Tony Judt, historian and intellectual, died on August 6th, aged 62
Aug 12th 2010
QUIZZICAL, erudite and clear-sighted, Tony Judt never let matters rest. He worried at his own beliefs—Zionist, Francophile, socialist and Euro-federalist—until they fell apart and reformed under the pressure of his restless, meticulous intellect. Few people in the Anglo-Saxon world can call themselves “intellectuals”, continental-style, without feeling (and sounding) a little odd. But in Mr Judt’s case the word deserved a capital “I”.
In the world of brain and pen, his main trade was as a historian: he plunged into that at Cambridge in the 1960s, and stayed with it even when immobilised by the wasting disease that cost him his life. His was no narrow historicism: he scorned the idea that the past was a guide to the future. But study of it could help avoid making the same mistakes twice.
Though he worked in America from 1987, his intellectual centre of gravity was Europe; the defining event in his world view was the second world war, and Hitler’s Holocaust. The aftermath of those catastrophes was the theme of “Postwar” (2005), a 1,000-page tome that dealt with the 44 years between the end of the main fighting and the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian empire that survived it. It was a book more bought than read. But even skimmers got the message: the European Union was a vitally important experiment, an attempt to transcend the ideological, nationalist and ethnic schisms that had cursed the continent. Prosperity, modernisation and peace, plus a judicious dose of amnesia, would lay the ghosts to rest.
But Mr Judt was no sentimental Europhile. His deep connections with the Czechoslovak opposition under communism gave him rare binocular vision, and an edginess towards those who focused only on the luckier western half of the continent. He detested the shallowness and artificial obscurity of European-born intellectual fashions such as post-modernism and structuralism. In politics, he bemoaned what he saw as the degeneration of the EU into a racket run by an elite class of administrators for the benefit of its richest citizens. Admittedly, the Eurocracy’s enlightened despotism was better than the other kind. But the cult of efficiency was no substitute for democracy and justice.
Mr Judt’s deepest knowledge was of France, and particularly its post-war intellectual history, which he regarded with a mixture of fascination and disgust. “Past Imperfect”, published in 1992, was the definitive book about the self-indulgence and wilful self-delusion of the French brainboxes who failed to see that Stalin was a monster.
His evisceration of the phoney and creepy was best displayed in his journalism, often in his natural home of the New York Review of Books. A savage collection of essays, “Reappraisals”, published in 2008, skewered among others Louis Althusser, a mad Marxist wife-killer with a cult philosophical following, and Eric Hobsbawm, a distinguished British historian with unrepentant pro-Soviet views. George Bush fared little better: Mr Judt was a trenchant critic of his policies in Iraq and the Middle East.
In hot water
He was fearless in his fights. When he found the pro-Israel lobby in America too strong, and thought Israel’s democratic credentials were weakening, he said so. That got him into the hottest water of his career. It started with an essay in the NYRB in 2003 stating that the peace process was “finished”; that the Jewish state was an “anachronism”; and that legitimate criticism of Israel was being silenced by bogus charges of anti-Semitism.
Nobody could accuse him of letting fly from a position of ignorance. He had been an ardent teenage Zionist, working as an interpreter during the six-day war of 1967. But to many his critique was exaggerated. Given the intense publicity he attracted, it was hard to argue, as he did, that debate was habitually squelched. The notion that Israel had no friends outside America, or could be “the” (his italics) threat to world peace, struck even some of his friends as extreme. Lectures were cancelled and the New Republic, a longstanding ally, removed him from its masthead.
A severe self-critic, he dealt poorly with sniping from others. This East End boy did not wear his learning, or his polyglottal talents, lightly. He tended to dismiss adversaries as fools, rather than as merely mistaken, or half-right. As the head of a richly endowed faculty at New York University, his contempt for the poverty of British universities could sound gratingly complacent. He could fund-raise. So should they.
His final ordeal might have inspired great self-pity, though he displayed no hint of it. Just under a year ago, he appeared at a public lecture in a wheelchair to announce that he was suffering from a variant of motor-neurone disease, in which the body succumbs to inexorable paralysis: like being imprisoned in a shrinking cell, he said. But he wrote about that too, in poignant, crystalline vignettes about his upbringing and travels.
He was “raised on words” though by the end his vocal muscle, “for 60 years my reliable alter ego” failed him: “vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate”. He minded that, while insisting that “the view from inside is as rich as ever”.