Eric Hobsbawm, RIP

The world lost Marxist historian (in every sense of that phrase) Eric Hobsbawm this week at 95, truly a giant of scholarship who lived through the very times that shaped him. I kid, of course. We are all doing this. It’s just that some are decidedly less swayed than others:

“Every historian has his or her lifetime, a private perch from which to survey the world,” he said in his 1993 Creighton lecture, one of several occasions in his later years when he attempted to relate his own lifetime to his own writing. “My own perch is constructed, among other materials, of a childhood in the Vienna of the 1920s, the years of Hitler’s rise in Berlin, which determined my politics and my interest in history, and the England, and especially the Cambridge, of the 1930s, which confirmed both.”

In 1919, the young family settled in Vienna, where Eric went to elementary school, a period he later recalled in a 1995 television documentary which featured pictures of a recognisably skinny young Viennese Hobsbawm in shorts and knee socks. Politics made their impact around this time. Eric’s first political memory was in Vienna in 1927, when workers burned down the Palace of Justice. The first political conversation that he could recall took place in an Alpine sanatorium in these years, too. Two motherly Jewish women were discussing Leon Trotsky. “Say what you like,” said one to the other, “but he’s a Jewish boy called Bronstein.”

In 1929 his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Two years later his mother died of TB. Eric was 14, and his Uncle Sidney took charge once more, taking Eric and his sister Nancy to live in Berlin. As a teenager in Weimar Republic Berlin, Eric inescapably became politicised. He read Marx for the first time, and became a communist.

He could always remember the day in January 1933 when, emerging from the Halensee S-Bahn station on his way home from his school, the celebrated Prinz Heinrich Gymnasium, he saw a newspaper headline announcing Hitler’s election as chancellor. Around this time he joined the Socialist Schoolboys, which he described as “de facto part of the communist movement” and sold its publication, Schulkampf (School Struggle). He kept the organisation’s duplicator under his bed and, if his later facility for writing was any guide, probably wrote most of the articles too. The family remained in Berlin until 1933, when Sidney Hobsbawm was posted by his employers to England.

The gangly teenage boy who settled with his sister in Edgware in 1934 described himself later as “completely continental and German speaking”. School, though, was “not a problem” because the English education system was “way behind” the German. A cousin in Balham introduced him to jazz for the first time – the “unanswerable sound”, he called it. The moment of conversion, he wrote some 60 years later, was when he first heard the Duke Ellington band “at its most imperial”. He spent a period in the 1950s as jazz critic of the New Statesman, and published a Penguin Special, The Jazz Scene, on the subject in 1959 under the pen-name Francis Newton (many years later it was reissued with Hobsbawm identified as the author).

Read the whole thing and don’t worry about the Marxist cooties getting on you. Sort of Friday Reading on Tuesday, my gift to you, of his gifts to us.

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