To be sure, he made some mistakes, and we must learn from them. He’s also said to have killed six million Jews and a couple of million Gypsies, cripples, homosexuals, psychos. Even if this was the case, and the jury is still out, it was all in good cause: improving the lot of the German people and introducing real social justice. Doesn’t the end justify the means?
Let’s not ignore Hitler’s achievements either: social services, free medicine, guaranteed pensions, full employment, brand new infrastructure. Did you know that it was Hitler’s scientists who first established the link between smoking and lung cancer? Many lives have since been saved as a result, and we shouldn’t forget that. In short, the pluses must be weighed against the minuses if we wish to form a balanced view.
Now what would you think of someone who spent all his life preaching the message of the two opening paragraphs? Do you believe such a man could have a successful academic career in Britain? Be awarded a Companion of Honour by the Queen? Be feted as a great thinker and one of the greatest modern historians? Regularly appear on the BBC? Have a widespread influence on our public opinion? Die to the chorus of sycophantic accolades from intellectuals representing a broad spectrum of opinion and scholarship?
Even imagining such a possibility would be preposterous, and rightly so. In any civilised country, a man like that would live a solitary, miserable life somewhere in a bad part of town and vent his hateful views to empty walls in a dingy pub at a quiet time. And if by some miracle such a man, say David Irving, did gain access to a public forum and mouthed a tenth of the drivel along those lines, he’d be ostracised and locked up in jail – to loud cheers from all decent people.
Yet Eric Hobsbawm built exactly the kind of career I describe on offering fulsome justifications for a regime that outmurdered the Nazis about five to one, and also another one that did even better than that. Among them, the communists of Soviet, Chinese, Eastern European, Cambodian and other varieties slaughtered between 100 and 150 million people – and yet Hobsbawm, a lifelong member of the Communist Party, found millions of good words to say and write about that satanic creed.
Hobsbawm used to sit on the advisory board of one of my British publishers. The publisher asked once if I’d like to meet him, to which I replied that I’d refuse to shake the man’s hand. So much more surprising it is then to see our major papers running obituaries produced by people who’d be eager not only to shake that despicable creature’s hand but also to kiss the less visible part of his anatomy.
One expects nothing else from the Guardian-Observer-Independent-Times-BBC crowd. As their worldview is circumscribed by various offshoots of Marxism refracted through the work of multitudes of pseudo-philosophers, these chaps are no better than Hobsbawm. In some respects they’re even worse, for they lack the courage of their convictions. Whereas he proudly wore his cannibalistic views on his sleeve, they cower under the shroud of liberalism, progressivism and whatever else Polly Toynbee extrudes out of her intellectual bowels.
But even those who, one would think, ought to know better toe the same line. For example, Niall Ferguson, described in the Times as ‘a rightwing historian’ talks about Hobsbawm as if he was Thucydides, Tacitus and Gibbon rolled into one. Ferguson’s obit in the Guardian is titled ‘a historian’s historian’, which sets the tone for the whole article.
Letting my eye slide along, I stumble across such pearls of wisdom as ‘his politics did not prevent Hobsbawm from being a truly great historian’, ‘his extraordinary intellectual flexibility’, ‘his best work was characterised by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empathy with the little man and a love of the telling detail’, ‘his extraordinary erudition and quick wit’, ‘he saw how important it was to understand the broader forces of historical change’.
Any sensible person would know that Hobsbawm wasn’t ‘a truly great historian’. He wasn’t a historian at all – he was a propagandist. To that end he systematically and knowingly falsified history, as a card-carrying communist always will. Such Soviet monstrosities as the GULAG, unprovoked attack on Finland, complicity in starting the Second World War, general reliance on violence, propensity for genocide were all either downplayed or excused in his books. Others, such as the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere were never mentioned by Hobsbawm, for all his ‘love of the telling detail’. His books contain not a single idea worthy of the name, nor one page of sound analysis, and his popularity says more about our society than about him.
Ferguson strikes a girlish pose by saying, ‘It may surprise readers of the Guardian to know that Eric Hobsbawm and I were friends.’ Not being a Guardian reader, I’m not at all surprised. Ferguson himself spares me the need to explain why: ‘He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era.’
This belief, Marx’s toxic residue in the world, is false, and any attempt to justify it will be intellectually puny regardless of the beholder’s academic attainment. It’s also ignorant in the fundamental sense of the word, if we define knowledge as a result of learning, not its equivalent. That a communist and a self-professed anti-communist should converge at this point only reinforces my view that the difference between the two is merely that of the mathematical sign. Whether it’s a plus or a minus, they are both cut from the same cloth.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum, the Romans used to say, ‘speak no evil of the dead’. If followed, this adage would effectively mean never saying a word about Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao – and Eric Hobsbawm, who was born in the year of the bolshevik turnover and died a couple of days ago at the age of 95.