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New Left Review I/215, January-February 1996

John A. Hall

Conditions of Our Existence: Ernest Gellner (1925–1995)

It is impossible not to see a biographical element at work in Ernest Gellner’s insistence on the need for radical rethinking of our place in history. For his life made him rather like the ‘pure visitor’ whose detachment he recommended as a cognitive strategy. Both his parents were German-speaking and of Jewish background, and both were of lower middle-class provincial background. Once in Prague, people of this sort changed their allegiance, from German to Czech, to accommodate themselves to the way in which sheer demographic weight created a new form of society at the end of the nineteenth century. Of course, this shift in identities was not total: allegiance often remained to German as a world language, whilst anti-semitism placed limits on imagined belonging—making Zionism a further existential option. It is scarcely surprising that this world drove Gellner to think about nationalism, for it had the same effect on Hans Kohn, Karl Deutsch, Eugen Lemberg and Miroslav Hroch. In Gellner’s case the need to rethink identity and position was much exacerbated by the war and its aftermath. The family’s loyalty to Masaryk’s republic was sufficiently strong to have kept them in Prague until after the German occupation, with the escapes that followed being exceptionally hazardous. After a year at Oxford, Gellner then served in the Czech Armoured Brigade at the end of the war, taking part in victory parades in 1945 in Plzen and Prague. But everything in the city he loved so much had changed for the worst: the Jews had been killed, and the Germans were being viciously expelled. Aware that the latter act would draw the Czechs into the Russian orbit, through fear of German revenge, Gellner opted in a matter of months for the life of an emigre, convinced that Czechoslovakia would enter a period of darkness similar to that which followed defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1618. After finishing his studies at Oxford, he lectured briefly in Edinburgh, before then spending his formal academic career at the London School of Economics (1949–84) and Cambridge (1984–93). His work in all these places broke out of disciplinary boundaries, in large part because it was marked by a sense of moral urgency. What then were Gellner’s conclusions? How exactly did he characterize the conditions of our existence?

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John A. Hall, ‘Conditions of Our Existence: Ernest Gellner (1925-1995)’, NLR I/215: £3

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