Tony Judt, with Timothy Synder,
Thinking the Twentieth Century
Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, Tony Judt became what I term colloquially my “main man.” I tried to read everything Judt wrote. I was smitten by the enormous insight he brought to the subjects that most interested me – 20th century France and 20th European history and political theory. His best known work is a magisterial text about Europe since World War II, entitled simply “Postwar.” But his background also fascinated me. A near contemporary, born in 1948 in Great Britain of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Judt was raised in South London, educated at Kings College, Cambridge, with formative years in Israel, France and California, before he wound up teaching at New York University. He also had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage. All of the above is written in the past tense, as Judt succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in August 2010, at the age of 62. “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is likely the last book to bear Judt’s name as an author. An “Afterword” is eerily dated July 5, 2010, slightly over a month prior to his death.
But “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is no conventional book. Rather, it is an extended series of conversations between Judt and Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Twenty years younger than Judt, Snyder is the author of “Bloodlands,” a highly-acclaimed chronicle of mass killings in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Judt notes in his afterward that Snyder is one of the first Americans to rise to prominence as an historian of Eastern Europe. Previously, most distinguished Eastern European historians were refugees from that part of the world. Snyder interjects himself into the discussion, but is more like an interviewer, or at least close to it. His portion of the conversation is plainly overshadowed by that of Judt, almost certainly deliberately so.
The two scholars range widely but, as the title suggests, their focus is what to make of the murderous 20th century in Europe. Their reflections center on Europe’s multiple 20th century ordeals, including two devastating world wars, the rise and fall of authoritarian ideologies – communism, fascism, Nazism – and, above all, the Holocaust, the still unfathomable destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Interspersed with the authors’ conversations on these ponderous themes are Judt’s touching and poignant personal reminiscences of aspects of his life. Judt undoubtedly knew that this was likely among his last opportunities to speak publicly about himself and the ideas he cared about.
The reason for the title Judt and Synder chose for their book does not become clear until about the half way point, where they indicate that thinking the 20th century requires a capacity to set aside traditional Enlightenment notions like the primacy of reason and the inevitability of progress. In their place, we must imagine conspiracies, plots and the “grotesquely unthinkable,” and treat them as real (p.194). They cite Koestler, Orwell and Kakfa as among the few thinkers who were “able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent” (p.194). To be able to think the twentieth century in this way, Judt says:
was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries. For the same reason, many people reassured themselves that the Holocaust could not be happening, simply because it made no sense. . . [I]t made no sense for the [non Jewish] Germans. . .Since they wanted to win their war surely the Nazis would exploit the Jews, rather than kill them at great expense. This application to human behavior of a perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus, self-evident to men raised in the nineteenth century, simply did not work in the twentieth (p.194).
The Holocaust thus hovers over the European 20th century, it hovers over this book, and it hovered over Judt as a Jew. The “Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he says. But as he grew older, he found it intruding, “inevitably, and with ever greater force” (p.12). For Judt, thinking Europe’s 20th century unavoidably requires trying to account in some manner for the Holocaust, an exercise for which our normal processes of reasoning and empirically based critical thinking are likely to prove insufficient.
Judt’s insights into the 20th century’s totalitarian impulses –fascism, Nazism and communism — by themselves, make the book worth reading. Communists and fascists after 1917 shared, Judt contends, a “profound attraction to mortal struggle and its beneficial social or aesthetic outcomes” (p.102), along with distaste for modernist culture — both were “extraordinarily wary of innovation or imagination” (p.165). In Italy, fascism was not so much a doctrine as a “symptomatic political style” (p.65), which appealed by its contrast to liberal bourgeois democracy. Fascists don’t have concepts like leftists, he asserts. Rather, they have “attitudes. . . distinctive responses to war, depression and backwardness” (p.159). Without the threat of Bolshevikism, there would have been “far less space for fascists to offer themselves as a guarantee of traditional order” (p.163).
Judt also argues that Nazism differed from Fascism in that it was purely German, based upon a “set of claims which made Germans unique,” whereas there was an outward looking side of fascism, in which fascist intellectuals often believed that they were “espousing universal truths and categories” (p.104). In some senses, fascism captured the early 20th century notion of distinctly European values:
The European idea, as we tend to forget, was then a right-wing idea. It was counter to Bolshevism, obviously, but also to Americanization, to the coming of industrial America with its ‘materialist values’ and its heartless and ostensibly Jewish-dominated finance capitalism (p.177).
Judt saw no serious prospect for contemporary fascism. With the “coming of television (and a fortitori the internet), the masses disaggregate into ever-smaller units. Consequently, for all its demagogic and populist appeal, traditional fascism has been handicapped: the one thing that fascists do supremely well – transforming angry minorities into large groups, and large groups into crowds – is now extra ordinarily difficult to accomplish” (p.166).
Judt considered the 20th century’s struggles — between democracy and fascism, communism and capitalism, freedom and totalitarianism — as, at bottom, “implicit or explicit debates over the rise of the state. What sort of state did free people want? What are they willing to pay for it and what purposes did they wish it to serve?” (p.386). Judt found his own answers in the rise of social democracies in much of Northern and Western Europe — democratic governments which tax at relatively high rates, provide significant welfare benefits, embrace capitalism and maintain free but extensively regulated markets, while respecting individual rights and the rule of law (my definition, not Judt’s). For Judt, social democracies refute the hypothesis of the economist Friedrich Hayek, who argued in his famous 1944 work, “The Road to Serfdom,” that any attempt to intervene in the natural processes of the free market is “guaranteed to produce authoritarian political outcomes” (p.343). Judt contends that European social democracies are “among the wealthiest societies in the world today, and not one of them has moved remotely in the direction of anything resembling a return to the German-style authoritarianism that Hayek saw as the price they would pay for handing initiative to the state” (p.383; Hayek, it’s worth pointing out, retains significant appeal in conservative and Republican circles in the United States).
Interspersed with these macro-reflections on 20th century Europe are Judt’s micro-reflections on his personal life, his academic wanderings, and his two failed marriages — he gets in some digs against his ex-spouses, for instance. The macro and micro come together as he describes the movement of his own intellectual center of gravity from France and Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Particularly through two key Polish thinkers, Leszak Kolakowski and Jan Gross, Eastern Europe in the 1980s offered Judt a “fresh start” (p.207). Kolakowski was expelled from Warsaw University in 1968 for the flagrantly heretical view that Marxism itself, not simply the way it was practiced in Soviet regimes, was “bereft of political prospects or moral value” (p.197), a view which Judt ultimately adopted as his own. Gross was a contemporary of Judt. The two met in the mid-1980s when both were teaching in the United States. Through Gross, Eastern Europe began to offer Judt “an alternative social life” at a time of “renewed and redirected intellectual existence” (p.201). At the apex of Judt’s career, Eastern Europe “ceased to be just a place; its history was now for me a direct and personal frame of reference” (p.204).
Judt made his reputation through studies addressing the very French notion of a “public intellectual,” a macro, big picture thinker who analyzes and comments upon public affairs, while standing outside of official structures (again, my definition, not Judt’s). One of his first works to gain widespread public attention, “The Burden of Responsibility,” was a treatment of three French intellectuals, Léon Blum, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, whom he describes as “genuinely independent thinkers in a time and a place where being independent placed you in real danger, as well as consigning you to the margins of your community and to the disdain of your fellow intellectuals” (p.330).
Thus, it was ironic that Judt became, during his time in New York, somewhat of an American public intellectual of the type he had written about. Judt contended that “no scholar, historian or anyone else is – merely by being a scholar – ethically excused from their own circumstances. We are also participants in our own time and place and cannot retreat from it” (p.285). After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Judt became “increasingly and polemically engaged in American public affairs” (p.286), in particular as a vociferous and highly-visible critic of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war and Israel’s Palestinian policies.
This dialogue between two exceptionally sharp minds has a rambling quality. Like good dinner table conversation, the two shift ground frequently and often suddenly, and themes do not always follow one another with Cartesian or other logic. But having a last look into Tony Judt’s prodigious mind is an opportunity to be seized. We may not see such nimble and versatile thinking on Europe’s grotesquely unthinkable 20th century any time soon.
Thomas H. Peebles
July 30, 2013