soviet Union, the excesses of Stalin had been left behind and there was very little actual persecution. Similarly in the west, while at the peak of the cold war there had been a rash of military regimes, democracy had gradually been restored and strengthened. But the moment was all too brief. Now, at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st there has been a massive revival of barbarism. Torture has been legitimised. The Geneva Convention is being ignored. And genocide has reappeared.

PJ. In the closing pages of of your The Age of Extremes you made a prophetic observation: "The twentieth century ended in a global disorder whose nature was unclear, and without an obvious mechanism for either ending it or keeping it under control.... The future cannot be a continuation of the past, and there are signs, both externally and, as it were, internally, that we have reached a point of historical crisis. How do you feel about the future of the world now, 12 years later?

E.H. There are at least three forms the crisis is taking. First, there is now the lack of any system of international relations between states. Till the end of the Cold War, international relations were based more or less upon the principles enunciated in the Congress of Vienna. There was a system of great powers that did their best to limit the potential for conflict. This was not unsuccessful except for the period between 1914 and 1945. This has now disappeared. We know that for a single country to take over the management of the world is impractical. It cannot be done.. In any case the balance of power is bound to shift over time.

The second crisis is the most profound and it is arising out of globalisation. Globalisation is weakening the territorial nation state, the essential framework within which the public life of citizens is lived. For various reasons, of which globalisation is only one, this particular form of the state is in trouble. Globalisation and free market capitalism are limiting the capacity of the state to act. States can no longer control.. So they also cannot remedy. The citizen has been replaced by the customer. In a discussion with (Francis) Fukuyama I had at a recent conference, he asked me, 'But surely, there is no harm if a citizen decides to vote by what he buys'. But there is a vast difference. For citizenship confers not only rights but also obligations. The customer has only the former. For various reasons states no longer control their subjects. This is true even of very strong states. Britain, for example could not control the insurgency in Northern Ireland for thirty years. This is a novelty. It had never happened before. You have had similar experiences, and the Americans are seeing how difficult it is, in Iraq. There has been a proliferation of lethal small arms and explosives, and more and more of it is finding its way into private hands. Today the state has a monopoly only of very big, super arms.

The state is equally powerless to prevent the development of enormous private wealth and the resulting inequality in society. Individuals and small groups have accumulated degrees of economic power that were simply unimaginable before. Today George Soros, of whom I approve, spends money on political and economic projects he believes in at a rate that equals that of many governments. The US government's statement that there has to be a state behind every terrorist group is no longer true.

The decline in the power of the state to control the actions of individuals is not always apparent because technology has given us enormous power to accumulate information. But this does not translate into the power to control. In terms of the effective conformation, I think that the British Raj knew more about 19th century UP than the British government knows about its own affairs today.

The kind of loss of control I have described means that a large and increasing number of problems cannot be confronted by individual states, but must be treated globally. But no global means exists. Globalisation has affected all things, but one is totally resistant to it. That is politics. The Kyoto protocol is an excellent example. It can only work if everyone abides by their commitments. But there is no global authority that can enforce compliance.

The final element of the crisis is more long term. This is the enormous growth of social inequality. In the past the main divide was between those who starved and those who didn't. But today the degrees of inequality are so great that they are multiplying the instability of the international economy. The major economic crises of 1997 and 1998 and the subsequent ones are a case in point. In Latin America, especially in Argentina, they have created social catastrophe. Virtually the whole of Latin America is shifting to the Left because the conviction has settled in among the majority of the people that globalisation is benefiting only the very rich and outsiders.

Finally, the speed of social transition is now so rapid that it is rapidly undermining human conventions. Till a generation ago, there were rules of relationship. Now there are no guidelines on how to behave. Social change is having often bizarre results. For example, the emancipation of women, which is the most important positive gain of the twentieth century: in Italy, within 15 to 20 years, it has resulted in a situation in which women are refusing to have babies.

PJ: Is this why you said in Age of Extremes that people have lost contact with history and live in a constant present?

EH: There is a disconnection with history. The speed of change is such that traditional links between past and present have disappeared. But modern technology is also responsible. In the 20th century, it has operated in a problem solving mode to which history was irrelevant. We have been schooled into believing that there is a technical solution to every problem, from building a bridge to building democracy. So History is no longer necessary.

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