The eloquence of an exceptional historian
When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010 By Tony Judt Edited and introduced by Jennifer Homans William Heinemann, 400pp, $65 (HB) When the British historian Tony Judt died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, he had published 10 books, including a masterpiece, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. His reputation was made. Since then, an additional book has appeared, Thinking the Twentieth Century, written in collaboration with Timothy Snyder as Judt became increasingly paralysed.
Now a final offering: When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010, edited and introduced by Judt’s widow, Jennifer Homans. Writers as good, prolific and diverse as Judt are incredibly rare; when they leave behind something extra, we, the living, celebrate.
When the Facts Change
May 16-17, 2015
will be familiar to Judt’s readers as many of the pieces were reviews for magazines. The book is divided into five sections: the Cold War and 20th century European history; Israel and the Holocaust; the US (Judt’s adopted home) and 9/11; the future of social democracy and generational change; and the thinkers Francois Furet, Amos Elon and Leszek Kolakowski, three of Judt’s heroes.
This division is synthetic, and certain pieces could belong in more than one section, but in every instance Judt brings the same insistent sincerity and compassionate erudition to his subject.
As a writer, Judt’s greatest strength was that he was a brilliant historian; as a historian, his greatest strength was that he was a brilliant writer. He not only shone the light of the past on to the bewildering present, illuminating current affairs with germane history, but also brought history into the present by way of an irrepressible style.
He avoided jargon and had an eye for the academic conformity it often conceals. In “Free- dom and Freedonia”, his review of Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination and Derek Sayer’s The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, Judt laments Goldsworthy’s argument as ‘‘cultural studies meets late Marxism in an unhappy marriage of convenience’’.
For their possessed sobriety and accuracy, the essays on Israel stand out. Judt, whose parents were secular Jews, is never more relentlessly convincing. He has an almost erotic desire to understand certain problems and to make that understanding manifest.
In a 2002 essay titled “The road to nowhere”, with what now seems like prescience but probably was (and still is) common sense, Judt writes: “‘Terrorist’ risks becoming the mantra of our time, like ‘ communist’, ‘capitalist’, ‘ bourgeois’ and others before it.’’
In “Israel: The alternative”, he goes the furthest, arguing:
The problem with Israel, in short, is not — as it is sometimes suggested — that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late 19thcentury separatist project: individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state” ... is rooted in another time and place.
It is common, especially for people on television or when speaking to small children, to describe in relative terms something seemingly unknowably large. (‘‘The heart of a blue whale can weigh as much as an automobile.’’) The scale of Judt’s learning makes such a device seem tempting (‘‘one Judt essay can contain as much knowledge as 500 hours of TED talks’’), but there would be few subjects worse served by such a shortcut.
In her introduction, Homans explains that Judt spoke ‘‘French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Czech [and] some Spanish’’, and goes on to describe how he wrote his essays: “First, he read