Born in Alexandria in 1917 to Jewish parents, Eric Hobsbawm—who later became one of Britain’s most highly regarded historians—spent his childhood in Austria and Germany before coming to England in 1933 in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. Hobsbawm had joined a socialist youth group in 1931 and remained committed to Karl Marx’s teachings right up until his death in 2012. Reviewing a massive new biography of Hobsbawm by Richard Evans, David Pryce-Jones writes:
Hobsbawm never deviated from the party line, however misguided or self-contradictory it might have been. The record speaks for itself. Stalin’s close colleagues confessed in a series of show trials to crimes they could not possibly have committed, but Hobsbawm nonetheless believed they were guilty. Every Soviet invasion of territory and suppression of other nation-states from the Baltic republics and Finland at the beginning of World War II to Hungary in 1956, and then the Prague Spring afterward, delighted him. He accused Mikhail Gorbachev of the wanton destruction of the Soviet Union, staying in the party right up to its dissolution.
Not long before he died, he caused a scandal by proclaiming in a BBC interview that the murder of fifteen or twenty million people would still now be justified if it led to the creation of a radiant Communist tomorrow. The omissions from his books amount to wholesale falsification. The secret police, Beria, the Gulag, slave labor and the White Sea Canal, the mass execution of Poles at Katyn, the deportation of the Chechens and other minorities, enforced famines, riots—all are either met with silence or a half-sentence with grudge in it.
In Pryce-Jones’s estimation, Evans does not do justice to Hobsbawm’s own moral failings. He illustrates with a personal anecdote:
In my experience, Hobsbawm was nothing like the genial and popular figure depicted by Evans. At a dinner in the house of Hugh Thomas, the historian of Spain and Cuba, Hobsbawm began by describing Castro’s Cuba as a Communist paradise. . . . Then, pontificating about the Middle East, he said that it would be better to kill a few million Israelis by dropping a nuclear bomb on their country than to suffer the deaths of 200 million Europeans and Americans in the cold-war nuclear exchange that he forecast would very soon happen. When I said that Goebbels was the last person I could recall who had spoken of mass murder in terms of arithmetic, an enraged Hobsbawm left the room and did not return.