1 Oct 2012

Was historian Hobsbawm an apologist for tyranny?

Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist intellectual who has died aged 95, was by general consent a great historian. But did his political beliefs stop him from acknowledging the reality of tyranny?

Eric Hobsbawm, one of Britain’s finest post-war historians, was pre-eminent in a generation of Marxist thinkers which included Christopher Hill and EP Thomson. He never relinquished his belief in the effect of economic and social forces on history.

In the 1980s, Hobsbawm’s support of the Labour Party’s efforts to transform itself saw him dubbed “Neil Kinnock’s favourite Marxist”, although he later dismissed Tony Blair as a “warlord” for the military commitments undertaken by Britain under his premiership.

The present Labour leader, Ed Miliband – whose father, Ralph, another Marxist theoretician, was Hobsbawm’s contemporary – paid tribute to the historian today in a statement issued from the Labour Party conference in Manchester.

“Eric Hobsbawm was an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics, and a great friend of my family,” he said.

“He was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society,” Mr Miliband continued.

Breadth of vision

Eric Hobsbawm’s best-known works are his four volumes covering the modern historical period, from 1789 to 1991: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes.

The final volume was translated into 40 languages and received several international prizes.

Eric Hobsbawm was an extraordinary historian, a man passionage about his politics, and a great friend of my family. Ed Miliband

Spanning two centuries, the works reveal the breadth of Hobsbawm’s vision and his grasp of the meaning of events, prompting celebrated contemporaries – including Niall Ferguson, Ian Kershaw, and the late Tony Judt – to praise him as among the finest historians of his generation.

But his lifelong support for Communist causes means Hobsbawm continues to be viewed in some quarters as an apologist for some of history’s most unacceptable episodes.

He admitted in 1995 that he had been disillusioned by a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, but he remained a Communist Party member, despite his public opposition to the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the 1968 Prague Spring.

Part of world history

Born in Egypt in 1917, Eric Hobsbawm spent much of his early life in Vienna and Berlin. His family, who were Jewish, fled the German capital to the UK in 1933 during Hitler’s rise to power.

He subsequently maintained that he had been “lucky” to live in Berlin when he did: “If you don’t feel that you are part of world history at that time, you never will.”

Although he joined the British Communist Party in 1936, it was not until the Second World War that the historian came into regular contact with working-class people. He told BBC Radio in 1995: “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.”

After the war Hobsbawm moved into academia. His long-standing connection with Birkbeck College, London University, began in 1947 when he became a lecturer in history. He went on to spend his entire career on the faculty at Birkbeck, and was eventually appointed president.

In 1998 Hobsbawm was made a Companion of Honour, a rare award for a historian.

He is survived by his second wife Marlene, whom he married in 1962, and by two sons, a daughter, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.