Fearless history

Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder, William Heinemann, RRP£25, 432 pages

Midway through this provocative and inspiring book, Tony Judt asserts that Richard Cobb, one of the world’s most renowned experts on the French revolution, “never really regarded me as a historian. For Cobb, I was a disciplinary interloper with all the worst instincts of a French intellectual: writing politics under the guise of historical scholarship”.

If Cobb, a British historian who died in 1996, really did disparage him in these terms, one suspects that Judt extracted a mischievous satisfaction out of it. For in certain respects Judt, who ended his career as professor of European studies at New York University, really was more like a French intellectual than an academic English historian.

In his early twenties, Judt confesses, he was “blissfully content” living in Paris as a postgraduate student. He published his first book, a study of France’s Socialist party in the 1920s, in French rather than English. Like any passionate Parisian polemicist, he loved the cut and thrust of public debate among intellectuals on the issues of the moment.

But Judt had an abhorrence of ideological extremes more typical of an English thinker than a French one. His put-down of students at the École Normale Supérieure, one of France’s prestigious grandes écoles, is quintessentially English: in the early 1970s, he says, it was “brimming with absurdly overeducated young Frenchmen, with swollen egos and shrunken chests”.

Moreover, in his specialist fields of 20th-century European politics and political thought, Judt adhered to the highest standards of Anglo-American historical scholarship. Self-disciplined as well as remarkably gifted as a thinker and writer, he believed to the end that the study of political ideas must be grounded firmly in their historical context.

Judt’s end came, at the age of 62, in August 2010 when he succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative neurological disorder. Thinking the Twentieth Century is the product of a series of extended conversations he held in New York in 2009 with Timothy Snyder, a friend and distinguished US historian of eastern Europe. Snyder taped and edited the conversations, then sent them to Judt for revision.

For sheer human courage as well as intellectual brilliance, the result is impressive. In spite of his alarming physical deterioration, Judt delivered one last set of eloquent insights into fascism, Stalinism, dissident thought in post-1956 eastern Europe, the failings of modern Israel, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the future of western social democracy.

The book covers some of the same ground as Ill Fares the Land (2010), his dissection of the rampant pursuit of material self-interest that he believed had characterised US and British society from the 1980s to the 2008 financial crisis, and The Memory Chalet (2011), a collection of essays published shortly after his death. Nonetheless, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a substantial achievement in its own right.

It escorts the reader through nine dimensions of Judt’s life, each given its own chapter heading: Jewish questioner, English writer, political Marxist, Cambridge Zionist, French intellectual, east European liberal, European historian, American moralist and, finally, social democrat. As these labels indicate, Judt was no inhabitant of an ivory tower but an adventurous, restless man who rarely stayed in the same city or academic post for long.

A London-born son of Jewish parents whose origins were in eastern Europe, Judt developed in his teenage years into a leftwing Zionist, serving in the Israeli army as an interpreter during the 1967 six-day war. By the end of his life he was a severe critic of Israel. He comments here that the state “stands out for its slightly paranoid national political culture and has become unhealthily dependent on the Holocaust – its moral crutch and weapon of choice with which to fend off all criticism”.

Such trenchant opinions earned him condemnation in pro-Israeli US circles as an “anti-Semitic Jew”. But the controversy was in many ways beside the point, for Israel and the Palestinian dispute were never at the heart of Judt’s intellectual concerns.

Rather his stature as a historian rests on Postwar (2005), a study of Europe after 1945, and on his five books about France. In my view the best are Past Imperfect (1992), which analyses why so many French thinkers of the 1940s and 1950s were attracted to hardline communism, and The Burden of Responsibility (1998), which celebrates the political and intellectual courage of Raymond Aron, Léon Blum and Albert Camus in resisting that fashion.

The central message of Thinking the Twentieth Century is what Judt calls “the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it”. If Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were abominable gangsters and tyrants, the intellectuals who defended them were also culpable.

“It’s terribly important for an open society to be familiar with its past,” says Judt. “It was a common feature of the closed societies of the 20th century, whether of left or right, that they manipulated history. Rigging the past is the oldest form of knowledge control.”

He is right: knowledge of history, though no guarantee against abuses of power, contributes something to sustaining freedom. Tony Judt’s life was a brave and vibrant tribute to this truth.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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