Eric Hobsbawm, one of the leading historians of the 20th century, died in the early hours of Monday morning at the Royal Free Hospital in London after a long illness, his daughter Julia said
He was 95.
Born in 1917 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Leopold Percy Obstbaum and Nelly Grün, both Jewish, he grew up in Vienna, Austria and Berlin, Germany.
A clerical error at birth altered his surname from Obstbaum to Hobsbawm.
His best known works include the trilogy described by The New York Review of Books as "one of the great achievements of historical writing in recent decades" about the 19th century: The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914
His 1994 book on the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, which extended the trilogy into a quartet, was equally noted for its "masterly analysis."
Despite his lifelong commitment to Marxist principles which made him a controversial figure as a historian, particularly his membership of the British Communist party, which he joined in 1936 and never left — he remained in it till he let his membership lapse not long before the party's dissolution in 1991, which he described in his memoirs, Interesting Times:
"The Party… had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it…We did what it ordered us to do…Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed… If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so."
But despite this, he remained one of the few historians who were, as the Guardian put it, "recognised if not endorsed on the right as well as the left, and one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown."
In his review of Interesting Times, Niall Ferguson called him "one of the great historians of his generation" and said that the quartet of his "books beginning with The Age of Revolution (1962) and ending with The Age of Extremes (1994) constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history. Nothing else produced by the British Marxist historians will endure as these books will."
Ferguson said of his association with the Communist Party:
Consider some of the "lines" our historian dutifully toed. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against the Weimar-supporting Social Democrats in the great Berlin transport strike of 1932. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against Britain and France following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. He accepted the excommunication of Tito. He condoned the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary.
In 1954, just after Stalin's death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party. He admits to having been dismayed when, two years later, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. When Khrushchev himself ordered the tanks into Budapest, Hobsbawm finally spoke up, publishing a letter of protest. But he did not leave the Party.
Ferguson blamed Hobsbawm's failings to communism, "his quasi-religious faith" and pointed out that in his autobiography, Hobsbawm himself referred to "the Party" as the "Communist Universal Church":
"For young revolutionaries of my generation, mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics."
Others, including David Pryce-Jones, Brad DeLong, John Gray, Robert Conquest et al blamed his "massive reality denial" regarding the USSR and "vast silence" surrounding the realities of communism.
Tony Judt perhaps put it in perspective, when he wrote: “Eric J. Hobsbawm was a brilliant historian in the great English tradition of narrative history. On everything he touched he wrote much better, had usually read much more, and had a broader and subtler understanding than his more fashionable emulators. If he had not been a lifelong Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century. "
And then, of course, was the 1994 interview with Michael Ignatieff on the BBC, which has been often used to damn him, where he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result:
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?
Hobsbawm: …’Probably not.’
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… 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.
Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
As Judt summed it up, "The greatest price he will pay is to be remembered not as Eric J. Hobsbawm the historian but as Eric J. Hobsbawm the unrepentant Communist historian. It’s unfair and it’s a pity, but that is the cross he will bear.”
As recently as last week, Hobsbawm was quoted in the Guardian by Maya Jaggi as saying:
"I've never tried to diminish the appalling things that happened in Russia, though the sheer extent of the massacres we didn't realise. In the early days we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine - we knew of the Volga famine of the early '20s, if not the early '30s. Thanks to the breakdown of the west, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the west. It was that or nothing."
Of Stalin's Russia, he said:
"These sacrifices were excessive; this should not have happened. In retrospect the project was doomed to failure, though it took a long time to realise this."
But, as Jaggi pointed out, he appeared to argue that some goals are worth any sacrifice:
"I lived through the first world war, when 10 million-to 20 million people were killed. At the time, the British, French and Germans believed it was necessary. We disagree. In the second world war, 50 million died. Was the sacrifice worthwhile? I frankly cannot face the idea that it was not. I can't say it would have been better if the world was run by Adolph Hitler."