Tony Judt, 1948-2010

August 12, 2010

One of the most celebrated – and controversial – historians of his generation has died.

Tony Judt was born in London on 2 January 1948 into a multilingual Jewish family. Between the ages of 15 and 19, he told Times Higher Education in 2008, he was a committed Zionist, “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”. Yet when he served as a volunteer interpreter in the Israeli Army at the time of the Six-Day War (June 1967), Professor Judt was disturbed to discover “the Israel of right-wing nationalists and enthusiastic land-grabbing expansionists”.

A first degree in history at King’s College, Cambridge, was followed by a PhD, including a year at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. After teaching posts at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and in the US at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Judt found a permanent home at New York University in 1987. It was there, in 1995, that he set up the Remarque Institute, which he described to THE as a “resource to help Americans learn more about Europe and have Europeans come and communicate with Americans”. He was also determined “to use the freedom that one has as a tenured senior academic within the public debate rather than stepping aside to have fun in one’s own little sandpit”.

Although his early works focused on French history, Professor Judt ranged ever more widely, arguing forcefully that understanding the past is essential to addressing the problems of the present. A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe (1996) was followed by Postwar (2005), a definitive “history of Europe since 1945”, and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008). All were widely praised, although his outspoken criticisms of Israel proved highly controversial, with a talk at New York’s Polish Consulate famously cancelled at the last minute in 2006. Professor Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2008 and was rapidly rendered immobile and utterly dependent on others. Yet he still managed to write a series of auto­biographical essays for The New York Review of Books, including an unsparing account of his own illness. He also published a final polemic, Ill Fares the Land (2010), which savages a contemporary world where “the pursuit of material self-interest” has eliminated most hopes of collective social action.

Professor Judt died on 6 August and is survived by his third wife, dance critic Jennifer Homans, and their two sons.

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