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?

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.

The title Thinking the Twentieth Century comes from a comment Judt made in passing during his running conversation with Snyder. What made Orwell and Koestler so special, he argued, was their ability to identify in real time the absurd and grotesque events of the century for which there was no precedent, rather than insisting that those events were unthinkable. The rise of fascism, the Holocaust, and the long march of Soviet communism needed first and foremost to be described: they were the trees. Orwell and Koestler had the consummate historian’s skill to say what had happened—to “think the twentieth century.” In giving this title to Judt’s final book, Snyder implies that Judt too had that rare gift. He is right. Without thinkers like him we are lost in the forest.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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