Julia Hobsbawm said her father died overnight at a London hospital. He had been suffering from pneumonia.
“He’d been quietly fighting leukemia for a number of years without fuss or fanfare,” Ms. Julia Hobsbawm said. “Right up until the end he was keeping up what he did best, he was keeping up with current affairs, there was a stack of newspapers by his bed.”
The late British historian A.J.P. Taylor said Hobsbawm’s work was distinguished by precise explanations of what happened and his interest in ordinary people.
“Most historians, by a sort of occupational disease, are interested only in the upper classes and assume that they themselves would have been numbered among the privileged if they had lived a century or two ago a most unlikely assumption,” Mr. Taylor wrote. “Mr. Hobsbawm places his loyalty firmly on the other side of the barricades.”
Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm was born June 9, 1917, in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was British, descended from artisans from Poland and Russia, and his mother’s family were cultured, middle-class Viennese.
The family moved to Vienna when he was two. Following the deaths of his father and then his mother, he moved to Berlin in 1931 to live with relatives, and joined the Socialist Schoolboys.
“In Germany there wasn’t any alternative left,” he said in an interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.
“Liberalism was failing. If I’d been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they’d become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn’t believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.”
“And if you don’t feel that you are part of world history at that time, you never will.”
As a student in Berlin, Hobsbawm informed his schoolmaster that he was a communist and that a revolution was needed.
“He asked me a few questions and said, ‘You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Kindly go to the school library and see what you can find,’” Hobsbawm said in an interview broadcast by the BBC in 2012. “And then I discovered The Communist Manifesto, and that was it.”
In 1933, he moved to London, where he found life boring.
Britons “didn’t grasp this extraordinary end of the world atmosphere, but in Berlin you had it, and you thought you had to do something about it,” Hobsbawm said.
During World War II, Hobsbawm was assigned to an engineering unit which introduced him, for the first time, to the working class.
“I didn’t know much about the British working class, in spite of being a communist. But actually to live and work among them, I thought they were good eggs,” he said in a BBC radio interview in 1995.
“But alas, they were not democrats. They did not believe they were as good as the next man,” he said.
The same year he published “The Jazz Scene,” using the pseudonym Francis Newton, and writing about jazz continued to be an outlet.
“He defined the term ‘intellectual polymath,’” Ms. Julia Hobsbawm said, adding that she’d asked him last week what advice he would give his grandchildren.
“He said he would like them to be curious. Curiosity was the biggest asset anybody could have.”
“I belonged to the generation tied by an unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution and of its original home, the October Revolution, however skeptical or critical of the” Soviet Union, he wrote.
But in an interview on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” in 1995, Hobsbawm said he had been disillusioned by a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953.
“I still believed in the movement, but I had stopped being a militant for a very long time. As it were, from about 1956 I carefully recycled myself as a sympathizer rather than a militant,” he told the BBC.
In 1998, he was made a Companion of Honor, a rare award for a historian, placing him in the ranks of luminaries Stephen Hawking, Doris Lessing and Sir Ian McKellan. It is limited to 65 living people at any one time.