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The Tyrants’ Historian

by David Pryce-Jones
Eric Hobsbawm parroted the Party line

People in all walks of life, but especially intellectuals, used to believe that the Soviet Union was a place of wonders. Eric Hobsbawm was an outstanding example of the type. A professor of history, he wrote as if Karl Marx were looking over one shoulder and Joseph Stalin over the other. Capitalism was always about to collapse. The United States was “unfortunately” a great danger to one and all (which didn’t prevent him from teaching at the New School in New York). The disappearance into thin air of the Soviet Union and all it stood for did not make him change his mind, even if that meant yet more defense of mass murder. Asked on a television show in 1994 whether creating “the radiant tomorrow” would justify the death of 15 or 20 million people, he answered, “Yes.” He remained a Communist to the end because “the Party . . . got things done,” but what those things were he made sure to distort or leave unsaid. At the age of 95, he has just died, and the enigma remains that a man with such an inhuman and mendacious record had an international reputation as a historian, garlanded with honorary degrees and awards.

London being what it is, I could not help running into him. At a dinner to which we were both invited, he first glorified Castro’s Cuba to another guest, the British ambassador there at the time, and then went on to say that a nuclear bomb ought to be dropped on Israel, because it was better to kill 5 million Jews now than 200 million innocent people in a world war later. The last person who had reduced genocide to mathematics was Joseph Goebbels, I replied, whereupon Hobsbawm got up from the meal and left the house. And as luck would have it, he had a cottage in the tiny village on the next hilltop to mine in Wales. At unlikely rural occasions, we might have words. Once when I encountered him at a local show, he began snarling (expletives included) with his face contorted in anger that I was wrong to think that the peoples of the Soviet bloc preferred freedom to Communism. A commissar manqué, he would gladly have sentenced me to be executed, and I haven’t any doubt that in the event of his beloved revolution his Soviet colleagues would soon have executed him. Stalinist secret policemen were cynics; he was a true believer.

After a childhood in Vienna and Berlin, Hobsbawm came to England to escape Nazism. His autobiography, Interesting Times, reveals the arrogance and superiority he brought to his adopted country: “I refused all contact with the suburban petty bourgeoisie, which I naturally regarded with contempt.” His sister was a “country matron and Conservative party activist,” and so he would have nothing to do with her. Awarded a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, that most elite of institutions, he took his place among kindred spirits including Anthony Blunt and his lover Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby. Also there was James Klugmann, who was later a member of the central committee of the British Communist Party and whose sinister wartime role was to facilitate the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia. Another admired friend was Ruth Kuczynski, who had “a long and adventurous career in Soviet intelligence.” All were to be spies for the Soviets and traitors to Britain. Like them, Hobsbawm was doing whatever he could to make sure that less fortunate people would not have the privileges and freedom he himself enjoyed.

Throughout his career, Hobsbawm never deviated from the Communist Party line set in Moscow. Many Party members in many countries resigned over the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939, but he smoothed over this cooperation with Nazism as “the refusal of the USSR to continue opposing Hitler.” When Stalin then invaded the Baltic states and deported half their populations to exile and death in Siberia, Hobsbawm hit on the euphemisms that these states had been “acquired” or “transferred” (and when Communism ended they are supposed to have “seceded”). In December 1939, Stalin further invaded Finland. Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams, a Communist of similar type, wrote a pamphlet to claim that the Red Army was in Finland to protect Russia from a British invasion. Both men could not help knowing that at the time Britain expected a German invasion and was in no position to invade Soviet Russia. At the end of the war, in the face of the Red Army takeover of Eastern and Central Europe, Hobsbawm could assert, like any Soviet hack, that “the USSR was neither expansionist — still less aggressive — nor counting on any further extension of the Communist advance.” He defended the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. China carried the torch: Under Mao Tse-tung, “the Chinese people were doing well.”

In Hobsbawm’s view, George Orwell was only “an upper-class Englishman called Eric Blair,” while Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “had come up through the Communist system,” a curious description of his years in the Gulag. The contortions can be laughable: A book by Stalin, “whatever its lies and intellectual limitations, was pedagogically a masterly text.” And East Germany was “a structured community of good people doing an honest day’s work.” (“Structured” is also a curious description for a police state whose inhabitants had to be restrained by a wall and armed guards from fleeing to the West, and whose supposed honest work ended in utter bankruptcy.) In the last resort, Hobsbawm was in the habit of lying by omission. Absent from his account of the present age are the enforced famines that killed millions in the Soviet Union, and the Gulag system of slave labor that killed millions more and drove desperate victims to revolt. There is no mention of Lavrenti Beria, the head of the secret police — “our Himmler,” as the grateful Stalin described him. No mention of the ruthless elimination of Communists who hadn’t kept up with the current Party line or of democrats who found themselves in the Party’s way. No mention of the massacre at Katyn of thousands of Poles.

The death of such a character might have been the occasion for a sigh of relief that he had never been in a position to put his Communist belief into practice. Far from it: Socialist outlets such as the BBC and the Guardian could not praise him enough. The London Times had a two-page obituary with the headline “Magisterial historian of the modern age whose nuanced Marxist views helped to reshape the political Left in Britain and beyond.” Hobsbawm in full euphemistic mode could not have improved that “nuanced.” The same paper that day had an editorial whose headline characterized him as “a peerless social historian who transcended ideology.” What was peerless was his refusal ever to transcend ideology.

One explanation for overwhelming absurdities of this kind is that Communist propaganda has had time to penetrate British society so thoroughly that the general public, and even journalists and reputable historians, really cannot see Hobsbawm’s version of events for the special pleading that it is. Decades of falsehoods and manipulation have deadened the moral sensibility even of intelligent people. An alternative possibility is that the British don’t really think that anything matters much, and they tolerate anyone and everyone to a fault, even a man who worked to make the country unrecognizable. I shall be going to the local village and walking on the surrounding Welsh hills, grateful to be safe and free.

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