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Millennium Post

Because history does not end abruptly

The man who helped us recognise the 19th century and even much of the 20th century could not beat the eventual call by nature to end the innings. Eric Hobsbawm died due to pneumonia at the age of 95, even though, all the while for the past few years he had been battling leukaemia. What will now remain is his colossal body of work that stretches over hundreds of millions of words that he has written and spoken.

Hobsbawm was born in 1917, soon after the end of the First World War in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was a British colonial officer, though a Polish Jew, and his mother an Austrian Jew. When he was 12 years of age, his father died. Soon to follow was his mother, two years later. He and his family was living in Vienna, Austria, and later moved to Berlin, Germany. He and his siblings were looked after by their maternal aunt and paternal uncle, who later married each other.

In 1933, he and the family moved to Britain. Hobsbawm eventually ended up at Cambridge University, where he earned his doctorate on Fabian socialists. He served as a member of the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Education Corps during the WW II.

As the war ended, he joined Birkbeck College, University of London, in 1947. As a Marxist historiographer he wrote copiously. Although his famous works are the four volumes he wrote on the 19th century, titled The Age…., but he was still able to write at the age of 94, How to Change the World? Marx and Marxism, 1840-2011 (2011).

His style of historiography was based on the complete mastery of facts that he could play with in a style of writing that could be called ‘literary'. The demise of the Soviet Union was like a lost dream, but till the last he was unapologetic about the loss of lives in the Communist project. He has been hectored by many for his unflinching belief 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.'

Yet, once the desire to protect the Soviet Union ended, he also wrote, 'In these circumstances it does not much matter whether we opt for a "conservative" estimate nearer to 10 than to 20 million or a larger figure: none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification.' The force of his sheer scholarship made the ideologically opposed British and American establishment honour him.

Hobsbawm’s death has left a space vacant. It will be interesting to see who fills it up; because history does not end.
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