British intellectual Eric Hobsbawm, the pre-eminent historian of his generation, died Monday morning in a hospital in London, where he was being treated for pneumonia. He was 95.
Hobsbawm was born in Egypt — his father was a British colonial officer — and raised in Vienna, where his mother was from. Orphaned at 14, he and his sister were sent to live with their aunt in Berlin, where he witnessed the rise of the Nazi party firsthand. In 1933, the year Hitler was appointed chancellor, the Hobsbawm family joined relatives in London; two years later, Hobsbawm was awarded a scholarship to read history at King's College, Cambridge, where he joined the Apostles, the famous intellectual "secret society."
A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Hobsbawm's radical politics likely prevented him from the rapid career advancement that his scholarship and intellect would have otherwise earned him. Nevertheless, he quickly became one of the U.K.'s — and the world's — best-known historians, thanks in particular to his trilogy of histories on the 19th century: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire.
Even as he gained fame and popularity, Hobsbawm remained a controversial figure to both the left and right. Where many prominent radical intellectuals left the Party in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Hobsbawm remained a committed member, and has been widely criticized for Soviet apologism — most famously by Tony Judt in a 2003 review of Hobsbawm's memoir. (Hobsbawm later responded, in part, in a eulogy of Judt written for the London Review of Books.)
No one disputed that Hobsbawm was a formidable scholar or anything less than an exceptionally gifted mind. Well-liked and well-respected even among his intellectual enemies, Hobsbawm spent the last years of his life receiving award after award and honor after honor. "I've lived longer and been more successful than I ever expected, so I suppose I should be happy with that," he told an interviewer five years ago. Nevertheless, he was pessimistic about the future: "It's possible things may stabilise in the short to mid term over the next 20–30 years, but the long-term outlook is bleak."
Hobsbawm is survived by a son, Andy, a digital media consultant and sometime TED lecturer, and a daughter, Julia, a publicist and "networking guru."
[image via AP]