Hobsbawm in Puigcerdà
Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, during a holiday in the Pyrenees, the nineteen-year-old Eric Hobsbawm spent an afternoon in the Catalan town of Puigcerdà, on the Spanish side of the border. He describes in his autobiography, Interesting Times, being refused entry at one border crossing but having no such difficulty a mile up the road. Characteristically, his memories of the few hours he spent there combine interesting observation with political blind spots. Reading Hobsbawm’s autobiography alongside Richard Evans’ biography, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, furnishes us with three accounts of the episode: that contained among Hobsbawm’s papers and journal entries as reproduced in Evans’ book; that which Hobsbawm published in his autobiography; and the embellished synthesis of these two sources provided by Evans.
In Hobsbawm’s original notes, he describes approaching the Spanish border for a second time. It was guarded by ‘young scamps’: ‘I wondered what would happen if these rascals (anarchists, of course) suddenly decided to shoot me, out of pure joie de vivre, out of an exaggerated sense of duty, or God knows what motive. (An irrational fear).’ He had nothing to worry about, and he was allowed in, spending a pleasant afternoon chatting with the locals before being spotted by the guard who had previously refused him passage. He was then questioned before being escorted back to the border by armed guards.
Despite this unpleasant denouement, Hobsbawm’s notes suggest affection for the people he had met in Puigcerdà: ‘The youngster who accompanied me to the customs, the Trotzkist militiaman who had wild discussions with the shock-haired anarchist on the nature of “Power”; the anarchist organiser with the fair hair, lumberjack and hornrimmed glasses; the young Portuguese who had joined the militia; the two workers, who ate melons and talked about revolvers and girls; the girl in black who was secretary of the Revolutionary Committee’, etc. ‘I hope the miracle occurs and they win’, he concluded.
When Hobsbawm came to write his autobiography at the turn of the twenty-first century, he was less forgiving, his conclusions somewhat absurd. ‘To be grilled by trigger-happy amateurs on the lookout for counter-revolutionaries is never relaxing’, he wrote. Doubtless Hobsbawm’s interrogation was nerve-wracking, but what justification did he have for describing his questioner as ‘trigger-happy’ – especially given that he had noted at the time that his fears on this score were irrational? And how could expressions of working-class power in a revolutionary situation be anything other than ‘amateur’? Likewise, his statement that there was ‘No sign in the Spanish provinces of 1936, for example, of uniformed young women’ not only tends to contradict his contemporary observation of a ‘girl in black’ in a position of prominence in Puigcerdà, but also attempts to prove from a few hours spent in a single town what can be refuted in a matter of moments by any amount of eye-witness accounts, memoirs and photographs from the revolutionary zones of Republican Spain. As such, his reflection that ‘It was marvellous, but the main effect of this experience on me was, that it took me twenty years before I was prepared to see Spanish anarchism as anything but a tragic farce’ rings hollow.
Anyone familiar with Hobsbawm’s oeuvre and life story is aware of the central role that the Spanish Civil War played in his political imagination, and it was his experience of this conflict from England, through the lenses of the Popular Front, the International Brigades and Stalinist propaganda, that shaped his understanding of Spanish anarchism, not his brief acquaintance with it one afternoon in the summer of 1936. Hence the disparity between his contemporary observations of Puigcerdà, made in the period before the Soviet Union intervened in the conflict and before the recruitment of the International Brigades, and his later judgements. His diary attests to Hobsbawm’s interest in and sympathy for the ragtag bunch of ‘scamps’ he encountered but his record of the experience suggests that he did not identify with those people, and he thought they could only win by a ‘miracle’. But in the months and years that followed, away from red-and-black Spain and ensconced in ‘red’ Cambridge, he recalled ‘there was an actual battlefield – Spain – and we were on it.’ This powerful and lifelong identification with anti-fascist Spain, born when far away from its flesh and blood partisans, could only be made to fit with Hobsbawm’s experiences if it could somehow be separated from the doomed rascals of Puigcerdà. Stalinism allowed for this manoeuvre by casting anarchism as a regrettable impediment to the Republican war effort. Hence in Interesting Times, the militia is not remembered as it was – the only armed force opposing the military coup at the time – but instead as an amateur outfit, implicitly contrasted to the professional army created subsequently and counterposed to its forebears in the Comintern press. Similarly, the irrationalism Hobsbawm was mature enough to recognise in himself as a nineteen-year-old was, by contrast, projected in his autobiography onto the anarchists; a reflection, not of his recorded experiences, but of the insidious prejudices of Stalinism.
Yet if Hobsbawm’s account of his afternoon in a revolution reveals familiar biases, they are not addressed in Evans’ biography. In fact, the biographer considers that ‘Eric’s brief sojourn in Puigcerdà was even more dangerous for him than he had thought’ owing to the ‘depredations’ of the local mayor (sic), Antonio Martín, a CNT activist whose murder in April 1937 preceded the construction of a retrospective myth of anarchist bloodletting and corruption in the town. Here Evans follows the tendentious account in Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust, which paints Martín, the leading figure in the CNT of Puigcerdà, as a ‘bandit chieftain’ – a description that would surely have caused Hobsbawm’s antennae to twitch, but which Evans accepts uncritically. As research by Antonio Gascón and Agustín Guillamón has demonstrated, there is in fact no reason to suppose that Martín was responsible for any killings in Puigcerdà during the Civil War, let alone to imagine that a teenaged foreign tourist had anything to fear from him. Nevertheless, the kneejerk anti-anarchism that teenager recognised as irrational has now become respectable historical consensus.
 Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), pp. 476-8 (e-pub version); Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm A Life in History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 110-114.
 Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, p. 162 (e-pub version).
 Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (London: Harper Collins, 2012), pp. 399-400.