Eric Hobsbawm, one of the greatest British historians of the 20th century, has died at the age of 95, his family announced today.
Born four months before the Bolshevik revolution, he became a communist as he witnessed the rise of the Nazis from close at hand, and invited criticism by refusing to renounce the movement even when the brutality of the Stalinist regime became public knowledge.
He wrote more than 30 books, including the trilogy, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, covering what he termed “the long 19th century” from the start of the French revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of war in 1914. He followed that in 1994 with The Age of Extremes, his history of the “short 20th century” from the 1914-18 war until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Many other intellectuals of his generation who had joined the communists in the 1930s left in disgust in 1956, after the exposure of Stalin’s crimes in the USSR and the Red Army invasion of Hungary, but Hobsbawm, who had once written a defence of Stalin’s decision to form a pact with Hitler in 1939, remained in the party, but was too intelligent to be intellectually restricted by party ideology.
He died of pneumonia early this morning at London’s Royal Free Hospital. A statement from the family said: “He will be greatly missed not only by his wife of 50 years, Marlene, and his three children, seven grandchildren and great grandchild, but also by his many thousands of readers and students around the world.”
Eric Hobsbawm was born in Egypt, where his British father worked as a colonial officer. His mother was Austrian. His parents took him to Vienna when he was aged two, and later to Berlin. He joined the communist party in 1931, after his parents had died in quick succession, leaving him an orphan at the age of 14, a Jew in a country menaced by the rise of the Nazis. He was cared for by an uncle and aunt, who fled with him to Britain when Hitler came to power.