• Obituary: Eric J. Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

  • By Erhard Crome | 07 Oct 12 | Posted under: History
  • He survived the “short 20th century” by more than two decades. Eric J. Hobsbawm had been one of the great thinkers that past century gave birth to. By profession a historian, he was a story-teller and historical philosopher at the same time who practised historiography as social history. In the beginning “the long 19th century“ from 1789 to 1914 had been his subject with the perspective of the working class always remaining one of his. Throughout his lifetime he understood himself as a Marxist and had been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until it dissolved in 1991.

    On 1 October 2012, Eric J Hobsbawm died in London. He had been born on 9 June 1917 in Alexandria into a Jewish family whose roots were lying in Eastern Europe. During World War I in Zurich, his father Percy married Nelly Grün, who originally came from Vienna.

    After his parents’ early death he lived from 1931 to 1933 with an uncle in Berlin. Later he used to call this period as the most formative one of his life. After Hitler’s ascension to power he followed his uncles to London, where he became a member of the Communist Party in 1936 and took up studies at King’s College. From 1940 he was fighting in the British army against German fascism. Afterwards, Hobsbawm was first working at the renowned Birkbeck College of the University of London and from 1971 to his retirement in 1982 as a professor of Economic and Social History also at the University of London.

    From then on he dedicated his time entirely to research on the “short 20th century”, the beginning of which he dated with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, while it ended with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. Thus this particular term for the 20th century was coined by him. His conclusion was that it was the “tragedy of the October Revolution […] that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, commando socialism.” Therefore it is necessary to separate “the general question of socialism from the question of the specific experiences with ‘actually existing socialism’. The failure of Soviet Socialism does not say anything about the possibility of other socialist forms”.

    At the same time he was dealing with the role of nationalism. His book Nations and Nationalism since 1780 was published in 1990. In it he concluded that the struggles for national and social liberation were intertwined. However, after “the movements which had adopted the real hardships of the poor in Europe as their concern” had failed at the end of World War I, in 1918, the middle classes among the suppressed nationalities in the East of Europe were given the chance to advance to the ruling elites of the small states that had recently come into existence. While there the peoples gained national independence without a revolution, social revolution was unavoidable in the large warring states. In Germany, Austria and Hungary short-lived republics of worker’s councils were formed, with nationalism becoming a momentum of counter-revolution and the breeding ground for fascism.

    His works of recent years were published as Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007, German in 2009). Regarding the perspectives of US-American dominance, Hobsbawm stated “that like with all other empires this one will also be a historically short-lived phenomenon”. He only feared that the rise of Asia would conjure the danger of a big world war between the USA and China (Der Stern, 20/2009). Even if some hardly want to imagine that, he was always aware of the driving forces of capital not interested in the preservation of peace.     

    A few years ago, Hans Magnus Enzensberger remarked, “Of all the communists who have survived the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm is the most headstrong, independent and learned and – if I am not mistaken – also by far the smartest.” 

Related articles