Obituary: Professor Elie Kedourie

Kenneth Minogue
Thursday 02 July 1992 23:02

Elie Kedourie, historian, born Baghdad 25 January 1926, Editor Middle Eastern Studies 1964-92, Professor of Politics London University 1965-90 (Emeritus), FBA 1975, CBE 1991, married 1950 Sylvia Haim (two sons, one daughter), died Washington DC 29 June 1992.

ELIE KEDOURIE was the most profound historian of his generation. Among his achievements was that of transforming our understanding of nationalism.

Kedourie was born into the Baghdad Jewish Community in 1926, and grew up equally at home in English and French. It was, however, to the London School of Economics that he came in order to continue his education; this was followed by doctoral work on Anglo-Egyptian relations at St Antony's College, Oxford. The resulting thesis collided with the cherished beliefs of his examiner Sir Hamilton Gibb and, after tense exchanges, he withdrew it, and in 1953 took up a post at the London School of Economics arranged by his friend and mentor Michael Oakeshott, who had previously published his work in the Cambridge Journal. The thesis was published in 1956 as England and the Middle East: the destruction of the Ottoman Empire 1914-1921. Oakeshott influenced him strongly. There were aspects of his work in which he seemed like the exponent of Oakeshott's view of real history. On practical matters, they shared a special sort of conservative realism.

Kedourie's scholarly procedure was to give courses of lectures which grew into books, and then to move on to a new subject. This was how Nationalism (published in 1960) developed. Nationalism as an academic subject at that time commonly generated incoherent miscellanies of information loosely held together by a conviction that nationalism was an immemorial selfishness to which peoples are prone, and that the only way to deal with it was to grant self-determination and encourage the new rulers to take an internationalist point of view. There is no difficulty understanding the errors of those days because they are still the staple of media thinkers.

Kedourie cut through all this, however, by what became a famous first sentence announcing that nationalism, far from being traceable back to the dawn of time, was a doctrine invented around the turn of the 19th century. He treated nationalist ideas historically. In 1971 he developed this interest by publishing an anthology of writings with a long, sharp introduction: Nationalism in Asia and Africa.

A realistic rejection of any liberal sense of guilt towards the subjects of empire made Kedourie a relentless critic of the Royal Institute of International Affairs under its Toynbeean inspiration. One book of essays is called The Chatham House Version (1970), and expounds the liberal attitudes which took literally the Western patter which tribal and despotic potentates in the Middle East picked up and used, often ruthlessly. Kedourie was often critical of the Foreign Office as the victim of similar illusions. This led him to a passionate interest in the corruption of British politics over the last century by sentimental and unrealistic ideas which, as the Empire dissolved, handed over helpless populations to the exploitation of irresponsible sorcerer's apprentices.

A related interest in native moral corruption focused on what happened to the universities in the wake of the Robbins Report. Previously academically excellent universities had, he believed, been entirely subverted to the role of mere instruments of national policy - diamonds into glass, as he put it in a brilliant polemic he wrote for the Centre for Policy Studies. Everything he wrote was literate and stylish.

Kedourie's central professional interest was the politics of the Middle East, and from 1964 onwards he edited Middle Eastern Studies. In this, as in everything else, he co-operated closely with his wife Sylvia, herself a notable Middle Eastern scholar. I am not competent to speak about this element of his work, but there is no doubt that it destroyed many cherished legends. Kedourie was insistent that the instabilities of Middle Eastern politics were far from exhausted by the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He had a deep understanding of and respect for Islamic life, but a considerable contempt for the despots under whom they suffered.

Kedourie's working life was spent at the London School of Economics, though he also frequently held visiting appointments in the United States, Israel, Australia and elsewhere. A handsome and striking figure, he was distinguished by an almost terrifying incapacity for small talk. On social occasions, he could be seen slightly hunched and silent. The self-possession of students commonly guttered; they were really in the dark, until someone asked him a question to which he could respond. They would then discover an immensely human personality with a considerable interest in everything from French poetry to Hollywood musicals, and a propensity to quote TS Eliot. As a teacher, his style was oracular rather than conversational, and he was supreme as the expounder of a text. One year several colleagues sat in on his class on Hegel's Philosophy of Right. He was recently working on a book on Hegel.

His knowledge of the personalities involved in British government this century must have been almost unmatched, for it extended far into the reaches of the civil service, where many of the policy decisions were made. He had a marvellous talent for historically relevant gossip. The Crossman Confessions (1964) is very funny on the follies of recent politics.

His academic vocation was strong, and he often invited students and colleagues home. During his time as Convenor of the Government Department, he was (contrary to the impression he might superficially give) meticulously consultative. The other centre of his life was domestic, with Sylvia and their three children. He was high-minded without being censorious. Walking one day with a friend who was retailing the promiscuities of a common acquaintance, he turned to the friend, remarking more in puzzlement than in disapproval: 'But men are not dogs.'

The loss of a friend and colleague is always sad; but the loss of a scholar has a further dimension: scholars take years to accumulate a density of detailed understanding which is irreplaceable. Kedourie was at the height of his powers, and, as always, was working on several projects at the same time. His death at this point is a major blow to our century's self-understanding.

(Photograph omitted)

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