Interesting Times

To “live in interesting times” has often been used as a damning curse, and in Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, the crises of the twentieth century often paralleled his own life. Born in Egypt to secular Jews, he grew up in Vienna during the 1920’s and lived in Berlin during the early years of the Great Depression. By then he had become a Marxist, and took part in anti-Nazi protests. Because his deceased father held a British passport, Hobsbawm was sent to England. Awarded a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, he became involved in left-wing politics, and joined the British Communist Party. In the decades after World War II he became a noted historian, authoring more than twenty volumes.

Hobsbawm’s career coincided with the Cold War years, which he argues limited his academic opportunities because of his communist identification. Hobsbawm’s most controversial decision was not in becoming a Marxist historian and a member of the Communist Party—many were attracted to communism during the Great Depression and in opposition to fascism—but his decision to remain in the party in spite of acts of Soviet repression in Eastern Europe when his colleagues abandoned the party. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of Britain’s Communist Party, Hobsbawm refused to disavow his Marxism though he admits that Soviet communism was a failure. He has been harshly criticized for his supposed perverse blindness, but he makes no apologies.

He argues persuasively that his age—he wrote Interesting Times in his eighties—and his close observation of many major events of the twentieth century, as well as his outsider origins, have given him advantages as a historian. Interesting Times is a superb work and well-worth reading even if one disagrees with the author’s philosophy and politics.