Hobsbawm was born in Egypt but spent his childhood mostly in Vienna and Berlin. Following the death of his parents and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, Hobsbawm moved to London with his adoptive family, then obtained his PhD in history at the University of Cambridge before serving in the Second World War. In 1998 he was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour. He was President of Birkbeck, University of London from 2002 until his death. In 2003 he received the Balzan Prize for European History since 1900 "for his brilliant analysis of the troubled history of 20th century Europe and for his ability to combine in-depth historical research with great literary talent."
Hobsbawm was born in 1917 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Leopold Percy Hobsbaum (né Obstbaum), a merchant from the East End of London who was of Polish Jewish descent, and Nelly Hobsbaum (née Grün), who was from a middle-class Austrian Jewish family background. His early childhood was spent in Vienna, Austria and Berlin, Germany. A clerical error at birth altered his surname from Hobsbaum to Hobsbawm. Although the family lived in German-speaking countries, his parents spoke to him and his younger sister Nancy in English.
In 1929, when Hobsbawm was 12, his father died, and he started contributing to his family's support by working as an au pair and English tutor. Upon the death of their mother two years later (in 1931), he and Nancy were adopted by their maternal aunt, Gretl, and paternal uncle, Sidney, who married and had a son named Peter. Hobsbawm was a student at the Prinz Heinrich-Gymnasium Berlin (today Friedrich-List-School) when Hitler came to power in 1933; that year the family moved to London, where Hobsbawm enrolled in St Marylebone Grammar School (now defunct).
Hobsbawm attended King's College, Cambridge, from 1936, where he took a double-starred first in History and was elected to the Cambridge Apostles. He received a doctorate (PhD) in History from Cambridge University for his dissertation on the Fabian Society. During the Second World War, he served in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Educational Corps.
Hobsbawm's first marriage was to Muriel Seaman in 1943. They divorced in 1951. His second marriage was to Marlene Schwarz, with whom he had two children, Julia Hobsbawm and Andy Hobsbawm. Julia is chief executive of Hobsbawm Media and Marketing and a visiting professor of public relations at the College of Communication, University of the Arts London. He also had an out-of-wedlock son, Joshua Bennathan, who died in November 2014.
In 1947, he became a lecturer in history at Birkbeck. He became reader in 1959, professor between 1970 and 1982 and an emeritus professor of history in 1982. He was a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, from 1949 to 1955. Hobsbawm said there was a weaker version of McCarthyism that took hold in Britain and affected Marxist academics: "you didn't get promotion for 10 years, but nobody threw you out". Hobsbawm was also denied a lectureship at Cambridge by political enemies, and, given that he was also blocked for a time from a professorship at Birkbeck for the same reasons, spoke of his good fortune at having got a post at Birkbeck in 1948 before the Cold War really started to take off. Conservative commentator David Pryce-Jones has questioned the existence of such career obstacles.
Hobsbawm helped found the academic journal Past & Present in 1952. He was a visiting professor at Stanford in the 1960s. In 1970, he was appointed professor and in 1978 he became a Fellow of the British Academy. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2006.
He retired in 1982 but stayed as visiting professor at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan between 1984–97. He was, until his death, president of Birkbeck (from 2002) and professor emeritus in the New School for Social Research in the Political Science Department. A polyglot, he spoke German, English, French, Spanish and Italian fluently, and read Portuguese and Catalan.
Hobsbawm wrote extensively on many subjects as one of Britain's most prominent historians. As a Marxist historiographer he has focused on analysis of the "dual revolution" (the political French Revolution and the British Industrial Revolution). He saw their effect as a driving force behind the predominant trend towards liberal capitalism today. Another recurring theme in his work was social banditry, which Hobsbawm placed in a social and historical context, thus countering the traditional view of it being a spontaneous and unpredictable form of primitive rebellion. He also coined the term "long nineteenth century", which begins with the French Revolution in 1789 and ends with the start of the Great War in 1914.
Outside his academic historical writing, Hobsbawm wrote a regular column (under the pseudonym Francis Newton, taken from the name of Billie Holiday's communist trumpet player, Frankie Newton) for the New Statesman as a jazz critic, and time to time over popular music such as with his "Beatles and before" article. He published numerous essays in various intellectual journals, dealing with subjects such as barbarity in the modern age, the troubles of labour movements, and the conflict between anarchism and communism. Among his final publications were Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (2007), On Empire (2008) and the collection of essays How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840–2011 (2011).
Hobsbawm joined the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Association of Socialist Pupils), an offshoot of the Young Communist League of Germany, in Berlin in 1931, and the Communist Party in 1936. He was a member of the Communist Party Historians Group from 1946 until its demise and subsequently president of its successor, the Socialist History Society until his death. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 led most of its members to leave the British Communist Party – but Hobsbawm, unique among his notable colleagues, remained in the party. He signed a historians' letter of protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary and was strongly in favour of the Prague spring.
Hobsbawm was later a leading light of the Eurocommunist faction in the CPGB that began to gather strength after 1968, when the CPGB criticised the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring and the French CP failed to support the May students in Paris. In "The Forward March of Labour Halted?" (originally a Marx Memorial Lecture, "The British Working Class One Hundred Years after Marx", that was delivered to a small audience of fellow Marxists in March 1978 before being published in Marxism Today in September 1978), he argued that the working class was inevitably losing its central role in society, and that left-wing parties could no longer appeal only to this class; a controversial viewpoint in a period of trade union militancy. Hobsbawm supported Neil Kinnock's transformation of the British Labour Party from 1983 (the party received just 28% of the vote in that year's elections, just 2% more than the Social Democratic Party/Liberal Alliance), and, though not close to Kinnock, came to be referred to as "Neil Kinnock's Favourite Marxist". His interventions in Kinnock's remaking of the Labour Party helped prepare the ground for the Third Way, New Labour, and Tony Blair, whom Hobsbawm later derisively referred to as "Thatcher in trousers". Until the cessation of publication in 1991, he contributed to the magazine Marxism Today. A third of the 30 reprints of Marxism Today's feature articles that appeared in The Guardian during the 1980s were articles or interviews by or with Hobsbawm, making him by far the most popular of all contributors. From the 1960s, his politics took a more moderate turn, as Hobsbawm came to recognise that his hopes were unlikely to be realised, and no longer advocated "socialist systems of the Soviet type". Until the day of his death, however, he remained firmly entrenched on the Left, maintaining that the long-term outlooks for humanity were 'bleak'. "I think we ought to get out of that 20th-century habit of thinking of systems as mutually exclusive: you’re either socialist or you’re capitalist, or whatever," Hobsbawm has stated in regards to the emergence of a new historical system. "There are plenty of people who still think so. I think very few attempts have been made to build a system on the total assumption of social ownership and social management. At its peak the Soviet system tried it. And in the past 20 or 30 years, the capitalist system has also tried it. In both cases, the results demonstrate that it won’t work. So it seems to me the problem isn’t whether this market system disappears, but exactly what the nature of the mixture between market economy and public economy is and, above all, in my view, what the social objectives of that economy are. One of the worst things about the politics of the past 30 years is that the rich have forgotten to be afraid of the poor – of most of the people in the world."
Hobsbawm stressed that since communism was not created, the sacrifices were in fact not justified—a point he emphasised in Age of Extremes:
Still, whatever assumptions are made, the number of direct and indirect victims must be measured in eight rather than seven digits. In these circumstances it does not much matter whether we opt for a "conservative" estimate nearer to ten than to twenty million or a larger figure: none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification. I add, without comment, that the total population of the USSR in 1937 was said to have been 164 millions, or 16.7 millions less than the demographic forecasts of the Second Five-Year Plan (1933–38).
Elsewhere he insisted:
I have never tried to diminish the appalling things that happened in Russia, though the sheer extent of the massacres we didn't realise...In the early days we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine—we knew of the Volga famine of the early '20s, if not the early '30s. Thanks to the breakdown of the west, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the west. It was that or nothing.
With regard to the 1930s, he wrote that
It is impossible to understand the reluctance of men and women on the left to criticise, or even often to admit to themselves, what was happening in the USSR in those years, or the isolation of the USSR's critics on the left, without this sense that in the fight against fascism, communism and liberalism were, in a profound sense, fighting for the same cause. Not to mention the more obvious fact...that, in the conditions of the 1930s, what Stalin did was a Russian problem, however shocking, whereas what Hitler did was a threat everywhere.
He claimed that the demise of the USSR was "traumatic not only for communists but for socialists everywhere", a statement that led journalist Francis Wheen to retort: "Speak for yourself, comrade. I, like many other socialists, greeted the fall of the Soviet model with unqualified rejoicing; and I don't doubt that Karl Marx would have been celebrating. His favourite motto, de omnibus disputandum ('everything should be questioned'), was not one that had any currency in the realm of 'actually existing socialism'—a hideous hybrid of mendacity, thuggery and incompetence".
Regarding the Queen, Hobsbawm stated that constitutional monarchy in general has "proved a reliable framework for liberal-democratic regimes" and "is likely to remain useful". On the nuclear attacks on Japan in World War II, he adhered to the view that "there was even less sign of a crack in Japan's determination to fight to the end [compared with that of Nazi Germany], which is why nuclear arms were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ensure a rapid Japanese surrender". He also believed there was an ancillary political, non-military reason for the bombings: "perhaps the thought that it would prevent America's ally the USSR from establishing a claim to a major part in Japan's defeat was not absent from the minds of the US government either." Hobsbawm is also quoted as saying that, next to sex, there is nothing so physically intense as 'participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation'.
In 1994, Neal Ascherson said of Hobsbawm: "No historian now writing in English can match his overwhelming command of fact and source. But the key word is 'command'. Hobsbawm's capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staffs". In 2002, Hobsbawm was described by right-leaning magazine The Spectator as "arguably our greatest living historian—not only Britain's, but the world's", while Niall Ferguson wrote: "That Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation is undeniable...His quartet of books beginning with The Age of Revolution and ending with The Age of Extremes constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history. Nothing else produced by the British Marxist historians will endure as these books will." In 2003, The New York Times described him as "one of the great British historians of his age, an unapologetic Communist and a polymath whose erudite, elegantly written histories are still widely read in schools here and abroad". James Joll wrote in The New York Review of Books that "Eric Hobsbawm's nineteenth century trilogy is one of the great achievements of historical writing in recent decades". Ian Kershaw said that Hobsbawm's take on the twentieth century, his 1994 book, The Age of Extremes, consisted of "masterly analysis". Meanwhile, Tony Judt, while praising Hobsbawm's vast knowledge and graceful prose, cautioned that Hobsbawm's bias in favour of the USSR, communist states and communism in general, and his tendency to disparage any nationalist movement as passing and irrational, weakened his grasp of parts of the 20th century.
With regard to the impact of his Marxist outlook and sympathies on his scholarship, Ben Pimlott saw it as "a tool not a straitjacket; he's not dialectical or following a party line", although Judt argued that it has "prevented his achieving the analytical distance he does on the 19th century: he isn't as interesting on the Russian revolution because he can't free himself completely from the optimistic vision of earlier years. For the same reason he's not that good on fascism".
British historian David Pryce-Jones conceded that Hobsbawm was "no doubt intelligent and industrious, and he might well have made a notable contribution as a historian", but also charged that Hobsbawm, as a professional historian who has "steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth", was "neither a historian nor professional." After reading Age of Extremes, Kremlinologist Robert Conquest concluded that Hobsbawm suffers from a "massive reality denial" regarding the USSR, and John Gray, though praising his work on the nineteenth century, has described Hobsbawm's writings on the post-1914 period as "banal in the extreme. They are also highly evasive. A vast silence surrounds the realities of communism, a refusal to engage which led the late Tony Judt to conclude that Hobsbawm had 'provincialised himself'. It is a damning judgement".
In an 1994 interview on BBC British television with Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff (whose grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers of the Czar prior to the Bolshevik Revolution), he shocked viewers when he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result. Hobsbawm argued that, "In a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing" but, unfortunately, "Soviet Union was not the beginning of the World Revolution". The following year, when asked the same question on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, that is if "the sacrifice of millions of lives" would have been worth the future communist society, he replied: "That's what we felt when we fought the Second World War", repeating what already said to Michael Ignatieff, "now people says we shouldn't had World War II" because of the massive number of deaths, but in fact, at the time, "very few people ended up by saying 'we think it was wrong [to fight] in World War II'", as World War II was worth fighting.
Tony Judt opined that Hobsbawm "clings to a pernicious illusion of the late Enlightenment: that if one can promise a benevolent outcome it would be worth the human cost. But one of the great lessons of the 20th century is that it's not true. For such a clear-headed writer, he appears blind to the sheer scale of the price paid. I find it tragic, rather than disgraceful." Neil Ascherson believes that, "Eric is not a man for apologising or feeling guilty. He does feel bad about the appalling waste of lives in Soviet communism. But he refuses to acknowledge that he regrets anything. He's not that kind of person." Hobsbawm himself, in his autobiography, wrote that he desires "historical understanding...not agreement, approval or sympathy".
The 1930s aside, Hobsbawm was criticised for never relinquishing his Communist Party membership. Whereas people like Arthur Koestler left the Party after seeing the friendly reception of Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Moscow during the years of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (1939–1941), Hobsbawm stood firm even after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, though he was against them both. In his review of Hobsbawm's 2002 memoirs, Interesting Times, Niall Ferguson wrote:
The essence of Communism is the abnegation of individual freedom, as Hobsbawm admits in a chilling passage: "The Party . . . had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do....Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed....If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so."
Consider some of the "lines" our historian dutifully toed. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against the Weimar-supporting Social Democrats in the great Berlin transport strike of 1932. He accepted the order to side with the Nazis against Britain and France following the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact of 1939. He accepted the excommunication of Tito. He condoned the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary.
In 1954, just after Stalin's death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party. He admits to having been dismayed when, two years later, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. When Khrushchev himself ordered the tanks into Budapest, Hungary, Hobsbawm finally spoke up, publishing a letter of protest. But he did not leave the Party.
Hobsbawm let his membership lapse not long before the party's dissolution in 1991. In his review of Hobsbawm's memoirs, David Pryce-Jones accuses him of actually supporting the invasion of Hungary:
[H]e carefully makes sure not to quote the letter he published on 9 November 1956 in the Communist Daily Worker defending the Soviet onslaught on Hungary: "While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible." Which is more deceitful, the spirit of this letter, or the omission of any reference to it [in his memoirs]?
In those memoirs, Hobsbawn wrote: "The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me . . . I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness." Reviewing the book, David Caute wrote: "One keeps asking of Hobsbawm: didn't you know what Deutscher and Orwell knew? Didn't you know about the induced famine, the horrors of collectivisation, the false confessions, the terror within the Party, the massive forced labour of the gulag? As Orwell himself documented, a great deal of evidence was reliably knowable even before 1939, but Hobsbawm pleads that much of it was not reliably knowable until Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956."
Reviewing Hobsbawm's 2011 How to Change the World in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Moynihan argued:
When the bloody history of 20th century communism intrudes upon Mr. Hobsbawm's disquisitions, it's quickly dismissed. Of the countries occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II—"the Second World War," he says with characteristic slipperiness, "led communist parties to power" in Eastern and Central Europe—he explains that a "possible critique of the new [postwar] socialist regimes does not concern us here." Why did communist regimes share the characteristics of state terror, oppression and murder? "To answer this question is not part of the present chapter." Regarding the execrable pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which shocked many former communist sympathizers into lives of anticommunism, Mr. Hobsbawm dismisses the "zig-zags and turns of Comintern and Soviet policy," specifically the "about-turn of 1939–41," which "need not detain us here." In one sense, Mr. Hobsbawm's admirers are right about his erudition: He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Marxist thought, specifically Italian communism and pre-Soviet socialist movements. But that knowledge is wasted when used to write untrustworthy history.
Reviewing the same book, Francis Wheen argued in a similar vein: "When writing about how the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s brought new recruits to the communist cause, he cannot even bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to 'temporary episodes such as 1939–41'. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring are skipped over."
David Evanier, in an article published in the American conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, called Hobsbawm "Stalin's cheerleader", writing: "One can learn almost nothing about the history of communism from Hobsbawm's Interesting Times—nothing about the show trials, the torture and execution of millions, the Communist betrayal of Spain."
A more balanced conservative assessment of Hobsbawm came from Matthew Walther in National Review. While attacking Hobsbawm for his communist sympathies and his purported views about Israel, Walther wrote that "There is no denying his [Hobsbawm's] intelligence and erudition" and concluded that "if Hobsbawm is read 50 or 100 years from now, it will probably be despite rather than because of his politics."
In 2008, the historian Tony Judt summed up Hobsbawm's career thus: "Eric J. Hobsbawm was a brilliant historian in the great English tradition of narrative history. On everything he touched he wrote much better, had usually read much more, and had a broader and subtler understanding than his more fashionable emulators. If he had not been a lifelong Communist he would be remembered simply as one of the great historians of the 20th century".
In the early hours of 1 October 2012, Hobsbawm died at the Royal Free Hospital in London. His daughter Julia confirmed that he died of pneumonia, while suffering complications of his leukemia. She said,
He'd been quietly fighting leukemia for a number of years without fuss or fanfare. Right up until the end he was keeping up what he did best, he was keeping up with current affairs, there was a stack of newspapers by his bed.
Following Hobsbawm's death reactions included praise for his "sheer academic productivity and prowess" and "tough reasoning" in The Guardian. Reacting to news of Hobsbawm's death, Ed Miliband called him "an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics [...] He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people's lives". He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were interred in Highgate Cemetery. A memorial service for Hobsbawm was held at the New School in October 2013.1973: Honorary Fellow, King's College, Cambridge
1978: Fellow of the British Academy
1995: Deutscher Memorial Prize; Lionel Gelber Prize
1996: Wolfson History Oeuvre Prize
1998: Companion of Honour, Order of the Companions of Honour
1999: Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung (Hauptpreis)
1999: Honorary degree from Universidad de la República Montevideo, Uruguay
2000: Ernst Bloch Prize
2003: Balzan Prize recipient
2006: Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
2008: Honorary citizenship from Vienna
2008: Honorary degree from University of Vienna
2008: Honorary degree from Charles University in Prague
2008: Bochum History Prize