On my way to and from Manchester yesterday and today I read Anne Applebaum's latest book Iron Curtain about the subjugation of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956. Ms Applebaum's knowledge and understanding of the European Union is not quite what it ought to be, given that she usually appears in the guise of one of our leading political commentators but she does know the history of Communism and what it did to the countries and peoples who, for various reasons, found themselves under its rule. The first few chapters describe in some detail the brutality, violence, whole scale looting and widespread rapine that marked the Red Army's route across Eastern and Central Europe, regardless of whether they were in enemy or friendly countries, with soldiers or civilians, men or women, adults or children, friend or foe. And then came the NKVD and the organized violence and looting. How many people know, for instance, that several of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald included, were reopened by the Soviets for their own purposes? Not a few of the people they imprisoned there had been liberated only a few weeks previously.
As I was reading this horrible tale I got a text message from somebody who saw on the news that Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the best known apologist for Stalin and denier of Communist crimes, has died. We are entering a period of unrestrained mourning for this man who has on various occasions been described as the greatest living historian and one of the most influential ones. Sadly, the last part of it is true. He has been influential.
While Holocaust deniers are rightly excoriated Professor Hobsbawm has been treated in life and will be in death with the greatest adulation. Channel 4 lists some of the misguided souls who are pronouncing sorrowfully on the demise of this supposedly great man and asks rather disingenuously whether he was an apologist for tyranny.
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was. This is what I wrote in 2006 in connection with the wrong-headed suggestion, fortunately never acted on, that Holocaust denial should be made a crime across the EU, suggesting that, logically, some other denials should be made a criminal offence. The mere suggestion shows up the ludicrousness of it all.
But what of the historians who have been peddling lies about the Soviet Union, denying the horrors of Communism and generally abusing freedom of speech? What of Professor Eric Hobsbawm CH, given that honour by Tony Blair?
Throughout his long and distinguished career Professor Hobsbawm belonged to the CPGB (as long as there was a CPGB to belong to) and refused to acknowledge the Joseph Stalin was not the nicest possible man around, who occasionally got a little bit angry but what can you expect when you have the welfare of the world at heart.
Even in recent books Professor Hobsbawm implicitly denied the extent of Stalin’s and Mao’s mass murders, and was all coy about the victims of collectivization imposed by every single Communist tyrant from Uncle Joe to Colonel Mengistu. Far from being disdained, let alone arrested and imprisoned, the good professor is highly feted (Companion of Honour, no less) and his books are required reading by all university students of history.
All this, despite the fact that every single thing the Austrian judge or the British one in the Irving libel case of 2000 said about that wretched man can be said about Professor Hobsbawm (and numerous other, less eminent historians) with a few adjustments: instead of Nazism, Communism; instead of the Holocaust, the purges and collectivization; instead of mass murder, mass murder.It is being said about Professor Hobsbawm that he has acknowledged that nasty things happened in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries but, holding aloft the torch of idealism, he maintained that it was all worth it for the glorious future that was incipient in the ideas that produced the violence.
In the first place, one has to wonder about anyone who could look at the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where he was an honoured visitor in the fifties and say honestly that it was worth to go through those horrors to produce that system. In the second place, it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the dissolution of the CPGB to which Professor Hobsbawm belonged, despite the show trials, despite the Nazi-Soviet Pact, despite Stalin's second, viciously anti-Semitic purge, despite the conquest and oppression of Eastern Europe, despite the uprisings in the fifties and their bloody suppression, despite the Prague Spring and its suppression, that he was even asked point blank about the mass murders; only then did he say with a sigh of nostalgia for his ideals that yes, he still thought it was all worth it.
I wrote about that (I seem to have written rather a lot about this man) last year and in that posting mentioned my review in the Salisbury Review of Hobsbawm's history of the twentieth century, Age of Extremes, described by the unctious BBC as one of his great history books. As a matter of fact, it is not a good book. How can it be? It follows the tired and long-disproved Marxist explanation of twentieth century developments and, worse than that, it absolutely refuses to deal with the horrors inflicted on the world by one of the totalitarian ideologies of that period. In 1995 my review said this:
Age of Extremes promotes general views that we have heard over and over again. The First World War was caused by capitalist rivalry, the slump by the free market, socialism in some form or another as the true salvation, fascism as counter-revolutionary and its unfortunate appearance as capitalism's last effort to defeat socialism and so on. It seems incredible that an historian should ignore or deny the essential similarities between fascism (especially Nazism) and Communism, but Hobsbawm manages it.How on earth can this be described as a good book? There is worse to come. The two great wars of the century, says Hobsbawm, resulted in revolutions, the First World War in the Russian one and the Second World War in the various revolutions that spread the ideas of the Russian one far and wide. Well, actually, only as far as the Soviet occupation went with its force, violence and deliberate destruction of all opposition. Could the Communists take-overs in those countries be really called revolutions by an historian with the slightest degree of honesty?
Then there is the problem of collectivization, a succession of catastrophes, inflicted on various mostly agrarian societies that inevitably resulted in millions of deaths and destruction of agriculture for decades to come.
Professor Hobsbawm with a completely straight face could say, among other things, that it was not entirely comprehensible but very sad that agricultural failure and, indeed, famine happened wherever collectivization was practised. This meant, in his opinion, that one cannot really judge how effective, economically and socially, such a theoretically wonderful idea could be.Is this the judgement of a great historian or of an honourable thinker who looks at the evidence and draws the necessary conclusions? I think not.
Let me now turn to the personal aspect. Unlike Michael Burleigh, who gives an excellent analysis of the man and his work in the Daily Telegraph I did meet Eric Hobsbawm and probably even spoke to him though the last time we might have exchanged words, at the funeral of Eva Haraszti Taylor, the widow of my supervisor A. J. P. Taylor, Professor Hobsbawm studiously ignored my tentative approach.
Eric Hobsbawm, as I said above, was a welcome visitor to the Soviet Union and to Eastern Europe, among them Hungary where he met my father and was invited several times to our home. There was nothing unusual in that: British and American visitors usually ended up in our flat at some point. In his autobiography, Interesting Times, Hobsbawm remembers spending a convivial Christmas day with us and my parents' great friend, the geographer and erstwhile great spy, Alex Rado. (Yes, yes, yes, I shall write about all these people one day.)
Hobsbawm's was one of the first homes we visited on our arrival to this country and there were subsequent meetings but the friendship fell apart, largely, in his opinion, because of my father's anti-Soviet and anti-Communist writings and activity. Well, maybe. Somehow, he never quite got round to mentioning that at one stage before the estrangement my father asked him whether he knew about the Soviet purges, the terror, the truth about collectivization. Yes, admitted Professor Hobsbawm, but "we did not want to know, we did not want to hear". Subsequently, as we have seen, he told some journalists that, of course, he knew but it was of no significance. Others he told that neither the Soviet Union nor the People's Democracies were the political face of real Marxism though, for some reason, he had remained strongly and unarguably supportive of them.
Then he added:
He [Tibor Szamuely] himself, after almost starving in the siege of Leningrad, claimed also to have had the usual spell in a camp during the dictator's final lunacies.This is a deeply dishonest comment. First of all, my father was nowhere near Leningrad during the war and never claimed to have been. But the notion that he "claimed" to have had the "usual spell" in a camp is a highly distasteful and dishonest sneer not just at one man, who most certainly did have a spell, albeit a relatively short one, in a camp but at all the people who came out of the Soviet Union and other Communist countries with tales of horror. Then there is the phrase about "the dictator's final lunacies".
The dictator, in this case, of course, is Stalin whose word remained law for Professor Hobsbawm, the loyal member of the CPGB for decades. Those slightly boring final lunacies was his second purge, which was largely anti-Semitic in character with a ferocious campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans", that is Jews. This is of some interest, as one of Professor Hobsbawm's explanations for his joining the Communist Party and remaining in it was his hatred and fear of Nazism and the Western democracies' alleged inability to deal with it. Surely, Hitler's persecution and eventual mass murder of Jews must come into the thinking somewhere. Why was Stalin's persecution, imprisonment, exile and murder of Jews of so little importance? Why could it be dismissed even years later with a dismissive comment?
Through the weeping and gnashing of teeth that will accompany Eric Hobsbawm's name in the days to come we must remember that not only was he an unrepentant supporter of the worst totalitarian system in history, the unrepentant denier of crimes committed by that system but he was also a man for whom Marxism and its explanation of history overrode all other considerations. Knowledgeable and talented he may have been; amusing and literate he may have been; convivial and sophisticated he may have been; but, ultimately his history was imbued with the same ideas that created the lies of Soviet and other Marxist historiography.