Tony Judt, RIP

in univerCity

Like few others, Judt has been a model for a long time, and his passing fills me with sadness. However, I take solace in the fact that his deeds and words will ever illuminate.

POSTWAR: An Interview with Tony Judt, conducted by Donald A. Yerxa, Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, January/February 2006

Yerxa: Some of the most intriguing lines of the book, for me at least, appear on the penultimate page: “Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive . . . .” Should historians see themselves as sources of disenchantment and disruption?

Judt: The historian’s first responsibility is to get it right—to find out what happened in the past, think of some way to convey it which is both effective and true, and do it. But if you are a historian of, say, medieval social life, then you don’t necessarily have a civic obligation to get out there in the public square and give speeches about what is wrong with wife dunking. It happened a long time ago; it’s no longer an issue; and the historian can deal with it professionally and not have to feel moral responsibility in his other capacity as a member of the community. But I don’t think that historians of the 20th century, particularly of Europe’s 20th century, have that option. The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly. A well organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves. Historians have a special role in this, probably a more important role than moralists. The latter start from some sort of universal set of propositions that may in fact not be shared by many of their audience, whereas the historian is simply saying, “Look, this is something you all share, because it is part of your common past. You have this in common, and you have to recognize it.” So, yes, we have a disruptive duty. This is one of the reasons why I get so annoyed with those of my colleagues who only write for each other. We have a duty to the larger community. We can only perform that duty by writing good professional history, but we do have that duty. I’ll give you a practical example. When the Papon trial happened in France in 1997—the only major trial of a Vichy war criminal—the prosecution asked historians of Vichy to testify in the French courts as expert witnesses to set the context for the accused’s behavior. Most of them refused, not wanting to get involved in a tricky public arena, but also on the grounds that it was not the historian’s duty to enter a court of law. The historian writes books, and that’s it. But Robert Paxton of Columbia University, who wrote the first book on Vichy France that blew open the whole debate in 1952, agreed to serve as an expert witness and played a crucial role informing the trial not only of the real world of France in 1942, but also of what was morally and politically possible in terms of personal choices and courage for a bureaucrat in that time and place. That seems to be the role of the historian as it should be: it is truthful but inevitably therefore disruptive.

The Trials of Tony Judt, The Chronicle Review, January 6, 2010.

There was a fuss, however, when in 1979 the journal History Workshop published an attack by Judt, then a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, on the field of social history. “A whole discipline is being degraded and abused” by the postmodern turn toward identity and feminist history, he wrote. (The essay, he tells me, placed his bid for tenure in jeopardy.) By the early 1980s, his displeasure with the field had evolved into a deep malaise. It was around that time that he met the Czech dissident Jan Kavan, living in exile in London, who in later years would serve as foreign minister and deputy prime minister of the post-Communist Czech Republic. Through him and others, Judt, who had since moved to Oxford, developed an interest in Czechoslovakia and, more broadly, in Eastern Europe. He bought a copy of Teach Yourself Czech, studied for two hours every night, and enrolled in language classes at the university. By the mid-80s, he was competent in Czech, and in 1985 he traveled to Prague as part of a group organized by the English philosopher Roger Scruton and the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, an Oxford-centered organization that supported samizdat publishing and other clandestine cultural activities in Czechoslovakia. During that visit, the first of many, Judt helped smuggle in banned books and lectured to crowded rooms in private apartments. It was there that he recovered his passion for the politics and history of Europe.

When he first arrived at NYU, in 1987, “there was a sense that if you had good ideas, they would let you act on them,” Judt says. So in 1995, when he was weighing a “very tempting” offer to join the Committee on Social Thought, at the University of Chicago, he proposed pursuing his interest in European and American relations by setting up the Remarque Institute. NYU, eager to keep him, agreed. With typical self-assurance, Judt told the university, “Give me 10 years, and I will give you a world-famous institute.” According to Wolin, Judt has succeeded by nurturing a continuing conversation—through conferences, workshops, and fellowships—among European and American academics. “If you’re a European scholar of modern politics and history, and you want to be known in America, Remarque is a rite of passage,” Wolin says. Fritz Stern, who is on the institute’s board, adds that “Tony has turned it into a major international center.” The institute’s reputation is almost inextricably tied to that of Judt, for good and ill. (Two board members resigned after he came out in favor of a binational future for Israelis and Palestinians.)

In Judt’s mind, however, his “greatest achievement” is his book Postwar. In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Some 36.5 million of its inhabitants died between 1939 and 1945. Most of those who survived were starving or without shelter; Germany had lost 40 percent of its homes, Britain 30 percent, France 20 percent. Yet in the next 60 years, Judt writes, Europe had improbably become “a paragon of the international virtues,” and its social model—free or nearly free medical care, early retirement, robust social and public services—stood as “an exemplar for all to emulate.”

Uncomfortable Truths, The Guardian, Saturday 17 May 2008.

Since September 2001, however, Judt’s articulate polemicism has taken a new direction – one that has transformed his life. Uneasy about the political reaction to 9/11 in the US, he soon began to publish a series of condemnations of Bush’s international policies. But whereas his anti-communism sat comfortably with mainstream liberal opinion in America, his early opposition to the Iraq war threw him out of alignment with his usual allies, who were still rallying around the president following the terrorist attacks. Judt, who was born and has spent most of his life in Britain, began to feel more aware of being European – and different.

He raised hackles by labelling liberal commentators in America – including New Yorker editor David Remnick, Michael Ignatieff and Paul Berman – Bush’s “useful idiots”. But by far the biggest tumults Judt has caused have followed an essay he published five years ago, entitled “Israel: The Alternative”, which opened with the notion that “the president of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line”, and went on to contend that the time had come to “think the unthinkable” – the bringing to an end of Israel as a Jewish state, and the establishment in its place of a binational state of Israelis and Palestinians.

The essay was written for the New York Review of Books, and within a week of its publication, Judt had received a thousand messages of protest. From that time, Judt, who lost close friends over the article, has been regarded as nefarious by a large section of American Jewry.*

Dreams of Empire, New York Review of Books, Nov. 4, 2004:

And yet the election of 2004 is the most consequential since 1932, if not since 1860. Is John Kerry the man for the moment? I doubt it. Does he fully grasp the scale of America’s crisis? I’m not sure. But what is absolutely certain is that George W. Bush does not. If Bush is reelected much of the world (and many millions of its own citizens) will turn away from America: perhaps for good, certainly for many years. On November 2 the whole world will be looking: not to see what America is going to do in future years, but to find out what sort of a place it wiWith our growing income inequities and child poverty; our underperforming schools and disgracefully inadequate health services; our mendacious politicians and crude, partisan media; our suspect voting machines and our gerrymandered congressional districts; our bellicose religiosity and our cult of guns and executions; our cavalier unconcern for institutions, treaties, and laws—our own and other people’s: we should not be surprised that America has ceased to be an example to the world. The real tragedy is that we are no longer an example to ourselves. America’s born-again president insists that we are engaged in the war of Good against Evil, that American values “are right and true for every person in every society.” Perhaps. But the time has come to set aside the Book of Revelation and recall the admonition of the Gospels: For what shall it profit a country if it gain the whole world but lose its own soul?

A few years back, I was privileged to hear (and briefly meet) Tony Judt in Chicago. I would like for you all to hear him, as I did – passionate about telling the truth.

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