Reviews A Tony Judt Century. Last talks

Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, New York 2012, The Penguin Press, 414 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4, 2012 pp 79-80.
Published on on January 9, 2013

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We were so similar, Tony Judt and I. Yet we were so different in so many ways. Both of us were born in London in the 1940s, had Eastern European secular Jewish family backgrounds, lived in the US, trained as historians. We even attended some of the same seminars in Cambridge in the late 1970s. But still, he was completely unique. Outspoken, opinionated (he took pride in the fact), argumentative and aggressive. He stood out from the rest of us historians, who were innately introverted. He caused a mighty uproar with one of his early articles in which he scathingly rejected the new forms of history that were informed by sociology, social anthropology, and political science, and he disliked feminist history to boot. To me the new forms of history were wonderful and ground-breaking novelties; Tony thought they fostered “bad” history and “clowns in royal purple” pretending to be historians. Most of us wanted to change the whole content of history, but Tony wanted to use traditional history to make moral statements.

For Tony Judt the true territory of the historian was limited to national politics, macro-economic policy, the ideas that underpinned the building of political and economic structures, and the personalities that made the choices. Through this limitation he could emerge after the turn of the twenty-first century as perhaps the only intellectual historian with nearly world-wide influence. Tragically stricken by the degenerative muscular disease ALS, he died in August 2010. During his progressively worsening illness a colleague, Timothy Snyder, started a series of conversations dealing with Judt’s intellectual trajectory and how it related to his view of history. It has now appeared as Thinking the Twentieth Century.

The nine conversations roam over an incredible number of issues and naturally go back and forth. All of them are deadly serious though there is a Monty Pythonesque moment when Snyder and Judt go through the list of British prime ministers to see whether any of them was an “intellectual”. Most of the talks begin with reminiscence over some stage in Tony’s life or academic career. Above all, the conversations document how, after moving to New York, Judt became a political moraliste with an explicit ethical viewpoint and with an international impact.

Judt describes how he was groomed by the editor of the New York Review of Books to have the courage to expand the range of his public writing from European history into international foreign policy issues. As he admits, he would “never have had the intellectual or social self-confidence to propose those subjects” himself. But he became persuaded in spite of doubts that he really could “think and comment upon subjects far removed from [his] formal scholarly concerns”. This leap was perhaps not so improbable given Judt’s ingrained willingness to stick his neck out. He discovered soon that many other public pundits with access to the media often knew even less about the issues under debate than he did. In addition, they often lacked the most elementary ethical positions on war or peace, but were the mouthpieces of ideologies. This became most clear when Judt, nearly alone among all media commentators, questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq in 2003. Eager also to punch holes in the theories of political scientists, he pointed out how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan disproved the theory then widely held that democracies do not start wars. They do, after a great deal of manipulation, disinformation, and downright lies, he stressed.

Judt attained a unique position. Marginalized by choice from his colleagues, he formed his own center, the Remarque Institute, and broke away from the Department of History. At the same time he grew in importance as a public commentator. This status was reinforced by the publication of his major work Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005). This is a very wide-ranging book of close to nine hundred pages with few references and no bibliography. One of its best points is Judt’s ability to integrate the history of Eastern Europe with that of Western Europe. This is no mean feat: many had tried and failed before him. The Polish exiles Leszek Kołakowski and Jan Gross brought Judt into contact with Eastern European dissidents. Along the way he taught himself the Czech language. He discovered a whole generation of intellectuals, such as Adam Michnik and Václav Havel, marked by a lifelong experience with communism. Their message was clear: there was “nothing to be gained from negotiating with authoritarian regimes” because what the dissidents wished to achieve those regimes simply could never deliver.

But it is actually the West that is highest on Judt’s mind. He holds that the century’s main intellectual political debate was that between the ideas of Maynard Keynes, the British economist, in deep conflict with the ideas of Friedrich Hayek, his Austrian colleague. Note the total absence of Marxism in Judt’s narrative. The conflict was about the role of the state in economic life. Keynes described the positive role that government could play not just in overcoming the depression of the 1930s, but also in creating a welfare state which could finance various forms of social services and benefits. Hayek insisted that the state should be far removed from the economy and that the private sector could provide the same services more efficiently. In the early years after World War II there was nearly universal consensus in Europe that Keynes was right. However, since the 1970s Hayek’s view has increasingly broken that consensus.

By the end of the book Judt appears to despair. The dialogue focuses on the role of the intellectual in the present century. The message is decidedly defensive. The role of the twentieth-century intellectual might well have been to be visionary, future-oriented, utopian or at least progressive. In the twenty-first century, the intellectual’s role is reduced to that of a rear-guard realist fighting to prevent democracies from becoming worse societies. ≈

  • by David Gaunt

    Professor emeritus of History, Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University. Member of the Academy of Europe section for history and archeology, the editorial board of Social History and International Genocide Studies and the Workshop for Armenian-Turkish Studies.

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Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, New York 2012, The Penguin Press, 414 pages