Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life
At the age of eighty-six, Eric Hobsbawm is the best-known historian in the world. His most recent book, The Age of Extremes, was translated into dozens of languages, from Chinese to Czech. His memoirs, first published last year, were a best seller in New Delhi; in parts of South America—Brazil especially—he is a cultural folk hero. His fame is well deserved. He controls vast continents of information with confident ease—his Cambridge college supervisor, after telling me once that Eric Hobsbawm was the cleverest undergraduate he had ever taught, added: “Of course, you couldn’t say I taught him—he was unteachable. Eric already knew everything.”
Hobsbawm doesn’t just know more than other historians. He writes better, too: there is none of the fussy “theorizing” or grandiloquent rhetorical narcissism of some of his younger British colleagues (none of the busy teams of graduate researchers, either—he does his own reading). His style is clean and clear. Like E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Christopher Hill, his erstwhile companions in the British Communist Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm is a master of English prose. He writes intelligible history for literate readers.
The early pages of his autobiography are perhaps the finest Hobsbawm has ever written. They are certainly the most intensely personal. His Jewish parents—he from the East End of London, she from Habsburg Austria—met and married in neutral Zurich during World War I. Eric, the older of their two children, was born in Alexandria in 1917—though his recollections begin in Vienna, where the family settled after the war. They struggled with little success to make ends meet in impoverished, truncated post-Habsburg Austria. When Eric was eleven, his father, returning “from another of his increasingly desperate visits to town in search of money to earn or borrow,” collapsed and died on their doorstep one frozen February night in 1929. Within a year his mother was diagnosed with lung disease; after months of unsuccessful treatment in hospitals and sanatoria she died, in July 1931. Her son was just fourteen.
Eric was sent to Berlin to live with an aunt. His account of the death throes of German democracy is fascinating—“We were on the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg.” A Jewish orphan swept up in the desperate politics of the Weimar Republic, the young Hobsbawm joined the German Communist Party (KPD) at his Gymnasium (high school). He experienced at close quarters the suicidal, divisive strategy imposed by Stalin on the KPD, which was ordered to attack the Social Democrats, not the Nazis; he took part in the courageous illusions and hopeless marches of Berlin’s Communists. In January 1933 he learned of Hitler’s appointment to chancellor from the newsstands as he walked his sister home from school. Like the narrative of his Viennese childhood, his Berlin stories seamlessly interweave moving personal recollections with a historian’s reflections upon life in interwar Central Europe:
It is difficult for those who have not experienced the “Age of Catastrophe” of the twentieth century in central Europe to see what…
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