Eric Hobsbawm, the Historian Who Lived Through Some of the Most 'Interesting Times'

Eric Hobsbawm's autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, is a vast treasure house of memories and provides a look into the past and the events that have shaped the world of today.

Seventy years after his mother died, Eric Hobsbawm recalled the last time he had seen her. The year was 1931, a lovely, sun-drenched summer was settling over Vienna’s magnificent public gardens, and Nelly Grun Hobsbawm had just been transferred to a sanatorium in Purkersdorf, west of the city, as it became clear that the end was close. The son remembered how emaciated his mother looked. Not knowing what to say or do, the 14-year-old Hobsbawm “glanced out of the window and saw a hawfinch, a small bird with a beak strong enough to crack cherry stones that I had never seen before and for which I had been on the lookout. So my last memory of her is not one of grief but of ornithological pleasure.”

A sense of wonder, of a joie de vivre that blends with and tempers grief, exploring new lives, new horizons all the time, underpins Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times. No doubt the book tells the story of a life lived largely in the shadow of mephitic clouds that hung over what Hobsbawm himself memorably called ‘the age of extremes’. His childhood and early youth found Hobsbawm in the eye of the storm that was raging across Austria and Germany in the inter-war years. A Jew, to boot a young communist activist, he heard of Hitler’s anointment as the German chancellor while on his way home from school, along with his younger sister, one bleak January afternoon in 1933 Berlin when it snowed endlessly in a spell of unusually cold winter weather.

“I can see it still, as in a dream”’ he was to write about that day 70 years later. They had to leave Berlin, “to which I was not to return for some thirty years, but I never forgot it and never will”. The poignance of this uprooting is unmistakable: the chapters with the headings ‘Berlin – Weimar Dies’ and ‘Berlin – Brown and Red’ are suffused with a sense of separation from the environment in which the boy had felt happy and at home, both culturally and politically. The cataclysmic Second World War was to burst forth on all Europe not long thereafter, followed, after the war, by the glacial Cold War years when, inevitably, Hobsbawm the communist living and working in western Europe had to pay a price. The souring of the Soviet dream and the complete dismantling of ‘really existing socialism’ – as Hobsbawm was apt to describe the Stalinist model, not without some sarcasm – took a very heavy toll, too. And yet, Interesting Times is quite far from being a grim, darkly-told story. It is, indeed, animated by an astonishing vivacity seldom associated with a top-drawer academic, prompting the Observer to remark, quite simply, that “autobiography does not come much more sumptuous than this.”

It opens with ‘Overture’, a soft-focus picture of Vienna, “impoverished capital of a great empire, attached, after the empire’s collapse, to a smallish provincial republic of great beauty, which did not believe it ought to exist… Austria was not only a state which did not want to exist, but a predicament which could not last”. Later, Weimar Berlin, which, despite its many disenchantments, “was a place to move about in, not to stand and stare, of streets rather than buildings… (and) for most of us, the point about these streets was that so many led to the really memorable part of the city, the ring of lakes and woods that surrounded and still surround it; to the Grunewald, and its narrow tree- and bush-lined lakes, the Schlachtensee and the Krumme Lanke, along whose frozen surfaces we skated in winter….”

Eric Hobsbawm
Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life
Little, Brown Book Group, 2003

About school in Berlin: “…. teachers and at least this pupil talked past one another. I learned absolutely nothing in the history lessons given by a small, fat old man, ‘Tonnchen’ (‘little barrel’) Rubensohn, except the names and dates of all the German emperors, all of which I have since forgotten. He taught them by dashing round the form pointing a ruler at each one of us with the words: ‘Quick, Henry the Fowler – the dates’. I now know that he was as bored by this exercise as we were”.

In an altogether different vein, but equally poised, are these lines about his mother: “I am now old enough to be the grandfather of a woman who died at the age of thirty-six, and yet, it would seem absurd if somewhere across the Styx, we were to meet and I would see her or treat her as a young woman. She would still be my mother. I would expect her to ask me what I had done with my life, and to tell her that I had managed to realize at least some of her hopes for me”.

Again, about his high-strung, temperamental uncle Sydney, his foster father, whose absurd emotional outbursts young Hobsbawm had come to despise: “And yet, I remember him intensely and with pleasure. We talked, especially in Paris, and on the long journeys when I acted as his chauffeur…. He knew the ways of the world, and what he said about them I took seriously, not least the observation that men should keep quiet about the women they slept with”. Or this cryptic comment about a colleague in France: “Clemens, a large, shambling, distracted-looking man who disliked phone conversations of more than fifty seconds, apt to lapse into a macaronic mixture of languages, may best be described as the most original intellectual impresario of post-war Europe…”

One could go on and on, for the autobiography is a vast treasure house of memories brought alive by a brilliant mind, quickened by an uncanny eye for detail, of impressions and emotions captured in luminous prose that, subtly but surely, carried within its bosom the heritage of the great poetry of so many European languages. When he wanted, however, he could also be ruthlessly unsparing, as in his devastating thumbnail sketches of the arrogant and the conceited, of the charlatan and the self-righteous moralist – and of pomposity in general, as with “such a very strange country” as the US where people obsessed endlessly about ‘the American dream’, ‘ the American way of life’, and about ‘ What does it mean to be an American?’ (He was, of course, unstinting in his praise of the US’ ‘greater openness to talent, to energy, to novelty than other worlds’ and spoke glowingly about it continuing to be ‘the reminder of an old, if declining tradition of free and egalitarian intellectual enquiry.’)

The trademark Hobsbawm wit helps make the book so unputdownable. At times, it is the classical, dry, ‘British’ wit that, more often than not, has tongue firmly in cheek while, at others, it is an effusive, delighted enjoyment of the quaint and the queer, and a somewhat indulgent smile at the harmlessly stupid, so typical of the continent. (The title of his book is itself a gentle play upon a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times” – that is to say, “May you be visited by a thousand scourges.”) Unless face-to-face with the truly asinine or the seriously macabre, Hobsbawm’s wit always sparkles; it scalds only rarely.

But, “the autobiography of an intellectual is necessarily also about his ideas, attitudes and actions…”, as Hobsbawm notes in his preface. And, in a very real sense, Interesting Times is the companion volume to the brilliant The Age of Extremes – The Short Twentieth Century, which was the sequel to Hobsbawm’s magnum opus, his magisterial trilogy on the 19th century. There is considerable and very significant overlap between these two books (written eight years apart), and yet each holds its own with remarkable dexterity, supplementing, but never getting in the way of, each other.

Interesting Times moves effortlessly back and forth between the intimate, the utterly personal on the one hand, and, on the other, the wide open world pulsating with the excitement of some of the most amazing feats, and agonising over some of the most tragic mistakes, of man in this most terrible century in human history. Here was an historian upon whom his contemporaries – including those who violently disagreed with his politics – showered the warmest approbation (‘Olympian erudition’, ‘greatest living historian’, ‘a power of synthesis that commands a terrified admiration’, ‘master historian’ are some examples), but who nevertheless says, defiantly, “If you do not want to understand the 20th century, read the autobiographies of the self-justifiers, the counsels for their own defence, and of their obverse, the repentant sinners… Historical understanding is what I am after, not agreement, approval or sympathy.” That must be why the subtitle of Interesting Times is A Twentieth-Century Life: as a Marxist, he is seeking to depict here ‘not world history illustrated by the experiences of an individual… but world history shaping that experience…”

World history shaped Hobsbawm into a Marxist, even an ‘unrepentant communist’ who stayed that way till the very end of his long and amazingly full life. Some of the most moving paragraphs of Interesting Times deal squarely with the question, often asked him, why he did not abandon what clearly was a lost cause. His was too acute an intelligence to miss the fundamental problems undermining ‘truly existing socialism’ and he clearly saw, and often discussed at length, these problems for what they were. After the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, he led the British Communist Historians’ Group’s protest against the party leadership, demanding an open denunciation of the Soviet line.

When the Daily Worker, the mouthpiece of the British Communist Party, refused to publish their protest letter, Hobsbawm and his comrades took the unprecedented step of going public with the letter in non-party media, creating a storm in the party’s ranks.

Thereafter, “Party membership no longer meant to me what it had meant since 1933”. He was as “a man cut loose from his political moorings,” who yet chose not to leave the party, unlike many of his closest friends (E. P. Thompson, for example) who took that step then. ( Sensibly, the British Communist Party decided not to expel him, “but that was their choice, not mine.”)

In the chapter called ‘Stalin and After’, Hobsbawm has this to say about why he never left the party: “ …emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.

For someone who joined the movement where I came from and when I did, it was quite simply more difficult to break with the party than for those who came later and from elsewhere”. At another place, he reiterates the same basic position somewhat differently. Quoting from a play, ‘The Knights of the Round Table’, written by an East German playwright in the late 1980s, Hobsbawm recounts the musings of Lancelot about the people outside not wanting “to know any more about the grail and the round table… (because) they no longer believe in our justice and our dream…” Lancelot is not sure if he himself believes in the grail or not. “No, they may never find the grail. But is not King Arthur right when he says that what is essential is not the grail but the quest for it? ‘If we give up on the grail, we give up on ourselves’….” Only on ourselves? Can humanity live without the ideals of freedom and justice, or without those who devote their lives to them? Or perhaps even without the memory of those who did so in the 20th century?

Hobsbawm believed that, being men, we cannot give up on the grail. He did not. And the story of his quest makes Interesting Times as extraordinary as the century that produced it.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic and translator. He has published a book of translations from the work of the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.