The latest update of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has just been published. It contains biographies of 222 men and women who shaped modern British history and who died in the year 2012. Martin Jacques has written the biography for Eric Hobsbawm, one of the twentieth century’s greatest historians. By kind permission of the Oxford DNB and OUP you can read the biography below or at the Oxford DNB website.
To launch the new edition, the Oxford DNB produced the above video of a discussion about Eric Hobsbawm between Martin Jacques and Professor David Cannadine, Editor of the ODNB.
You can also listen to a 30 minute podcast of the discussion here:
Hobsbawm, Eric John Ernest (1917–2012), historian, was born on 9 June 1917 in Alexandria, Egypt, the elder child of Leopold Percy Hobsbawm, formerly Obstbaum, general merchant, and his wife, Nelly, née Grün. His grandfather was a Polish Jew and cabinet-maker who came to London in the 1870s. Leopold, Eric’s father, was one of eight children, all of whom were born in Britain and took British citizenship. In 1914 Leopold, who was then working in Alexandria for an Egyptian shipping office, met Eric’s mother, a Viennese and one of three sisters. They eventually married in Switzerland in 1916 and returned to Egypt, where Eric was born. In 1919 the family settled in Vienna.
Vienna and Berlin
The circumstances of Hobsbawm’s childhood and early teens were to leave an indelible imprint on the rest of his life. A middle-class family that lived precariously—in a city and country that lived equally precariously—was always on the brink, his father seemingly incapable of holding down a steady job or delivering a secure income. Increasingly the family lived from hand to mouth, dependent on the support of relatives. In 1929 Leopold died late at night outside their front door in the middle of winter, probably from a cardiac arrest, having spent another fruitless day looking for work. Hobsbawm was just twelve. Shortly afterwards, his mother, to whom he was very attached, contracted a lung disease, possibly tuberculosis, and died two years later when Hobsbawm was fourteen.
Hobsbawm and his younger sister, Nancy, lived with various uncles and aunts from the onset of their mother’s illness and after her death. Hobsbawm later wrote: ‘None of the several who were or acted as our parents was fitted for the job by talent or training’ (Interesting Times, 38). During his short time in Vienna he went to five different schools. In late summer 1931, with the financial crisis in full swing, he and his sister moved to Berlin to live with a different uncle and aunt and then later another. The transience of their situation engendered a sense of trauma, loss, and insecurity. Berlin was an entirely different proposition to Vienna. The fabric of the economy and society was disintegrating. The Weimar régime was on its last legs, undermined by the rise of the Nazis on the right and the communists on the left. Hobsbawm wrote: ‘You had the impression of a society going to pieces without any option of a return to the past. That period in Berlin shaped my life’ (BBC Radio 4, 14 April 2012). He went to the Prinz-Heinrichs-Gymnasium through which he experienced what he knew even then, as a very young teenager, to be a decisive moment in twentieth-century history. He told one of the teachers that he was a communist and the teacher told him to go and do some reading, whereupon he went and read the Communist Manifesto. He joined the Sozialistischer Schulerbund, the socialist students’ federation for secondary school pupils. ‘As I entered the school year 1932–3’, Hobsbawm wrote, ‘the sense that we were living in some sort of final crisis, or at least a crisis destined for some cataclysmic resolution, became overpowering’ (Interesting Times, 58). The KPD (the German communist party) organised its last legal demonstration on 25 January 1933, at which Hobsbawm was present. Five days later Hitler was appointed chancellor. In April his Uncle Sidney and Aunt Gretl left Berlin for England taking with them the two young Hobsbawms, when Eric was almost sixteen.
As Hobsbawm wrote in his autobiography,
The months in Berlin made me a lifelong communist, or at least a man whose life would lose its nature and its significance without the political project to which he committed himself as a schoolboy, even though that project has demonstrably failed, and as I now know, was bound to fail. The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me, as deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the hard disks of computers. I have abandoned, nay rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. (Interesting Times, 55–6)
Only in this context can Hobsbawm’s lifelong political commitment be understood: he did not join a party, but an international movement at a most precarious and dangerous moment in human history.
London and Cambridge
In comparison to Vienna or Berlin, Hobsbawm found England ‘an enormous bore’ (BBC Radio 4, 14 April 2012). Not that England was a complete stranger to him. He was born with a British passport, had visited the country, was known at school as ‘Der Engländer’ (Interesting Times, 56), and his mother was a passionate Anglophile. Indeed she allowed only English to be spoken at their home in Vienna. On their arrival in England, Hobsbawm’s youthful political activism came to an abrupt end: his uncle and aunt forbade him from joining the Communist Party or the Labour Party. He went to Marylebone grammar school in central London, from which he greatly profited, winning a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, the first member of his family to go to university and the first person from his school to win a place at Cambridge. One of the things that reconciled him to life in England was that soon after his arrival he discovered jazz—he recalled going to hear Duke Ellington at the Streatham Astoria in London—which was to become a lifelong passion. In 1947 he became a jazz critic; between 1955 and 1965, writing under the pseudonym Francis Newton, he was the jazz critic of the New Statesman; and in 1961 he wrote The Jazz Scene, a widely praised book on jazz.
Hobsbawm started life as a Cambridge undergraduate in 1936 and much enjoyed his time there. In his last term he gained a double first in history, edited the student newspaper Granta, and was elected a member of the Apostles, an elitist society whose previous members included J. M. Keynes, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Within a short time at Cambridge he gained an enviable reputation for his intellectual prowess: ‘Is there anything that Hobsbawm doesn’t know?’ was a familiar refrain among his friends (private information). At Cambridge he resumed his political activism, joining the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1936. In the political ferment of the late 1930s, the Cambridge University branch attracted a large membership. Hobsbawm was elected to the three-person branch secretariat, the highest political office he was ever to achieve: at Cambridge he realised that he was not cut out to be a leader, nor was he a good organiser.
Almost immediately after Hobsbawm’s graduation in 1939 the Second World War broke out: he applied to join the Intelligence Corps and was rejected, probably because of his communist affiliation combined with the fact that he had spent much of his early life on the continent. Instead he served in the Royal Engineers and the Army Educational Corps. He later wrote: ‘I had neither a “good war” nor a “bad war”, but an empty war. I did nothing of significance in it, and was not asked to’ (Interesting Times, 154). On 12 May 1943 he married Muriel Seaman (1916–1963), whom he had met as an undergraduate at Cambridge; she was the daughter of Alfred George Seaman, bank officer, and at the time of their marriage was working as a temporary civil servant at the Board of Trade.
After the war, Hobsbawm received a research studentship and in 1947 he was given a lectureship at Birkbeck College. In 1949 he was made a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and for the next six years he divided his time between Cambridge and London. His academic career, however, was to be seriously affected by the cold war. He unsuccessfully applied for various posts at Cambridge. As is now clear from his MI5 files at the National Archives, which were made partially available in 2014, MI5 even drew the Cambridge chief constable’s attention to Hobsbawm’s attempts to gain a permanent university post. Although Hobsbawm was disappointed not to get a university post at Cambridge, he was far more suited to London, as he himself recognised. Even at Birkbeck, he found his promotion blocked: he was not made a reader until 1959 and, quite extraordinarily, given his reputation by that time, he only became a professor in 1970.
Marxism, history, and the CPGB
Hobsbawm’s own intellectual progress, however, was far from stymied. He completed his PhD on the Fabians and in 1948 he published his first book, Labour’s Turning Point, an edited collection of documents from the Fabian era. In 1959 he published his first major work, Primitive Rebels, a highly original account of southern European rural secret societies and millenarian cultures. He returned to these themes a decade later in Captain Swing (1969), a study of rural protest in early nineteenth-century England, with George Rudé, and most notably in Bandits (1969), which was over time to spawn a huge literature on the subject. It is not difficult from this thread of his writing to see why Hobsbawm later said that if he had not been an historian he would like to have been an anthropologist. In 1964 he published Labouring Men, a collection of essays on the history of labour, including one on the standard of living debate in the first half of the nineteenth century. The book served to establish his pre-eminence in the scholarly history of the British working classes.
Hobsbawm was a key figure in the Communist Party Historians’ Group which was established in 1946 and whose illustrious membership included E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, John Saville, and Victor Kiernan. He was also a key player in the formation of Past and Present, a historical journal that was founded in 1952 by a group of Marxist historians. Its aim was to break the mould of traditional historical journals by introducing new ideas and approaches, not least those of the social sciences. In its opening number, drawing on the intellectual tradition of Annales in France, it said:
we shall make a consistent attempt to widen the somewhat narrow horizon of traditional historical studies among the English-speaking public. The serious student in the mid-twentieth-century can no longer rest in ignorance of the history and historical thought of the greater part of the world. (‘Introduction’, Past and Present, 1/1, 1952, iv)
Hobsbawm, above all others, was to personify this endeavour. His interests and his insatiable curiosity swarmed across the globe, starting with Europe, of course, where his experience of Vienna and Berlin provided him with a unique and compelling apprenticeship. Although he held a lectureship at Birkbeck in economic history, and became a council member of the Economic History Society, such boundaries had little or no meaning for his work, knowledge, or horizons. He was an historian in the true holistic sense of the term, fascinated equally by economic, social, political, artistic, and cultural history and how, in his own words, ‘they hang together’ (Age of Extremes, 1994, 3), as he was to show brilliantly in his later four-volume work on the making of modern Europe.
The Communist Party Historians’ Group was eventually disbanded in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, leading to the departure from the CPGB of a majority of its intellectuals and a large majority of the Historians’ Group. Hobsbawm did not leave; as a consequence it was often assumed that his opposition to the USSR’s invasion of Hungary was perhaps milder. This was not the case. He wrote, for example, a blistering attack on the role of the Soviet Union in a letter to the Daily Worker on 12 November 1956. One of the most interesting aspects of the MI5 files at the National Archives is what they reveal about the attitude of the CPGB leadership towards Hobsbawm: it can best be described as dismissive bordering on the contemptuous, and miserably small-minded. Indeed, the CPGB leadership came close to expelling him because of his opposition to the party line on Hungary. The events of 1956 marked a turning point in his relationship with the party. He wrote in his autobiography:
Though I remained in the CP, unlike most of my friends in the Historians’ Group, my situation as a man cut loose from his political moorings was not substantially different from theirs. In any case my relations with them remained the same.
Party membership no longer meant to me what it had since 1933. In practice I recycled myself from militant to sympathiser or fellow-traveller, or, to put it another way, from effective membership of the British Communist Party to something like spiritual membership of the Italian CP, which fitted my ideas of communism rather better. (Interesting Times, 216–17)
This was to become increasingly apparent later, especially in the 1970s, with the rise of Eurocommunism and the growing interest in the work of Antonio Gramsci, with which Hobsbawm strongly identified. His work was held in high regard by the Italian Communist Party and he was close friends with Giorgio Napolitano, later the Italian president from 2006 to 2015.
The early 1960s ushered in a new phase in Hobsbawm’s life. His first marriage was unhappy, ending in divorce in 1951. In 1958 he had a son, Joshua (Joss) Bennathan (d. 2014) with Marion Bennathan, but the relationship did not last. In 1962 he married Marlene Schwarz, with whom he was to form an extremely rich and rewarding partnership which lasted until his death, with many shared interests including travel, languages, music, entertaining, and party-going. From then on it was always Eric and Marlene. Hobsbawm found a new kind of happiness and contentment and, with their two children, Andy (b. 1963) and Julia (b. 1964), a stable and loving family life that he had never experienced himself as a child and teenager. The Hobsbawms were great entertainers at their home in Nassington Road, Hampstead. Marlene was a wonderful host and Hobsbawm was highly convivial and stimulating company. Dinner there was enormously enjoyable and uplifting: there was never a dull moment, and ideas, stimulation, not to mention laughter, filled the air. In Hobsbawm’s company, people felt that they were at the centre of the universe, which, in a sense of course, they were. Their social circle spread far and wide, reaching into the most unlikely quarters. Hobsbawm enjoyed the company of those who he found interesting, and saw no reason why they should share his politics: ‘I never choose my friends for their politics’, he said. Marlene, it is worth noting, was also Hobsbawm’s constant interlocutor: he got her to cast her critical eye over more or less everything he wrote before it was published.
Historian of the modern world
Two of Hobsbawm’s most successful books were published during the 1960s. In reverse order, Industry and Empire (1968), a study of Britain from 1750 to the late twentieth century, proved highly influential and brought his writing to the attention of a much wider audience. In 1962 he published The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848, the first of what became over the next thirty-two years his great quadrilogy on more than two centuries of European history. It was followed by The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire, 1875–1914(1987), and finally The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994). The last was, as it were, unplanned, Hobsbawm believing that as an historian he should stick clear of the events of his own lifetime. But the events of the late twentieth century persuaded him otherwise. Arguably it was the most successful of them all: it was translated into thirty-seven languages within the first year of its publication.
These books were a remarkable achievement and display to great effect all of Hobsbawm’s strengths as an historian. He had a huge bank of historical knowledge: seemingly he knew everything, a characteristic that anyone who knew him could attest to. His meticulous respect for detail and his use of concrete example were very much part of the British tradition. He had an extraordinary knowledge and understanding of many different countries and cultures, the antithesis of British insularity, not least that of many of its historians, illuminating his arguments with insights drawn from across Europe and increasingly the wider world. His fluency in German, Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese was, in this context, of huge benefit: he was both a polymath and a polyglot.
Hobsbawm’s breadth of knowledge was combined with his incomparable ability to synthesise. He could make connections, see patterns, discern trends, and draw big pictures in a way that was far beyond the capacity of other historians, and in doing so was able enormously to enhance our understanding of historical events and processes. 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. It is not difficult here to see the vital role that Marxism played in his historical work and its appeal for him: the importance of interconnections, the ability to synthesise, the multi-disciplinary approach, the power of analysis. There was nothing arid or dogmatic or abstract about his Marxism: on the contrary, his work was always surprising, his conclusions never predictable, the role of contingency always respected.
The power of Hobsbawm’s historical mind was well illustrated by a most unlikely example from The Age of Extremes. China was not a subject he had previously written about: as far as is known he went only once, soon after the reform period began. And yet, writing at the end of the 1980s and in the very early 1990s, he showed an acute understanding of Chinese history and its exceptionalism and anticipated in a remarkably prophetic way China’s future rise. His recognition of the fundamental failure of Soviet communism contrasted with his far more optimistic view of China’s prospects, and this at a time when the vast majority of Western observers interpreted the events in Tiananmen Square as a sign that China too was heading for the rocks.
Until the late 1970s, Hobsbawm rarely wrote about politics. The reason was straightforward. As a communist he was aware that whatever he wrote was likely to land him in hot water with the CPGB, of which he remained a member until its dissolution in 1991. He preferred to concentrate on his historical writing. Yet it was obvious from the latter, and also the occasional forays he had made into politics, such as his articles in New Society in the late 1960s, that he had much of interest to say. In 1977, the new editor of Marxism Today asked him to write for the magazine. For the next fourteen years, Hobsbawm wrote regularly for it, becoming its most influential writer and a close collaborator in its work. In September 1978 it published an essay by Hobsbawm entitled ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’. He argued, contrary to the common sense of the time, at least on the left, that the labour movement was in long-term decline and that trade union militancy was becoming increasingly sectional and self-interested in character. The article was highly controversial but proved to be seminal, anticipating what was to happen in the 1980s and subsequently, when the decline of the labour movement became abundantly clear to everyone except the most blinkered. The article led to a book of the same title which was published in 1981.
In the aftermath of the general election of June 1983, Hobsbawm wrote ‘Labour’s Lost Millions’ for Marxism Today (October 1983), analysing the reasons for Labour’s huge defeat. With these articles and others, he was to become highly influential in the Labour Party (though never himself a member). On the eve of the Labour Party conference that year, he was invited to deliver a lecture at a Fabian Society event. It was packed to the rafters and chaired by Neil Kinnock, the new leader-elect, who was fulsome in his praise for Hobsbawm’s writing. Hobsbawm proceeded to bring the house down: ever witty, he began his talk by saying that the Bennite left reminded him of the man who lost his pipe on Hampstead Heath but preferred to search for it in his living room because the light was much better there. The author Claire Tomalin, in a different context but similar vein, recalled asking Hobsbawm many years earlier how, as a communist, he could live in such a splendid house in Hampstead. He replied, in his impish manner, that ‘if you’re in a ship that’s going down you might as well travel first class’ (Evening Standard, 25 April 2013). His articles in Marxism Today established him as a major political thinker and actor, as well as a great historian.
The question that stalked Hobsbawm to the end, especially in the right-wing media, was why he had remained in the Communist Party until it went out of existence. The implication was that he was an apologist for the Soviet Union and by extension for everything done in its name, including the gulags, executions, and other atrocities. In fact his attitude towards the Soviet Union changed fundamentally in 1956, as for many on the left. After the fall of the Berlin Wall he was adamant that the Soviet experiment had failed and had been doomed from the outset. In The Age of Extremes, he set out his position with great clarity. It is worth noting, in this context, that not one of his books was ever published in the Soviet Union. His commitment to communism was never to a party but to something far deeper, namely the events he had witnessed in Berlin in his youth and his identification with those who sacrificed themselves in the fight against the Nazis. In an interview with the historian Simon Schama for the BBC shortly before he died, he said he regarded the question of why he never left as a cold war question which was only asked in the West and never elsewhere. In other words, it was part of a triumphalist mentality that required everyone who in some degree or another had identified with the October Revolution should repent of their sins. Hobsbawm readily admitted that he had been on the losing side, but to the end he honoured the many fine things that were achieved by those who had identified with that cause. That his Age of Extremes, a book devoted to the events in question received such universal praise, was his ultimate answer.
Hobsbawm’s association with Birkbeck College lasted from his appointment as a lecturer in 1947 until his death, a period of sixty-five years. He served as its president in his latter years, from 2002. Apart from King’s College, Cambridge, an institution that he was very fond of, his two main academic connections were with institutions that had radical roots and a radical purpose, namely Birkbeck, an evening college for mature students, and the New School of Social Research in New York, where he spent a semester every year between 1984 and 1997. He enjoyed the challenge of lecturing at Birkbeck in the evenings, and keeping the interest of his students who had been working all day. For a similar reason, he was committed to writing in a style that was both scholarly and accessible to the educated non-specialist reader, which he regarded as part of his responsibility as an historian.
In his latter years, Hobsbawm achieved extraordinary recognition from around the world. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1976, and showered with honorary degrees and awards from countries as far apart as Chile and Greece, Japan and the United States. He was acclaimed as one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century. He was awarded the prestigious Balzan prize in 2003 for his contribution to the understanding of twentieth-century European history, and received almost £250,000 to fund a project of his choice. He became president of the Hay Literary Festival in 2010 (he and Marlene kept a cottage in Wales), and he was made a companion of honour in 1998. He spent his first two decades as an academic who was harshly discriminated against for his political views, and he spent his last three decades increasingly venerated and celebrated. He died at the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, on 1 October 2012, of bronchopneumonia secondary to prostate cancer and other causes, and was survived by Marlene and his three children. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium, and his ashes interred at Highgate cemetery. There were several commemorative meetings, including one organised by Birkbeck in April 2013 and one at the New School, New York, in October 2013; and in April–May 2014 the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, hosted a major international conference entitled ‘History after Hobsbawm’.
E. Hobsbawm, ‘The historians’ group of the Communist Party’, Rebels and their causes, ed. M. Cornforth (1978), 21–48 · R. Samuel and G. S. Jones, eds., Culture, ideology and politics: essays for Eric Hobsbawm (1982) [includes bibliography] · R. Samuel, ‘British Marxist historians, 1880–1980’, New Left Review, 1st ser., 120 (March–April 1980), 21–96 · P. Thane and E. Lunbeck, ‘Interview with Eric Hobsbawm’,Visions of history, ed. H. Abelove and others (1983), 29–46 · P. Thane, G. Crossick, and R. Floud, eds., The power of the past: essays for Eric Hobsbawm (1984) · H. J. Kaye, The British Marxist historians: an introductory analysis (1995) · E. Hobsbawm, Interesting times: a twentieth-century life (2002) · ‘World distempers’, New Left Review, 2nd ser., 61 (Jan–Feb 2010) [interview] · The Times (2 Oct 2012); (4 Oct 2012); (5 Oct 2012); (12 Oct 2012) · Daily Telegraph (2 Oct 2012); (6 Oct 2012) · The Guardian (2 Oct 2012); (3 Oct 2012); (6 Oct 2012); (17 Oct 2012); (24 Oct 2014); (29 Sept 2015) · The Independent (2 Oct 2012) · New York Times (2 Oct 2012) · Morning Star (4 Oct 2012) · Hampstead and Highgate Express (4 Oct 2012) · The Observer (7 Oct 2012); (23 Oct 2012) · New Left Review, 2nd ser., 77 (Sept–Oct 2012) · Past and Present, 218 (2013), 3–15 · WW (2012) · personal knowledge (2016) · private information (2016) · m. cert.  · d. cert.
U. Warwick Mod. RC
A. Macfarlane, interview, 13 Sept 2009, www.alanmacfarlane.com/ancestors/hobsbawm.htm · N. Delalande and F. Jarrige, interview, 21 Jan 2010, www.booksandideas.net/Where-have-the-rebels-gone.html
BL NSA, interview recordings · BL NSA, documentary recordings · Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 10 March 1995 · S. Schama, ‘Hobsbawm: a life in history’, BBC Radio 4, 14 April 2012 [interview]
photographs, 1976–2009, Getty Images · J. Edelstein, bromide fibre print, 1989, NPG · G. Eisler, oils on canvas, 1989, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, 2003–11, Rex Features, London · obituary photographs · photographs, Camera Press, London
Wealth at death
£1,835,341: probate, 23 Dec 2013, CGPLA Eng. & Wales