The elo­quence of an ex­cep­tional his­to­rian

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Wil­liam Hey­ward

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

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