4th October 2012

The man who changed history

A tribute to the historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) who passed away last week aged 95

Before the war history was the study of Kings, Queens, wars and revolutions. Historical journals separated the subject into a series of narrow arguments. Questions like “What caused the industrial revolution?” dominated, with history broken down into a set of almost scientific debates about cause and effect.

Eric J. Hobsbawm – who passed away last week aged 95 – and his peers changed all that.

Along with his colleagues E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, he founded the social history journal Past & Present in 1952. Heavily influenced by the French Annales School, Past & Present set out to bring together intellectuals who wanted to do more than argue about institutions and treaties.

For undergraduates during the 1950s and 1960s, the impact of the journal was dramatic.

“Suddenly nothing was off the table,” explains the historian Simon Schama. “You could write a history of food! The whole of human behaviour was up for historical vision.”

As Hobsbawm himself put it in Radio 4 interview earlier this year, the journal was “about trying to fertilise traditional history, historical and institutional narrative, by marrying it to, or getting inspiration from, the social sciences.”

Dr Leif Jerram, a lecturer in modern History at the University of Manchester says that he achieved this in style.

“Hobsbawm got people to face up to how underlying structures that we might view as being obvious or just given are in fact all produced in self-concious ways. That was his great methodological contribution,” he says.

“If you pick up a history book in Waterstone’s it will be called something like ‘Britain in the Age of…’ or they’ll be some kind of assumption in the title. Hobsbawm was able to say ‘take one step back: who invented this thing called Britain? Why is it there? What is it for?’ That one further step back is the great contribution I think he made.”

Born in Alexandria, Egypt in June 1917, Hobsbawm’s early years saw him live through one of the most tumultuous periods in European history. His family, which was Jewish, moved to Austria when he was a toddler, before arriving in Berlin just in time for the young historian to witness first hand the disintegration of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler.

This early exposure to high political drama inevitably had a bearing on Hobsbawm’s politics. The historian, born just months before the Russian revolution, was a lifelong communist.

“I suppose my childhood in Vienna prepared me a little bit for the later development; after all it was a highly political atmosphere,” he told the BBC earlier this year. To emphasise his point a clip from a recording made in 1996, which sees him returning to his school classroom in Vienna, reveals that the young Eric carved the words ‘down with Hitler’ into his desk.

I put it to Dr Peter Gatrell, an historian at the University of Manchester, that Hobsbawm’s politics made him a somewhat controversial figure.

“People who jump to conclusions about Hobsbawm fail to understand just how extraordinary a time the 1930s was,” he argues.

“To accuse Hobsbawm of being blinded by the Soviet Union negates the fact that he and so many other people were taking seriously the challenge of Nazism not in 1939 or 1942, but in 1933.

“Hobsbawm’s ideology was forged in the late 1920s and early 1930s and firmed up by the realisation that Nazism was an extraordianary challenge to humanity and to civilisation.”
For the legendary historian Tony Judt, Hobsbawm’s was first and foremost a great historian.

“On everything he touched he wrote much better, had usually read much more, and had a broader and subtler understanding than his more fashionable emulators. If he had not been a lifelong communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century.”

Talking to The Mancunion, Dr Pedro Ramos Pinto echoed Judt’s sentiment.

“He was a great writer. He could be talking about big processes on huge scales such as the industrial revolution or the transformation of global capitalism, but within a sentence he brings you back to the streets of London or Vienna and gives you a sense of the human consequences and human experiences. Every historian aspires to write like Hobsbawm.”

Described by the New York Times as “a cool introvert” and a jazz fan – the historian wrote under the name Francis Newton in homage to the trumpeter Frankie Newton for the New Statesman – Hobsbawm fled Germany following the death of his parents in the 1930s and came to London, before winning a place at Cambridge University.

He graduated from King’s College with the highest possible honours in 1939 and, in between serving in World War Two – where, much to his chagrin, he remained on the sidelines of the conflict – he managed to complete a Masters in 1942 before completing a doctorate in 1951. He married Muriel Seaman, a civil servant and communist in 1943 but the marriage lasted only seven years.

He is survived by his second wife Marlene Schwarz whom he married in 1962; as well as his daughter Julia, his sons Andrew and Joss Bennathan; plus seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

I ask Dr Leif Jerram whether he believes the academic world will be a poorer place without this eye-witness 20th century historian.

“His greatness lay in his ideas, not his existence,” he says – matter-of-factly.

With Hobsbawm’s seminal works ‘The Age of Revolution’, ‘The Age of Capital’, ‘The Invention of Tradition’, and ‘The Age of Extremes’ remaining integral to any history undergraduate worth their salt, his ideas will certainly live on.

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