The Jewish Chronicle

Eric Hob­s­bawm

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AN UN­RE­PEN­TANT Marx­ist and anti-Zion­ist who proudly owned up to be­ing “a non-Jewish Jew” – Eric Hob­s­bawm was a self-styled in­tel­lec­tual who suc­ceeded in spite of his eth­nic iden­tity, not be­cause of it. Yet when his death was an­nounced his life was cel­e­brated by no less an es­tab­lish­ment ed­i­fice than the BBC, which seems to have en­coun­tered lit­tle dif­fi­culty in find­ing literati only too will­ing to sing his praises.

And why not? Hob­s­bawm had not only ap­peared on Desert Is­land Discs. He was not only a Fel­low of the Bri­tish Academy. In 1997 he had been ad­mit­ted as a Com­pan­ion of Hon­our – an Or­der which boasts the Sov­er­eign as its head. Hob­s­bawm nat­u­rally ac­cepted the hon­our but later pub­licly damned monar­chy in gen­eral and the Bri­tish monar­chy in par­tic­u­lar.

Yet this was the man who jus­ti­fied the geno­ci­dal ex­cesses of Josef Stalin. In 1994, in a Bri­tish TV in­ter­view, Hob­s­bawm was asked whether, sup­pos­ing the Com­mu­nist en­ter­prise had suc­ceeded in its aim of cre­at­ing a class­less utopia, but at the cost of 20 mil­lion or so lives, he would still have sup­ported it. He calmly an­swered ‘yes.’

In his later years, Hob­s­bawm ad­mit­ted that Stal­in­ism had been “dis­il­lu­sion­ing.” But in his sur­vey of the 20th cen­tury en­ti­tled The Age of Ex­tremes (1994), he apol­o­gised for Stalin’s at­tack on Fin­land. Deal­ing with Stalin’s re­fus- al to in­ter­vene against the Nazi sup­pres­sion of the War­saw upris­ing (1944) Hob­s­bawm opined that the Jews had sim­ply paid the price for launch­ing their re­volt pre­ma­turely.

For him the col­lapse of Com­mu­nism was a de­feat, and not a vic­tory.

Eric John Ernest Hob­s­bawm’s fa­ther Leopold, then a mi­nor of­fi­cial, was born in Eng­land to Pol­ish-Jewish par­ents. His mother Nel­lie (née Grün) came from a com­fort­able Aus­tri­anJewish back­ground. Af­ter the First World War the fam­ily moved to Vi­enna, but fol­low­ing the death of both par­ents the young Hob­s­bawm and his sis­ter Nancy, fos­tered by an aunt and un­cle, lived for a while in Berlin un­til, in 1933, they moved to Lon­don. Hob­s­bawm be­came a paid-up mem­ber of the Ger­man Com­mu­nist Party, and on reach­ing the UK he trans­ferred this al­le­giance to the Com­mu­nist Party of Great Bri­tain (CPGB), from which he never for­mally re­signed.

Pro­gress­ing from St. Maryle­bone Gram­mar School to King’s Col­lege Cam­bridge, Hob­s­bawm gained a First in his­tory (1939) and, fol­low­ing war ser­vice in the Royal Engi­neers, com­pleted a doc­tor­ate on the Fabian So­ci­ety. In 1947 he se­cured a teach­ing post at Birk­beck Col­lege, then the adult-ed­u­ca­tion arm of Lon­don Univer­sity. He re­mained at Birk­beck un­til his re­tire­ment, as Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor, in 1982.

I n t e r ms o f s h e e r v o l u me Hob­s­bawm’s pub­lished out­put was cer­tainly im­pres­sive. He au­thored some 30 books as well as numer­ous ar­ti­cles. His work on pop­u­lar move­ments in the 18th and 19th cen­turies dis­played a crit­i­cal ob­jec­tiv­ity sadly lack­ing in his writ­ings on the cen­tury that fol­lowed. But even here his judg­ment could be se­lec­tive. Although ac­knowl­edg­ing that the no­tion of a mono­lithic ‘work­ing class’ was lu­di­crously false he ob­sti­nately re­fused to recog­nise the depth of Bri­tish work­ing-class op­po­si­tion to so­cial­ism. He per­sis­tently de­clined to ac­cept that his hero Harry Pol­litt (sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the CPGB, 1929-56) was an an­tisemite.

Hob­s­bawm was an ac­com­plished lin­guist and an author­ity on jazz, on which he wrote un­der a pseu­do­nym. But even the vol­umes of his for­mi­da­ble his­tor­i­cal tetral­ogy – The Age of Rev­o­lu­tion (1962), The Age of Cap­i­tal (1975), The Age of Em­pire (1987) and The Age of Ex­tremes (1994) – are dan­ger­ously se­lec­tive in the facts they present and the in­ter­pre­ta­tions they of­fer, while his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, In­ter­est­ing Times (2002), was breath­tak­ingly lam­bent in its disin­gen­u­ous amends for past mis­takes. Of Stalin’s crimes he wrote: “Th­ese sac­ri­fices [sic] were ex­ces­sive … (and) … should not have hap­pened”. He should have added that it took a long time for him to re­alise this.

In 1943 Hob­s­bawm mar­ried Muriel Sea­man, a fel­low Com­mu­nist. The mar­riage was dis­solved in 1951 and in 1962 he mar­ried Mar­lene Sch­warz, by whom he is sur­vived to­gether with their son and daugh­ter, and a son from an ear­lier re­la­tion­ship.

 ?? PHOTO: AP ?? Eric Hob­s­bawm: Stal­in­ist apol­o­gist who crit­i­cised the War­saw upris­ing
PHOTO: AP Eric Hob­s­bawm: Stal­in­ist apol­o­gist who crit­i­cised the War­saw upris­ing

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