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

This full-throated defense of European social democracy is poorly timed insofar as it arrives in bookstores during the European debt crisis. Over the past two years, Europe’s economies have buckled like metal in the awesome pressures of the deep. One hesitates to accuse Judt and Snyder of disregarding this evidence against their case, for the most dramatic events occurred after Judt’s death. And in fairness, the level of a state’s public expenditure does not necessarily translate to debt running out of control. Whether a state’s tax rate is 5 percent or 50 percent, it stays in the black so long as taxes and spending balance out. Nevertheless, Europe’s current dysfunction and the uncertain future of the European Union stand as a rebuke to the notion that welfare spending is an easy solution to society’s problems.

Judt’s dislike of grand narratives stemmed from the value he placed on context in all matters. He always preferred the unabridged version. He was not from the simplistic “history helps us avoid repeating our mistakes” school, and deplored seeing the past marshaled in clumsy ways to justify dubious policies. (He has choice words for Condoleezza Rice’s arguments in favor of the Iraq War.) Rather, Judt believed that the best bulwark against mischief in government is an informed citizenry.

In this regard some of his contextual insights in Thinking the Twentieth Century are arresting and fresh. An excellent section explores the fascist intellectuals of the 1920s and ’30s. Fascism, Judt argues, is now so closely (and understandably) associated with its most extreme incarnation in Nazi Germany that one forgets its antecedents in Italy before the war. While dismissing the substance of their views, Judt portrays prewar Italian fascist intellectuals as witty and sardonic compared to their dour leftist opponents: keen on cultural criticism (film, art, and so on), doggedly individualistic, and possessed of a casual anti-Semitism that was very ugly yet a thing apart from mass murder. None of this information changes Judt’s verdict on fascism, but it does broaden and inform his grasp of it. Unless you understand where a thing comes from, he contends, you cannot fully understand what it is.

Throughout Thinking the Twentieth Century, Judt sketches offhand portraits of public figures that are dazzling and often spot on. Margaret Thatcher “harbored domestic prejudices to which radical policies could be appended according to convenience and opportunity.” Refreshingly, she “was quite unprejudiced against Jews.” On the question of whether Winston Churchill was an intellectual, Judt has this to say:

Churchill was both a participant in and a recorder of the events of his time. He also wrote copiously about the history of the British Empire and authored a biography of his colorful ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough…. [Yet] he was magnificently uninterested in conceptual reflection. His work consists of lengthy empirical narratives with occasional pauses to restate the story in a moral key, but little more. And yet: he was assuredly the most literary political figure in British history since William Gladstone. In any case, Churchill was unique for his time and has found no successor.

In his historical methods and interests, Judt stood out as a conservative. At odds with many colleagues over the historian’s role, he believed it is above all to explain that a certain event happened. Nothing may precede this, and all else builds upon it. Tasked to describe a forest, Judt contends that one must begin by explaining that there are things called trees. Many of them together make up a forest. Inside a forest, one may find things called paths, which may be marked with blazes, and so on. This straightforward focus on facts is out of fashion in the era of cultural studies, theory, and what Judt calls “hyphenated” studies of discrete minority groups. (Economic injustice animated Judt far more than bigotry.) “My fear,” he writes, “is that more and more of our young colleagues, bored by mere tree description, derive greatest satisfaction from teaching the etiology of paths.” Judt was also conservative in the sense that he disliked score-settling revisionist accounts of major historical events: the Civil War was not about slavery but about women’s rights, for instance. He believed that such pursuits create confusion rather than insight.

Yet Judt put conservative methodology to progressive use. His leftist views on Israel caused ferocious battles in Letters pages, especially after he advocated a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem in a 2003 New York Review essay. As a young Jew who lived on a kibbutz and served the Israeli armed forces as a translator during the Six-Day War of 1967, Judt saw things that forever poisoned his view of the Israeli enterprise. Judt has swung the bat hard before, but perhaps nothing he has written about Israel surpasses this raw description of his war service:

For the first time I met Israelis who were chauvinistic in every meaning of the word: anti-Arab in a sense bordering upon racism; quite undisturbed at the prospect of killing Arabs wherever possible; frequently regretting that they had not been allowed to fight their way through to Damascus and beat down the Arabs for good and all…. 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.

Judt’s Judaism was a complex thing. Mere pages after this passage, he denounces the way French Prime Minister Léon Blum was derided on anti-Semitic grounds in the 1930s. Pages before it, he resists Snyder’s attempts to link the Nazis and the Communists. To Judt, the Third Reich differed fundamentally from all other political economies because of its lack of an intellectual program or pedigree: it was about nothing more than racist hatred and the accumulation of power. With Israel, as with most topics, Judt appropriated the perspective of an outsider, determined to see a thing clearly and on his own terms. His namesake was a cousin Toni who was murdered at Auschwitz, and he writes that he could not remember a time when he did not know about the Holocaust. Defiantly, he states, “I suffer no confusion or insecurity over my Jewishness.”

As these provocative views demonstrate, few will agree with Judt on all issues. He is naive on the motivation of countries to act in their national interest, placing this consideration on par with mushier categories like “doing what is right.” He is unfair to the point of caricature when discussing poor David Brooks, whom he once debated on the Iraq War. (“Men like Brooks know, literally, nothing.”) And how anyone living in New York on September 11 can put the word “terrorism” in quotation marks is hard to fathom—or, for that matter, to stomach. Yet for all that, Judt merged fine political instincts with the expertise and perspective of an intellectual: a rare combination. On important issues he was frequently right, and when he was not his reasoning was clear and reasonable. He never hid behind evasive language or jargon.

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