Birkbeck, University of London > News > Eric Hobsbawm 1917-2012: Magnificent historian and colleague

Eric Hobsbawm 1917-2012: Magnificent historian and colleague

One of the world’s leading historians, Professor Eric Hobsbawm, was interviewed about his distinguished 65-year association with Birkbeck less than a month before he died. He spoke about his extraordinary career and the importance of part-time higher education during the filmed conversation with Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck.

Eric at Birkbeck

Eric on Birkbeck’s past, present and future

A lecturer at Birkbeck since 1947, Professor Hobsbawm taught at the College all of his professional life, and became its President in 2002. He died at the age of 95 on 1 October 2012.

Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said: 'We are deeply saddened by the news of Professor Hobsbawm’s death. Eric was an extraordinary historian, teacher and friend. His academic work helped shape and define debates about modern history and inspired generations of history students.

'His association with Birkbeck, over six decades, has enriched the lives of students and colleagues alike. We are greatly indebted for his service to Birkbeck and limitless support for part-time higher education and the mission of the College.

'I was privileged to interview Eric about his relationship with Birkbeck in September 2012. During that interview he talked about his pleasure at having seen Birkbeck go from strength to strength.'

Professor Latchman added: 'Several years ago Eric summed up his feelings about the College, saying, 'A centre of evening education at the highest level is as essential to a world city as a good transport system, especially to a city that attracts ambitious people. There is still no other place like Birkbeck in the metropolis.'
'Eric’s passing is a great loss to us, academia and all those who knew him and his work.'

International tributes

The international response to the sad news about the death of Professor Hobsbawm is testament to his intellect, compassion, inspirational teaching, and commitment to part-time higher education.

Early years

Professor Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt, on 9 June 1917, to British and Austrian parents, both from Jewish backgrounds. He spent his childhood in Vienna and Berlin, and when Hitler came to power in 1933 his family moved to London.

Professor Hobsbawm attended St Marylebone Grammar School and then King’s College, Cambridge. During the Second World War, he served in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Educational Corps.

Association with Birkbeck

In 1947, Professor Hobsbawm joined Birkbeck as a lecturer in History. This was to be the start of a lifelong association with the College. He became Professor in 1970 and Emeritus Professor of History in 1982. In 2002 he was made President of the College. He said: 'A centre of evening education at the highest level is as essential to a world city as a good transport system, especially to a city that attracts ambitious people. There is still no other place like Birkbeck in the metropolis.'

Professor Hobsbawm’s best-known works include the trilogy about the long 19th century: The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848; The Age of Capital: 1848-1875; and The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. He has said: 'There is no question about it that Birkbeck was the basis. The books were based on the lectures – The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire. In fact I tried to test myself in those days, saying, 'supposing I am one of those students at Birkbeck. You work all day long and then you have two-hour lectures. Can I keep you awake?' And that was the test.'

Addressing the mature students graduating from Birkbeck in 2007, at the graduation ceremony Professor Hobsbawm congratulated them for their “sheer grit and resolution.'  He said: 'Every time we stand there shaking your hands we also have the satisfaction that Birkbeck is living up to its mission, which is to give the chance of university education or a higher degree or just a second chance to men and women who wouldn’t get one otherwise, to slake the thirst for a lifetime of learning and intellectual curiosity, and to do so at the highest standards of academic teaching and research.'

At his 90th birthday celebrations at the College, Professor Hobsbawm commented: 'One of the inestimable advantages of teaching such students as those in Birkbeck is that so many of them in my time were, as the College still is, committed not just to self-improvement but to making a better world.'

In his recent interview with Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, Professor Hobsbawm commended the College’s success, saying: 'We’ve licked the main enemy – the people who believe that part-time teaching at a high level is not possible. We do that.'

Professor Hobsbawm married twice, first to Muriel Seaman, in 1943 (they divorced in 1951) and then to Marlene Schwarz. He is survived by Marlene and their children Julia and Andy, and by a son from a previous relationship. He also had seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.