‘Eric Hobsbawm — A Life in History’ review: Rebel with many causes

A masterly study on Eric Hobsbawm, one of the 20th century’s most influential leftist intellectuals

April 27, 2019 05:04 pm | Updated 05:04 pm IST

In early 1933, in the final days of the Weimar Republic, Eric Hobsbawm was in Berlin. He had lost his parents, and his uncle and aunt had taken him to Berlin where he joined his younger sister. As a teenaged student, Hobsbawm saw Germany falling into the hands of the Nazis. Hitler’s Brownshirts were unleashing widespread violence on the streets of Berlin. The country’s economy was in a shambles. Political instability was at its peak and the Nazi party was growing in popularity. Those were the formative years of the political Hobsbawm. “In this highly politicised atmosphere, it was perhaps hardly surprising that Eric soon became interested in the communist cause,” writes Richard J. Evans in Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History , a biography of one of the most renowned historians of the 20th century.

‘Force of opposition’

Evans, himself a historian, and a friend and admirer of Hobsbawm, has done extensive research, got hold of his personal files as well as the documents prepared by the British secret service on him and interviewed friends, students and family members to reconstruct the life of the historian, who was born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and died in 2012, when the global economy was struggling to weather the heavy winds of the Great Recession. He starts with Hobsbawm’s Jewish, immigrant roots, poverty-stricken childhood, his father’s death, mother’s prolonged and painful battle with tuberculosis and his shift to Berlin. Hobsbawm would leave Germany soon after the Nazis came to power but the association he developed with the communist movement, which he saw as “the biggest force in opposition” to the Nazis, would stay throughout his life.

But Hobsbawm was not an activist. He was primarily an academic, a writer. Throughout his youth, he struggled to establish himself as a historian. It was not easy. His doctoral thesis was rejected by Cambridge University Press. Another manuscript he submitted to Hutchinson was also turned down. He would join Birkbeck, the University of London’s college for mature students, after his applications to Cambridge and Oxford were repeatedly rejected. In this phase, he was also grappling with some crises in his personal life. Hobsbawm’s first marriage was a painful failure which threw him off his emotional balance. He had a couple of affairs with married women, which did not last long. And in 1962, at age 45, he remarried, beginning a relationship that would stabilise him. As an author and historian, Hobsbawm made his name when Primitive Rebels was published in 1959 in which he narrated the story of anarchists, fascists and ‘social bandits’. Hobsbawm’s greatest works would come with the ‘Age’ series — The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994). They would sell millions of copies in different parts of the world and in different languages.

While acknowledging Hobsbawm’s wisdom and his brilliance as a historian, Evans doesn’t overlook the controversial positions he took. His admiration towards Stalin (The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was a ‘wise move’), his support for the Soviet attack on Finland (it was ‘defensive’) and the defence of the intervention in Hungary (‘If we had been in the position of the Soviet government, we should have intervened’) would leave readers amused. But Hobsbawm had not always stuck to the party line. He was a rebel (may be with a cause), especially in the later part of the Cold War. “On the one hand he was wedded at a very deep emotional level to the idea of belonging to the communist movement, but on the other hand he was absolutely not willing to submit to the discipline the party demanded,” writes Evans.

Personal and public

Hobsbawm was a larger than life public intellectual. He’s known not only for his academic contributions, but also for the influence he wielded among the leftist movements in the global south, from Brazil to India. The challenge before a biographer is to strike a balance between the subject’s personal life and public persona, which Evans takes on successfully. The life is told not only through his notes and interviews with those around him, but also through the words of people like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil where Hobsbawm is immensely popular, and ‘the head of the communist party in... Kerala’ (Evans doesn’t name the party leader).

Hobsbawm was an avid reader. His ‘thirst for knowledge continued right up to the end.’ Even when he was wheelchair-bound and was suffering from leukaemia, he was still reading, Evans writes, quoting his wife and daughter. When his ashes were being buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery where Karl Max’s tomb exists, Julia, his daughter, took a copy of the London Review of Books to the grave because she wanted to give her father ‘one last thing to read.’ “We laid the copy, fresh and folded, on top and then the gravedigger finished his work,” she wrote later.

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History ; Richard J. Evans, Little, Brown/Hachette India, ₹1,299.

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