Eric Hobsbawm dies: six things about the famous historian

Oct 1, 2012
Anna McKie

Famous Marxist historian and one of the 20th century's greatest thinkers has died at 95

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ERIC HOBSBAWM, one of the leading British historians of the 20th century, has died at the age o f 95.

Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist whose work influenced generations of historians and politicians, died at the Royal Free Hospital in London after a long illness, his family announced today.

He wrote more than 30 books over a sixty-year career. Some of his best-known works, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Extremes and The Age of Empire, focused on the 'long 19th century' from 1789 to 1914 and were followed by a famous sequel The Age of Extremes, about the 20th century.

Fellow historian Niall Ferguson called the quartet "the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history".

He was born in Egypt, the son of an English Jewish family, and lived in Austria and Berlin before moving to London in 1933, the year Hitler assumed power. Hobsbawm studied at Cambridge before becoming a lecturer at Birkbeck College London in 1947.

The late historian Tony Judt once said of him: "Hobsbawm doesn't just know more than other historians. He writes better, too...Hobsbawm is a master of English prose."

His father was a British tradesman, and his mother an Austrian writer. But they both died during the Depression and he ended up living with an Uncle in Berlin in the early 1930s. After Hitler came to power he moved to England and later recalled: "Anybody who saw Hitler's rise happen first hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be."

Hobsbawm was a member of the British Communist Party from 1936 until it collapsed in 1989. He controversially stayed in the party even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which prompted a huge number of members to leave in disgust. These included many of Hobsbawm's fellow members of the Communist Party Historians group, such as EP Thompson and John Saville. Hobsbawm did however criticise the Soviet Union but explained that he stayed because he, like many others, held the idealistic view that communism had the potential to be a force for good in the world. In his autobiography Interesting Times, Hobsbawm wrote that to them the USSR's "very existence proved socialism was more than a dream".

His writing on the future of the labour movement in Britain and his contribution to debates on the prospect of the Labour party made him a hero to most of the party. He was dubbed Neil Kinnock's guru, and he called Hobsbawm "my favourite Marxist". As an iconoclast his ideas helped forge the spirit of change within the party that led to the formation of New Labour – though he was a fierce critic of Tony Blair's government.

Hobsbawm became a committed jazz fan after hearing the Duke Ellington band in London in the 1930s and in 1956 became jazz critic of the New Statesman, writing under the pseudonym Francis Newton for ten years. He was also the president of the Hay literary festival, at which he appeared regularly in his last years.

Hobsbawm continued to be an active writer despite his old age: his final book is set for release sometime next year. Aged 90 he published Globalism, Democracy and Terrorism and last year he published How to Change the World, an argument for Marx's continuing relevance in the aftermath of the banking collapse of 2008-10. In The Guardian's obituary Matin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn wrote that he was "more famous in his extreme old age than probably at any other period of his life".

Though many on the right do not endorse or agree with his politics, he is universally admired as a good historian, particularly for his “great works” on the 19th century. There are few who can hope to do the same.

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A biased historian and a vile apologist for Stalinist and Communist oppression and crimes. To the point of publicly stating that the millions of Soviet deaths under Stalin were acceptable and worth it if the utopia has been achieved. A man whose moral compass accepted the brutal subjugation of Hungary, staying in the BCP, even as many hardliners found the invasion too much to support. A man who never publicly condemned the Soviet oppressions of Poland, Czechslovakia (he was silent in 1948 AND 1968), East Germany. The leftwing version of a Holocaust denier.

No moral compass whatsoever: a logical position and one which all atheists should eventually reconcile themselves to.