On Political Books

March/April 2012 Thinking Out Loud

An oral history of the twentieth century, dictated on his deathbed, shows that Tony Judt was, to the end, the consummate public intellectual.

By Michael O'Donnell

Thinking the Twentieth Century
by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder
Penguin Press HC, 432 pp.

Tony Judt died nearly two years ago, yet he keeps writing books. A historian of Europe, an essayist for the New York Review of Books, and an outspoken public intellectual, Judt died in August 2010 after a long and public struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. During the final years of his life he was extraordinarily productive. In 2005 he published Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a massive and erudite volume that quickly became the standard work on the subject. It would have been the culminating achievement of any academic career, but Judt kept working. Over the following four years, he wrote a fine essay collection and a polemic about European-style social democracy. Three months after he died, his exquisite memoir The Memory Chalet appeared. He had composed it by night during bouts of insomnia and dictated it by day after losing the use of his hands. At once fearless and moving, the book went some way toward softening the image of a fierce debater and critic who in his day had bloodied many noses.

Thinking the Twentieth Century is an unusual book that was produced in collaboration with the historian Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin). Judt explains that he had been planning a study of the intellectual history of the twentieth century when he received his terminal diagnosis. Snyder, a colleague and fellow expert on eastern Europe, proposed salvaging the idea by collaborating on an oral history. Over the course of months, Snyder and Judt held a series of lengthy conversations about the topics Judt had meant to explore: Europe, America, communism, capitalism, Jews, French intellectuals, World War II, the role of the historian, the role of the state. The edited transcripts of these conversations became the book. Before the dialogue sections of each chapter appear autobiographical reflections composed by Judt. He completed the afterword just a month before dying. Poignantly, halfway through the book Judt mentions an ambition to turn next to the history of trains. But Thinking the Twentieth Century will be his last.

The book does and does not work. In its favor, it is an engaging and unusually detailed conversation, exploring topics far more deeply than Judt could do in debates or media interviews. Judt’s gift for exceptionally clear writing extended to speaking extemporaneously. From the range and detail of his responses to questions that he did not receive in advance, it is clear that his mind continued whirring to the end. The combination of autobiography and dialogue produces a broad intellectual portrait of a major voice in American public life, one that would have helped illuminate the big events of the past two years: the Arab Spring, the American presidential election, and the crisis in Europe, to name just three.

Working against the book is the lurking feeling that two people have run off with the conversation and are ignoring the other guests at the table. Judt was unique because he consistently produced writing that was at once scholarly and accessible to general readers of serious nonfiction. The constraints of this book’s format—a spontaneous conversation rather than a planned manuscript—inhibit this accessibility. Judt’s role was to respond to Snyder’s questions, which do a good job of shaping the book’s subject matter and covering all necessary topics. But Snyder lacks Judt’s gift of clarity, and at times prompts him with names, places, and events that will be unfamiliar to most readers. Without the setup and flow of a narrative that introduces obscure topics properly, one can at times feel a little lost. (Your reviewer knows less than he would like about Czech and Polish politics, and in this is surely not alone.) The book is also by necessity a reflection rather than the product of original research. But these limitations certainly do not scupper the project. By any standard, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a remarkable achievement. It preserves with elegance and care the final thoughts of an exceptional thinker.

Judt mistrusted the grand, encompassing theories of the twentieth century that answered all questions and produced inexorable outcomes. His skepticism toward Freud and Marx—especially the latter— is a recurring theme throughout his writing and caused friction with other academics in the humanities. Judt was raised in a Marxist household in London, where he watched his father fight a rearguard action against disillusionment, abandoning Stalin in favor of Lenin, then Lenin in favor of Trotsky, eventually retreating to a vernacular that “could explain anything and everything while demonstrating how everyone else had compromised and was selling out.” Marxist dialectics frustrated Judt because they are the art of always landing on your feet. The cleverest true believers parry every criticism in a way that somehow leads away from fresh thinking and back to the infallibility of dogma.

Nevertheless, Judt did study and engage with the writings of Marx, whose political commentary he admired even while rejecting the call to revolution. Yet Judt’s appreciation had its limits. He championed George Orwell and Arthur Koestler: the men of the left who saw communism for the fraud it was and renounced it forcefully. As an apostate himself—from Marx, Zionism, and French intellectual life—Judt must have appreciated their perspective. A brilliant ten-page stretch of Thinking the Twentieth Century narrates the delegitimization of communism from World War II through Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Cultural Revolution in China, and Pol Pot’s madness in Cambodia. Even on his deathbed, Judt’s erudition could be breathtaking.

The best alternative, as he saw it, was social democracy in the European style. An enthusiastic proponent of the welfare state, Judt portrayed the economies of western Europe as different from American market capitalism not merely in degree but in kind. Social democracies were societies bound by mutual obligation and compassion rather than the endless pursuit of economic growth. In elevating this issue above all others, Judt departed somewhat from his heroes. Whereas to Orwell the twentieth century was about the struggle of liberal forces against totalitarianism, to Judt it was a search for the proper role of the state in society. His injunctions in Thinking the Twentieth Century against privatization and the inequitable distribution of resources are passionate and at times harsh. Sometimes they are also unpersuasive, as when he laments the lost common paint scheme of British state buses, which he says proclaimed to citizens the existence of a shared public good. The American reader may simply ask: Whatever their color, do the buses arrive on time?

Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.


  • school grants on July 26, 2012 4:58 AM:

    The best alternative, as he saw it, was social democracy in the European style. An enthusiastic proponent of the welfare state, school grants
    Judt portrayed the economies of western Europe as different from American market capitalism not merely in degree but in kind