Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century

By Tony Judt
Heinemann, 2008, £20

In the early 1990s Tony Judt was in his mid-40s, a fairly obscure British historian, specialising in modern French history. Three things happened to make him one of the best-known historians of his generation. First, in 1995, he became Director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, just at the time when historians in New York were redefining  the way we think about modern Europe. Then, in 2005 he published Postwar, the masterpiece of the new European history, a monumental 900-page, acclaimed account of Europe since 1945. Finally, at around the same time as Postwar, he wrote a number of controversial articles attacking Israel and Bush’s war on terror. He had become one of the best-known public intellectuals in America.

Reappraisals is his first book since Postwar. It is a collection of essays published between 1994 and 2006. These two dozen essays mostly appeared in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. This is Judt as essayist and public intellectual, writing about writers, thinkers and politics from the Cold War to the Bush Years. He is opinionated and fluent, a sort of east coast David Starkey, with more than a touch of nastiness. He rages against Israel, dismisses French Marxists like Louis Althusser, and eviscerates a recent biography of Arthur Koestler. But he has his heroes, too. Koestler and Primo Levi, Edward Said and Albert Camus, ‘the best man in France’. His heroes are Jews and exiles, mostly men (and the occasional woman) in the dark times between the Russian Revolution and the height of the Cold War.

There are interesting continuities between these essays, mostly written while he was working on Postwar, and his acclaimed history of post-1945 Europe itself. In both there is a dark vision. He has no illusions about Europe (or America). There is no happy story of progress and he reserves some of his sharpest polemics for the post-1989 optimism and faith in free-market democracy that followed the fall of the Wall. Much of the history in these essays is brutal. He writes of the violence of Prussian troops in 1815 and what Romanian soldiers did to Jews in World War Two. He admires Hannah Arendt for the way she grasped the central importance of terror in totalitarian regimes and approvingly quotes the Polish thinker, Leszek Kolakowski: ‘The Devil is part of our experience… Evil, I contend, is not contingent … but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.’

The rise and fall of Communism was, according to Judt, one of the defining features of the twentieth century, especially the mid-twentiethth century. He keeps coming back to the great anti-Communist tradition, both critics of Communism and ex-Communists like Koestler and Camus. ‘They are,’ he writes, ‘the twentieth century’s Republic of Letters.’ Some of his fiercest scorn is for Marxists who never saw the light — the French Communist, Louis Althusser, and the historian, EJ Hobsbawm. His review of Hobsbawm’s memoirs is one of the best essays in the book. How could Hobsbawm stay loyal to Communism, after all that had happened? ‘Seventy years of “real existing Socialism” contributed nothing to the sum of human welfare. Nothing.’ And yet Hobsbawm remained a Communist. He was undoubtedly one of the great historians of his time, and yet, ‘he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.’

A third theme in these essays, also familiar to readers of Postwar, is memory or rather, mis-memory.  Perhaps the most impressive essay in the book is a magnificent review-essay on the colossal seven-volume Les lieux de memoire, about French memory and history. Judt has a keen sense of the feeling of loss at the heart of this project. Despite its apparent solidity — 5,600 pages — Les lieux de memoire is an attempt to preserve a living sense of peasant and rural France at the very moment it was disappearing. At that time the French Left and the Catholic Church, indeed France itself, as a great power, were all in decline. ‘France,’ writes Judt, ‘was thus modernizing, downsizing, and splitting apart all at once.’ France in 1960 would have been recognizable to Flaubert or Hugo. ‘The France of 1980 did not even much resemble the country just ten years earlier.’ This Herculean attempt to capture the essence of France and its past was problematic from the start, writes Judt. The problem was that the French had lost a sense of a shared past: ‘there no longer is a received version.’ Since 1918, the story becomes more confused, less glorious, more troubling. The Third Republic was easy to commemorate — all those streets named after Victor Hugo and Louis Pasteur. But the shame of Vichy? The dirty wars of Algeria and Indo-China? The decline of rural France? This is not unique to France. In the essays on Blair and ‘Heritage’ Britain and ‘The World We Have Lost’ we see that our relationship to the past is becoming more, not less, complicated. Even the recent past seems already remote. ‘The twentieth-century is hardly behind us, but already its quarrels and its dogmas, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory.’ ‘We wear,’ he writes, ‘the last century rather lightly.’

What can this mean? Surely the twentieth-century is still close to us? But Judt digs down to larger social changes which are cutting us off from the central experiences of the twentieth -century. As he writes about Koestler and Camus, he realises how remote these debates about Communism are to a generation born after 1989. War, or civil war, touched every European life in the first half of the twentieth- century. Now it is something which happens somewhere else.

Reappraisals is shot through with an overwhelming sense of loss: from the speed of social change that has eroded our sense of a shared world to the decline of the two great intellectual faiths of modern Europe, Catholicism and Communism On the disappearance of central and east European Jewry he quotes Manès Sperber, born in Galicia: “I am one of the last, one of the walking coffins of an exterminated world.”’

The nearer Judt comes to the present, the emptier and more desolate the scene. All the ideals are in the past. Communism; the belief in a free world, shared by Camus and Kolakowski; the idealism of the first generations of Zionists. All gone. . America has become shallow, unequal and strident. The hopes of post-1989 free market capitalism have become empty illusions. Blair’s Britain is ‘often squalid,’ the railways and hospitals don’t work, poverty is rampant.

And then there is Israel. There are only three essays on Israel, but they loom large. The first is a handsome tribute to his late friend, Edward Said, the second, a reassessment of the Six-Day War (his last piece for The New Republic) and the third, an all-out attack on Israel today, ‘The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up.’

Taken together, these essays are the most provocative and controversial part of the book. A number of key points run through them. First, ‘Israel’s international standing has precipitately collapsed’, and, conversely, the Palestinians have replaced Israel as the object of international sympathy. Israel, writes Judt, is internationally isolated, a pariah, dependent only on American support. Secondly, the ideals of the European founding fathers have given way to a new militarism, nationalism and religious irrationalism. Finally, Israel needs a dramatic change of strategy, ‘a truly statesmanlike shift in its policies…’ These would include; dismantling the major settlements, ‘opening unconditional negotiations with Palestinians, calling Hamas’s bluff by offering its leaders something serious [sic] in return for the recognition of Israel and a cease-fire…’

At this point, Judt’s prose loses its analytic rigour and precision, becoming vague. Negotiations with ‘Palestinians’. Who exactly? Edward Said or Hamas (mentioned just once in the whole book)? Offering ‘its leaders’ (who?) ‘something serious’ (what?). Judt is quick to condemn, but he has nothing constructive to offer. His lack of empathy — Israel today is only the aggressor — leads to a jarring  one-sidedness quite distinct from his masterful, nuanced balancing of complexity in other chapters of history.When he writes about Israel Judt the historian and intellectual essayist descends into polemic and brawl. His tone becomes angry, hectoring and imprecise, as it does in his later attack on intellectuals — Bush’s ‘useful idiots’ — who supported the invasion of Iraq.

Raised in the East End, all his grandparents were Yiddish-speaking Jews from eastern Europe. His parents, he told The Guardian, ‘were leftwing, even Marxist, but strongly against Communism.’ As a teenager he was passionately pro-Israel — ‘I was a gung-ho, utterly committed, leftwing Zionist.’ Now, sixty, he has two modes for dealing with the loss of the two faiths that once drove him. One is a kind of mourning for a lost world, the other is a form of contemptuous rage Neither have much to do with the great historian who wrote Postwar and has helped us, through a lifetime’s work, with great sublety and care, understand the complexities, silences and darkness of our recent history.

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