When Eric Hobsbawm died in 2012 at the age of ninety-five, he was probably the best-known historian in the English-speaking world. His books have been translated into every major language (and numerous minor ones), and many of them have remained continuously in print since their first appearance. Though his work centered on the history of labor, he wrote with equal fluency about the crisis of the seventeenth century and the bandits of Eritrea, the standard of living during the industrial revolution and Billie Holiday’s blues. For range and accessibility, there was no one to touch him. What he gave his readers was above all the sense of being intellectually alive, of the sheer excitement of a fresh idea and a bold, unsentimental argument. The works themselves are his memorial. What is there to learn from his biography?
Historians lead for the most part pretty dull lives: if they make it big enough to warrant a biography of their own, it is unlikely to feature anything more exciting than endless conferences, gripes about publishers, and the eventual bestowal of honors. Readers do not generally care about infighting in academia. Nor is it easy to be gripped by the more important but largely abstract questions of intellectual argument and debate that articulate positions and create schools of thought. In Hobsbawm’s case, however, the scale and nature of his achievement raise questions of their own. How do we explain his vast readership? How did a Marxist historian achieve such success during socialism’s decline in the second half of the twentieth century? Richard J. Evans’s detailed, absorbing, and fair-minded biography does not really address these questions, but it gives us the means to do so.
The ingredients were there from the outset to make a historian of great breadth and general appeal. Hobsbawm’s secular Jewish parents belonged to the emancipated generation that embraced the possibilities Europe offered Jews for the first time in their history. Born in Whitechapel, London, in 1881, Hobsbawm’s father, Percy, was an amateur boxer and athlete with no discernible interest in matters of the faith apart from choosing to marry a Jewish woman, Nelly Grün, who came from Vienna and a more well-to-do and cultivated background than Percy.
Eric was born in British-occupied Alexandria in 1917, when Percy was working for the Egyptian Postal and Telegraphic Service. Shortly afterward the family moved to Vienna and Eric’s early years were spent first there and then in Berlin, both cities traumatized by the effects of World War I and the collapse of empire. That he had lived through the rise of Nazism marked Hobsbawm out from most Englishmen of his generation and made him seem like another one of those European Jewish refugees who did so much to shape the postwar British academy. Yet as a subject of King George V,…
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