Thinking Through Modern History with Professor Judt

For most folks, a historian is a scholar concerned about the past, possibly with an obsession over dates. Within the academy, historians are considered unreliable social scientists (economic history is never quite as rigorous as real economics) or denizens of the humanities who focus in nonfiction. Good historians write well, but not too well. As a discipline, a systematic organized form of a particular kind of thought and practice, history is a bit of a muddle. On the other hand, history is an excellent vehicle for understanding the scope of human activity in the broadest sense of the term. Done well, it engages, undermines, and expands our minds. Tony Judt did that sort of history. He was a brilliant, curious, and skeptical thinker guided by a strong conscience and restless energy. He was not interested in the past simply as past, but also as a way of grounding thinking, questioning, and action.

Thinking the Twentieth  Century

Judt’s final work, Thinking Through the Twentieth Century, is based on a probing and dazzling set of conversations he held with a younger historian of eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder. Transcribed, reshaped, and edited as Judt was dying of ALS, the book is wide-ranging, informative, and very much a reflection of the way Judt thought. Judt’s voice is dominant here, but the book is far from a monologue. Snyder, a very accomplished scholar in his own right, pushes and challenges Judt as a professional colleague and friend. The discussion is serious, energetic, and at turns, even playful. Judt used the project, as his wife, Jennifer Homans observed in a moving piece about the book, as a window to the larger world as his own world was shrinking due to his terrible disease.

Judt foregrounds ideas. They matter to him greatly, and I believe that as he became ill, he valued them all the more. That said, he was always a thinker who cared deeply about lived human experience. One thread running through the narrative is biographical. Judt talks of his grandparents, his parents, his friends, and his colleagues. We learn of his childhood in postwar England, his time on a kibbutz, and his enthusiasm and curiosity for ideas and opportunities. The book is not a deep reflective analysis about the value or consequences of Judt’s choices. The personal history is just that – a personal history. It offers a window on him as a scholar, a thinker, and simply as a person.

The key thoughts of the twentieth century, as expressed here, are political and emerge mostly from Europe. One of Judt’s lasting impacts considering Europe, too, is that he takes pain to see the continent as a complex whole. Mid-career Judt took up the study of Czech, a notoriously difficult language. He established meaningful connections with eastern Europeans and scholars of eastern Europe, like historian Jan Gross. The social and academic networks described here collectively paint a picture of very clever people – intellectuals or the intelligentsia if you prefer – working through the challenges of the latter half of the twentieth century. The Holocaust, of course, figures prominently. So, too, does Israel.

Judt recounts his journey from academic to public intellectual with wry humor. Always professionally fearless, if not reckless (some of his early professional choices would make more staid academicians wince), Judt found a home at NYU and in the New York Review of Books and consequently the broader media. His writing about Israel enraged many and brought him as much opprobrium as fame. Judt remained resolutely unapologetic. He called things as he saw them. The book is rich with observations, insights that ring true and call out for further investigation. Is it true that outsiders make the best critics? Is intellectual activity like seduction? The volume and scope and sheer intellectual power captured in these pages is exciting simply in and of itself.

What Snyder and Judt miss in this fascinating work is Judt’s tremendous influence as a teacher, mentor, and academic colleague. Tony – and here I would prefer to call him that, for that is how I we talked – was an amazing teacher and an extraordinarily generous professor. While I was not expecting self-congratulatory epistles on pedagogy in this volume, I was surprised at the relatively minor mention of Tony’s teaching and mentoring. When he does refer to a course here or a class there, it is primarily as a reference point. Judt does not give himself credit for the care, attention, and passion that he put into his teaching. Snyder himself is a fine example of a scholar whose advancement and career was positively shaped by Judt. As a teacher, Judt was intimidating, demanding, and very, very effective.

Thinking through the twentieth century was something that Tony Judt did in the classroom, with students as active and engaged participants. I was fortunate to take a graduate seminar at NYU with him, a study of post WWII European intellectual thought. It was one of the most challenging and energizing academic experiences I ever enjoyed as a graduate student. He taught as he spoke with Snyder in this book: as a passionate, informed, encyclopedic, humorous, moral, and deeply curious scholar. He had little time for fluff; he consistently challenged himself and us students to get to the heart of the matter.

And at the heart of the matter for those of us who read books like this and toil in academe and with ideas, is the purpose and import of the very intellectual endeavor Judt set out. Why bother to think through a century? What are the powers of ideas? These are dangerous questions for a person facing terminal illness. Judt does not flinch. He knows that influence is fleeting. He goes so far as to imagine the impact of the book itself. If it succeeds amazingly well, selling 250,000 copies, it would be mostly to people who already agree with him. A mere bagatelle, he observes. What, then, does he believe that the enterprise accomplishes? Judt finds meaning in the work and he sees great value in thinking, doing, and stating the right thing.

Were Judt around today, I would remind him that he his impact was even greater than his books and scholarship (important though they are). He made a difference to many, many students and colleagues in the way that he approached his academic work. Exceptional in his intellectual rigor and courage, Professor Judt taught and lived lessons of intellectual and personal integrity. He was a model, a guide, and a very good teacher of all manner of very important lessons.

David Potash

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