Tony Judt: A Public Intellectual Remembered

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James Leynse / Corbis

Historian Tony Judt in 2002

Tony Judt, whose death was reported today, was a historian of the very first order, a public intellectual of an old-fashioned kind and — in more ways than one — a very brave man.

A professor at New York University and director of the Remarque Institute on European studies there, for the last two years Judt had been living with a degenerative motor neuron disease and wrote movingly and without a touch of self-pity of the impact that it had on his body. Thankfully and remarkably, he continued writing throughout his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, with a verve and feeling that added color to what had always been an astonishing breadth of intellectual understanding. His last book, the short polemic Ill Fares the Land — adapted from articles written for the New York Review of Books, long Judt's home outside the academy — was a cri de coeur for the virtues of social democracy, the political philosophy that had shaped the thinking of so many western Europeans, born and raised, like Judt, in the post-war period.

Judt was born to a Jewish family in England in 1948, and spent time on a kibbutz in Israel before going up to Cambridge, volunteering as a driver in the Six-Day War of 1967. (He later studied in France, and a fascination with modern French politics and society ran through all his work.) A secular, social-democratic European Jew, his criticisms of Israel in later life — and by extension, of what he considered to be a narrow defensiveness on the part of mainstream American Jewish institutions — made him many intellectual opponents in the US. He stuck to his guns.

Though his interests ranged widely (dipping into any Judt book or article at random you'll find familiarity with the literature and learning of a variety of different cultures and languages) it was Judt's own time and place that most fascinated him. His masterwork, Postwar, a monumental history of Europe from 1945, first published in 2005, is the definitive account of how a ruined and divided continent became the largest region of widely-dispersed peace and prosperity on the world. Judt had no stars in his eyes about Europe; he knew too much about its dark modern history for that. But he evinced, at the same time, something like pride that Europe had escaped the ashes of war, fascism and communism. For Judt, the trentes glorieuses, as the French call them — the thirty years of growing prosperity after 1945 — were evidence of what market, state and community, working together, could do to improve lives and opportunities for all. "Neither America nor China had a serviceable model to propose for universal emulation," he wrote at the end of Postwar, looking to the future. "Few would have predicted it sixty years before, but the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe."

As a European of Judt's generation, I always found his work appealing and stimulating, though I didn't always agree with every detail of his arguments. Although there are passages in Postwar that suggest he understood the point, I'm not sure that Judt ever really came to terms with the proposition that Europe's economic success and social cohesion after 1945 was a product of a temporary conjunction of circumstances — including Western domination of technology and the methods of mass production — that could not last. Asia, and what the reconnection of Asia to the global social and economic mainstream is doing to human potential, did not loom large in his worldview — though that, to be fair, is not uncommon among Europeans of his age. In his spirited and necessary defense of social democracy, he did not always seem to appreciate just why, by the 1970s, so many in Europe felt that it had become corrupted and corporatized, and started to reject it for the bracing counterblast of market fundamentalism.

But these are matters on which, were he still alive, Judt would doubtless put me right. In person, he had a warmth and a wryness of touch that was tremendously engaging, and a willingness to deploy his immense scholarship to manifold purposes. By all those who value scholarship, erudition, and argument, he will be missed.