EJ Hobsbawm’s last major book was The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991, his acclaimed history of “the short twentieth century”. It begins on 28 June 1992 when President Mitterand visited Sarajevo. “Why,” asks Hobsbawm, “had the President of France chosen to go to Sarajevo on that particular day? Because the 28 June was the anniversary of the assassination, in Sarajevo, in 1914, of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, which led, within a matter of weeks, to the outbreak of the First World War…”
Both men were born during the First World War, Mitterand in 1916, Hobsbawm in 1917. The great dates of the 20th century – 1914, 1917, 1933, 1939, 1956, 1989 – dominated Hobsbawm’s life and his account of the last hundred years.
Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917. He left Berlin and came to Britain in 1933. On 1 September 1939 he was in Paris when Germany invaded Poland. He travelled back to London on the night-train with the English dancers from the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris. He came out of Victoria Station on the last morning of peace. In 1956 about 10,000 people left the British Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Hobsbawm stayed on but his relationship with the Party never recovered. 1989, he said, “was the end of the era in which world history was about the October Revolution.”
For Hobsbawm, “the short 20th century,” from 1914-91, was really the story of the rise and fall of Communism. “I still belong,” he wrote in his autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), “to the tail-end of the first generation of communists, the ones for whom the October Revolution was the central point of reference in the political universe.”
The turning point, both in Hobsbawm’s own life and the story of Communism, was 1956. The years before are full of drama. By the time Hobsbawm was thirteen he was an orphan. Born in Alexandria, he lived in Vienna and Berlin before moving to London in 1933. He was at Cambridge during a golden age of Wittgenstein, Turing and Keynes. He served in the British army during the war and was blacklisted during the Cold War. In the second half of his life Hobsbawm read, wrote and travelled prodigiously. But the story that fascinated so many journalists was that he, almost alone among leading intellectuals of his generation, remained in the Communist Party. Twenty-five years after his last major work, what do we make of his legacy?
Richard Evans has done his research. He is a Stakhanovite. His three-volume history of The Third Reich totalled 2500 pages. He has written more than twenty other books, mostly on modern German history. Here he has trawled the MI5 surveillance reports on Hobsbawm and his dealings with publishers, agents and editors, documenting advances, reviews and sales (including foreign sales). Thanks to Evans we know the problems he had getting his PhD accepted or getting his first books published, that his income as a freelance writer, author and broadcaster rose from £1300 in 1962-3 to £19,000 in 1985-6 and over £90,000 in 1989-90 and that he opened French and Swiss bank accounts in the early 1980s.
Hobsbawm’s memoir, Interesting Times, was thin on personal information, especially after his traumatic childhood. Evans writes in detail about both marriages, various affairs, one of which led to a love child; another was with Jo, “a part-time sex worker, raising money to pay for her drug habit and provide for her child”. “She wasn’t in love, but she said we got on ok. It was cool. She dug me.”
Evans is especially good on Hobsbawm’s background. His ac-count of Hobsbawm’s parents, grandparents and large, extended family is exemplary and corrects the errors in the entry in the >Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There are fascinating details about his early involvement with the Boy Scouts, his voracious childhood reading, both in Germany and when he arrived as a teenager in Britain, and the importance of his summer in Paris in 1936, amidst the euphoria of the Popular Front. Evans tells us where Hobsbawm’s first meetings with the Apostles (a fa-mous Cambridge discussion group) took place and who was there. On 20 June 1942, for example, there was a meeting at the famous Ivy restaurant in London’s West End attended, among others, by Keynes, EM Forster, Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess (the last two were later revealed to be Soviet spies).
There are excellent portraits of key figures in Hobsbawm’s life: the Cambridge historian Munia Postan, an important dash of cosmopoli-tanism in the insular Cambridge History faculty in the 1930s; the left-wing social historian, George Rudé; and Raphael Samuel, one of the founders of the New Left. Evans also brings Hobsbawm’s teaching to life through interviews with former students. One recalled how Hobsbawm told a class on the Russian Revolution how he had met Kerensky. Another describes him “charting the rising influence of the middle class by the spread of golf & tennis clubs.” Evans writes clearly, has read widely and is a master of detail.
He is also excellent on some of the bigger issues. Was Hobsbawm an Outsider or an Insider? This question might seem strange. As a schoolboy he was a foreigner in Vienna and Berlin. In Berlin he was known as “der Englander” (“The English Boy”) and was one of barely thirty Jewish boys out of almost four hundred pupils. When he came to London at fifteen, a Central European Jewish orphan, he spent much of his time in the local library. At King’s College he was in his own words “an untypical student at Cambridge”, a Communist, ferociously ugly, non-sporty and extraordinarily erudite (he was awarded a Double Starred First, the highest degree you could get at Cambridge).
Hobsbawm’s father died of a heart attack in 1929, when Eric was just eleven. His mother, an Austrian Jew, died two years later of lung disease. In his memoir, Hobsbawm writes, “For the last year and a half of her life she died slowly in a succession of hospitals and sanatoria.” He was orphaned at fourteen and moved to Berlin to live with his uncle and aunt. In 1933 he moved to Britain with his family. In 1939 his uncle, sister and cousin (Aunt Gretl died of stomach cancer in 1936) moved to Chile leaving him behind. Hobsbawm’s childhood was a time of displacement and loss. Here and in Interesting Times there are frequent references to how alone he was, how he didn’t belong. “I do not belong”. “How isolated I really was”. “A stranger who knew nobody”. “Unanchored and alone.”
What is striking is how little this features in Hobsbawm’s auto-biography. The deaths of his parents are briefly described, but the impact of this tragedy on his later life is barely discussed. The moment when the rest of his family moved to Chile in spring 1939 merits a few sentences. It is an autobiography without a centre. At its heart there is emptiness, an unspeakable sadness. This sadness gets spoken in other, hidden ways. A bottle of Tokay wine and a bicycle, a present from his mother, become strangely resonant images, speaking for his loss. Words like “alone” and “disappear” resonate through the book’s early chapters.
Evans barely comments on this. He is a first-rate historian but not much of a reader. Language and images pass him by. So do some of the larger questions. How does this threefold outsider, foreigner, Jew and Communist, become such an insider? Already at Cambridge he edits the most prestigious student magazine, Granta, and is invited to join the Apostles. In later years, he broadcast for the BBC, wrote regularly for The Guardian, The New Statesman and Marxism Today; he turned down a knighthood but accepted the appointment as Companion of Honour, far more prestigious; by the end of his life he could be heard talking about The Communist Manifesto on Start The Week or about jazz on Desert Island Discs, two of the BBC’s most popular radio programmes.
In a review of Interesting Times, the historian Richard Vinen pointed out that “Hobsbawm … has always been an institutions man.” He was, wrote Vinen, “in a strange way, a very English figure. …he was at home in those gentleman’s clubs – the Apostles, the Athenaeum, the British Academy - that dominated 20th century English intellectual life.” Perhaps Sir Richard Evans, Fellow of the British Academy, former Regius Professor of History at Cambridge and former Master of Wolfson College, Cambridge, has never been enough of an outsider to be more interested in this issue.
There are three more important areas where Hobsbawm’s silence is troubling. First, Jewishness. Here Evans is tone deaf. In his memoir Hobsbawm barely mentions antisemitism and on the few occasions when he does, he doesn’t engage with it as an issue. Evans makes fifteen references to antisemitism, all perfunctory, in his 800-page biography. There is only one reference in the whole book to antisemitism on the British Left and hardly any to Communist antisemitism in east Europe (the 1940s show trials were predominantly directed against Jews) or to Soviet antisemitism, under Stalin or later Soviet leaders. Did Hobsbawm have nothing to say about any of this? If not, why not? Evans seems more interested in Hobsbawm’s sales in Brazil (four references) than to Communist antisemitism (one reference).
Then there is Hobsbawm’s consistent anti-Zionism, both in Interesting Times and in Evans’s biography. “I was never a Zionist”, Hobsbawm writes on the last page of his memoir. Elsewhere, he criticizes “the behavior of the government of Israel” and points out his differences over Israel with friends like JL Talmon, James Klugmann and Isaiah Berlin. Evans barely addresses this. There are two pages on Hobsbawm’s anti-Zionism. These end with a poisonous remark about Yiddish: “Would it matter if Yiddish disappeared?” he asked a Jewish friend. “A heap of small languages are disappearing, it’s normal.” Evans makes no comment.
More strikingly, the Holocaust barely appears either. In Interesting Times there are a few references to Auschwitz (including two pages about his family), one to Primo Levi, and barely anything about Nazism. Evans makes five references to Auschwitz, three to the Holocaust, none to leading Holocaust historians or writers. Evans writes, “Eric did not write about the Nazi persecution of the Jews or the murder of his relatives in Auschwitz.” Why not? He quotes a letter from Hobsbawm to a fellow-historian: “I have just found it too difficult to face emotionally.” Could there be more to this? Is that why his history-writing stopped at 1914 until his last major book, written when he was almost seventy?
Hobsbawm’s parents died before the Nazis came to power. His uncle, two aunts and sister all left for Britain before the Holocaust. Other members of his family were less fortunate. His maternal great-uncle Viktor Friedmann and Aunt Elsa, his maternal Great-Uncle Richard Friedmann and Aunt Julie, and his Aunt Hedwig Lichtenstern were all killed at Auschwitz. There is only one moment in his memoir when Hobsbawm addresses this with emotion. “Their names”, he writes, “were entered in … the whitewashed walls of the Altenschul, the ancient synagogue in Prague… I read Uncle Richard’s and Aunt Julie’s names there through tears, not long before the Prague Spring of 1968.”
Evans seems surprisingly incurious about this. There is one paragraph on the subject. The tone is oddly defensive. At the end of this paragraph he writes, “In the immediate post-war years, hardly anything was published on the topic. Most Jews who had survived the war simply wanted to get on with their lives.”
Evans has written a substantial trilogy on Nazism. For over forty years, he has been one of the best British writers on German history. “Hardly anything” is a surprising statement. After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence, edited by David Cesarani and Eric J Sundquist in 2011, argues that far from silence there was a flood of memoirs, history books, oral histories after the war. Jewish survivors “were not “silent””, writes David Cesarani in The Introduction. Rather, “we are overwhelmed by the extent of activity and its richness.” Several chapters in the book properly focus on the extraordinary work of post war Yiddish historians and memoir-writers, many working against huge odds in east Europe. Archives and testimonies were gathered, published and translated. A first historiography of the Holocaust was pulled together. Fascinating individual stories emerge: the pioneering historian Philip Friedman, the writer Ka-Tzetnik, publishers and editors in Buenos Aires (where the original version of Wiesel’s Night was published in Yiddish). These essays challenge what Cesarani calls “the condescension of posterity towards the survivor-writers, memoirists and early historians.” Vasily Grossman, Tadeusz Borowski, Ka-Tzetnik and Primo Levi were among the many famous writers who published accounts of the Holocaust between 1944 and 1947.
It is true that many of the most important early works were published in Yiddish, Polish and Russian. Much was never translated. Some took years. The first books by Wiesel and Primo Levi weren’t translated until the end of the Fifties. Vasily Grossman’s extraordinary accounts of the Holocaust have only just appeared in English. Secondly, the Iron Curtain came down and cut the west off from important work and archives. However, this is a complicated story and can’t just be summed up in one sentence. Hobsbawm’s lack of interest deserves further thought.
More important, this did not change as books about the Holocaust became more available. Almost fifty years after the war, Hobsbawm published Age of Extremes. There are no references to Auschwitz, Belsen or Treblinka. The words Final Solution and Holocaust do not feature in the Index (though “final solution” does appear on page 150). There are passing references to the Holocaust on pages 43, 51, 121 and 149 but these are extremely cursory.
Evans quotes Hobsbawm’s letter to the historian Arno Mayer in the late 1980s. Hobsbawm writes, “Since the first material on the camps came out in the early fifties [sic] or late forties, I have kept away from it. Reading those early publications – I was particularly impressed/depressed by Kogon – I have just found it too difficult to face emotionally.” This was true of many Holocaust survivors and relatives. But elsewhere in his memoir and in Evans’s book, Hobsbawm is at pains to say that he was nota refugee and in Interesting Times he writes, “I do not even have to fit in with the most fashionable posture of the turn of the new century, that of “the victim”, the Jew who, on the strength of the Shoah …, asserts unique claims on the world’s conscience as a victim of persecution.” The tone is typical of the way Hobsbawm writes about Jews and Israel. Again, Evans does not properly address this.
In 1994 Hobsbawm published Age of Extremes, the fourth volume of his history of modern Europe from the French Revolution to the collapse of Soviet Communism. Michael Ignatieff interviewed Hobsbawm for BBC 2. I was the producer. One part of the interview appears in Evans’s biography:
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: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?
Evans rushes to Hobsbawm’s defence. “But, of course,” he writes, “the radiant tomorrow had not been created. His apparent [sic] defence of the mass murders carried out in Stalin’s name was based on a hypothetical statement, not on what had actually happened.” But as with the Holocaust, Hobsbawm took the same position for decades. He became a Communist in 1936 and stayed a Communist for almost sixty years.
In 1931 Hobsbawm (who Evans calls “Eric” throughout his book) arrived in Berlin. These were, he writes in his memoir, “the two most decisive years in my life.” “We were on the Titanic and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg.” “The months in Berlin,” he writes, “made me a lifelong communist.” In an interview in The Guardian, Hobsbawm said, “In Germany there wasn’t any alternative left.” His experience in Berlin is a kind of primal scene for Hobsbawm. It is a moment he returns to again and again over the next sixty years whenever he was asked to defend his decision to join, and then to stay on in, the Communist Party.
This won’t do as history and seems bizarre as autobiography. Of course, Communism was one option for a teenager in Berlin as Hitler came to power. To say, however, that it was the only option, or that it somehow explains his refusal to leave the Communist Party after Stalin, the post-war trials in central and east Europe and 1956 makes little sense. After all, as Hobsbawm himself makes clear in Interesting Times, both his cousin and his sister went in very different directions. His cousin Peter, who Hobsbawm lived with in Berlin, “spent most of his life as an expatriate oil company executive”, and his sister Nancy became “a demonstrably conventional Anglican country matron and Conservative Party activist in Worcestershire in the 1960s.” In Hobsbawm’s words, she “developed a settled determination to live an adult life which had nothing whatever in common [my emphasis] with the continental, emotional, argumentative, intellectual households of her teenage years.” People could – and did - react in very different ways to growing up in unstable central Europe. So why did he make the choices he did?
Evans offers a very persuasive argument here. “With its songs, chants and marching,” he writes, “the Communist demonstration … gave Eric a strong, even ecstatic sense of identity.” An orphan at 13, his crucial early experiences were of displacement and loss. “The ecstatic feeling of being part of a great mass movement,” writes Evans towards the end of his book, “whose members were closely bound together by their common ideals engendered a lifelong, viscerally emotional sense of belonging that formed a substitute for his shattered family life…”
One of the recurrent motifs in Hobsbawm’s memoir is belong-ing. “I do not belong.” “I have not been among them.” “He clearly never regarded me even as potentially belonging to his world.” The Boy Scouts, the Communist Party, his regiment in the war (with all the cloying talk of “lads” and “mates”) and institutions like the Apostles at Cambridge or the Athenaeum: all offered Hobsbawm somewhere he could belong. He writes in his memoir of being “an accepted member of the official British cultural establishment”. In each case, there is something intense about these institutional attachments. He arrived at King’s College, Cambridge in 1936. With a break during the war, he didn’t leave until 1954. He began teaching at Birkbeck in London in 1947. He was still there in 2002 when he was made President.
Hobsbawm joined the Communist Party at Cambridge in 1936. “Mine was the reddest and most radical generation in the history of the university and I was in the thick of it,” he wrote in his memoir. As Evans shows, this is misleading. “[T]he great majority of undergraduates in Cambridge during the 1930s were not political at all,” Evans writes, “let alone left-wing, though it is often supposed that they were; if the kind of public school student Eric describes had any kind of political views, they were most probably liberal or conservative. … As a self-conscious Communist, Eric was once again in a tiny minority.”
It is at this point in his memoir that Hobsbawm explains why he became and stayed a Communist. First, only revolution could give the world a future. “The old world was in any case doomed.” Second, inter-nationalism. Hobsbawm initially found pre-war Britain “insular in every sense,” “provincial, boring and predictable.” It was, he told an interviewer in the last months of his life, “an enormous bore.” The Communist Party represented an escape from English provincialism, intellectually but also in terms of the people he got to know. He often said later that to have left the Party would have betrayed a generation of friends, anti-fascists who had fought with the Resistance, people who were heroic and idealistic. In an interview in 1990 he said,
I don’t wish to be untrue to my past or to friends and comrades of mine, a lot of them dead, some of them killed by their own side, whom I’ve admired and who in many ways are models to follow, in their unselfishness and devotion.
What he doesn’t say is that when he talks about such individuals they are always Europeans. In his memoir he writes movingly of Franz Feuerlich, an Austrian Communist, “a hero of our times”, born in the Ukraine, brought up in interwar Vienna. Evans doesn’t ask, but was Hobsbawm’s passion for the Party a way of talking about being European? If Guy Burgess, in Alan Bennett’s brilliant TV drama, was An Englishman Abroad, was Hobsbawm a European in England?
There’s something sentimental about Hobsbawm’s loyalty to these fallen comrades. It’s as if he could only think of Communists as victims not as perpetrators. This is the difference between armchair Communists like him and the great witnesses of the Soviet Terror. When the Soviet poet Lev Ozerov meets Shalamov, author of The Kolyma Tales, newly released from the Gulag, he notices how the writer greedily devours every crumb on his plate. He describes a phone call from the KGB finance department to the widow of one of the Yiddish poets. “It seems we owe you a little money.” She’s puzzled. There is a pause. “We owe you for the teeth.” “What teeth?” “The gold crowns.” Hobsbawm never quotes such accounts.
Hobsbawm never makes the obvious distinction between the brave Communists he reveres and the apparatchiks in 1930s Russia or in post-war East Europe. “Of course,” he writes in Interesting Times, “we did not, and could not [sic], envisage the sheer scale of what was being imposed on the Soviet peoples under Stalin at the time… and were reluctant to believe the few who told us what they knew or suspected.”Why “of course”? Why was he unwilling to believe the testimony of those who had experience of the Soviet Union or of post-war East Europe?
One of the fascinating absences in his memoir and in Evans’s biography is the group of writers who bore witness to Communism. In Interesting Times there is one reference to Koestler, none to Orwell, Milosz or Kolakowski. In Evans there are two pages about Koestler, two references to Orwell, one sentence about Kolakowski, nothing about Milosz. These are curious omissions. What about what Hobsbawm wrote or said? On the show trials of 1936-37:
Consider: the following facts are fairly well established: the accused are people who have, at various times in the past, been in violent disagreement with the Party Line, have at various times been expelled from the party and deposed from their positions… Second, Trotsky had for the last five years or more consistently advocated the overthrow of the USSR as a non-socialist and anti-revolutionary body… Third, the accusations are not intrinsically impossible. (3 February 1937)
In 1939 he welcomes the Nazi-Soviet Pact. “We accepted the new line, of course.” In 1940 he and the literary critic Raymond Williams wrote a pamphlet defending the Soviet invasion of Finland. Then came the Soviet invasion of the Baltic Republics. “Wonderful news,” wrote Hobsbawm. Stalin’s annexation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina made him “want to sing and dance”.
Of course, he was a young man then, in his early twenties. After the war (“I had neither a “good war” nor a “bad war”, but an empty war”) there is the Soviet takeover of east Europe and the show trial of Rudolf Slansky and other leading Czech Communists. This gets one sentence in Evans. We are not told what Hobsbawm thought. In Interesting Times Hobsbawm writes, “Czechs, East Germans and Hungarian academics were the Party members in the Soviet bloc I saw most of.” Did they tell him nothing? He approvingly quotes Charles Maier’s description of the GDR as “relatively sanguinary”. It was “tolerable enough,” Hobsbawm writes.
Perhaps he didn’t have enough access to information in the early 1950s. What is devastating, though, is that forty years later when he published The Age of Extremes, Tony Judt pointed out that “real existing socialism” in postwar eastern Europe only received six pages out of six hundred, with only a single paragraph on the show trials of the 1950s.
In the winter of 1954-5 Hobsbawm and some fellow Communist historians visited the Soviet Union. It was his first time. “I returned from Moscow politically unchanged [my emphasis] if depressed,” he writes in Interesting Times. “It was an interesting but also a dispiriting trip for foreign communist intellectuals, for we met hardly anyone there like our-selves [my emphasis],” he goes on. He was writing about the mid-1950s, after twenty-five years of Stalin’s rule. He knew full well the human circumstances that lie behind such remarks. When Leo Labedz stood outside the LSE with a pink carnation in his lapel in 1953, to celebrate the death of Stalin, when Isaiah Berlin returned from Leningrad, having met with Akhmatova and Pasternak in 1945, or when Czeslaw Milosz wrote The Captive Mind in 1951/2, they knew what Soviet Communism was. To compare their accounts with Hobsbawm’s account of his visit to Moscow doesn’t reflect well on Hobsbawm as a political thinker or as a moral being.
When Soviet tanks entered Hungary, it led to the break-up of the British Communist Party. Most of its leading intellectuals left. Hobsbawm famously remained though, as Evans points out, he wrote or signed a number of letters to the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, and the New Statesman in protest against the response of the British Party leadership. Though he stayed, it was a turning-point for Hobsbawm. “Party membership no longer meant to me what it had since 1933.” Again, back to Berlin.
It was a turning-point in his historical work. Evans writes, “It was striking in terms of the trajectory of Eric’s thought that he had moved by the middle of the 1950s from writing about the rising industrial working class to writing about the dispossessed and the marginalised, from history’s eventual victors, as he saw it, to history’s undoubted losers.”
Twenty years later, with the fall of Soviet Communism, Hobsbawm himself became one of history’s losers. The fall of Communism in east Europe and then the Soviet Union merits just three pages in Interesting Times. He couldn’t come to terms with it, let alone offer any kind of analysis. The relevant chapter ends, “The world may yet regret that, faced with Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of socialism or barbarism, it decided against socialism.” He could not admit that what he called socialism was barbarism.
1989 ushered in a new phase of pessimism in his writing, both about politics and history. In an article appropriately called, “Goodbye to All That,” he wrote, “It is much easier to see 1989 as a conclusion than as a beginning. It was the end of the era in which world history was about the October Revolution.”1989 was a “conclusion”, an ending. Since 1989, history has been dominated by forces he didn’t like (the spread of liberal democracy, global capitalism) or didn’t understand (nationalism, ethnic identity, religious fundamentalism).
This was a problem that had started much earlier. As Evans makes clear, Hobsbawm was always strangely hostile to the 1960s. He found the decade “puzzling,” he was “sceptical” and “uncomprehending”. He “misunderstood” and concludes, “I am not part of that story.” He writes about May ”68 and Cuba but from the outside. It didn’t engage him. He wrote superbly in Interesting Times on France in the Thirties but more or less stops with the death of De Gaulle, just as his account of Spain stops with Franco and his writing on Italy is best on the Fifties.
Hobsbawm was “at home” in the 1930s and the Cold War in a way he wasn’t with the late 20th century. It is no coincidence that in The Age of Extremes. he called the last thirty years of the 20th century “The Landslide”. It was for Hobsbawm and his politics. These were the years when his politics were swept away and he never produced a worthwhile analysis of what had happened. In a lecture in 1993 called “The Present as History,” he wrote,
Much of my life, probably most of my conscious life, was devoted to a hope which has been plainly disappointed, and to a cause which has plainly failed: Communism, initiated by the October Revolution.
Evans describes a party which Hobsbawm attended in 1998. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recorded the occasion in his diary: “Eric describing the three breakdowns of the 2th century, 1918, 1945 and 1989, of which, he claimed, the last was the worst.” Murray Kempton whispered to Schlesinger, “the last Stalinist.”
The central question is whether his politics affected his history-writing. Evans is scrupulously fair in quoting reviews of Hobsbawm’s books over more than sixty years. Again, he has trawled the archives with tremendous energy and presents a wide range of reviews, good and bad.
In the first half of his career, from 1948 to the early 1970s, he and his colleagues at the journal, Past & Present,effectively re-wrote much of the British past for a huge, popular audience. These books changed the way we think about the 18th and 19th centuries and the way we think about history altogether, shifting the emphasis from the high politics of Whigs, Parliaments and Kings to “history from below”, the social history of artisans, farm labourers and industrial workers.
The consensus now, though, is that the great trilogy – The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975) and The Age of Empire (1987) – were his best work. Over twenty-five years he told the history of modern Europe from the French Revolution to the First World War. The Guardian hailed these as “the most powerful history of modernity we possess”. Writing in The London Review of Books, Edward W. Said called them “one of the summits of historical writing in the post-war period”.
The range is formidable: from Jacobins to jazz, from bandits in rural Italy to the Cold War. But what made him such a popular writer was the style. Evans describes it well: “bold generalisation, engaging detail, immense readability, thought-provoking and sometimes epigrammatically expressed hypotheses, breadth of coverage, dazzling erudition, and cogent, stylish exposition.” His ideal reader, Hobsbawm wrote in the Preface to The Age of Revolution, was “the intelligent and educated citizen.” Evans suggests that this clear style “derived not least from the experience of teaching Birkbeck students, all mature part-timers who had spent years away from formal education and thus constituted exactly the kind of intelligent general public to whom these books were addressed.”
Hobsbawm was the master of the telling detail. “Europeans were, on the whole, distinctly shorter and lighter than they are today,” he writes in The Age of Revolution. “In one canton on the Ligurian coast 72 per cent of the recruits in1792-9 were less than 1.50 metres (5 ft. 2 in.) tall.” On the next page, he tells us that most people “lived and died in the county, and often the parish, of their birth: as late as 1861 more than nine out of ten in seventy of the ninety French departments lived in the department of their birth.”
He combines this grasp of detail with what Martin Jacques has called “his incomparable ability to synthesize”:
He could make connections, see patterns, discern trends, and draw big pictures in a way that was far beyond the capacity of other historians… He was also possessed of an acutely analytical mind: he could reduce problems and questions to their essence, could invariably see the wood and not be distracted by the trees, even if he knew the names of all the trees.
Hobsbawm brought together three kinds of influence: Marxism (Evans is very good, for example, on the influence of Lefebvre’s work on the French Revolution on Hobsbawm); the French Annales school; and the social sciences. As a student in the 1930s he was drawn to inter-disciplinary work being done at the London School of Economics: from demography, sociology and social anthropology to the work of outsiders like Norbert Elias and Karl Polanyi. This was perhaps another way in which Hobsbawm’s foreignness could be expressed. While his contemporaries were reading GM Trevelyan, he was reading Marx, Weber and Sombart. By contrast, he was uninterested in most contemporary British historians. In Interesting Times there are barely any references to figures like Lewis Namier, AJP Taylor or Hugh Trevor-Roper. Leading historians who emerged in the Seventies are simply ignored. Schama, Tony Judt and Mark Mazower are not mentioned. Women historians are almost entirely absent. Leading American historians? Nothing. The exceptions are the Communist Party Historians” Group, especially EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, and the Annalistes, Braudel and Marc Bloch, figures he encountered as a young historian. This is a pattern. His politics were formed in the 1930s. His idea of history was formed between the 1930s and the 1950s.
And yet no one doubts his originality. It’s not just that his social history opened up a huge new landscape. His lecture, The Forward March of Labour Halted? (1978) changed the nature of the debate on the Labour Party during the Thatcher era. The Invention of Tradition, a collection of essays he co-edited in 1983, had a great impact on how the past became mythologised. His history of the 20th century, Age of Extremes (1994), gave a whole new shape to what he called “the short 20th century”, and re-defined it for many readers. Many of us, perhaps without knowing it, see the past two hundred years through Hobsbawm’s work. It is an extraordinary achievement.
There was also an element of luck. He emerged during the golden age of popularization, when historians like AJP Taylor and EP Thompson drew a huge audience to history. Like them, he wrote Big History. He belonged to an age which saw history as full of drama and great turning-points. Early in The Age of Revolution he set out his stall, writing of “the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture and metallurgy, writing, the city and the state.” The pages that follow are full of the language of “transformation”, “revolution”, “triumph”, “crisis and “conquest”.
A clear narrative line drives through all four books of his sequence. There is one central story. It is not just the story of “the long 19th century”, from 1789-1914, and then “the short 20th century”. His story is “the triumph of a liberal-bourgeois capitalism”. In The Age of Revolution, he writes, “the great revolution of 1789-1848 was the triumph not of “industry” as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general but of middle class or “bourgeois” liberal society…” These are the three cornerstones of his great edifice: Capitalism, the Bourgeoisie and Liberalism.
Around this central story-line, Hobsbawm weaves individual stories and other themes. His range of interests was prodigious. The Index of The Age of Revolution takes us from the Algerian leader Abd el-Kader and the mathematician Henrik Abel to Zoroastrianism and the battle of Zurich in 1799; The Age of Capital goes from Verdi’s Aida and Millet’s Angelus to Zionism and Zulus; The Age of Empire from Action Francaise and the Agadir crisis to Zapata and Zola’s J”Accuse.
Context was also important to Hobsbawm’s success.The 1960s and “70s were, crucially, the heyday of the New Left and of social history, on both sides of the Atlantic. “It is a good moment to be a social historian”, he wrote in 1971. He was a Left-wing historian writing for radical students and college teachers. And internationally he benefited from the rise of authoritarianism in South America, the southern Mediterranean, Turkey and South Korea after the 1970s. These students devoured his books on international history. His overseas sales were astonishing.
However, even in his heyday, Hobsbawm had his critics. Too little about women. Where was the peasantry? Or the power & influence of pre-industrial aristocratic elites, Prussian Junkers or plantation-owners in the American South? Why did he ignore nationalism? Hobsbawm didn’t take religion seriously. In The Age of Capital there are eight references to the Roman Catholic Church, six to Islam and a few scattered references to Protestantism. In The Age of Empire, there are no references to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Sikhism.
Was his writing too Eurocentric? In The Age of Revolution there are over thirty references to Paris, almost twenty to Manchester but none to Boston and just three to New York, one each to Japan and the Mughal Empire. Even in The Age of Empire, there are fifty or more references to Germany (56), Russia (50) and Great Britain (49), but only eight to India and Africa, six to China and five to Latin America. Calcutta and Bombay appear once, so too the Boxer Rising and Sun Yat-Sen. Cairo and Islam don’t appear at all.
His world was essentially European. Africa and Asia don’t seem to interest him. In his chapter in Interesting Times on “The Third World”, there are three pages on Indian Communists he knew, one page on a 1930s trip to North Africa and to South America. On Africa and the rest of Asia? Nothing. It is the Russian Revolution that inspires him, not the Chinese. Although he was born in Alexandria he says (three times) that Egypt “is not part of my life”. Perhaps that is why his account of the post-war decades is so positive in his memoir and in Age of Extremes.The huge casualties of Asia and Africa during the years between Indian Partition and Cambodia just don’t engage him as much.
America is an astonishing absence. Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln are curiously marginal. Kennedy and Reagan are referred to only four times each in Age of Extremes (less often, for example, than Bukharin). The United States rarely receives the same amount of attention as Germany or the Soviet Union. “He neither narrates nor explains the century’s central story: American supremacy in politics, markets, and mass culture,” wrote Stephen Kotkin in The New Yorker. It may have been the American Century for some, but not for Hobsbawm.
Then there is the political bias. Throughout the tetralogy, it is always the revolutionaries, socialists and Communists who loom largest. Of course, these books cover the French, Industrial and Russian Revolutions. But does that really explain why The Age of Revolution has so much more time for the Chartists and the Carbonari than for leading figures of the American Revolution? Did “[A] proletarian-socialist revolutionary movement” really come into existence in the 1830 revolution? What does he even mean by “proletarian” in early 19th century Paris – or Britain? Or by “bourgeoisie”, a key word in both The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, but one which goes undefined? What are the relations between the economic power of the 19th century bourgeoisie and its political power in European society?
Throughout the first three books, Hobsbawm consistently undervalues the economic and political importance of the aristocracy and peasantry, preferring to look for signs of “proletarian” revolutionary potential. He constantly writes of “the era of the triumphant bourgeois” and “the victorious bourgeois order” on the one hand and the significance of the urban working class on the other (see his account of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions in France) but he fails to give due emphasis to the importance of the land and the rural population in the long 19th century: the counter-revolutionary French peasantry in the 1790s, 1840 and 1871, the Agrarian South and the American Civil War, the agrarian question in Russia, the power of the Prussian Junkers, the Irish Famine and the political consequences of the fall of agricultural prices during the Great Depression in the late 19th century. These are all major moments in modern history and yet although there is a chapter on “The Land” in The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm fails to do them justice because as a Marxist his eye is always on the bourgeoisie and working class. In The Age of Revolution, for example, La Grande Peur in the summer of 1789, a crucial moment in The French Revolution, receives just one paragraph. If you didn’t know that rural France supported the government against the Paris Commune you wouldn’t learn it from The Age of Capital.
This is minor by comparison with the problems in Age of Extremes Hobsbawm’s account of Stalinism is full of the language of evasion and euphemism. He writes, “any policy of rapid modernization in the USSR, under the circumstances of the time, was bound to be ruthless.” Stalin’s economic policy was “closer to a military operation [sic] than an economic enterprise”, but “like military enterprises which have genuine popular moral legitimacy [sic], the breakneck industrialization of the first Five-Year Plans (1929-1941) generated support [sic] by the very “blood, toil, tears and sweat” it imposed on its people.” Then on the next page, “The “planned economy” of the Five-Year Plans which took the place of NEP in 1928 was necessarily a crude instrument [sic].” This is the language of a Party member, not of a historian.
Readers of Timothy Snyder’s The Bloodlands will wonder about Hobsbawm’s treatment of the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic Republics. Hobsbawm offers four references to the Ukraine, none to the famine of 1930s, but he does manage to say that the Soviet Union “continued to have trouble with Ukrainian and other nationalist guerrillas for some years.” There are just two references to Belarus – neither during the Stalin years. Among the few references to the Baltic Republics, there are none to the fifty-year occupation which began in 1940 and which the young Hobsbawm celebrated.
In his tone, his vocabulary and his use of statistics, Hobsbawm never does justice to the horrors of Stalinism. The worst years of the Stalinist terror are “covered” in fourteen pages in a book of over 600 pages. The Gulag appears twice, each time in just one sentence.
Later in his life, Hobsbawm came in for sustained criticism for these omissions. Robert Conquest wrote that Hobsbawm suffered from a “massive reality denial” regarding the USSR. Reviewing Hobsbawm’s memoir, Interesting Times, Niall Ferguson wrote:
He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against the Wei-mar-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.
When he died in 2012, EJ Hobsbawm was the Grand Old Man of British History. He changed the way two generations thought of British and European history, and, more important, of history itself. He wrote big, ambitious books in a lively accessible style. “He is a historian, not a novelist,” wrote his longtime friend, Neal Ascherson,“but the engine inside his narrow head is a Rolls-Royce imagination.”
However, the notable areas of silence – about Jewishness and the crimes of Communism especially – are, ultimately, devastating. Can you trust a history of modern Europe which is seriously misleading about the French and Russian Revolutions, which barely touches on the Gulag, the Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution, which has so little to say about women and peasants, religion and nationalism, America and Africa?
And what, finally, can we say about Hobsbawm’s view of Soviet Communism? In a review called “The piety and provincialism of Eric Hobsbawm”, the political philosopher, John Gray, wrote that Hobsbawm’s writings on the 20th century are “highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism.” Tony Judt wrote that, “Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.” Thanks to Richard Evans’s labours it is hard to dispute these judgments.