Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.
Interesting Times: a Twentieth-Century Life (2002)
by Eric Hobsbawm
No current Talk conversations about this book.
5802. Interesting Times A Twentieth Century Life, by Eric Hobsbawm (read 29 Sept 2022) This erudite autobiography was published in 2002, when the author, born June 9, 1917, was 85. I confess I had never heard of him, though was the author of many books on history. He was born in Egypt to a British parent and spoke English as his first language, though he lived in Germany till 1936, when he went to England and attended college at Cambridge and served in the British Army during the war. He early became a Marxist and remained such for most of the rest of his life. He was much distressed to realize the enormity of Stalin's crimes (made public in 1956 in Khrushchev's famed speech) but took positions in regard to the Cold War and Fidel Castro at variance with my views on them. So I did not appreciate much his views on much, though he is very insightful. His last chapter sums up his thoughts as to the future , and he does not foresee a bright future or either his favored view nor for mine. I would like to have had his comments on the present day. A book full of interesting comments some of which were not appreciated by me but the book lives up to its title. ( )
Interesting reference to Piero Sraffa, but not such a very interesting memoir. It did not send me back to his books. Page 133 on endless, aggressively boring and sensationally unreadable reports. He explains in detail why he stayed in the Party all the years, but it seems mainly because he was not expelled.
Well-furnished writing, but a little lacking in feeling. Hobsbawm is a historian, and doesn’t really switch off that mode. Piling on the details, he sometimes smothers the facts, or at least a clear sense of what actually happened. But his long life spanned eventful times, especially his childhood and boyhood in Vienna and Berlin, then England. He actually witnessed the ascent to power of Hitler’s Nazis, and, although still a schoolboy, was fully engaged with the issues, taking part in the last legal march of the KPD in January 1933. Already a committed communist then, he remained so for half a century, and yet can offer little to justify this position, admitting that it was more a question of allegiance than conviction. In World War II his activism is somehow surplus to requirements, and as his life thereafter as an academic rather lacks adventure, so our interest in the book peters out. Not that much of interest in his personal life either, which by the by he rather skates over: a wife or two is mentioned occasionally, but not filled out in detail.
I hear the news that Hobsbawm has died at the venerable age of 95. I search for and read again his autobiography. He writes less about himself than about how he, an indefatigable curious observer – hence the title of the book – more so than participant, has experienced the turbulent times he has lived through, that means most of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century in Vienna, Berlin, London, New York and many other places. In this, his personal point of view lays the interest and value of his account. He is uniquely placed: “Age produces one kind of historical perspective”, he writes; after all he has witnessed events, which almost none of us, his readers, have personal experience of. But through his peripatetic life always “belonging to untypical minorities” he also maintained a certain distance to his surroundings and events. A historian needs it, he says: “History needs distance, not only from the passions, emotions, ideologies … but from the even more dangerous temptations of ‘identity’. […] I felt at home in several countries … in all of them … I have been someone who does not wholly belong to where he finds himself, whether as an Englishman among the central Europeans, a continental immigrant in Britain, a Jew everywhere – even, indeed in Israel – an anti-specialist in a world of specialist, a polyglot cosmopolitan, … even, for much of my life, an anomaly among communists, …” (415-16). Some accused him of seeing the world blinkered by communist ideology. This accusation is not justified. Like the later Djilas , he has not compromised his independent thinking and judgment. He talks about the dangers history as a science (i.e. “distinguishing between fact and fiction, … what is the case and what we would like to be so” ) is facing today from two sides despite unprecedented prominence in the media: on the one hand history perceived “not as a way of interpreting the world, but a means of collective self-discovery”, on the other hand “More history than ever is today being revised or invented by people who do not want the real past, but only a past that suits their purpose. Today is the great age of historical mythology.” (296). He sees that today a “framework for a genuinely global history exists which can be given “its proper central place, neither within the humanities nor the natural and mathematical sciences, nor separated from them, but essential to both.” (297).
As far as EH’s personal life is concerned he seems to be silent or has glossed over many things. In a very critical review Perry Anderson (London Review of Books, Vol. 24 No. 19 • 3 October 2002) ) details much. EH summarises his life thus: “It has been an extraordinarily enjoyable life – he writes, “It has been given me more private happiness than I ever expected. … It would be pointless to regret that it has turned out this way.” But a small uneasiness persists: “… somewhere inside me there is a small ghost who whispers: ’One should not be at ease in a world such as ours.’ As the man said when I read him in my youth: ‘The point is to change it.’” (313) But EH’s strength was not action but the word. And he left us his writings, in particular his brilliant 4 volume history of the 19th and 20th Century (‘The age of …’) .
Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 at the 20th Congress of the USSR precipitated a traumatic crisis that split the world for a communist into a before and after. EH’s description of its impact on the British CP is strangely impersonal. Why did he remain in the Communist Party while so many of his friends left? In retrospect, he says, he allowed himself to stay, because “emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however skeptical or critical of the USSR. For someone who joined the movement where I came from and when I did, it was quite simply more difficult to break with the Party than for those who came later and from elsewhere.” (218)
I found the most interesting his writings on France, Spain, Italy, some Latin-American countries and the USA – all countries he got to know well.
Interviews and talks on YouTube:
EH remembering the rise of Hitler January 1933 Berlin; (BBC World Service, 2012)
on Gramsci; (1987)
EH talks to Michael Ignatieff (BBC Ch4, 1994) and more, all interesting
The German edition was published under the title ‘Gefährliche Zeiten’ (Dangerous times). Why this change? Was the original title deemed too detached to be palatable for German readers? (XI-12)
(XI-22) After reading Nadeschda Mandelstam’s account just how and to what extend the Bolsheviks and Stalin had corrupted the communist ideas I was curious how Hobsbawm could remain faithful to communism considering that, whenever and wherever the idea was set into practice, coercive authoritarianism was the result.
A large part in embracing communist ideas seems to have played by him experiencing the fight against Nazism in 1932/33 Berlin as a young adult (he was then just 15/16 year old) as a ‘final crisis (of the Weimar Republic) heading to a cataclysmic resolution’. The Comintern line saw Social democracy as ‘the greatest danger’: in hind-sight he labeled it ‘politics of insanity’ and ‘suicidal idiocy’ (68), then to some extend experienced in that demonstrators were shot by police under social-democratic command. But the line had to be followed regardless of your views.
The divided Germany after the war he thus compares: ‘the GDR’s system was shabby but relatively unsanguinary, the all-embracing bureaucracy did not terrorise but chivvied, the new society had positive sides: work for all, universal education, health, social security, pensions etc., but citizens had no control over their lives; they were treated like ‘minors by strict 19th century parents’(149f). In West Germany the lure of good life and wealth and old Nazis in high-ranking government positions (Globke (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Globke ), Gehlen (the Gehlen Organisation set up by the CIA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhard_Gehlen ) with former staff-members, …
Hobsbawm ‘swallowed his mental reservations and defended the Soviet Union in the Cold War ‘as the decolonized world depended on its existence’, or rather, as he writes, ‘attacked the capitalist camp for preferring a West Germany run by old Nazis to an East Germany run by old prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, …, and a USA which made Franco’s Spain its military base against those who had supported the Republic.’ (195) Who can blame him?
For a broad discussion see his WP entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm)
"The past is another country, but it has left its mark on those who once lived there," writes noted historian Hobsbawm in this memoir. Known for his histories of the 19th and 20th centuries, Hobsbawm examines this material from a far more intimate perspective and details his personal and intellectual life from his birth into a Jewish family in 1917 to the present. Weaving insightful material into a broader historical tapestry, he moves gracefully from his parents' troubled marriage to his early Communist political work in Berlin in 1933, and his family's flight to England with the rise of Hitler. At university, he became one of the "Cambridge Reds" and professionally was known as a "Marxist historian"-but, he comments, "historical understanding is what I am after, not agreement, approval or sympathy." Hobsbawm writes as easily about his love of jazz as about the complicated problems the Cambridge-based Historians' Group of the Communist Party had with the encroaching hard line of the Soviet government. While Hobsbawm's life is fascinating, it is his pungent observations on today's world that bring a sharp contemporary edge to his life and memoir. He has sharp things to say about Zionism, and of contemporary America he writes, "the US empire does not know what it wants or can do with its power.... It merely insists that those who are not with it are against it." This important work augments the life's work of one of the last century's most important historians.
Hobsbawm's career as a public intellectual has been defined by his celebrated histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (The Age of Extremes 1914-1991 , for example) and by his unflinching Marxism. His autobiography delineates his uncommon trajectory through the twentieth century: birth in Alexandria, childhood as a Jew in Austria and Hitler's Berlin, intellectual maturation in Cambridge, and a multinational academic career to follow. It's an interesting life, to be sure, but more interesting is his perspective on his communist past and the academic life. Hobsbawm's retrospective musings are nostalgic yet honest about the shortcomings of international socialism; they reveal the gently conflicted perspective of one whose political vision hasn't come to fruition, yet who has enjoyed a fruitful life regardless. And yet, within his lived narrative, his praise of jazz and France and certain academic peers, Hobsbawm's discussion of the emerging "global village" suggests a new appeal to socialism and hope for the future. Hobsbawm readers will enjoy the background and a handful of juicy autobiographical tidbits (how he lost his virginity, for example).
References to this work on external resources.
Wikipedia in English (2)
Eric Hobsbawm is considered by many to be our greatest living historian. Robert Heilbroner, writing about Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes 1914-1991 said, "I know of no other account that sheds as much light on what is now behind us, and thereby casts so much illumination on our possible futures." Skeptical, endlessly curious, and almost contemporary with the terrible "short century" which is the subject of Age of Extremes, his most widely read book, Hobsbawm has, for eighty-five years, been committed to understanding the "interesting times" through which he has lived. Hitler came to power as Hobsbawm was on his way home from school in Berlin, and the Soviet Union fell while he was giving a seminar in New York. He was a member of the Apostles at King's College, Cambridge, took E.M. Forster to hear Lenny Bruce, and demonstrated with Bertrand Russell against nuclear arms in Trafalgar Square. He translated for Che Guevara in Havana, had Christmas dinner with a Soviet master spy in Budapest and an evening at home with Mahalia Jackson in Chicago. He saw the body of Stalin, started the modern history of banditry and is probably the only Marxist asked to collaborate with the inventor of the Mars bar. Hobsbawm takes us from Britain to the countries and cultures of Europe, to America (which he appreciated first through movies and jazz), to Latin America, Chile, India and the Far East. With Interesting Times, we see the history of the twentieth century through the unforgiving eye of one of its most intensely engaged participants, the incisiveness of whose views we cannot afford to ignore in a world in which history has come to be increasingly forgotten.
No library descriptions found.
Amazon Kindle (0 editions)
Audible (0 editions)
CD Audiobook (0 editions)
Project Gutenberg (0 editions)
Google Books — Loading...
Melvil Decimal System (DDC)920 — History and Geography Biography, genealogy, insignia Biography
Is this you?
Become a LibraryThing Author.