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Multifaceted past master

Richard Evans’ enlightening biography of Eric Hobsbawm is the perfect companion to the historian’s own works

15 March, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Eric Hobsbawm in his 90s. Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Marlene Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm’s early life saw him on the streets of Berlin, handing out left-wing leaflets as Hitler took power. He could be found 40 years later walking through South End Green, catching the number 24 to head to Birkbeck and teach generations of historians.

His books sold by the millions, were translated in multiple languages and he became a cornerstone of Britain’s intellectual life. The journey of an orphan who spoke English as a second language as child, whose pronounced left-wing views did not stop him being made a Companion of Honour, is the subject of historian Richard Evans’ fascinating new biography.

Eric’s approach to history was to consider a multiplicity of sources and a vast range of evidence to create a picture of a period. Evans does the same. He draws on the world Eric came from and lived in to realise an image of a multifaceted polymath who created a clear narrative of British economic and social history.

Born in Egypt, growing up in Vienna and then Berlin at a time when Europe’s history was to be torn and reshaped, it feels fitting that Eric should have become a historian. He bore witness to events that shaped the modern world. It was also being thrust unwittingly as a youth into the front-line fight against the Nazis – distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in the dying Weimar Republic’s Berlin – that helps explain Eric’s subsequent development as a communist.

Evans draws a distinction between his communism and the world of Fellow Travellers who were Stalinists, a gulf often willingly or ignorantly ignored by those who seek to score cheap points by asking “how could you be a communist when Stalin murdered millions?”.

Evans’ narrative provides a coherent answer. Eric showed it is possible to believe in a political philosophy while recognising that an idea can be twisted beyond all recognition.

While describing himself as a Marxist, Eric also was pragmatic, and believed strongly in broad political alliances working towards a common goal. He admired New Labour for a time, and understood that to nudge a society into a direction where people cared for one another meant listening to a broad spectrum of ideas and forming alliances through compromise.

What he would make of the centre and centre-left’s attacks on the Labour Party today would be enlightening.

His early life, forged by the political strife of Mittel Europe, was also struck by tragedy. He lost both his parents by his mid-teens, and the bereavement saw him brought to London by his uncle.

Evans points out that by the time he was 19 and heading to Cambridge his experiences had been “unusual, to say the least”. By considering them you can get a better understanding of what made him a brilliant scholar and why his politics were central to his historical interpretation.

“He was fluent in English, French and German, he had read enormous amounts of poetry and fiction in all three languages,” writes Evans. “He had a good understanding of the ideas and writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. He had sampled the popular culture of Paris and spent an evening with a German surrealist. He had visited Spain just as it was plunging into a murderous civil war…”

Eric was drafted in 1940 and his experience for six years in the army was one of frustration. With his command of languages and his double-starred Cambridge first, Eric was an obvious choice to be transferred to Army Intelligence – but an air of suspicion hung over him.

In an article he had written for a news sheet for soldiers he discussed the idea of opening up a second front, as many communists wanted to help ease the pressure on Russia.

His activities roused the suspicions of Special Branch and MI5 and while his wartime experience broadened his horizons, it stymied a career. It stopped him following a path of being awarded an important chair at Oxbridge. But the Russell Group’s loss was Birkbeck’s gain.

Being in the army took Eric out of a comfortable university existence, and taught him about the lives of others.

“More and more, especially now, where I find myself amid non-intellectuals, I begin to understand the mistrust of the worker and the Party towards bourgeois intellectuals,” he said.

The book offers a mixture of the domestic as well as his public career: we learn of his first marriage to Muriel Seaman in 1943, which did not last, and then later in 1962 to Marlene Schwartz, which did.

He and Marlene lived in south London for a time, sharing a house with the novelist Alan Sillitoe, before moving to Nassington Road, Hampstead, in 1971 – the place he would call home for the rest of his life.

This biography does justice to a wonderful man, and Evans’ work acts as a suitably enlightening companion to sit alongside Hobsbawm’s extraordinary works.

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History. By Richard J Evans, Little Brown, £35

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