History Lessons

Thinking the Twentieth Century lets us listen in on conversations between distinguished colleagues, the intellectual historian Tony Judt and the Eastern Europeanist Timothy Snyder. It conveys the sort of conversation that two scholars may have when they share the same knowledge, references, and opinions.

I can think of older historians possessing a greater range of scholarship and biographies of more significance—among writers on modern Europe, Eric Hobsbawm or Peter Gay—whom one might want to hear from before Judt in this unusual format. But this book was motivated by tragic circumstances. Judt suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Snyder began his interviews after the point at which his senior colleague had lost the use of his hands and had begun to dictate rather than write.

Judt’s courage and clarity of mind were celebrated, as he continued to deliver important public addresses in the early stages of the disease and produced two more short books. One was an impassioned defense of the welfare state titled Ill Fares the Land (2010). The final book was a moving, short memoir in vignettes, The Memory Chalet (2010), which spoke with a historian’s mind of warmly personal things (the school system Judt was raised in, the public-transit system that charmed him as a child). It also hinted at the work Judt intended to pursue if he had lived: a history of trains and modernity, to be called Locomotion, along with a long-planned history of 20th-century social thought.

Thinking the Twentieth Century is something of a substitute for those books that could not be composed. It uses its interview format to review Judt’s earlier books chronologically and in biographical context, from his early specialist histories of socialism in France to his engagement in the 1970s and 1980s with the freedom movements of Eastern Europe to his major synthesizing achievement, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005). With the best intentions, however, it perhaps inevitably cannot live up to the work Judt accomplished himself, both before these interviews and—so admirably—after. Judt does not rethink his positions here, Snyder does not challenge him, and the two men defer on points of difference. These conversations also occurred before the introspection that began to emerge when Judt composed The Memory Chalet in the last phase of his illness.



The beginning of each chapter in Thinking the Twentieth Century supplies an installment of autobiography made up of pages of continuous first-person narrative run together, with Snyder’s interview questions removed. Judt was born in 1948, in London’s East End, to Jewish parents of Eastern European descent. His father was a socialist, of the dissenting cast of mind that hated Stalin early and sided with Trotsky. Judt outlines the facts of his London childhood and his sojourns on kibbutzim in 1960s Israel, culminating in a disillusioning spell as a volunteer translator for the Israeli army after the Six-Day War. Teenage Judt, after absorbing the literature of Marxist sectarianism, turned to ardent Zionism, until his experiences opened his eyes to an Israel that was also, in his estimation, “not the fantasy world of socialist Israel that so many Europeans loved (and love) to imagine—a wishful projection of all the qualities of Jewish Central Europe with none of the drawbacks. This was a Middle Eastern country that despised its neighbors and was about to open a catastrophic, generation--long rift with them by seizing and occupying their land.” Though he was 20 in 1968 and joined protests against the Vietnam War, he did not sympathize with the New Left and remained preoccupied with the Old Left and the conflicts that had agitated his father.

Thinking the Twentieth Century devotes much of its attention to Judt’s interest in errors of communism and fascism among literary and philosophical intellectuals, especially thinkers who sympathized with or defended the Soviet Union. His book Past Imperfect (1994) tried to adjust the reputations of those in the early postwar period who remained willfully blind to communism’s crimes—demoting Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, for instance—while Reappraisals (2008) elevated humanistic opponents of authoritarianism (George Orwell, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone). “This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century,” Judt tells Snyder, “passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.” 


Of course many of us would not appear to good advantage in private conversation, but it is always painful when a posthumous publication reduces the stature of someone in whom it was possible to repose hopes as a model thinker—especially so soon after a death. This book drastically diminishes my respect for Judt as a thinker and analyst even as it confirms his great erudition and command of facts. It is possible even for decent people to forget the public audience and become careless with others’ reputations (as Judt is here while mocking his rival Norman Davies, whom Judt admits reciprocated his past attacks in print with professionalism and kindness). It’s also not uncommon for people in private conversation to fall into anti-intellectualism where in public they might simply avoid what they don’t comprehend, as when Judt dismisses social history, women’s history, labor history, cultural studies, and the study of race, along with their places in university history departments, from the 1970s to the present, as warmed-over Marxism and mediocrity defended by political correctness: “You merely replaced ‘workers’ with ‘women’; or students, or peasants, or blacks, or—eventually—gays, or indeed whichever group had sound reason to be dissatisfied with the present disposition of power and authority.”



But Judt’s attitudes may be less of a problem here than the limits of what he is prepared to do with his deep factual knowledge of intellectuals. He often doesn’t seem to like, or be prepared to enter deeply into, philosophy or the interior life of ideas. He counsels students that Karl Marx’s journalism should be read instead of Marx’s works of philosophy. He dismisses Hannah Arendt’s works of philosophy, recommending a biography she wrote before her philosophical authorship and Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book written for The New Yorker. Judt’s intellectual century, when it comes to those who generated ideas (rather than manipulated them, in the manner of wonks and editorialists) also seems to end around 1970, excluding several world philosophical developments during his own working life. “There is no such thing as a ‘global intellectual’: Slavoj Zizek does not actually exist,” Judt says in a mystifying joke. And, “A sociologist like Immanuel Wallerstein may every now and then hit upon a subtle insight. But the terms in which they frame their huge general propositions virtually guarantee that most of the time they will recycle banalities.” One of the latest philosophers to escape outright dismissal is John Rawls, whose A Theory of Justice is the best-known defense of why a capitalist society should share wealth with its less successful citizens, but this grand project, too, ultimately gets set aside on the basis of a mischaracterization of Rawls’s “original position.”

Judt retained a power, however, to upend expectations and turn his genuine individual knowledge to account in an interruption of some fixed and stagnant debate. His kibbutznik background led him, in the midst of stale talk about an Israeli two-state solution, to write his famous 2003 account of a one-state solution in The New York Review of Books. Late in his life, he used his social and economic erudition as a postwar historian to offer, with the seemingly out-of-the-blue Ill Fares the Land, an un-ideological and  pragmatic defense of forgotten principles of social democracy. An excellent chapter at the end of Thinking the Twentieth Century, worth reading on its own, reprises the history told in that book, tracing the Western welfare states from their roots in the turn of the last century’s “social question” through their robust rise after World War II, and contemplating how we might argue once again for them now. When Judt begins to speak about contemporary American politics near the end of the book, though, one is grateful for the presence of Snyder, whose origins Judt characterizes as “deepest Ohio” and who emerges from the shadows to prove himself an acute observer. Elsewhere, too often, the un-self-conscious satisfaction in limitedness of this book undermines the whole.

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