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Chronicling the Age of Hobsbawm: A Q&A With Historian Richard Evans

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For many years, Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012) was the world’s best-known academic historian. Translated into more than 50 languages, most of his more than 30 titles have never gone out of print. Just in Brazil, his books have sold close to a million copies. Concepts first coined by Hobsbawm—the social bandit, the long 19th century, the invention of tradition—have become household phrases and spawned entire fields of research. His magisterial trilogy on the period from 1789 to 1914, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire, continues to shape our understanding of the era. His account of the “short twentieth century,” The Age of Extremes, which he published when he was 77, cemented his worldwide fame.

Born as a British citizen of Jewish parents in Alexandria, Egypt, Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna and Berlin. His father died when Eric was 12; two years later, he lost his mother. After moving to England in 1933, in 1936 he joined King’s College, Cambridge, to study history. He spent World War II as an officer in the British army. His first major book, Primitive Rebels, on social bandits and other forms of primitive class struggle, appeared in 1959.In the 1950s and ’60s, he combined his academic work with a productive sideline as a jazz critic, publishing under a pseudonym.

Hobsbawm wrote in an engaging, literary style for the broadest possible audience. Few historians have matched his ability to combine sweeping synthesis with telling detail, or to condense the essence of an era in a pithy trope. Strongly influenced by the Annales school, he was a committed Marxist who combined his academic work with steadfast political militancy. Hobsbawm first joined the Communist Party as a teenager in Germany, where he witnessed the rise of Nazism first-hand. He was a card-carrying—though critical and increasingly unenthusiastic—member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) until its demise in 1991.

Less than seven years after Hobsbawm’s death, his fellow historian Richard Evans, a onetime colleague of Eric’s at Birkbeck College, has published Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, a 750-page, intimate, and sympathetic portrait based on a rich trove of diaries, letters, and interviews—as well as a hefty box of files amassed by MI5, Britain’s domestic secret service, which for many years kept close tabs on a man they saw as a subversive propagandist. Ironically, as MI5’s secret recordings of conversations in the central CPGB office made clear, Hobsbawm’s own party leaders, too, saw him with a good deal of suspicion. (Of all the Communist parties in Western Europe, the British was perhaps least hospitable to intellectuals.)

Evans (born in Woodford, Essex, in 1947), who retired as Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge in 2014, is a prominent historian of Germany; his monumental history of 19th-century Europe, The Pursuit of Power, came out in 2016. The Hobsbawm book took him five years to write. “I’ve found that biography is a lot easier to do than history,” he told me when we spoke over the phone in March. “In history you must invent the subject, decide where its boundaries are, and structure your argument. In a biography, that’s all given. I had to work fast, because I was very keen to put the book in the hands of Hobsbawm’s widow, Marlene, who is now 86. Fortunately, that worked out as planned.”

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