Revelations: Eric Hobsbawm, Berlin, 1931-33: I was working for the revolution

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The Independent Culture
MY PARENTS got engaged just before the First World War but because one of them was British and the other Austrian, they had to go to Switzerland to marry. Unable to return to either of their home countries, they decided to live in Egypt. So I was born, by a historic freak, in Alexandria. Unfortunately both my parents died within a very short period of each other and I was looked after by close members of my family, first in Vienna and then Germany.

Growing up in Berlin, between 1931 and 1933, was the most crucial phase in my life. I reached puberty and the age of intellectual revelations. Back as far as I can remember I've been on the left. If you grew up in central Europe, there was no way a Jewish kid could be on the right, because by definition they were anti-Semitic. These were the years of the rise of the Nazi Party, so that naturally confirmed my views. There was a political pressure-cooker developing, it was almost impossible not to be drawn. I would listen to the adults talking: how can we prevent Hitler coming to power? And later, when will he come to power?

It was one of the phases when my uncle, who I was living with, happened to be in the money. So we lived an ordinary middle-class existence - which was by no means always the case. I joined the Socialist Schoolboys, an association of secondary left-wing students that was de facto a part of the communist movement. For the part of Berlin in which I lived this was very much a minority activity, with perhaps three or four boys or girls from middle-class families per school. We would sell their periodical called the Shulkampf ( the struggle in the schools) which by that time was in decay - duplicated rather than printed.

I attended the last legal demonstrations and distributed leaflets for the last, no longer quite free, elections, all of which was quite dodgy. It was certainly not something we particularly liked doing. I was never physically threatened, but you didn't ring the bell or stop for a discussion, just chuck the leaflets through the letter box and whip down the stairs again. Obviously it took a lot of conviction; however, in retrospect, it's not absolutely clear to me if I considered it political or a more grown-up version of cowboys and Indians! But it was very serious, I could have got into a lot of trouble - quite big trouble. The left was particularly in danger after the burning of the Reichstag building as Hitler blamed the communists. In fact my friends were so worried I was asked to keep the duplicator under my bed for a few weeks; being a foreign citizen my risks were considerably less. I was treated as an Englishman at school, although I spoke better German, so I was more likely to be blamed for the Treaty of Versailles. Yet that did not mean I was not constantly aware. My uncle taught me an important lesson: never do anything that might even suggest that you are ashamed of being Jewish. Quite a lot of people wanted to dodge it.

We didn't leave because of the new laws - as foreigners we were not so affected - but because my uncle was wiped out. He had been working for an American movie company, and in the middle of the slump there was a new law in Germany so that 75 per cent of the employees had to be citizens. Considering the uncertain economic situation of both sides of my family, the idea of moving to somewhere else for a job was not at all surprising. My uncle decided to move back to England. I was a little bit short of 16 and I doubt I would have become a historian if we'd stayed on the Continent.

It took a lot of getting used to England, especially as to start with it was much more boring than Germany. School was not a problem because secondary education was way behind, so I was treading water until university when I could continue the intellectual conversation that had already begun in Berlin. After the slump and the rise of fascism, it was not so unusual to be passionately communist and Marxist even in England. In fact by my arrival at Cambridge in 1936, communism on a small scale had got quite a long way.

If you start off as a minority child, first by being English in Austria and Germany, then in a political minority, you become how EM Forster described one of his characters: always standing at a slight angle to the universe. It is probably why my books have done well in other countries, I am not exclusively rooted in a single culture. I've known other children of refugees, who reacted to this by becoming 200 per cent British.

Attending secondary school in three different countries broadened the kind of literature I read and the kind of experiences I can have. My ideas are based on a fair amount of travelling around and talking to people. For example, going to Italy in 1951 was very important, I couldn't have gone before the war because it was a fascist country. I discovered, in some ways, a completely new range of things. In the South there were people who joined the communist party despite being Jehovah's Witnesses! Here were people whose views, although officially left and right, did not use our political syntax. For them the age of Luther and the age of Lenin were the same. This gave me ideas on working on movements of history that shouldn't have been there in modern times. The same trip also introduced me to writing about the history of social bandits, (those who were not considered to be just criminals by the people around them) which is now a very large field, which I think I can safely say I invented.

The cause to which I devoted a good deal of my life hasn't worked out. I hope it has made me a better historian, because the best history is written by the people who have lost out. It sharpens your analytical capacity. The winners think that history came out right because they were right, while the losers ask why everything was different, and that is a more profitable question. Personally, I can't complain. My cause has not done well but my books, inspired by it, are very successful. Writing was not what I set out to do - very different from when I was in secondary school in Berlin working for the world revolution, but it is much better than what could have happened.

Interview By Andrew G Marshall

A collection of Eric Hobsbawm's writings, `Uncommon People', is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson at pounds 20

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