Reviewed: Fractured Times - Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century by Eric Hobsbawm

Looking for Eric.

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century
Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown, 336pp, £25

Reviewing a book by his fellow historian Raphael Samuel about the “lost world of British communism”, Eric Hobsbawm praised Samuel for his “melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past”. Fractured Times, Hobsbawm’s final work, published after his death in October last year, displays a similar quality – though it evinces melancholy empathy not for the milieu of the British Communist Party, which he joined when he arrived in England from Berlin as a 15-year-old in 1933, but for the art and culture of the “bourgeois society” that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War.

The essays collected here, which were written between 1964 and 2012, are not focused exclusively on the “lost world” of European bourgeois civilisation. There are several pieces on the situation of the arts in the early 21st century – reflections on the consequences of technological progress and the “democratisation of aesthetic consumption” – but Hobsbawm’s analysis of our postmodern cultural condition nevertheless presupposes, as he acknowlegdes, a“plunge” back into the final years of what he terms the “long 19th century”, stretching, roughly, from 1789 to 1914. Without that look back, the current scene cannot be understood. The seven chapters devoted to the “culture of the bourgeois world” therefore form the centre piece of the book.

Much of this will be familiar to readers of Hobsbawm’s earlier work. His point of departure here is the claim made in The Age of Empire (1987), the third volume of his great trilogy on the long 19th century, that August 1914 marked a definitive “natural break” in the history of Europe. That moment was regarded, he argued there, as announcing “the end of the world made by and for the bourgeoisie”. And intimations of imminent death were felt especially keenly in the cultural productions of the period, especially in literature and painting, to which The Age of Empire devotes a substantial chapter.

The first part of Fractured Times picks up where that chapter left off and serves as a useful reminder of just what kind of Marxist historian Hobsbawm was. His interest in the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues in the Communist Party Historians Group of the early 1950s – men such as Samuel, Christopher Hill and E P Thompson. As he wrote in his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), his Marxism had developed out of the attempt to understand the arts:

What filled my mind [in the mid-1930s] was not the classic macro-historical problems of Marxist debate about historical development – the succession of “modes of production”. It was the place and nature of the artist and the arts (in fact,  literature) in society or, in Marxist terms, “How is the superstructure connected to the base?”

Hobsbawm’s indifference to the main problems of Marxist historiography, not to mention his mellifluous prose style, ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries did (something attested to by the voluminous media coverage of his death).

As Perry Anderson has put it, in Hobsbawm, Communist “militant and historian . . . remained separate identities”. One might add as a corollary that the identities of historian and writer were jumbled up in him. The “Overture” to The Age of Empire shows this well. The book begins not as grand narrative but as autobiography. Hobsbawm tells the story of how his mother, scion of a Viennese Jewish family of some standing, met her future husband (and Eric’s father) in Alexandria, where her uncle did business.

There was a serious point to this anecdote, Hobsbawm insisted. “For all of us,” he wrote, “there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalised record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” The Age of Empire fell into that twilight zone. Fractured Times – or the central section of it at any rate – does too. And this is what gives much of it the kind of melancholy air that Hobsbawm found so attractive in Samuel.

He confesses to having chosen examples from his own “cultural background – geographically central Europe, linguistically German”. And, he might have added, Jewish. In Interesting Times, Hobsbawm evoked the prosperous, largely secular milieu of Jewish Vienna from which his mother’s side of the family had sprung and which had mostly disappeared (or persisted only in the most attenuated fashion) by the time he was born in 1917. The finest piece in the new volume, on the “emancipation of Jewish talent” in central Europe, is a paean to the German language, the “gateway to modernity”for Mittel European Jews in the second half of the 19th century – and, of course, the native tongue of young Eric Hobsbaum himself.

Eric Hobsbawm in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge