A Hobsbawm hagiography

E.J. Hobsbawm

Back in 2016 we spent five full days on the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm, who had died four years earlier at the age of 95. As we noted then, Hobsbawm’s demise was followed by a tsunami of praise. In the Guardian he was described as “arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind”; the New Yorker called him “refreshingly serious—intellectually curious and politically engaged,” a man who “was in it to change the world.” The Independent told its readers that he was “one of the greatest British historians of the 20th century.”

The obituarists for these and other prominent media did not ignore the fact that Hobsbawm was a lifelong Communist – a passionate admirer and fierce defender of Stalin who even, in a 1994 TV interview, expressed support for Stalin’s murder of millions. What they did was find ways to minimize it, or excuse it, or even praise it. One necrologist spoke of Hobsbawm’s “Marxist ideals.” Another depicted him as a victim of anti-Communist prejudice. Can you imagine any of these publications referring seriously to “Nazi ideals” or “anti-Nazi prejudice”?

A.N. Wilson

The novelist A.N. Wilson was almost alone in explicitly condemning Hobsbawm for his politics, pointing out that “if some crazed Right-winger were to appear on BBC and say that the Nazis had been justified in killing six million Jews….We should be horrified, and consider that such a person should never be allowed to speak in public.” But what happened to Hobsbawm after that interview? As we wrote in 2016: “His career soared. He was offered (but rejected) a knighthood. Later he accepted from Tony Blair the title Companion of Honour. Oxford gave him a prize worth half a million pounds. As Hobsbawm got older, the media increasingly described him as the country’s greatest living historian. All this despite the fact, as Wilson pointed out, that Hobsbawm never learned the lessons of the century he had lived through.” Nor was he even a good historian: his books, as Wilson bluntly put it, were Communist propaganda. He “quite deliberately underplayed the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939-40.” He was silent on the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviets murdered 20,000 Polish soldiers. And he “deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties” and “the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945.”

Richard J. Evans

If we’re returning now to the subject of Hobsbawm, it’s because another famous historian, Richard J. Evans, FBA, FRSL, FRHistS, FLSW, has published an 800-page biography of him. Evans is best known for his three-volume history of the Third Reich – which has been described as definitive – and for his court testimony defending a writer’s characterization of David Irving as a Holocaust denier. In all his writings on Hitler’s regime, Evans has made it clear that he is not a fan. He sees Nazism for the evil that it is. He does not buy into the notion that, in writing about a Nazi, you can set aside his Nazi beliefs, or contextualize them or relativize them, depicting them as just a minor or incidental part of his personal makeup. You can’t conclude that, his Nazi convictions notwithstanding, the most important thing about him is that he was a devoted husband and father, a good friend and neighbor, a man who loved his pets and was, as the British say, clubbable. No, a Nazi is, first and last, a Nazi. Evans understands that.

David Pryce-Jones

Confronted with the case of Hobsbawm and Hobsbawm’s Communism, however, Evans is able to take a totally different approach. In a blistering review of Evans’s book for the June issue of the New Criterion, yet another historian, David Pryce-Jones (who, as it happens, is also an FRSL), laments that Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History makes Evans “look either a dupe or a fool of the higher sort, in any case earning him a reputation no historian would want to have.” Describing Hobsbawm as “the foremost Communist apologist in the Britain of his day,” Pryce-Jones observes that if Hobsbawm had been a Nazi, “Evans surely would have thrown his doctrine back into his face. Instead, he defends the indefensible with this hagiography.” Although Hobsbawm, after joining the Communist Party as a student at Cambridge, “never deviated from the Party line,” Evans “can still write this utter absurdity: ‘there was no sense in which [Hobsbawm] was an active or committed member of the Party.”

Josef Stalin

As for Hobsbawm the man, Pryce-Jones, who is now 93 and who actually knew Hobsbawm, provides a valuable corrective: “In my experience, Hobsbawm was nothing like the genial and popular figure depicted by Evans.” At one dinner they both attended, Hobsbawm sang the praises of Castro’s Cuba; another dinner guest, a former British ambassador to Cuba, demurred, providing chapter and verse on Cuban perfidy, but to no avail. “All American propaganda, according to Hobsbawm.” There was more: Hobsbawm and Pryce-Jones just happened to be neighbors in a certain Welsh village, where, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hobsbawm, like any half-mad local crank, “would stop to tell me at the top of his voice with expletives in front of surprised farmers how superior Communism was to the nationalism that replaced it.” Pryce-Jones concludes by underscoring a point that is somehow missed by people like Evans and the writers of Hobsbawm’s admiring obituaries: namely, that this was a man who, if the Soviets had conquered Britain and given him the power to do so, would have ordered them all sent to their deaths.

Shrugging at genocide: E.H. Carr

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Orwell with BBC colleagues

Not only was George Orwell one of the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century; he was the indispensible observer of twentieth-century totalitarianism, clear-eyed about the tyrannies of both left and right – and about the stooges of tyranny that crossed his path. This week we’ve been looking at Orwell’s 1949 list of colleagues he suspected of being “crypto-communists” or “fellow travellers” and therefore unfit for employment by the British government’s Ministry of Information. When the list came to light decades later, as we’ve noted, Orwell was savaged by many of his fellow leftists for being a traitor to his own side; in fact, the British Stalinists working to destroy Western freedom and replace it with totalitarianism were the traitors.

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E. H. Carr

Among the names on the list were those of Peter Smollett, a British official who tried to quash the publication of Orwell’s masterpiece Animal Farm and who (years after his death) was revealed to have been a Soviet spy, and beloved Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, a fan of both Mussolini and Stalin who (in one posthumously published poem) expressed indifference to the Nazi bombing of London. Another name: E.H. Carr (1892-1982).

Who was Carr? He was a historian who taught at Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of Wales and who was best known for his fourteen-volume (!) History of Soviet Russia. Like MacDiarmid, he was capable of warming up to fascists and Communists alike. All in all, the stooges on Orwell’s list were a pretty loathsome crew, but Carr may well hav been the most loathsome. As British historian David Pryce-Jones wrote in a 1999 essay, this was a man who nursed an intense “belief in power”; who was unwavering in his conviction “that his own country could do no right”; who was certain that “[c]apitalism and democracy were doomed” and that “[t]he individual had to belong to the collective.”

carrbookAt first, the collective he admired was the one Hitler was fashioning in Germany. Carr publicly defended Nazi aggression and considered its victims “beneath notice.” But then he exchanged Adolf for Uncle Joe. When Stalin swallowed the Baltic states, he said that their forced absorption into the USSR was better than incorporation into the Nazi empire. Carr wasn’t alone in undergoing this conversion: Orwell himself commented at the time that “all the appeasers, e.g. Professor E. H. Carr, have switched their allegiance from Hitler to Stalin.” Thereafter, Carr considered the Soviet Union, in Pryce-Jones’s words, “the model society of the future,” and said so frequently in the British media, notably the Times. In his view (to quote Pryce-Jones again), “Communist governments imposed by Stalin in the satellites of eastern Europe ought to be recognized. The Communists had both the right and the authority to take over Greece…..The Soviet suppression of uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia hardly ruffled him. Soviet force and terror were automatically equated with red-baiting and McCarthyism in America.” In his Soviet history, “[t]he indifference to the murdered millions is astounding.”

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David Pryce-Jones

To be sure, like many Communists in the West, he was a model hypocrite: “While maintaining that capitalism was dead, he was constantly on the telephone to his stockbroker. His letters beseeching for funds and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation or university sponsors refer to his need to be comfortable.” Also like many Western Communists, he labored to demolish his ideological enemies: “Hugh Seton-Watson, Edward Crankshaw, George Katkov, David Footman, and his own former pupil Norman Stone were among the many colleagues against whom Carr intrigued or whom he openly criticized, in the hope of destroying them and their professional reputation.” Finally, like many fervent disciples of extreme ideologies that profess concern for the powerless, he was brutal to his several wives. Pryce-Jones:

Enclosed in his ego, he paid no attention to any of them, discarding them like tissues….The nastiness was unlimited. Anne developed a sarcoma, and, on the day that one of her daughters was due to have a very serious operation, Carr informed her that the marriage was over, that he was leaving her for Joyce. In due course he left Joyce for her closest friend, Betty Behrens. …Soon Betty had a nervous collapse and moved to an asylum, whereupon Carr tried to take some of her considerable fortune.

George Orwell Bbc MicrophoneAs Pryce-Jones sums up: “here was someone who would have had no trouble at all signing death warrants in a police state.” But of course that’s precisely the type of person who, living in freedom, is attracted to murderous totalitarian regimes. They never identify with those dispatched to the Gulags or death camps; they always see themselves in the role of commissar, warden, executioner. That’s one of the many things that Orwell, in his time, certainly understood – and to which we, in our own time, in a world no less threatened than Orwell’s by liberty-crushing ideologies and their fans, should be constantly alert.