Tony Judt

Widely regarded as one of the great political writers of modern times, British-born Tony Judt was one of the West's foremost and most outspoken public intellectuals. (John R. Rifkin/The Penguin Press)

Tony Judt, a leading historian of postwar Europe and outspoken political essayist who also wrote movingly about his struggle with Lou Gehrig's disease, has died. He was 62.

Judt, who was a history professor at New York University, died Friday at his home in Manhattan of complications from the disease, the university announced.

In 2005, his career reached its zenith with the publication of "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945," a hefty book that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Writing in the New Yorker, intellectual historian Louis Menand called Judt's scope "virtually superhuman."

Critics considered the tome a masterful account of Europe's recovery from the wreckage of World War II. The New York Times Book Review named it one of the 10 best books of 2005, and last year the Toronto Star called it the best historical book of the decade.

"Postwar" was "perhaps the most astonishing feat of synthesis ever achieved," the Star said, as Judt "managed to weave every country and every major political and cultural trend into a seamless narrative."

Widely regarded as one of the great political writers of modern times, British-born Judt — pronounced "Jutt" — was one of the West's foremost and most outspoken public intellectuals.

At New York University, he was the founding director of the Remarque Institute, where he had promoted and shaped the historical study of Europe since 1995. He wrote nine books, mainly on the history of politics and ideas in Europe, and was a frequent writer of combative essays, reviews and op-ed pieces.

As a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Judt was known for his controversial writings about the Middle East. In a 2003 essay that outlined his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he argued that the Jewish state had become an "anachronism" and advocated the creation of a single, bi-national state that Israelis and Arabs would share as equal citizens. The piece inspired bitter debate.

After he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in fall 2008, Judt's essays took an intensely personal and reflective turn. He started writing about his illness and personal memories as the incurable disease attacked his nervous system, ravaging him with devastating speed.

Within months, he was a quadriplegic who needed an apparatus to help him breathe. Yet his mental faculties were undiminished and he found himself on an intellectual journey that one observer called "a forced march of the mind."

Immobile once he went to bed at night, Judt trained himself to enter into prolonged reveries, relying on a mnemonic device from the Renaissance to organize his thoughts — a "Swiss chalet" that he filled room by room with his thoughts.

When the father of two woke in the morning, he dictated essays based on overnight musings that were often published in the New York Review of Books. Robert B. Silvers, editor of the Review, called Judt's writing of them "an incomparable act of courage."

Of his nighttime ordeal Judt wrote, "There I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts."

"This cockroach-like existence," he wrote, alluding to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," "is cumulatively intolerable even though on any given night it is perfectly manageable."

Other autobiographical sketches reached back to his early years as he wrote about the overboiled English food of his youth and his naïve revolutionary consciousness during the 1960s. He recalled that he knew at age 12 that he wanted to be a historian.

"The only life experience that I have to offer out of this is something we all know in the abstract but don't experience in practice very much," Judt said in March on National Public Radio. "You can survive an awful lot of bad stuff, so long as your mind is intact."

Tony Robert Judt was born in 1948 in London into a secular Jewish family. His mother's parents had emigrated from Russia and his father was Belgian.

After spending a summer on a kibbutz in Israel when he was 15, Judt was active in the Jewish youth movement but turned away from the Zionists' utopian vision when he spent several weeks as a translator after the Six-Day War in 1967. He was troubled by the insouciance of Israeli officers he worked with, later calling them "right-wing thugs with anti-Arab views."

Returning to England, he skipped his last year of high school to attend Cambridge University, where he earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees. He also studied at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.

Before joining NYU in 1987, he taught at Cambridge, UC Berkeley and Oxford University.

In August 2009, he delivered his final public lecture to a packed NYU auditorium, speaking from memory in a labored voice for 90 minutes. Essentially a legacy speech, it was expanded into his final book, "Ill Fares the Land," deliberately written as a letter to young people.

"It's about not forgetting the past, about having the courage to look at the present and see its faults without walking away in disgust or skepticism," Judt said of the book in the March 2010 NPR interview. "It's about believing."

Judt's survivors include his wife, Jennifer Homans, a dance critic whom he married in 1993; and children Nicholas and Daniel.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com