One of my greatest discoveries as an impressionable undergraduate at Princeton was The New York Review of Books. While I certainly read a lot of novels as a teenager, and while discussing ideas was not uncommon at the dinner table (or, more often, the couches in our TV room), the breakfast and coffee tables of my teenage life were stacked with Time, Newsweek, and Sunset, not The New Yorker, The Economist, or the NYRB.
But by my sophomore or junior year at Princeton, I had fallen in with a group of people in the know who subscribed to the Review, and sneaking in a free moment in their common rooms to check out the latest article became a frequent diversion. Someone would have to run out to the library, but would invite me to make a cup of tea, stick around, and check out the latest issue; I would show up at someone’s place before they had come back from some prior event, and their roommate would invite me to have a beer and kill a few minutes over the latest piece before that person returned home. Article by article, I – like many of my friends, it turned out – was getting an education comparable to what we were getting in Princeton’s lecture halls by reading one of the most exciting magazines in early 21st-century America.
For people of my Princeton generation (I was there from 2004 to 2008), the historian Tony Judt was one of the most formidable contributors to the journal during our undergraduate years. Judt had carved out a comfortable reputation for himself as a specialist in French history with several works from the 1970s onwards, but it was only from approximately 2003 to 2010 (when Judt succumbed to ALS) that he really exploded as a public intellectual of meaning to my Princeton cohort. Not only did Judt’s 2005 Postwar become the major European history to appear while we were engaged in various conversations about intellectual history in our coursework; but his essays on Israel and the Iraq War introduced us to a broader panorama of essays on topics from Tony Blair to Pope John Paul II to the Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski. For many of us at Princeton during those years – often uneasy about the Iraq War or the direction of the United States under Bush and the ‘permanent Republican majority’ moment of 2004–2006 without giving in to what seemed like a narcissistic protest culture nostalgic for the 1960s – Judt became a kind of intellectual godfather in absentia. The multi-hour brunch conversations I had with friends during my junior year, in the autumn of 2006 and the spring of 2007, often began with debates about Judt articles, and are probably my most treasured moments of my time at Princeton.
There should have been more such conversations. Not long after he really became a prominent public intellectual in the United States, Judt was tragically diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, rendering him a prisoner within his own body. For most people, this would have been the end of life, in a sense; but Judt courageously continued to lecture, write, and dictate from the confines of his wheelchair and, later, his apartment. He produced a manifesto on the social democratic tradition, Ill Fares the Land, lamenting the decline of the welfare state in European and American democracies. Not long before his death on August 6, 2010, he collaborated with the Yale historian and friend Timothy Snyder on Thinking the Twentieth Century, a series of conversations on 20th century history that reflect a lifetime of political engagements, historical writing, and friendships – but also what, maybe, the Princeton brunch groups after my own had lost.
It was therefore with excitement, if also in part with a heavy heart, that I embarked on the bus from Oxford to Cambridge this morning to attend a memorial event dedicated to Judt at King’s College, Cambridge, where Judt had been a student from 1966-1969. The event was divided into roughly two sections: one devoted more to Judt as a historian, the other dominated by reflections from fellow ‘Kingsmen’ (the term for students at King’s College), admirers, and Judt’s wife, Jennifer Homans, who attended the event with her and Judt’s two sons as well as Judt’s father, Joe.
The day was exhausting (two three-and-a-half hour bus rides between Oxford and Cambridge), but the event itself inspiring. In what follows, I’d like to provide a brief recap of the first half of the event, which consisted of a kind of exchange between Eric Hobsbawm (in the form of a written essay read by John Dunn – Hobsbawm was seriously ill and could not attend) and the aforementioned Snyder on Judt’s development as a historian. The conversation was rich enough to deserve public reproduction, and it’s no secret from essays I’ve written on this site before that I’m interested in how one tries to get better as a historian or writer. (As Snyder pointed out in a remark, unlike fine wines, historians don’t automatically get better with age, although they may inevitably decline.) I refrain from posting more details about the second half of the event – while it was technically open to the public, and while I have no problem sharing my discovery of Judt as essayist or historian, I would feel uncomfortable reproducing others’ own journeys without their permission.
While Hobsbawm and Snyder come from very difficult backgrounds – the exotic Hobsbawm an Alexandrian Jew who grew up in the Weimar Republic before coming to Cambridge; the Ohioan Snyder a less complicated American who came to sophisticated, polyglot histories of Eastern Europe without prior biographical commitments – they both centered their presentations of Judt qua historian around a similar question: how do we get from the middle-class London Jewish kid growing up in the 1950s to someone capable of writing the synthetic, rich Postwar in 2005? How are we to understand the intellectual journey that took Judt to that point?
Hobsbawm’s reflections were an interesting mix of polemic and compliment. (A bit of background: while Hobsbawm and Judt had been around King’s at the same time for periods, and were semi-close personal friends, they had an intellectual falling-out after a Judt review of Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World criticized the latter as a naïve Communist, unable to realize that [as Hobsbawm caricatured Judt] ‘socialism = GULAG’ and that October 1917 might not have been the seminal event Hobsbawm saw it as.)
Hobsbawm began his reflections by juxtaposing Judt with the ‘polemicist’ whom he perhaps most greatly resembled, in Hobsbawm’s view: Orwell. While Orwell was, in Hobsbawm’s view, probably the superior prose writer, and while it was difficult to imagine Judt penning an equivalent to Animal Farm or 1984, this in part reflected Orwell’s greater tendency to succumb to long-held anti-Stalinist intellectual biases; Judt, on the other hand, was a more ‘maneuverable’ (a nice adjective) thinker who had no problem changing his mind, although this may mean in the long run that Judt proves less usable as an anti-totalitarian thinker than Orwell, whom Hobsbawm described as an ‘anti-Soviet intellectual missile site.’
It was, in Hobsbawm’s view, this flexibility – not to mention Judt’s commitment to being an academic – that gave his intellectual career such a mixed shape for its first several decades. Judt, Hobsbawm argued, allowed his interest in Marxism to take him into the intellectual black hole of French Marxism and Left Bank French Academia of the 1960s and 1970s. This was the world out of which Judt would produce his early works on French socialism – works that combined ‘impressive erudition with utter irrelevance’, read primarily by French university academics concerned with ‘taking postures’ on Marxism because they had nothing actually effective to do with their time otherwise.
The engagement with French Marxism might have been a waste of time on one level, but it would prove helpful for Judt’s long-term development on another level. Judt was increasingly exposed to the intellectual failings of French intellectuals characterized in his Past Imperfect for whom a commitment to Marxist totality made them blind to the crimes of Stalinism. Some initial pot shots at the French Left, in Hobsbawm’s view, while not entirely helpful for Judt’s development as a serious historian, also prepared him for his later role as an American polemicist. So, too, did his more serious engagement with Eastern Europe and the generation of Polish intellectuals (the prime example being Jan Gross) who spilled out of Poland after the 1968 crackdown. Unlike the crowds of ‘right wing academic tourists to Eastern Europe’ looking for useful anti-Soviet figures throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Judt was engaging with a more intellectually serious group of people who, too, thought of themselves as Marxists: an experience that would allow him, in Hobsbawm’s view, to view the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and collapse in 1991 not as ‘the end of history’ but as an end to the particularly Soviet socialist history that did not necessarily discredit teleological visions of history.
Judt took these experiences, Hobsbawm argued, with him as he emerged in the 2000s to explode as a formidable historian and public intellectual. Judt had engaged with Eastern Europe earlier than most historians of his generation, which gave him the ability to write an integrated East-West history. More than that, Judt’s own falling out with Marxism (at least in its French, totalizing variety) immunized him against what Hobsbawm called the teleologically-motivated threat of ‘US global conquest’, Israel, and the neoconservatives. Some of Judt’s earlier intellectual bruising might have been petty, but that polemical experience and the disillusionment with totality – not to mention the encouragement of NYRB editor Robert Silvers – gave Judt the confidence to engage not with ‘professors in New Jersey’ or ‘poets in the 5th arrondissement’ but rather with David Brooks, Bush, Netanyahu, etc. on the level of intellectual argument.
Judt, he concluded, was overly cruel in his treatment of Hobsbawm and Marxism as an intellectual pathology from which one had to repent; while Judt’s Marxism had led to bad provincial history at certain times, it led to the mature engagement with the Eastern European Marxists, too, and gave Judt a rich education in the politics of intellectual engagement. It was a complicated journey, in other words, but by the time of his death, Judt had become a global presence in the Anglophone World, no longer just a prosecutor in arguments on the Left but also someone seeking to tell his audiences about his own journey on the Left.
Snyder’s presentation of Judt’s intellectual trajectory had a common starting point – how do we get to the man who writes Postwar? – but took a different, and altogether more charitable, approach towards Judt’s development. Snyder framed Judt’s life around a grand counterfactual: what if the Holocaust had never happened? How would that affect the way we wrote European history? If the Holocaust had never happened, would it not be easier to write triumphal histories of European ‘progress’ and ‘development’?
This story, Snyder emphasized, sounds fanciful, but this was not far from the intellectual, or historiographical, world in which Judt came of age. On the one hand, intellectuals in the West had their own ‘universalizing narratives’ about World War II and the Holocaust. German historians frequently stressed that World War II did not fundamentally differ from World War I or other ‘normal’ large wars. French intellectuals promoted a nation-centric view of history, in which nations (i.e. not the Jews) had suffered during the war. American historians and intellectuals, meanwhile, promoted a sanitized version of the war in which a supposedly racially integrated American army saved Europe as a whole, not the Jews in particular.
On the other hand, there were the intellectual consequences of the Iron Curtain. Not only did the Iron Curtain divide free Europe from Communist Europe; it also divided ‘Europe’ from the entirety of the territories in which the Holocaust had actually happened. Access to archives, mass graves, etc. totally out of the question for Western historians. Eastern European history became a ‘specialist’ subject, with the unintended consequence that Eastern European history became overly nationalized. Academics became specialists on Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, or Lithuania (i.e. no integrated ‘Eastern European histories’), but this lens tended to write the Jews out of teleological national Eastern European histories.
More than that, the Jews were also written out of Eastern European history by Soviet historians and managers of public memory. Those killed in the camps or the killing fields were re-invented as national Poles, Belorussians, or Ukrainians who had died in the name of a (national) communist country; that, or they were re-invented as ‘anti-fascist’ resistance fighters who died for Soviet socialism. As Judt and Snyder put it in Thinking the Twentieth Century, the irony was rich but tragic: Nazis killed Jews in life because they were supposedly unassimilable, but Communists erased Jews from history in death precisely by assimilating them into Communist national histories.
The point for Judt was that the Holocaust was largely written out of European history during the 1960s and 1970s, the period of intellectual coming-of-age. But at the same time that the Holocaust did not occupy a major place in Cold War European historiography, for Western European Jews of Judt’s generation (for whom many of the facts of the Shoah were well-known from dinner table conversations with uncles or grandfathers who had survived), the Holocaust was always in the background of how they thought about recent history. There was the temptation to imagine how European history might have developed counter-factually had it not been for the rise of Germany, Hitler, and the Holocaust. What if a Popular Front of the 1930s had managed to contain the former? What if France had been more relevant as a bulwark against Nazism? Could not the Holocaust have been avoided this way?
For European Jewish historians of this generation, even though thinking about the last question was inevitable, writing specifically Jewish history during the 1960s or 1970s was so out of the mainstream that pursuing that counterfactual was out of the question. Instead, Snyder suggested, what Judt did in his initial works on French socialism was to consider the smaller, specifically socialist and French counterfactuals, while still engaging with this broader framework of grand European counterfactuals. What if French socialists had been better organized? What if French socialists are able to convince not only peasants but also landowners that socialism is in their interest, too? The resulting works were ultra-provincial and navel-gazing if you look at the content (as Hobsbawm argued), but Snyder saw the Hobsbawm criticism as too shallow: it’s Judt’s most micro-historical works that are actually the most macro in terms of his broader concerns. Postwar, by comparison, is far more empirically exhaustive than the books on Provence, but it also has a weight off of its shoulders because it doesn’t feel the need to engage in grand historical counterfactual.
What allows Judt to drop this weight from his shoulders, Snyder agrees with Hobsbawm, is the encounter with the Eastern European Marxists after the Polish 1968. People like Jan Gross are Marxists, like Judt, but they’re more grounded in reality than the Left Bank intellectuals Judt was familiar with from before. They’re also Jews, like Judt, but similar to him, they either lack or have also given up by this point on Zionism. In these conversations with these distinctly European Jews who lack any obsession with Marxist (or Israeli Zionist) totality, Judt is able to rediscover his own Jewishness – and hence think more clearly about how to integrate the Holocaust into European history – as well as junk his own obsession with macro-historical counterfactuals. ‘A piece of apple cake dipping into sweet lemon tea is my Madeleine moment’, says Judt in one of the earlier chapters of Thinking the Twentieth Century: this image of drinking lemon tea from a hot glass mug is a very Eastern European Madeleine moment, Snyder argues, but it’s also a Jewish one, too. Judt’s getting back to those early childhood conversations about the Holocaust, about Jewish history, about the place of a Jewish history in European history, at the same time that he’s getting to know the Eastern European intellectuals of his generation about more than a decade before anyone else.
This is the trajectory that culminates in Postwar, Snyder argues. The achievement of Postwar – uniting Western European history with Eastern European history – isn’t just about having a book that’s 50 percent Poland and 50 percent France. Rather, it’s about a European history that weaves together Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the history of the Jews. Judt is uniquely positioned to write this story because his own engagement with these three traditions overlaps with his own engagement with other historians, Marxists, and friends. While Postwar isn’t quite a Jewish book per se, it reflects Judt’s peripatetic 20th century and the re-encounter of two disconnected groups of Jews after the separation of the Cold War. Judt’s grandfather was born in Warsaw, but Judt spends his early life as an English Jew. It’s only through the encounter with contemporary Polish Jews from Warsaw that he’s able to get back to his own, personal Jewish roots, but also, in doing so, able to have the intellectual experiences he needs to write Postwar.
So what does it mean for young historians, or people interested in a broad intellectual conversation today? As I bounce and spin through along the motorways and traffic circles of middle England, I take two lessons or reflections from this journey to hear more about the life and formation of a historian who meant a great deal not only to me, but also, I know, to the friends around the brunch tables of Princeton.
For one, as I highlighted before, Judt’s life and achievements highlight, I think, how important the individual journey of a historian (as opposed to professionalization and ‘fields’) can be in terms of being able to write good history. Judt was keen to emphasize in Thinking the Twentieth Century that he was far from a conventional historian, as he had minimal graduate training, specialized teacher training, and never trained as a ‘historian of France’ or ‘social historian’ per se. Instead, while he was a workaholic (in other words, hard work matters), he granted himself the permission to follow his interests and obsessions in a way that gave him the unexpected conversations, encounters, and friendships he would need to write Postwar.
In other words, even had a young, ambitious, and well-funded young Cambridge historian set out in 1970 to write a major synthetic work of history thirty-five years later, and embarked on a rigorous course of reading to do so, this plan would not have necessarily produced the experiences he or she would need – or that Judt serendipitously had – to write such a major work. I have no idea now if I would want – let alone if I’ll be intellectually or materially able – to aspire to write such a huge work as Postwar at some future point in my professional career. But from listening to these reflections on Judt, it now seems that even if I was certain that I wanted to do so, it’s unclear that there would be much preparation, or deliberate mastery of prescribed bibliographies, in order to do so. Rather, it seems, great synthetic histories are more the result of lives lived, conversations over coffee and beer, and friendships – well, that, and knowing languages and huge amounts of reading. No rest for the weary, I suppose.
Still, I wonder: were a young historian today to set out to write the big book on the era in which we’re living, what would the major intellectual debates she would be describing be? What kind of conceptual reading would be necessary or helpful to be able to engage in those debate?
For Judt’s generation, the case was clearer than for ours, I think. Many of the Kingsmen of Judt’s generation identified as Marxists, and even if there were not many good real existing opportunities of the kind of socialism they wanted in practice (this was the era of the Prague Spring, the 1967 war, US involvement in Vietnam, the Cultural Revolution, etc.), it seems to me like many young people of Judt’s generation had a clearer sense of what the fight was all about. Our generation lives in a time when an economistic language to describe society and politics is breaking down, and anxiety about our (American) generation’s economic prospects as compared to those of our parents is widespread.
But it’s not clear to most about what the best politics of rejuvenation might be. There are interesting thinkers out there – I’ve highlighted Walter Russell Mead in posts before – but we are far from any programmatic statement of a rejuvenated liberalism young Americans could subscribe to, and the fact that the GOP is so far away from realistic policy proposals makes debate more constricted. In other words, if young Americans are interested in being engaged politically on some serious level, or writing about trends in American intellectual life today, that’s great: but I don’t think that our struggle, our concepts, or the vocabulary that we need to describe the problem is as clear as the conceptual world of Judt’s Marxist Kingsmen of the 1960s. (I don’t know enough about the situation for young people in countries other than the USA, even Russia or Germany or England, to comment on the extra-American situation here.)
When I left my flat this morning, I commented to one of my housemates that even if the Judt event today were terrible, I still had to go – it seemed like one of those conversations that, if you missed it, you would spend the next several years of your life agonizing over how you had missed out. Driving through Milton Keynes twice in a day on insanely long bus rides is hardly my idea of fun, but I’m glad to say it was more than worth it, and brings a certain closure to a chapter of my life that opened with those moments of discovering Judt through the New York Review of Books and, later, Judt’s books themselves.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to herd everyone together, from the Brooklyn and San Francisco lofts they now inhabit, back to the brunch table where we had so much of our early education through Judt’s articles and conversation about them. We’d sit down to the French toast, Powerade, and piles of syrup-stained crumpled newspapers that constitute my Madeleine moment. One of us would bring up a Judt article we had read in the latest NYRB, and we’d be off into a discussion about Israel, or Bush, or the role of intellectuals – maybe naïvely or arrogantly so, but reveling in the little milieu we had for ourselves. I’ll fantasize about it all for now, but for now, this journey to Cambridge, and the opportunity to hear two distinguished historians reflect on Judt’s intellectual formation constitute the best tribute to a Kingsman that this writer can imagine.