E. H. Carr and nationalism between the wars

In the 1930s, a Chatham House study group led by historian E. H. Carr assessed the troubling rise of nationalism across Europe.

Interview Updated 8 July 2021 Published 5 March 2021 4 minute READ

Jo Hills

Former Digital Content Editor, International Affairs, Communications and Publishing

Who was E. H. Carr and what was his impact on our understanding of international relations? 

E. H. Carr (1892-1982) was without question one of the leading British writers on international relations in the twentieth century. Born in a Victorian age of certainty he grew to intellectual maturity in an age of doubt that began with the First World War and continued with the near collapse of the world economy and the liberal order in the 1930s. Always controversial and never one to pass up a fight with either liberals or conservatives, he authored over 30 books on a range of topics––four of them biographies. 

He began developing his critique of what he saw as a failing market order in the early 1930s. He was no revolutionary; a classless society was a utopian dream he once observed. Nonetheless he did believe in planning, developed a positive if not uncritical view of the Soviet economic system and had decidedly ‘revisionist’ views on the Cold War which put him out of favour with the British  establishment––even though he was very much a dissident product of that establishment. Educated at Cambridge he joined the Foreign Office in 1916 where he remained for the next twenty years.

Carr was one of that rather narrow band of interesting people in the twentieth century––perhaps Kissinger is another example––who flourished as a policymaker while making a career for himself as an academic. There was however a big difference between the two: Kissinger served power as an insider while Carr critically tried to understand power as an outsider. His close friend Isaac Deutscher once said that Carr looked at the world through the eyes of an official trained in the diplomatic service. Elitism is not a word I would normally use to describe Carr, but there are undoubtedly elements of the mandarin about his world view. 

He was no revolutionary; a classless society was a utopian dream he once observed.

One of the high points of his career was being part of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 where he first encountered the issue of nationalism. He was given the job of working to resolve questions around the representation of national minorities in central and eastern Europe and this really helped form his views––decidedly negative ones to be sure––on nationalism and nationalists. 

After the Paris Peace Conference, Carr worked in many jobs within the Foreign Office, learned Russian and in the process developed a great admiration for the Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century. He also wrote articles under the assumed name of John Hallett in the 1930s, including one titled ‘Nationalism, the World’s Bane’ – a scathing attack on the nation-state. 

Carr was more famously heavily engaged in the great policy debate of the late 1930s over how to relate to the rise of a new and more powerful Germany. Like many others at the time (including Keynes) he supported the policy of appeasement as the only way of accommodating Germany, not because he admired Hitler or Nazism but rather because he (again like Keynes) thought Germany had been treated harshly at Versailles. In many ways his controversial classic The Twenty Years’ Crisis, published in 1939, was a theoretical defence of a policy which by the time the book came out had already been rendered irrelevant by the march of history. 

Carr spent the greater part of his intellectual life after the war working on the early history of the USSR: certainly before his death in 1982 he was best-known as the most important historian of early Soviet Russia. Sadly for Carr those volumes (14 in all) are rarely read today. Interestingly, what he is best remembered for now are three much smaller books: What is History? (1961); Nationalism and After (1945); and, for IR scholars most importantly, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, a book he did not much like but which soon established itself as a classic in the field. This last volume has been the subject of much debate. Claimed by realists and Marxists alike, its most important contribution is its critique of the liberal international order between the two wars. That in part is why it still seems so relevant today, when our own liberal order is under such stress. 

The international system was falling apart by the middle of the 1930s, and one of the key reasons for this was growing nationalist rivalries and the very real possibility of war.

It is fascinating to see how Carr’s thinking was shaped by being a participant in the events he was writing about. In your article you talk about Chatham House’s Nationalism study group. Could you outline what the group did and how it affected Carr’s thought?

As Chatham House entered its second decade, a whole range of study groups were established across the institute to address the pressing challenges it saw facing the world. John Maynard Keynes was part of one such group looking at the monetary system in the 1930s. 

Why was Chatham House interested in nationalism? Quite simply because the international system was falling apart by the middle of the 1930s, and one of the key reasons for this was growing nationalist rivalries and the very real possibility of war. Formed in 1936 the group itself was an eclectic mix, featuring some of the most prominent policymakers and academics of the time including the prominent sociologist Morris Ginsberg, the economic historian RH Tawney, the classicist and writer on international affairs Alfred Zimmern, as well as David Mitrany, the noted originator of the functionalist school of International Relations. The group (all male!) met and discussed papers over 20 times in the course of its lifetime, eventually producing a 350-page volume in 1939 which was rather unimaginatively entitled Nationalism, published by Chatham House in association with Oxford University Press. It was not a bestseller.

If Carr had strong views about nationalism and the nation-state before the Group first met, these  became even more pronounced by the time the book Nationalism appeared. His work within the Group certainly influenced what subsequently went into The Twenty Year’s Crisis, where he began to  ask the question––without completely answering it––whether or not the world could be organized on a different basis to that of the nation-state. In a later work, Conditions of the Peace (1942) he  also went on to attack the very idea of national self-determination. This is one of the reasons why he opposed US President Woodrow Wilson, after whom the world’s first university Chair in International Politics (at Aberystwyth) was named. Carr may have been appointed to the Chair himself in 1936 but he did not share Wilson’s belief that self-determination would lay the foundation of order in Europe after WW1.  

The study group’s work acts as a window onto policy thinking at such a historically significant moment. What are the key implications of Carr’s thought for those wanting to understand International Relations in the twenty-first century?

Certainly, with the intensification of nationalism that has taken place over the last few years his warnings remain very relevant today. 

The first thing to point out is the contemporary relevance of Carr’s work to thinking about how  great powers respond when other powers begin to rise and challenge their position in the international system. The Twenty Years’ Crisis provides an early critical analysis of the structural challenges faced by states attempting to preserve the international status quo in the face of revisionist states. This sort of question has more recently been discussed in great detail in relation to China and the United States. In the end Carr was proven wrong when it came to Germany in the 1930s. Nonetheless he provides a highly compelling account of how to manage change––peacefully or otherwise––when global power shifts. Indeed, how you allow for change to take place within the international order without it leading to war is one of the most fundamental questions in the history of international relations. The Twenty Years’ Crisis remains a key text in thinking about the problem. 

A second question which the Nationalism study group in particular looked at is whether or not we can create a stable international system in a world comprised of a plurality of nation-states. Carr as we have seen thought not and suggested we move beyond nationalism and the nation-state––something for which he has been much criticized by some of his realist fans. Carr would have responded by asking critics to look at the issue from another angle, and ask if such a system can create order? Certainly, with the intensification of nationalism that has taken place over the last few years his warnings remain very relevant today.

The final lesson is how Carr approached the study of the international by taking a hard realist approach to the way world was, but fusing this with his own special brand of critical and problem-solving thinking. Carr may indeed be remembered by some writers as a realist only interested in power, but as a careful reading of his work indicates he was always looking beyond the here and now in search of what he hoped would one day become a ‘new international order’.

This interview draws on Michael Cox’s review essay ‘E. H. Carr, Chatham House and Nationalism’, which was published in the January 2021 issue of International Affairs.