Month: April 2014

Mark Mazower on Hobsbawm and the historical profession

Emma Lundin is an AHRC-funded PhD student at Birkbeck. Her thesis, ‘Practical Solidarity: Connections between Swedish Social Democratic women and women in the ANC, 1960-1994’, explores the historical impact of informal transnational relationships in national and international settings, and how these informed ideas about gender and equality. Alongside Barbara Warnock, Emma is organising a conference on History and Space at Birkbeck in June 2014.

In his inaugural Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture – the first item on the History After Hobsbawm Conference programme – Professor Mark Mazower (Ira D. Wallach Professor of History, Columbia University) used Eric Hobsbawm’s professional development as a mirror image of the pattern of change his profession underwent in general during Hobsbawm’s own lifetime.

Tracing Hobsbawm’s development from an anonymous author of Cambridge anecdotes in his former school’s paper to the young academic in Cambridge and at Birkbeck – in which he was recognisable but not quite the historian he would become – Professor Mazower pointed out that these were days in which the subject of history itself was not the professionalised and increasingly globalised profession it would later become. But while the development of the profession can be traced by looking at Hobsbawm’s career, Professor Mazower emphasised that one must not overlooked the critical role Hobsbawm himself played in its development.

The lecture was titled ‘Europe’ but Professor Mazower crossed both the Mediterranean (reminding us that Eric Hobsbawm had once dreamt of doing graduate work on the Maghreb) and the Atlantic. But before then, Hobsbawm had “particularly deep, long-standing ties to France” at a time when “Paris managed to become a post-war dynamo of intellectual thought”. Struggling to move on from the war, France’s re-emergence on the world stage owed much to its internationalism. Using the 1950 International Congress of Historical Sciences – in which Hobsbawm participated – as an example, Professor Mazower further argued that although international collaborations of that particular kind were not an effective catalyst for postwar historical developments, the personal connections made in these venues proved much more durable and influential. He traced the creation of one such network: the Anglo-French AnnalesPast & Present collaborations that both informed and coincided with the expansion of academic history, and its first attempts to define global patterns of change through social and economic history. At the International Congress of Historical Sciences, Hobsbawm’s input – which included criticising Dutch historian Adolf Rüter for his ‘parochialism’ – shows both that he from an early stage saw the need for history to move away from a European viewpoint to a global scope; from a history of ideas to a history of economic developments; and from an individual perspective to that of groups and their relationships with others. Meanwhile, the exchange between Annales and Past & Present became a part of a web of Anglo-French academic connections, which were – in turn – critical for the internationalisation of this new approach to history. In short, international cooperation became both a research method and Hobsbawm’s personal practice, as he formed lasting friendships with members of the Annales School and beyond, including Ernest Labrousse and Pierre Vilar.

In the 1960s developments in France in the preceding decade (including Annales and the cultural diplomacy that brought funds to both École pratique des hautes études and École des hautes études en sciences sociales) began to be discussed on a greater scale in Britain. The École owed its prestige to its internationalist network, which broke down barriers to such an extent that “it is almost as though for them the Cold War didn’t exist,” Professor Mazower said. Meanwhile, Hobsbawm (who, Professor Mazower pointed out, had no interest in empire-building) and E.P. Thompson became fixtures at Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, where they frequented a regular round-table seminar, sharing seats and discussions with Americans and other Europeans, with Hobsbawm in particular serving as a kind of intellectual broker.

“The Americans,” Professor Mazower said, “provided the money while the British provided the enthusiasm” for this new historiographical philosophy, which was followed by an “Anglo-French invasion of US academy” in the mid-1970s. It was at this time that the expansion of universities and the globalisation of the postcolonial world led to the setting out of a new course in history in which a cross-national views of the world became much more common.

By 1980, non-Europeanists were not as rare in history departments on both sides of the Atlantic as they had been; world history itself was a concept much less questioned than before. Critics claimed the drawbacks included a potential splintering of the humanities, with historians paying for depth with a lack of overview. Hobsbawm, however, welcomed the new path, arguing that it was a question of synthesis, not analysis. He “demonstrated triumphantly through his own work that the profession hadn’t lost its ability to speak to greater patterns,” Professor Mazower said. Pointing to “the works most associated with his name,” which were made during this period, he added that The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes make up “an extraordinary work of synthesis that is unlikely ever to be matched”. Through his work Hobsbawm demonstrated the power of synthesis in era of fragmentation, setting out how we can use new knowledge to breathe life into old histories. His passing, Professor Mazower concluded, “leaves us with an irreparable loss”.



Jan Rüger on ‘History after Hobsbawm’: Europe and the world

Jan Rüger, Reader in Modern History at Birkbeck, has a new article in the April issue of History Today:

maycover.back issueFor Hobsbawm there was never a question that British history had to be understood in a European as much as a global context. He explained this succinctly in an essay entitled ‘The Curious History of Europe’, which was first published in 1996. ‘Europe’, he wrote, was a ‘shifting, divisible and flexible concept’, not a clearly defined territory or homogenous political entity. The historian’s task was to explore Europe’s diversity – and Britain as part of that patchwork of different European pasts. In Hobsbawm’s writing this task went hand in hand with an understanding of imperialism and globalisation, both of which defined the 19th century. It was ‘impossible to sever European history from world history’. Britain’s past had to be understood in both contexts.


Read the whole piece here:


Hobsbawm Scholars Announced

We are very pleased to announce the first cohort of Hobsbawm scholars.

The Eric Hobsbawm Postgraduate Scholarships, named in memory of one of the greatest historians of the last century who, from 1947 until his death in 2012, was a loyal member of Birkbeck College.

The Scholarships have been set up to encourage the next generation of talented historians to pursue original, high-quality and exciting research in history by assisting financially with study and research costs.


MA Hobsbawm scholarships have been awarded to:

Paul Kelly, interest rates and economic rationality in the Roman Empire

David McGeehan, the experience of Algerian Jews in 20th century France

Jack Watling, Soviet foreign policy and civil-military relations


We have also made smaller awards to assist the following PhD students with research trips or conferences:

Fabio Antonini

Shaul Bar-Haim

Brian O’Sullivan

Barbara Warnock

Antonio Weiss


Well done to all of our MA and PhD students who have been successful in winning these awards, and and on behalf of the entire committee would like to thank all of those who applied.