In Memorium: Eric Hobsbawm
Considered the leading Marxist of the late 20th century, the British scholar of Austrian roots ‘brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives‘
Eric Hobsbawm at the Rathaus in Vienna in 2008 for the awarding of Honorary Citizenship | Photo: APA/Roland Schlager
“History is being invented in vast quantities [...]. It’s more important to have historians, especially sceptical historians, than ever before,” said British historian Eric Hobsbawm, describing his life’s work to the daily Observer on 2 Jul. 2002. By that time, the retired professor of Birbeck College in London, and visiting Professor at Stanford and the New School of Social Research who died 1 Oct. at the age of 95, was considered the most influential Marxist thinker to date.
But as a critical thinker, Hobsbawm was able to reach out across the political spectrum, especially after the crushing defeat of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. In recent years, he had even struck an odd friendship with a Conservative colleague, the Scottish-born historian Niall Ferguson, who described him as “one of the greatest historical conversationalists” he had ever known.
Born 1917 in Alexandria as son of a Jewish-British colonial officer Percy Hobsbaum and his Viennese-born wife Nelly Grün, Eric Hobsbawm’s last name was famously mistyped by the British authorities when recording his birth, which led to the peculiar spelling. It was an upbringing shadowed by the collapse of the old order in Europe. He spent his early childhood in Vienna, where he his father’s death in 1929 forced him to go to work as an English tutor and au pair at the age of 12.
When his mother died two year’s later, Hobsbawm and his sister Nancy were adopted by a maternal aunt in Berlin. The move to the German capital was politically significant for young Hobsbawm, where he joined the Communist Association of Socialist Pupils and later the Communist Party, of which he remained a member until the 1950s.
“I was a loyal party member for two decades before 1956, and therefore silent about a number of things,” he recalled in the Observer interview, in particular the crimes of genocide committed by USSR-leader Joseph Stalin.
Yet, most significantly for his own political thinking, Hobsbawm was witness to Hitler’s ascent to power on 30 Jan. 1932. “I had just come home from school and heard the news that Hitler had taken power,” he told Der Standard in 2008. “There are few moments in life, where one senses a historic turning point. And that was such a moment.”
His own life Hobsbawm underplayed, however, and, with classic British understatement, he called his 2002 autobiography Interesting Times, which he described as “the flip side” to his previous book The Age of Extremes (1994), an account of “the short 20th century” from 1914 to 1991:
“[It is] not world history illustrated by experiences of an individual, but world history shaping that experience.” It allowed him to record his own time, through the watchful eyes of a truly polyglot 20th-century intellectual, whose critical thinking was shaped during his studies at Kings College at Cambridge.
Hobsbawm had thought he suffered academically for his beliefs, under the milder form of the McCarthyism that characterised 1950s Britain, where “you didn’t get promoted for 10 years, but nobody threw you out.” This might explain why after becoming a lecturer at Birbeck College in 1947 it would take until 1970 for him to be appointed professor.
Today, however, left-wing and progressive politics is full of praise for Hobsbawm. The current Labour Party Leader Ed Milliband called him “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about politics [...] He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives.” And without question his trilogy of the “long 19th century” will continue to influence European social democracies far into the future.
Matthias Wurz is the Austria News Editor at The Vienna Review, a conductor and musicologist with a M.A. in International Relations from Webster University. He specialises in issues related to EU Accession and European Affairs.