Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century

March 15, 2012

This book has an unusual structure. It grew from conversations recorded by Tony Judt (1948-2010) with a younger historian, Timothy Snyder, of Yale University. Although they present their specialisms as complementary (respectively Western and Eastern European history), their lively exchanges show both to be highly knowledgeable about the whole continent, and the US as well.

The first section of each chapter gives an account by Judt of a specific period in his life and his academic activities: these sections add some details to the story told in his 2010 autobiographical work, The Memory Chalet. The rest of each chapter reproduces the conversation in which the two discuss subjects arising, directly or indirectly, from Judt's opening statement. This approach, if applied to many a scholar, might produce something repetitive or monotonous. However because Judt, during his relatively short life, adopted a series of distinct intellectual identities, the questions of why his work went in certain directions, or of what general issues it raises, show both remarkable variety and a degree of continuity.

Thus we see him successively as a "Jewish questioner" (growing up in a multilingual Jewish London family); as an "English writer" (winning a book by Matthew Arnold as a prize at his grammar school, and feeling in many ways intensely English); as a "political Marxist" (reading Isaac Deutscher's three-volume life of Trotsky at an early age, and campaigning accordingly); and as a "Cambridge Zionist" (his undergraduate life divided between the stimulus of King's College and the experience of kibbutz and Israeli army life). As his academic career develops, he is in turn a "French intellectual" (working in Paris and Provence on two books on the French Left, and teaching European history in California); "East European liberal" (teaching politics at the University of Oxford, and inspired to learn Czech by the Central European revival of the concept of "civil society"); "European historian" (based at New York University, and writing a massive and authoritative history of the whole of post-war Europe); "American moralist" (bitterly critical of Israel and of George W. Bush's war on Iraq); and finally "social democrat" (developing a non-Marxist, non-liberal picture of a decent society, set out in his hard-hitting 2010 tract Ill Fares the Land).

Readers are offered an exchange of views on the themes suggested by this wide range of concerns in a conversation that has all the strengths and weaknesses of any discussion between two erudite, opinionated scholars. Their shared training as historians is evident throughout, as for instance when Judt, discussing the present-day Likud party, likens it to Vladimir Jabotinsky's ultra-nationalistic version of late 19th-century Zionism, rather than Chaim Weizmann's more conciliatory one.

The publishers describe the book as "a major new history of modern intellectual life", and the appendix, "Works Discussed", lists well over 100 titles. The range of the Judt/Snyder discussions is illustrated by the fact that Judt's own books in the list are preceded alphabetically by titles from Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Hoggart and Victor Hugo, and followed by some from Franz Kafka, Arthur Koestler and Leszek Kolakowski. Several of the book's discussions are extensive and illuminating - particularly those on different varieties of Marxism - but inevitably many leading European thinkers get only a brief mention. Those who know their Keynes from their Hayek, and their Drieu La Rochelle from their Robert Brasillach, may appreciate this book more than other readers.

It is, all in all, a stimulating outcome of Judt's aim of using his own past as a help in "making sense of my contribution to the study of other pasts", and a worthy testament from this outstanding scholar.

Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century

By Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder. William Heinemann, 432pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780434017423. Published 2 February 2012.

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