British historian Eric Hobsbawm dies at 95

AP News
Posted: Oct 01, 2012 12:21 PM
British historian Eric Hobsbawm dies at 95

LONDON (AP) — Eric Hobsbawm, who has died aged 95, was honored as one of Britain's most distinguished historians, despite retaining an allegiance to the Communist Party that lasted long after many supporters had left in disgust.

He was read by generations of students and revered for his ability to make history come alive, using his socialist perspective to tell stories from the peoples' point of view.

Daughter Julia Hobsbawm said her father died early Monday at a London hospital. He had been suffering from pneumonia.

"He'd been quietly fighting leukemia for a number of years without fuss or fanfare," she said. "Right up until the end he was keeping up what he did best, he was keeping up with current affairs. There was a stack of newspapers by his bed."

Hobsbawm's reading of Karl Marx and his experience living in Germany in the 1930s formed his views. He joined the Communist Party in England in 1936 and stayed a member long after Soviet military force crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968, although he publicly opposed both interventions.

Hobsbawm is best known for three volumes, spanning the period from 1789 to 1914: "The Age of Revolution" (1962), "The Age of Capital" (1975) and "The Age of Empire" (1987). A later volume, "Age of Extremes," took the story forward from 1914 to 1991.

His last book, "How to Change the World," published in 2011, was not a revolutionary tract but a collection of essays dating back to the 1960s on Marx and Marxism.

Ed Miliband, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, said Hobsbawm's work "brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people."

"He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people's lives," Miliband said.

The late British historian A.J.P. Taylor said Hobsbawm's work was distinguished by precise explanations of what happened and his interest in ordinary people.

"Most historians, by a sort of occupational disease, are interested only in the upper classes and assume that they themselves would have been numbered among the privileged if they had lived a century or two ago — a most unlikely assumption," Taylor wrote. "Mr. Hobsbawm places his loyalty firmly on the other side of the barricades."

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born June 9, 1917, in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was British, descended from artisans from Poland and Russia, and his mother's family was cultured, middle-class Viennese.

The family moved to Vienna when he was two. Following the deaths of his father and then his mother, he moved to Berlin in 1931 to live with relatives, and joined the Socialist Schoolboys.

"In Germany there wasn't any alternative left," he said in an interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.

"Liberalism was failing. If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they'd become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed."

He once said he was "lucky — yes, lucky enough — to live in Berlin before Hitler came to power."

"And if you don't feel that you are part of world history at that time, you never will."

As a student in Berlin, Hobsbawm informed his schoolmaster that he was a communist and that a revolution was needed.

"He asked me a few questions and said, 'You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Kindly go to the school library and see what you can find,'" Hobsbawm said in an interview broadcast by the BBC in 2012. "And then I discovered The Communist Manifesto, and that was it."

In 1933, he moved to London, where he found life boring.

Britons "didn't grasp this extraordinary end of the world atmosphere, but in Berlin you had it, and you thought you had to do something about it," Hobsbawm said.

During World War II, Hobsbawm was assigned to an engineering unit which introduced him, for the first time, to the working class.

"I didn't know much about the British working class, in spite of being a communist. But actually to live and work among them, I thought they were good eggs," he said in a BBC radio interview in 1995.

He approved of their "solidarity, a very strong feeling of class, a very strong feeling of being together, a very strong feeling of not wanting anybody to put them down.

"But alas, they were not democrats. They did not believe they were as good as the next man," he said.

Hobsbawm's first book, "Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels," published in 1959, was a study of what he called "pre-political social agitators," including Sicilian peasant leagues, city mobs and bandits, an early example of his interest in the structural history of working-class organizations.

The same year he published "The Jazz Scene," using the pseudonym Francis Newton, and writing about jazz continued to be an outlet.

"He defined the term 'intellectual polymath,'" Julia Hobsbawm said, adding that she'd asked him last week what advice he would give his grandchildren.

"He said he would like them to be curious. Curiosity was the biggest asset anybody could have."

He also recommended three books: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," the poetry of W.H. Auden, and the "Communist Manifesto," a final recommendation she said he delivered "with a twinkle in his eye."

Hobsbawm defended his allegiance to the Communist Party as born of hope, of ignorance and a fear that leaving the party might be seen as an attempt to secure some advantage.

"I belonged to the generation tied by an unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution and of its original home, the October Revolution, however skeptical or critical of the" Soviet Union, he wrote.

But in an interview on the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" in 1995, Hobsbawm said he had been disillusioned by a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953.

"I still believed in the movement, but I had stopped being a militant for a very long time. As it were, from about 1956 I carefully recycled myself as a sympathizer rather than a militant," he told the BBC.

Hobsbawm was appointed a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London, spending his entire career on the faculty and eventually being appointed president.

In 1998, he was made a Companion of Honor, a rare award for a historian, placing him in the ranks of luminaries Stephen Hawking, Doris Lessing and Sir Ian McKellan. It is limited to 65 living people at any one time.

Hobsbawm was first married to Muriel Seaman in 1943; they divorced in 1951. In 1962 he married Marlene Schwarz.

He is survived by Marlene, two sons, a daughter, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.


Associated Press writer Raphael Satter contributed to this report.