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Book review: ‘Thinking the Twentieth Century’ by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder

Thinking the Twentieth Century

Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

Penguin Press: 414 pp., $36

There are so many ways that “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is a remarkable book. The lifetime of scholarship and intellectual engagement lying behind that verb “thinking” in the title. The way ideas crackle in the interplay between the authors. The passionate involvement with issues political and controversial. That the book could have been written at all, given the tragic circumstances surrounding it.

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For this is Tony Judt’s swan song, his last turn in the arena where he displayed his prowess as a public intellectual and dedicated scholar. The cruel malady commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which rapidly disabled him and too soon snuffed out his life at 62 in 2010, had some saving grace, which Judt with his indomitable spirit seized on to take full advantage:

“Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has no effect on the mind… so one is free to think. But it paralyzes the limbs: writing becomes a second-hand activity… recorded conversation began to seem a rather practical and even imaginative solution…but you cannot have a conversation worth recording with someone who does not know what they are talking about or is unfamiliar with the things that you are trying to convey.”

Enter Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, a kindred spirit very much on the same page as Judt with regard to European political history but a generation younger and with just enough difference in approach and specific subject matter. His contributions (usefully in italics) to this vibrant conversation are the perfect prod to elicit what Judt’s packed mind has to offer, from controversy to judgment, polemic to fine insight.

So Judt proceeds to take the reader on a wild ride through the ideological currents and shoals of 20th century thought. If his focus is largely on Europe, it is because this is what he knew best. After all, his magnum opus “Postwar” was a sweeping history of the continent in the years after World War II, which managed the feat of breaking new ground while immediately being hailed as definitive. Before that, he had produced a solid corpus of historical writing about French history. So in the last decade or so of his life, when he started to appear on the platform and in the media as a fully engaged, passionate public intellectual, he spoke with authority and with a sense of mission. As he says in these pages:

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“I think that the intellectual’s task is to catch — something which is clearly a talent that not everyone has — the soul of brevity. Say something important, preferably something that goes against the grain of people’s beliefs; say it well, so that the audience understands that clarity of exposition is related to truthfulness of content: but make the point in accessible ways. Intellectual obfuscation is self-defeating.”

Facing his imminent mortality led Judt to write the intensely personal, wrenching “The Memory Chalet,” a meditation and summing up of his life that was published last year. The way that “Thinking the Twentieth Century,” which seeks no less than to encapsulate the political and social currents of the 20th century, is also strikingly personal and rooted in his own history is startling. Not just because there is so much discussion of his British schooling and university training, family and ethnic background — and even his two divorces! — but because his political and historical judgments are so evidently colored by his experience.

Even his famous volte-face about Israel, which caused such a storm of controversy a decade ago when he called for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question: “My own experience as a Zionist allowed me to identify the same fanaticism and myopic, exclusivist tunnel vision in others — most notably the community of American cheerleaders for Israel.”

Hardly the dispassionate, detached stance of the scholar being exhibited here. Similarly, in his denunciation of those public intellectuals who supported the Iraq war, he feels the need to bring up a dinner party in the Hamptons where one of them “put [him] down in the most contemptuous and categorical way.” It is disappointing to see how, even at this late stage, Judt was himself so intolerant and contemptuous of those who differed from him on this issue, unable to respect their point of view as he clearly wanted his own to be.

Judt was never anything but full of conviction in what he was espousing on the page or in public forums. But his ability to shed one ideological skin after another is breathtaking. The convinced labor Zionist becomes the Marxist, then the pluralist, then the social democrat European. Judt’s death means that we shall never discover what other skins might eventually have emerged. When he was dying, his still-fertile imagination and intellect envisioned a history of the world through its railways. That he never got to write it was not only a personal tragedy for him but a sad loss for all of us.

Rubin is the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”


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