Time traveller

June 19, 2008

It's time American academics engaged in public debate about the legacy of the past century and tried to help heal the rift between the Old and the New Worlds, historian Tony Judt tells Matthew Reisz

In the early-mid 1990s", says Tony Judt, "everyone was running around being triumphantly post-Cold War." Yet his own feelings were very different.

A major worry was "that the United States was losing touch with Europe, that young Americans were less and less informed about Europe and that the two sides of the Atlantic were drifting apart". This struck him as a dangerous development and, in 1995, he got a chance to address the problem head-on by setting up the Remarque Institute at New York University, as "a kind of vehicle or lever or resource to help Americans learn more about Europe and have Europeans come and communicate with Americans".

Judt is convinced that "the United States is a society in a seriously bad way socially and culturally, and in terms of its dealings with the rest of the world", and that its universities have often failed to rise to the challenge.

"It's not that the American universities are subservient to power," he explains. "They are quite resistant to interference and, the private ones especially, autonomous, and they don't generally lean on their faculty members to be conformist in political ways. The problem is that many American universities in the past quarter-century, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, have expressed their intellectual dissent by becoming culturally marginal. The result is that American academics are often outspoken and dissident and radical and culturally at odds with their society, and perfectly free to be so, but completely impotent when it comes to influencing the way public policy or opinion is shaped. They've marginalised themselves.

"One of the things I wanted to do was to take advantage of the freedom that one has as a tenured senior academic, but to use that freedom within the public debate rather than stepping aside to have fun in one's own little sandpit without anyone bothering you."

Such concerns also feature prominently in Judt's recent writing. With a dozen books to his credit as author or editor, he devoted much of his earlier career to French history, politics and intellectual life before producing an acclaimed "history of Europe since 1945", Postwar (2005). His latest book, Reappraisals, brings together more than 20 extended review-essays on "the forgotten 20th century". Some offer trenchant analyses of major figures - Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler; Edward Said and Eric Hobsbawm; Primo Levi and Pope John Paul II - while others reassess the fate of nations or events, ranging from the Fall of France to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Six-Day War. Immensely erudite, it is also a surprisingly emotional book, unified by a passionate argument for the value of seeing current problems historically, and often returning to themes that seem to echo the trajectory of Judt's own life.

Born in London in 1948, he grew up in an atmosphere of political debate. "Both of my parents and much of my family", he recalls, "came out of the East European Jewish left-wing tradition of non-communist, indeed anti-communist, Marxism." Much of his new book is devoted to exploring the appeal of communism and setting out why some of the great communist and "lapsed communist" intellectuals, despite the horrors of the Soviet Union, still have much to teach us about a century that continues to shape our lives.

Although a firm believer in the European (welfare state) rather than the American model of liberal democracy, Judt offers sharp reports on recent Belgian and Romanian history as well as a notably unsparing portrait of Britain under Blair ("a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising"). When I ask about this, he confirms his disillusion with this country: "The England I grew up in - the rather slow declining England of the Fifties and early Sixties - has disappeared, for good or ill, though I feel very fond of that England. There is something about the change in the political and social tone since the Eighties - attributable, I think, to Thatcher and Blair - which alienates me."

One of the most resonant essays in Reappraisals, by contrast, is a review of an encyclopaedic series of books about French tradition and memory, in which Judt's powerful feelings for France shine through. Had he just got to know and love the country at an impressionable age or did he feel a deeper sense of affinity?

"It's very characteristic of American scholars in particular to be Francophile in certain cliched ways," he replies. "They love French food, go on holiday in France, love walking around Paris and so on. I never felt that, but I sort of became French - or maybe I was always like this and found myself finally at home in France. I found the intellectual life and style of intellectual reasoning, the way the French think, both intensely irritating and reassuringly familiar. I have a kind of English response to French critical theory, that it's just gobbledegook, but at the same time most of the intellectuals and political figures I most admire are French."

In America, Judt also believes, "France" often becomes a litmus test of people's values. "The admiration for France, and for French theory in particular," he argues, "is a kind of defensive elitism in a country where elitism is constantly attacked by populists and demagogues as the minority taste of the privileged. And it was reinforced by Bush's anti-French tirades at the time of the Iraq War - 'freedom fries' and all that stuff. In a country that regards France as elitist and effete, engagement with French thought was almost a way of being in the political opposition." Not everyone will feel that offering a visiting professorship to an obscure French literary theorist is a very serious or effective form of "political opposition". And Judt clearly thinks that such highbrow theorising is often at the expense of the solid undergraduate grounding in history and politics that could actually help build a more informed and engaged citizenry.

Francophilia is not terribly popular in Bush's America, but it is Judt's articles about Israel that lost him friends and earned him a far higher level of abuse than anything he'd written before. A lecture he was due to give at the Polish Consulate in New York was famously cancelled at the last minute in 2006, after phone calls from Jewish organisations that were widely regarded as amounting to pressure. Yet his firmly held current view - that "Israel is on its way either to destroying the case for its own existence or else destroying the Palestinians in a kind of de facto ethnic cleansing" - arises partly out of his own experiences as a committed young Zionist.

"Between the ages of 15 and 19", he says now, "I was swept up in one of the last early 20th-century ideological movements, a combination of left-wing political dogma and nationalist enthusiasm, wearing uniforms and singing songs, dancing around in circles, all the things that ideological movements do - which are very attractive to adolescents with an intellectual or ideological bent ... In the mid-Sixties you could still - with a certain amount of myopia and blinkers - choose to see Israel, as I did, as an idealistic left-wing communitarian project."

Such a commitment led him "in June 1967, just before the Six-Day War, to go to work on a kibbutz. After the war was over I volunteered to serve as a kind of auxiliary with the Israeli Army on the Golan Heights and ended up as a de facto interpreter because I spoke Hebrew and French. I got to know some young Israeli officers and started to see an Israel I'd never really known before, the Israel of right-wing nationalists and enthusiastic land-grabbing expansionists, the people who talked about never giving the land back, that the only good Arab was a dead Arab, that we would go on to Damascus - and to hell with the UN."

For many years after such dispiriting experiences, Israel and the Middle East slipped way down the list of Judt's concerns. It was only after he moved to New York in 1987 that they acquired a new urgency. "I went public most directly in 2002 and 2003," he says, "and it was probably connected with the Iraq War, in that this war was becoming very tied up in public-policy thinking with the uncritical silence about Israel, and the refusal to think straight about the occupation, the settlements and the treatment of the Palestinians. It seemed to me it was becoming important to force open a domestic American conversation about the Middle East."

Over and above its wide-ranging scholarship, much of Judt's work is concerned with telling America what it needs to know. Take the seemingly simple point that war is ghastly. As he argues in Reappraisals, and even more forcefully in an essay in The New York Review of Books, "the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand - in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifist fantasies - seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance." Judt is similarly affronted by Americans who discovered the existence of terrorism only on 9/11.

Such a dangerous lack of historical understanding, he claims, derives partly from high-school and even university teaching based on the assumption that "history is full of self-evident lessons: Remember this! Don't do this! Munich is one kind of lesson. Pearl Harbor is another kind of lesson. Auschwitz is another. These things don't have histories, they're simply moral messages. That makes even the more intelligent citizen respond positively to someone saying to them: 'Appeasement produced World War Two, appeasement produced Auschwitz, therefore we must never appease anyone, we must never speak to our enemies, therefore no compromises, therefore pre-emptive wars.'"

How else, then, would public debate and decision-making be improved if universities managed to give Americans a richer and more complex sense of history? "It would be much harder, for example," Judt responds, "to exploit the myth of Churchill to George W. Bush's advantage ... If there were better teaching of the history of the Middle East, Americans would not have swallowed so readily the propaganda leading up to the Iraq War. If there were a better understanding of the complexities of the Cold War and its outcome, we wouldn't be quite so smug in our belief that Ronald Reagan won the war and we would have more insight into why Russia is the way it is today, and so be more effective in dealing with it."

In his exasperation with American parochialism, Judt may overestimate how much today's Europeans, and certainly many of us Brits, really understand these things. For those who want to get up to speed, Reappraisals is a great place to start.

Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century was published by Heinemann on 1 May, £20.00.

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