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

In his last work, the formidable historian reveals details about his personal life as well as his thoughts on mankind’s failings and achievements

By Neal Ascherson  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder.

In this marvelous book, two explorers set out on a journey from which only one of them will return. Their unknown land is that often fearsome continent we call the 20th century. Their route is through their own minds and memories. Both travelers are professional historians still tormented by their own unanswered questions. They needed to talk to one another, and the time was short.

Tony Judt, author of Postwar, found that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable degenerative disease. His friend Timothy Snyder, a younger American historian, offered to help Judt create his final work. It takes the form of a series of conversations, recorded and then transcribed for Judt’s approval over the best part of two years. Judt died in August 2010, a few weeks after dictating a long “afterword,” which is as lucid as anything he had written. He was 62 years old.

The two are talking without notes, references or inhibitions. As they grow excited, one thing leads off into another, and Snyder — as editor — hasn’t made the mistake of imposing too much thematic order. He did, however, persuade Judt that he ought to talk about himself and his personal life as well as his opinions. As Judt himself says at one point: “You cannot fully appreciate the shape of the 20th century if you did not once share its illusions.”

Born in London in 1948, into a Jewish immigrant family, Judt acquired commitments but surprisingly few illusions. He was a “Marxisant” historian, but not a communist. He gave much of his early career to the history of the French left, but could not buy its arrogant assumption that the Russian revolution was merely the continuation of 1789. He was briefly “swept away” by the events of 1968, but “my residual socialist-Marxist formation made me instinctively suspicious of the popular notion that students might now be a — the — revolutionary class.”

Publication Notes

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

By Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

432 pages

William Heinemann

Hardcover: UK


Only Zionism seized and then deluded him, at the age of 15. He worked loyally on leftwing kibbutzim and served in the Israel Defense Forces until it dawned on him that he had never met an Arab and that most Israelis “out there” were anything but socialist and ethnically tolerant. Since then, his criticism of the state of Israel has been biting; his New York Review of Books article in 1993 calling for a “single-state” solution, aroused what he calls “a firestorm of resentment and misunderstanding.” In these dialogues, he returns often and irritably to American Jews “who have cast their lot with Likud.” To him, “the fear that Israel could be “wiped off the face of the earth” ... is not a genuine fear. It is a politically calculated rhetorical strategy.”

Though they agree that intellectuals made fearful mistakes between the rise of Stalinism and the Iraq war, neither Judt nor Snyder quite define what an intellectual is. At one point, Judt says that an intellectual needs to show that “the way in which he or she contributes to local conversation is in principle of interest to people beyond that conversation. Otherwise, every policy wonk and newspaper columnist could credibly claim intellectual status.” This rather contrasts with his view that American intellectuals failed over the Iraq war and that only certain journalists displayed integrity and consistency. But elsewhere he declares that “The role of the intellectual is to get the truth out ... and then explain why it just is the truth.” What he doesn’t want is intellectuals offering grand narratives or “large moral truisms.”

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