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Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, who died on 1 October 2012 at the age of 95, was one of the foremost historians of the 20th century. His many books include a three-part study of the ‘long 19th century’ (The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire), Age of Extremes: The Short 20th Century and a memoir, Interesting Times.

Tony Judt

Eric Hobsbawm, 26 April 2012

My relations with Tony Judt date back a long time but they were curiously contradictory. We were friends, though not intimate ones, and while both of us were politically committed historians, and both preferred wearing informal gear as historians rather than regimental uniform, we marched to different drummers. Nevertheless our intellectual interests had something in common. Both of us knew that the 20th century can only be understood fully by those who became historians because they lived through it and shared its basic passion.

Hilde’s Two Husbands

Eric Hobsbawm, 25 August 2011

This is an unusual and illuminating contribution to the literature on Soviet espionage that has become part of Anglo-Saxon folklore. All the more so as it is written from the point of view of the spies rather than their hunters. It is about four people: the author, a retired biochemist of distinction, and the ‘three parents’ whose times shaped his life. They were Hilde, or...

The Jews of San Nicandro

Eric Hobsbawm, 3 February 2011

San Nicandro Garganico is a modest agrarian township of some 16,000 inhabitants on the edge of the spur of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula. It has been somewhat bypassed by Italy’s postwar development and has never been on the tourist circuit, or indeed had anything about it that might attract outsiders. The railway didn’t even reach it until 1931. To judge by the photo in the current Italian Wikipedia entry, it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1957, when I visited it, curious about the subject on which John Davis has now given us a first-rate, concise and attractively written book. San Nicandro has made only two entrances onto the historical stage. It was an early centre of Italian socialism and agrarian struggle in the grain-fields of northern Apulia, whose local political head, Domenico Fioritto, became its deputy and subsequently leader of the Italian Socialist Party. The former Communist Party (now the Democratic Party) continues to supply its mayor. The second appearance of the town in the wider world was less relevant to Italian politics, but globally more prominent, though the postwar headlines would soon be forgotten. It linked the town to a group of local peasants who decided in the 1930s to convert to Judaism and eventually emigrated to Israel. John Davis has not only rescued the ‘Jews of San Nicandro’ from more than a half-century of oblivion, but used them to illuminate 20th-century Europe’s extraordinary history.

Diary: My Days as a Jazz Critic

Eric Hobsbawm, 27 May 2010

I enjoyed the company of the players, and they accepted me as an oddity on the scene (no milieu is more tolerant than that of jazz musicians), sometimes as the sort of walking reference book who could answer (non-musical) queries. I remember one from a tenor player’s girlfriend, about whether it was right to believe in God. But could any non-musician understand what creative musicians are really about, however much he socialised with them? After all, as one of them told me (I think it was the tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt), ‘words are not my instrument.’

Palmiro Togliatti

Eric Hobsbawm, 8 April 2010

The history of the 20th-century Communist movements that never acquired state power has been overshadowed by the extraordinary story of the rise and fall or self-transformation of the regimes inspired by the October Revolution. Within little more than 30 years of Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station, Russia had become a superpower, and one third of humanity was ruled by Communist...

The 1930s

Eric Hobsbawm, 6 August 2009

Such emotions – the extremely widespread dislike of Jews in the West, for instance – were obviously not felt or acted on in the same way by, say, Adolf Hitler and Virginia Woolf. Emotions in history are neither chronologically stable nor socially homogenous, even in the moments when they are universally felt, as in London under the German air-raids, and their intellectual representations even less so.

Mandarin Science

Eric Hobsbawm, 26 February 2009

Joseph Needham was the most interesting mind among the constellation of brilliant ‘red’ scientists of the 1930s, and the most unusual in his ability to combine revolutionary behaviour and convictions with acceptance by the established world of Who’s Who.

Diary: Memories of Weimar

Eric Hobsbawm, 24 January 2008

I spent the most formative time of my life, the years 1931-33, as a Gymnasiast and would-be Communist militant, in the dying Weimar Republic. Last autumn I was asked to recall that time in an online German interview under the title ‘Ich bin ein Reiseführer in die Geschichte’ (‘I am a travel guide to history’). Some weeks later, at the annual dinner of the survivors of the school I went to when I came to Britain, the no longer extant St Marylebone Grammar School, I tried to explain the reactions of a 15-year-old suddenly translated to this country in 1933. ‘Imagine yourselves,’ I told my fellow Old Philologians, ‘as a newspaper correspondent based in Manhattan and transferred by your editor to Omaha, Nebraska. That’s how I felt when I came to England after almost two years in the unbelievably exciting, sophisticated, intellectually and politically explosive Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The place was a terrible letdown.’

Communism in Britain

Eric Hobsbawm, 26 April 2007

Lenin’s ‘vanguard party’ of Marxist cadres, disciplined and ideally full-time, his ‘professional revolutionaries’, was the most formidable political invention of the 20th century. Its impact on the history of that century was extraordinary. Some thirty years after Lenin arrived at the Finland Station, parties of this type ruled over one third of the world’s...

Budapest 1956

Eric Hobsbawm, 16 November 2006

Contemporary history is useless unless it allows emotion to be recollected in tranquillity. Probably no episode in 20th-century history generated a more intense burst of feeling in the Western world than the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Although it lasted less than two weeks, it was both a classic instance of the narrative of justified popular insurrection against oppressive government, familiar since the fall of the Bastille, and of David’s in this case doomed victory against Goliath.

J.D. Bernal

Eric Hobsbawm, 9 March 2006

Let me begin with a motor trip in 1944 by two scientists down the valley from Lord Mountbatten’s headquarters in Kandy to the jungle. The younger of the two remembers what his companion talked about. He was

interested and expert in everything around him – the war, Buddhist religion and art, the geological specimens he would retrieve from every ditch, the properties of mud,...

The Jewish Emancipation

Eric Hobsbawm, 20 October 2005

Most work in the field of Jewish history deals with the almost invariably vast impact of the outside world on the Jews, who are almost invariably a small minority of the population. My concern is with the impact of the Jews on the rest of humanity. And, in particular, with the explosive transformation of this impact in the 19th and 20th centuries: that is to say, since the emancipation and self-emancipation of the Jews began in the late 18th century.

Revolution in the Family

Eric Hobsbawm, 4 August 2005

“The family is a subject on which, for obvious reasons, there is no shortage of public or private views. Google records 368 million items under the word ‘family’, as against a mere 170 million under ‘war’. All governments have tried to encourage or discourage procreation and passed laws about human coupling and decoupling. All the global religions (with the possible exception of Buddhism) and all the 20th-century ideologies have strong convictions on these matters. So have masses of otherwise politically inactive citizens, as the rise of electoral support for religious fundamentalism indicates. It has been plausibly argued that ‘moral issues’ (i.e. abortion and homosexual marriage) won George W. Bush his second term in office. The passion with which these opinions are held is almost always inversely correlated to knowledge of the facts, even in the holder’s own country: most of the public discourse on the relations between men, women and their offspring is both unhistorical and deeply provincial. Göran Therborn’s comparative survey of the world’s family systems and the ways in which they have changed (or failed to change) in the course of the past century, the result of eight years of intensive thought and research, is a necessary corrective in both respects.”

Diary: An Assembly of Ghosts

Eric Hobsbawm, 21 April 2005

“Upwards of a hundred middle-aged and elderly men and the usual handful of women are sitting at one side of a long rectangle of tables, in the hall of a military academy in Victor Emmanuel baroque, looking at each other across a wide space and listening to simultaneous translations from and into the usual languages plus Polish (the Poles have sent two ex-presidents of very different views, and an ex-premier). At right angles to me, at the top table, I observe the shrunken, sharp-eyed Giulio Andreotti, seven times Italian prime minister between 1972 and 1992, the stiff-backed military figure of General (later President) Jaruzelski, who suppressed Solidarity and negotiated the end of Polish Communism, and Mikhail Gorbachev himself, amazingly well-preserved, handsome and affable, but looking smaller than he is next to his huge neighbour, Helmut Kohl, the longest-serving chancellor of the Germany he reunified in 1990. A place had been kept for ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was late in arriving from Brazil. Even a cynical old historian is impressed by such a line-up.”

Epidemic of War

Eric Hobsbawm, 21 February 2002

The 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history. The total number of deaths caused by or associated with its wars has been estimated at 187 million, the equivalent of more than 10 per cent of the world’s population in 1913. Taken as having begun in 1914, it was a century of almost unbroken war, with few and brief periods without organised armed conflict somewhere. It was...

Out of the Great Dark Whale

Eric Hobsbawm, 31 October 1996

The great revolutions of the modern world never cease to be controversial, inside or outside their countries, as the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution recently demonstrated. In France the anniversary produced a massive attack on the Revolution and its legacy from neo-liberal historians and ideologues; outside France it produced Simon Schama’s passionate manifesto against violence in the form of a history of the Revolution as a catalogue of horrors. And historians today are a good deal nearer to the Russian Revolution than to the French, especially when we take into account the fact that the Soviet regime to which, for the whole of its 84 years, no human being was indifferent, has been dead for barely five years.

Captain Swing

Eric Hobsbawm, 24 November 1994

In the élite minority arts of the 20th century, the US component is one of many, and by no means the most important. On the other hand, it penetrates, indeed dominates, the popular culture of the globe with the single exception of sport, which still echoes the British hegemony over the 19th-century era of bourgeoisie and the first Industrial Revolution, via tennis, golf and, above all, association football. So it is not surprising that what are generally accepted as the major North American contributions to the high culture of our century are rooted in popular and – the US being what it is – commercial entertainment: films and the music shaped by jazz.

The Left’s Megaphone

Eric Hobsbawm, 8 July 1993

‘It would not be too much to say,’ wrote the otherwise unsympathetic Max (now Lord) Beloff after Harold Laski’s death in 1950, ‘that … the future historian may talk of the period between 1920 and 1950 as the “The Age of Laski.” ’ Thirty-seven years later a leading historian of the Labour Party observed that ‘Laski’s time and reputation have gone into almost total eclipse.’ How did a thinker, writer and political figure of such prominence come to disappear from sight so completely? It is a problem of both biography and intellectual history, for Laski’s impact is inseparable from his personality and style of public appearance. Curiously, after forty years in the shadows he now emerges, almost simultaneously, in two new biographies totalling eleven hundred pages, a fact which would have undoubtedly pleased their subject.

Homesickness

Eric Hobsbawm, 8 April 1993

Most of world history until the later 18th century could be written without more than marginal reference to the Jews, except as a small people which pioneered the monotheistic world religions, a debt acknowledged by Islam, but creating endless problems for Christianity, or rather for the Jews unlucky enough to live under Christian rulers. Practically the entire intellectual history of the Western world, and all that of the great cultures of the East, could be written without more than a few footnotes about the direct Jewish contribution to them, though not without paying considerable attention to the role of Jews as intermediaries and cultural brokers, notably between the classic Mediterranean heritage, Islam and the medieval West. This is rather surprising when we consider the extraordinary prominence in 20th-century cultural, intellectual and public life of members of this small people which, even at its demographic peak before the Holocaust, formed less than 1 per cent of the world population.

Goodbye Columbus

Eric Hobsbawm, 9 July 1992

A few weeks ago, in Mexico, I was asked to sign a protest against Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the original native populations of the American continents and islands, or rather, of their descendants. I understand the feelings which inspire such gestures, and have some sympathy with them, although it seems to me that the only object of protesting against something that happened half a millennium ago is to get a little publicity for a cause of 1992 rather than 1492. The consequences of Columbus’s voyages and those of his successors cannot be reversed. The sufferings imposed on indigenous Americans and imported Africans, whether by deliberate human action or as the unintended consequences of conquest and exploitation, are undeniable and cannot be cancelled in retrospect. That the impact of conquest and exploitation on these populations was catastrophic, and not only during the first hundred and fifty years of European conquest, must not be denied or overlooked either. Nevertheless, we cannot cancel history, but only remember or forget or invent it. Everyone who lives in the Americas today, whether descended from the Aboriginal population or from voluntary or involuntary settlers, has been shaped by the five hundred years that have passed since Columbus sailed. But so has everyone in the Old World, though in ways of which we are rarely conscious.

What difference did she make?

Eric Hobsbawm, 23 May 1991

The ‘question ot leadership’ which is the subject of both these books is the question of how much difference leadership in politics can make. Contrary to what is held by believers in the cult of personality, who range from newspaper editors to political historians, it may make very little difference. As John Kenneth Galbraith has observed, changing the top man in important business corporation rarely affects the price of their shares on the market.

Before the Fall

Eric Hobsbawm, 21 April 1983

From TV studios to Trinity College, Cambridge, who can resist the historical fascination of the decades before 1914? They are sufficiently ‘contemporary’ for their landscape to be recognisable even in 1983. We are already in a world of cars, aeroplanes, radio communication, movies, black music, abstract art, quantum theory and petro-diplomacy. At the same time, they are almost inconceivably remote, bathed in the light of those lamps which, as Sir Edward Grey said in August 1914, were going out all over Europe, not to be lit again. Norman Stone is right to begin his Europe Transformed with this hackneyed but still troubling quotation, though he is wise enough to avoid sentimentalising anera when the vast majority of Europeans lived lives which, despite modest improvements, were, by our standards, poverty-stricken, primitive and hard. The lights which went out in 1914 were not to leave the whole world in darkness. Nevertheless, if the decades before the First World War anticipate the scientific and technical triumphs, the massive material progress of the 20th century, they also anticipate its worries, its dramas and catastrophes, and its encroaching and eventually universal moral barbarism. Indeed, they incubated all these. War and revolution, and all they were to bring, emerged from the Belle Epoque, not by a series of accidents or missed opportunities, but as its inevitable product.

Glory

Eric Hobsbawm, 3 June 1982

Is it a good thing that a country, after almost forty years of accelerating decline, has nothing more satisfactory to look back upon than a victorious world war with relatively modest casualties? One is inclined to think not, as British politicians and the media fall in once again behind the fifes and drums of military glory. On the other hand, the unique place of 20th-century war in British life – we are a democracy which has both fought and survived two world wars – and the role of wartime memory in buttressing the national identity since 1945, have been good for the history of war, a subject which appears to flourish exceptionally well in this country.

In Search of People’s History

Eric Hobsbawm, 19 March 1981

When the Roman emperor Vitellius was deserted in his last moments by everyone except his cook, the aristocratic historian Tacitus could not bring himself to mention the actual occupation of so undignified a member of society. As Peter Burke points out in a friendly but sceptical contribution to People’s History and Socialist Theory, under such circumstances ‘people’s history’ was a contradiction in terms.

Letter

Last Days of Weimar

24 January 2008

Eric Hobsbawm writes: To show that everybody underestimated Hitler before his appointment as chancellor of Germany 75 years ago, even his announced victims, I chose to quote the title of an editorial by Leopold Schwarzschild to the effect that, in the words of your correspondent Andreas Wesemann, ‘Hitler would be neutralised if he had to share responsibility for German economic and foreign policy’...
Letter

Hungary 1956

16 November 2006

I do not want to take issue with the views expressed in response to my article on the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, but three points need comment (Letters, 30 November 2006). First, the passages mainly criticised were not mine but taken from my summary of Charles Gati’s argument ‘in the author’s own words’. Second, my article does not suggest, nor does Gati, that the Hungarian...
Letter

Red Science

9 March 2006

The contrast between the official attitude to J.D. Bernal in 1946 and George Orwell’s is not mine, as Christopher Hitchens suggests, but is made in Andrew Brown’s biography (Letters, 6 April). Nor was I challenging Orwell’s judgment about his views and style. There is not a word in my piece which justifies Hitchens’s accusations that it is Stalinist in style or content. I was...
Letter

Benefits of Diaspora

20 October 2005

My piece on the Jewish Emancipation went to press before the announcement of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics. It’s worth pointing out that one of the winners is Robert Aumann, born in 1930 in Frankfurt, educated in the US, now working at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
Letter

E.H. Carr

10 January 1983

SIR: E.H. Carr will survive his obituarists, if only because his History of Soviet Russia constitutes, with Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the most remarkable effort of single-handed historical scholarship undertaken in Britain within living memory. (This is described as ‘gigantomania’ by the ungigantic.) Whatever the judgment of his work in the 21st century,...

Marx and Hobsbawm

Terry Eagleton, 3 March 2011

In 1976, a good many people in the West thought that Marxism had a reasonable case to argue. By 1986, most of them no longer felt that way. What had happened in the meanwhile? Were these people...

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Eric Hobsbawm’s Memoirs

Perry Anderson, 3 October 2002

What apter practitioners of autobiography than historians? Trained to examine the past with an impartial eye, alert to oddities of context and artifices of narrative, they would appear to be the...

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Contra Mundum

Edward Said, 9 March 1995

A powerful and unsettling book, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes brings to a close the series of historical studies he began in 1962 with The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, and...

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Where will this voyage end?

Neal Ascherson, 14 June 1990

Historians as a tribe are suckers for anniversaries, no less than journalists. And both professions are equally unwilling to leave a nice, juicy coincidence alone, in the spirit of that...

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Hobsbawm Today

Ross McKibbin, 22 June 1989

Eric Hobsbawm is one of Britain’s most creative Marxist historians. Anyone who teaches at a school or university is aware of the effect of his writing, even on those who do not know from...

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History and the Left

Jonathan Haslam, 4 April 1985

In 1977 E.H. Carr completed his 14-volume History of Soviet Russia. He had embarked on an intellectual day excursion but found himself on a major expedition through a dark continent of knowledge....

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Pastiche

Norman Stone, 21 July 1983

One of Arnold Toynbee’s Laws was that, in any civilisation, mannered imitation of the past was a Bad Thing: he chose the Poles’ decision to reconstruct the Old City of Warsaw after...

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Marxismo

Jon Elster, 18 March 1982

Up to a fairly recent time it was the case that all good books on Marx were hostile, or at most neutral. Correlatively, all the books that espoused Marx’s views did so in a way that could...

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On the State of the Left

W.G. Runciman, 17 December 1981

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the first stirrings of socialist political theory, the intellectual protagonists of the Left have started with a twofold debating advantage over their...

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