The Jewish Chronicle

Eric Hobsbawm


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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