Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’, and the Project Officer Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor Eric Hobsbawm about his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic profession of history.
Professor Hobsbawm, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Eric Hobsbawm: I was born during World War One, in Egypt, which has no relevance to my subsequent life because I left it when I was two. More relevant is that I had my primary and part of my secondary education in Austria, and then for a couple of years in Germany, and came to England (not, I want to say, as a refugee, because my family was British) in 1933, where I finished my secondary schooling and then got a scholarship to Cambridge.
Before I’d had much chance for research the war broke out. After the war I returned briefly to do my research, but almost immediately, in 1947, got a job as a lecturer at Birkbeck, presumably on the basis of my undergraduate career and references. And basically I stayed there until my retirement in 1982, after which I then went on and taught in New York for another 13 years or so. There were intervals of visits, and temporary things which could be combined with staying in London, teaching in various American universities, and in Latin America. And in the 1970s and early 1980s I also taught at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the College de France.
The intellectual background was peculiar. My father’s family were immigrants from Poland, then Russia, who were actually workers, artisans and woodworkers. Cabinetmaking was the family trade. Until my generation none of them had a fulltime progress to university. So I was the first person to do that, on the strength of a scholarship.
My mother’s side was Viennese assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie or middleclass, with a very strongly developed literary and cultural atmosphere, so these young years in both Austria and Germany were very significant.
After that there was Cambridge. The first thing I published was just a collection of documents, but I first started publishing in journals in this country in 1947 or 1948. My first books were 1959, since which time (you can see the bibliography) I’ve been publishing this, that and the other.
PO: And how did you come to be a historian? What were the factors involved in that?
EH: Well, I became very interested in history in general through becoming a schoolboy Marxist and reading the Communist Manifesto. The history I was taught at that time in Germany was totally uninteresting and traditional, and while at one time I knew the list of names and dates of all the German emperors, I’ve forgotten them all. However, in the immediate short-term I became an academic historian because my history teacher at the British grammar school (St Marylebone Grammar School) thought I was good at it, and decided at a certain stage to put me up.
I was still not fixed on becoming a historian when I went up to Cambridge. I might have done English and I might have done Modern Languages, but it struck me having looked round Cambridge and the literature, that most of what I would I learn in Modern Languages or English Literature, I could do privately by reading, whereas the stuff that was being taught in History I had never been taught before and so it seemed worthwhile to concentrate on that.
PO: What would you say were your influences? I suppose in terms of teachers and in terms of intellectual influences?
EH: At school?
PO: From school, and in terms I suppose of your early career as well.
EH: It’s very difficult to say apart from Karl Marx, who provided the impetus for me to go into history, and also of course, some of my historical interests. As well as being as it were a socialist and leftist who took an interest in popular history, the history of the common people and the workers. Which is not...
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