After Hobsbawm lost both his parents, an English father and an Austrian (Jewish) mother before he was fourteen, he was brought up by relatives in Berlin. As a teenager – in 1933 he was sixteen – he witnessed the rise of Hitler. He observed the resistance – and the crushing – of the communists with whom he had sympathized from the beginning. He remained a Marxist until his death at 95 last Sunday, and a member of the communist party until 1989. He became one of England’s greatest historians, and the author of The Age of Revolution 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital 1848–1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire 1875–1914 (1987).
Hobsbawm was one of the few Marxist historians who is respected all over the world, not least because of his wide knowledge and lucid style. His autobiography – Interesting Times, published in 2003 – is remarkable. “The dream of the October Revolution,” he wrote in that book, “is still there somewhere inside me, as deleted texts are still waiting to be recovered by experts, somewhere on the hard disks of computers.”
Of the many obituaries that appeared during the last few days, one was written for CNN Opinion by Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale University. It is worth quoting.
“Just why Eric Hobsbawm thought as he did, wrote as he did, and lived as he did is a matter that is beyond the judgment of any one of his colleagues.… I would like to advance one simple thought. Eric was certainly loyal to the memory of old comrades, and he was sentimental about his own youthful past. In his old age, I suppose without any kind of certainty, he found himself in a historical moment, our own, which still seemed like an age of ideology, with his own ideology in the weaker position. And he was a fighter. As he edited the past according to his own ideology, warping history in a way that can only be troubling, he was defending a Soviet state that no longer existed, and ideas which seemed dead. But wrong as it was, it did embody certain virtues. There is something to be said, after all, for defending the weak, even today, especially today.”