Hobsbawm is one of the ten or twelve greatest historians since the Second World War. But as these memoirs show, he is also self-regarding and obscenely wrongheaded. His reputation as a scholar and a writer rests largely on three books—The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire—that together form a magisterial history of what he calls "the long nineteenth century" (1789-1914). That history, described by The Observer as "part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen," is concerned with long-term economic trends and broad secular patterns, not with great men and dramatic events. (His more recent Age of Extremes, his biggest seller and an intelligent history of the global economy in "the short twentieth century," 1914-1991, lacks the depth and verve of his nineteenth-century history.) But Hobsbawm's standing has always been based as much on his political affiliation as on his literary accomplishments. A communist from 1932 until 1991, he remained loyal to Moscow through the Terror Famine, the Great Terror, and the show trials; through the Hitler-Stalin Pact; through Khrushchev's exposure of Stalin's crimes; through the Soviets' suppression of Czechoslovakia in 1949, of Hungary in 1956, and of Czechoslovakia again in 1968. He devotes a large part of his autobiography—certainly the most engaging sections, and certainly those that got the most attention from reviewers and commentators in Britain, where the book was first published last year—to explaining this long-standing allegiance. That explanation amounts in large part to conflating anti-fascism and the struggle for social justice, on the one hand, and the communist movement, on the other. (In his highly selective and romantic defense of communism he even suggests that East German apparatchiks "devote[d] their lives" to "the ideals of freedom and justice.") This apologia, of course, dishonors the past century's intellectually honest men and women of the left who recognized that the October Revolution was rotten and murderous from its inception and who fought for freedom and justice and against both fascist and Soviet tyranny. Add to this affront Hobsbawm's arrogant ignorance of the United States (he applies David Rousset's term for the Nazi death camps—"univers concentrationnaire"—to the U.S. prison system) and self-important passages like the one in which he implies that his own writings contributed to the Third World's wave of democratization in the 1980s, and you may find yourself—as I did more than once—hurling this book across the room.
by David Gilmour
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
George Curzon (1859-1925) was seemingly marked for greatness. Dubbed, with envy and irritation, "a most superior person" by his contemporaries at Balliol, the aristocratic striver won a fellowship to All Souls, traveled widely, wrote scholarly tomes on the Near East, and was the most glittering figure in England's most glittering social set (where he conducted a series of affairs with some of the most prominent married women in the kingdom). All this before he was twenty-seven, when he was elected to Parliament. Five years later he became undersecretary for India. At thirty-nine he secured what was probably the most powerful appointed position in the world: he became Viceroy of India, the ruler of almost 300 million people. The youngest man ever to hold that title, Curzon was, for better and worse, perfect for the job. Since his days at Eton this prodigious worker had essentially spent his intellectual life preparing for it; no politician knew more about India and its neighbors. He and Cromer of Egypt were the most capable, briskly efficient, and high-minded imperial administrators at the apogee of the British empire. As for the worse, no one could possibly have been temperamentally better suited to pseudo-sovereignty. Pompous, supercilious, self-pitying, pedantic, and meddlesome, Curzon possessed outstanding abilities, but they were all but eclipsed by his pestiferousness. His unusual capacity for treading on important toes and creating enemies destroyed his brilliant viceroyalty. Although an effective Cabinet minister during the First World War and Foreign Secretary in the early 1920s, he had alienated too many in his party to achieve his ultimate goal, the prime ministership, and he died a disappointed man. This distinguished and immensely accomplished failure has been enormously fortunate in his biographers. Harold Nicolson, who worked for Curzon at the Foreign Office, wrote a characteristically astute and elegant account of him as Foreign Secretary (Curzon: The Last Phase); Kenneth Rose, in Superior Person, gave a sparkling portrait of Curzon's early years and of the interlocking social, intellectual, and political elite that formed his circle; David Dilks, in his two-volume Curzon in India, offered a rich study of nearly every aspect of his viceroyalty. But until now no single work adequately chronicled Curzon's entire life. Gilmour's absorbing, intelligent, quizzical, and stylish biography covers with equal authority and panache late-Victorian country-house weekends, maneuverings within the War Cabinet, and the background of the Treaty of Lausanne. (A typical aside: "The best years of the Curzons' marriage were spent in India. They were often apart and, when together, were seldom alone.") But the focal point of this 684-page book is, as it must be, Curzon's years as Viceroy. No clearer and more vivid account has been written of the high point of the Raj—its workaday management as well as its pomp.
Germany's War and the Holocaust
by Omer Bartov
Scholarship on the Holocaust continues to swell. And, inevitably, so do the scholarly debates and controversies—some silly, some complicated, a few actually important. Despite its annoyingly clumsy prose, Bartov's collection of previously published but extensively revised articles is among the most accessible books for the layman hoping to understand the contours of the current historiography. Bartov established his reputation in 1985 with a truly pathbreaking study, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, which demonstrated conclusively that, contrary to the self-serving reminiscences of German veterans, the German army—not just the SS and other Nazi ideologues—had willingly, even enthusiastically, participated in the slaughter of Soviet civilians and in the attempted extermination of the Jews. (He extended and deepened his conclusions in Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich.) Not surprisingly, some of the most astute essays here examine various aspects of the Wehrmacht's complicity in the Holocaust. While avoiding an easy judgmental stance, Bartov draws nuanced but crucial distinctions between wartime atrocities generally (including those of the other combatant states of the Second World War) and those that Germany committed, especially on the Eastern Front, which were, as he shows with precision, uniquely terrible. (This is an especially significant discussion given the proclivity of some German revisionist historians for drawing facile parallels between the crimes of Nazi Germany and those of Stalin's Soviet Union.) Although Bartov is an innovative military historian, in his essay on the diaries of the great German conservative, patriot, and Jew Victor Klemperer he also displays a subtle grasp of social and cultural developments, especially the growing, and in the end nearly total, Nazification of German society under the Third Reich.