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The Invitational at Columbia By: Arnold Beichman
The Washington Times | Monday, March 31, 2003


Columbia University's announcement to its alumni reads innocently enough: Eric Hobsbawm To Deliver History Department Lecture on Monday, March 31.

Then follows this text: "Noted British historian Eric Hobsbawm, emeritus professor of economic and social history at the University of London and emeritus professor of the Graduate Faculty at the New School University, will deliver the history department's distinguished lecture on Monday, March 31, at 4 p.m. in 103 Jerome Greene Hall. Hobsbawm, who is currently president of Birkbeck College at the University of London, will lecture on 'Politics, Memory and the Revisions of History at the Start of the 21st Century.' "

What Columbia, my alma mater, isn't telling the alumni is that Mr. Hobsbawm was and still to this day is an unregenerate defender of Josef Stalin, one of the three greatest mass murderers of the 20th century. But Columbia's history department, which no doubt is responsible for the selection of a man who joined and remained a Communist Party member until there was no longer a Soviet Union, is headed by Professor Eric Foner, whose pro-Soviet career was dissected in sobering detail by Professor John P. Diggins in the National Interest magazine last year.

So who is this Mr. Hobsbawm, this emeritus admirer of Stalin? Let me put it this way: Would Columbia invite as its distinguished lecturer an historian who was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler or who was a believer in what was once apartheid or who was a Holocaust denier? To be a longtime admirer of Stalin one would have to forgive Stalin's anti-Semitism, as indeed Mr. Hobsbawm did.

I have looked into this man's record. And one could say if he is good enough for the Queen of England to have named him a Companion of Honor, a most eminent British title, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Tony Blair, he should be good enough for me. But to do this I would have to overlook Mr. Hobsbawm's extraordinary and appalling political record.

The renowned British historian, Paul Johnson, has in an article in the London Spectator compared Mr. Hobsbawm to David Irving, his equivalent at the other end of the totalitarian spectrum as a historian "who is not without a certain brutal honesty. Just as Irving defends, excuses, exonerates or, when it comes to the pinch, minimizes the guilt of Hitler, so Hobsbawm legitimizes Stalin."

And here is some of the evidence, as reported in the Times Literary Supplement Oct. 28, 1994, against a man Columbia has chosen to honor. In the course of an interview, Michael Ignatieff asked Mr. Hobsbawm how he justified his longtime membership in the Communist Party.

Mr. Hobsbawm: "You didn't have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn't going to be a future and this [the Communist Party] was the only thing that offered an acceptable future."

Mr. Ignatieff: "In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a communist?"

Mr. Hobsbawm: "This is the sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible.... I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, 'Probably not.' "

Mr. Ignatieff: "Why?"

Mr. Hobsbawm: "Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as a historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure."

Mr. Ignatieff: "What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?"

Mr. Hobsbawm: "Yes."

You have to read this exchange twice because it is unbelievable with all the evidence that has come out of the Soviet archives since the fall of the Soviet Union a dozen years ago, and all the Soviet memoir literature that has been published, someone could today defend Stalin's terror in the name of a socialist revolution that never was.

And it is even more unbelievable that British Prime Minister Blair recently made this man a Companion of Honor, one of the highest awards in the realm, limited to 50 holders, rewarding "services of special importance to the nation." And still even more unbelievable is that a great university would dare to award this horrible man, no matter how reputable a historian, its shield as his platform. Has Columbia no shame?


Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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