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Interesting Times

A Twentieth-Century Life

Interesting Times by Eric Hobsbawm
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US$ 15.99
Eric Hobsbawm is considered by many to be our greatest living historian. Robert Heilbroner, writing about Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes 1914-1991 said, “I know of no other account that sheds as much light on what is now behind us, and thereby casts so much illumination on our possible futures.” Skeptical, endlessly curious, and almost contemporary with the terrible “short century” which is the subject of Age of Extremes, his most widely read book, Hobsbawm has, for eighty-five years, been committed to understanding the “interesting times” through which he has lived.

Hitler came to power as Hobsbawm was on his way home from school in Berlin, and the Soviet Union fell while he was giving a seminar in New York. He was a member of the Apostles at King’s College, Cambridge, took E.M. Forster to hear Lenny Bruce, and demonstrated with Bertrand Russell against nuclear arms in Trafalgar Square. He translated for Che Guevara in Havana, had Christmas dinner with a Soviet master spy in Budapest and an evening at home with Mahalia Jackson in Chicago. He saw the body of Stalin, started the modern history of banditry and is probably the only Marxist asked to collaborate with the inventor of the Mars bar.

Hobsbawm takes us from Britain to the countries and cultures of Europe, to America (which he appreciated first through movies and jazz), to Latin America, Chile, India and the Far East. With Interesting Times, we see the history of the twentieth century through the unforgiving eye of one of its most intensely engaged participants, the incisiveness of whose views we cannot afford to ignore in a world in which history has come to be increasingly forgotten.


From the Hardcover edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; December 2007
464 pages; ISBN 9780307426413
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Title: Interesting Times
Author: Eric Hobsbawm
 
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Excerpt
Overture

One day in the autumn of 1994, my wife Marlene, who kept track of the London correspondence while I was teaching my course at the New School in New York, phoned me to say there was a letter from Hamburg she could not read, as it was in German. It came from a person who signed herself Melitta. Was it worth sending on? I knew no one in Hamburg, but without a moment’s hesitation I knew who had written it, even though something like three quarters of a century had passed since I had last seen the signatory. It could only be little Litta — actually she was my senior by a year or so — from the Seutter Villa in Vienna. I was right. She had, she wrote, seen my name in some connection in Die Zeit, the German liberal-intellectual weekly. She had immediately concluded that I must be the Eric with whom she and her sisters had played long, long ago. She had rummaged through her albums and come up with a photo which she enclosed. On it five small children posed on the summery terrace of the villa with our respective Fräuleins, the little girls — perhaps even myself — garlanded with .owers. Litta was there with her younger sisters Ruth and Eva (Susie, always known as Peter,was not yet born), I with my sister Nancy. Her father had marked the date on the back: 1922. And how was Nancy, Litta asked. How could she know that Nancy, three-and-a-half years my junior, had died a couple of years earlier? On my last visit to Vienna I had gone to the houses in which we had lived, and sent Nancy photographs of them. I had thought she was the only one who still shared a memory of the Seutter Villa. Now it came alive again.

I have that photo too. In the album of family photos which has ended up with me, the last survivor of my parents and siblings, the snapshots on the terrace of the Seutter Villa form the second iconographic record of my existence and the first of my sister Nancy, born in Vienna in 1920. My own first record appears to be a picture of a baby in a very large wicker pram, without adults or other context, which was, I assume, taken in Alexandria, where I was born in June 1917, to have my presence registered by a clerk at the British Consulate (incorrectly, for they got the date wrong and misspelled the surname). The diplomatic institutions of the United Kingdom presided over both my conception and my birth, for it was at another British Consulate, in Zurich, that my father and mother had been married, with the help of an of.cial dispensation personally signed by Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, which allowed the subject of King George V, Leopold Percy Hobsbaum, to marry the subject of the Emperor Franz Josef, Nelly Grün, at a time when both empires were at war with one another, a con.ict to which my future father reacted with residual British patriotism, but which my future mother repudiated. In 1915 there was no conscription in Britain, but if there were, she told him, he should register as a Conscientious Objector.1 I would like to think that they were married by the consul who is the main .gure in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. I should also like to think that while they were waiting in Zurich for Sir Edward Grey to turn from more urgent matters to their wedding, they knew about their fellow-exiles in the city, Lenin, James Joyce and the Dadaists. However, they obviously did not, and almost certainly would not have been interested in them at such a time. They were plainly more concerned with their forthcoming honeymoon in Lugano.

What would have been my life if Fräulein Grün, aged eighteen, one of three daughters of a moderately prosperous Viennese jeweller, had not fallen in love with an older Englishman, fourth of eight children of an immigrant London Jewish cabinet-maker, in Alexandria in 1913? She would presumably have married a young man from the Jewish Mitteleuropean middle class, and her children would have grown up as Austrians. Since almost all young Austrian Jews ended up as emigrants or refugees, my subsequent life might not have looked very different — plenty of them came to England, studied here and became academics. But I would not have grown up or come to Britain with a native British passport.

Unable to live in either belligerent country, my parents returned via Rome and Naples to Alexandria, where they had originally met and got engaged before thewar, and where both had relatives —my mother’s uncle Albert, of whose emporium of Nouveautes plus staff I still have a photograph, and my father’s brother Ernest, whose name I bear and who worked in the Egyptian Post and Telegraph Service. (Since all private lives are raw material for historians as for novelists, I have used the circumstances of their meeting to introduce my history of The Age of Empires.) They moved to Vienna with their two-year-old son as soon as the war ended. That is why Egypt, to which I am shackled by the lifetime chains of of.cial documentation, is not part of my life. I remember absolutely nothing about it except, possibly, a cage of small birds in the zoo at Nouzha, and a corrupt fragment of a Greek children’s song, presumably sung by a Greek nursemaid. Nor have I any curiosity about my place of birth, the district known as Sporting Club, along the tramline from the centre of Alexandria to Ramleh, but then, there is not much to be said about it, according to E. M. Forster, whose stay in Alexandria almost coincided with my parents’. All he says about the tram station Sporting Club in his Alexandria, A History and a Guide is: ‘Close to the Grand Stand of the Race Course. Bathing beach on the left.’

Egypt thus does not belong in my life. I do not know when the life of memory begins, but not much of it goes back to the age of two. I have never gone there since the steamer Helouan left Alexandria for Trieste, then just transferred from Austria to Italy. I do not remember anything about our arrival in Trieste, meeting-point of languages and races, a place of opulent cafés, sea captains and the headquarters of the giant insurance company, Assicurazioni Generali, whose business empire probably de.nes the concept of ‘Mitteleuropa’ better than any other. Eighty years later I had occasion to discover it in the company of Triestine friends, and especially Claudio Magris, that marvellous memorializer of central Europe and the Adriatic corner where German, Italian, Slav and Hungarian cultures converge. My grandfather, who had come to meet us, accompanied us on the Southern Railway to Vienna. That is where my conscious life began. We lived with my grandparents for some months, while my parents looked for an apartment of their own.

My father, arriving with hard savings — nothing was harder than sterling in those days — in an impoverished country with a currency subsiding towards collapse, felt con.dent and relatively prosperous. The Seutter Villa seemed ideal. It was the first place in my life I thought of as ‘ours’.

Anyone who comes to Vienna by rail from the west still passes it. If you look out of the right-hand window as the train comes into the western outskirts of Vienna, by the local station Hu¨ tteldorf-Hacking, it is impossible to miss that con.dent broad pile on the hillside with its four-sided dome on a squat tower, built by a successful industrialist in the later days of the Emperor Franz Josef (1848—1916). Its grounds reached down to the Auhofstrasse, which led to the west along the walls of the old imperial hunting ground, the Lainzer Tiergarten, and from which it was reached by a narrow uphill street (the Vinzenz- Hessgasse, now Seuttergasse) at the bottom of which there was then still a row of thatched cottages.

The Seutter Villa of my childhood memories is largely the part shared by the old and young of the Hobsbaums (for so, in spite of the Alexandrian consular clerk, the name was spelled), who rented a flat on the first flor of the villa, and the Golds, who rented the ground-.oor apartment below us. Essentially this centred on the terrace at the side of the house, where so much of the social life of the generations of both these families was conducted. From this terrace a footpath — steep in retrospect — led down to the tennis courts at the bottom — they are now built over — past what seemed to a small boy a giant tree, but with branches low enough for climbing. I remember showing its secrets to a boy who had come to my school from a place called Recklinghausen in Germany. We had been asked to take care of him, because times were hard where he came from. I can remember nothing about him except the tree and his home-town in what is now the Land Nordrhein- Westfalen. He soon went back. Though I did not think of it as such, this must have been my first contact with the major events of twentiethcentury history, namely the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, via one of the children temporarily sent out of harm’s way to wellwishers in Austria. (All Austrians at that time saw themselves as Germans, and, but for a veto from the peacemakers after the First World War, would have voted to join Germany.) I also have a vivid memory of us playing in a barn full of hay somewhere in the grounds, but on my last visit to Vienna with Marlene we checked out the Villa and could .nd no place where it might have been. Curiously enough, I have no indoor memories of the place, though a vague impression that it was neither very light nor very comfortable. I cannot, for instance, recall anything about our own or the Golds’ apartments, except perhaps high ceilings.

Five, later six, children of pre-school age, or at best in the first years of primary school, in the same garden, are great cementers of inter-family relations. The Hobsbaums and the Golds got on well, in spite of their very different backgrounds — for (notwithstanding their name) the Golds do not seem to have been Jewish. At all events they remained and .ourished in Austria, that is to say in Hitler’s Greater Germany, after the Anschluss. Both Mr and Mrs Gold came from Sieghartskirchen, a nowheresville in Lower Austria, he the son of the only local innkeeper—farmer, she the daughter of the only village shopkeeper (anything from socks to agricultural equipment). Both maintained strong family links there. They were suf.ciently prosperous in the 1920s to have their portraits painted — a black-and-white copy of the two, sent by one of the two surviving Gold girls a year or so ago, is before me. The picture of a serious-looking gentleman in a dark lounge suit and a starched collar brings nothing back, and indeed I had no close contact with him as a small boy, although he once showed me his of.cer’s cap from the days before the end of the empire, and was the first person I knew who had actually been to the USA, to which he had travelled on business. From there he brought a gramophone record, the tune of which I now recognize as ‘The Peanut Vendor’, and the information that they had a make of motor-car called ‘Buick’, a name I found, for some obscure reason, hard to credit. On the other hand the image of a handsome long-necked lady with short hair waved at the sides, looking at the world with a serious but not very self-con.dent gaze over her décolleté shoulder, immediately brings her to life in my mind. For mothers are a much more constant presence in the life of young children, and my mother, Nelly, intellectual, cosmopolitan, educated, and Anna (‘Antschi’) Gold, with little schooling, always conscious of the provincialism of her origins, soon became best friends and remained so to the end. Indeed, according to her daughter Melitta, Nelly was Anna’s only intimate friend. This may explain why photos of unknown and unidenti.able Hobsbawms still keep turning up in family albums of the Gold grandchildren who remained in Vienna. One of the Gold girls recalls, almost as vividly as I do, going (with her mother) to see my mother in her last days. Weeping, Antschi told her: ‘We will never see Nelly again.’

Two people, almost as old as the ‘short twentieth century’, thus began life together and then made their different ways through the extraordinary and terrible world of the past century. That is why I begin the present re.ections on a long life with the unexpected reminder of a photo in the albums of two families which had nothing else in common except that their lives were brie.y brought together in the Vienna of the 1920s. For memories of a few years of early childhood shared by a retired university professor and peripatetic historian with a retired former actress, television presenter and occasional translator (‘like your mother!’) are of little more than private interest for the people concerned. Even for them, they are no more than the thinnest of threads of spider silk bridging the enormous space between some seventy years of entirely separate, unconnected lives conducted without knowledge or even without a moment’s conscious thought of one another. It is the extraordinary experience of Europeans living through the twentieth century that binds these lives together. A rediscovered common childhood, a renewal of contact in old age, dramatize the image of our times: absurd, ironic, surrealist and monstrous. They do not create them. Ten years after the five infants looked at the camera, my parents were dead, and Mr Gold, victim of the economic cataclysm — virtually all the banks of central Europe were technically insolvent in 1931 — was on his way with his family to serve the banking system in Persia, whose Shah preferred his bankers from remote and defeatedempires rather than from neighbouring and dangerous ones. Fifteen years after, while I was at an English university, the Gold girls, returned from the palaces of Shiraz, were — all of them — beginning their careers as actresses in what was about to become part of Hitler’s Greater Germany. Twenty years after, I was in the uniform of a British soldier in England, my sister Nancy was censoring letters for the British authorities in Trinidad, while Litta was performing under our bombs in the Kabarett der Komiker in wartime Berlin to an audience, some of whom may well have rounded up my relatives who had probably patted the Gold girls’ heads at the Seutter Villa, for transport to the camps. Five years later, as I began to teach in the bombed ruins of London, both the Gold parents were dead — he, probably from hunger, in the immediate aftermath of defeat and occupation, she, evacuated into the western Alps before the end, of disease.

The past is another country, but it has left its mark on those who once lived there. But it has also left its mark on those too young to have known it, except by hearsay, or even, in an a historically structured civilization, to treat it, in the words of a game brie.y popular towards the end of the twentieth century, as a ‘Trivial Pursuit’. However, it is the autobiographical historian’s business not simply to revisit it, but to map it. For without such a map, how can we track the paths of a lifetime through its changing landscapes, or understand why and when we hesitated and stumbled, or how we lived among those with whom our lives were intertwined and on whom they depended? For these things throw light not only on single lives but on the world.

So this may serve as the starting-point for one historian’s attempt to retrace a path through the craggy terrain of the twentieth century: five small children posed eighty years ago by adults on a terrace in Vienna, unaware (unlike their parents) that they are surrounded by the debris of defeat, ruined empires and economic collapse, unaware (like their parents) that they would have to make their way through the most murderous as well as the most revolutionary era in history.


From the Hardcover edition.
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ISBNs
0307426416
9780307426413
9780375422348