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Eric Hobsbawm dies at 95; British historian was longtime communist

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Eric Hobsbawm, who was honored as one of Britain's most distinguished historians despite retaining an allegiance to the Communist Party that lasted long after many supporters had left in disgust, has died. He was 95.

Hobsbawm died early Monday at a London hospital, said his daughter Julia Hobsbawm. He had pneumonia and leukemia.

Read by generations of students and revered for his ability to make history come alive, Hobsbawm used his socialist perspective to tell stories from the people's point of view.

His reading of Karl Marx and his experience living in Germany in the 1930s formed his views. He joined the Communist Party in England in 1936 and stayed a member long after Soviet military force crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968, although he publicly opposed both interventions.

Hobsbawm is best known for three volumes, spanning the period from 1789 to 1914: "The Age of Revolution" (1962), "The Age of Capital" (1975) and "The Age of Empire" (1987). A later volume, "Age of Extremes," took the story forward from 1914 to 1991.

The late British historian A.J.P. Taylor said Hobsbawm's work was distinguished by precise explanations of what happened and his interest in ordinary people.

"Most historians, by a sort of occupational disease, are interested only in the upper classes and assume that they themselves would have been numbered among the privileged if they had lived a century or two ago — a most unlikely assumption," Taylor wrote. "Mr. Hobsbawm places his loyalty firmly on the other side of the barricades."

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born June 9, 1917, into a Jewish family living in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was British, descended from artisans from Poland and Russia, and his mother's family was cultured, middle-class Viennese.

The family moved to Vienna when he was 2. After the deaths of his father and then his mother, he moved to Berlin in 1931 to live with relatives and joined the Socialist Schoolboys.

"In Germany there wasn't any alternative left," he said in an interview published in the Guardian newspaper in 2002.

"Liberalism was failing. If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they'd become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed."

In 1933, he moved to London. During World War II, Hobsbawm was assigned to an engineering unit that introduced him, for the first time, to the working class.

"I didn't know much about the British working class, in spite of being a communist. But actually to live and work among them, I thought they were good eggs," he said in a BBC radio interview in 1995.

Hobsbawm's first book, "Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels," published in 1959, was a study of what he called "pre-political social agitators," including Sicilian peasant leagues, city mobs and bandits, an early example of his interest in the structural history of working-class organizations.

Hobsbawm defended his allegiance to the Communist Party as born of hope, ignorance and a fear that leaving the party might be seen as an attempt to secure some advantage.

"I belonged to the generation tied by an unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution and of its original home, the October Revolution, however skeptical or critical" of the Soviet Union, he wrote.

Hobsbawm was appointed a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London, spending his entire career on the faculty and eventually being appointed president.

In 1998, he was made a Companion of Honor, a rare award for a historian.

Hobsbawm, whose first marriage ended in divorce, is survived by his wife, Marlene; two sons; a daughter; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

news.obits@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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