Rated: the 20th cen­tury’s most bril­liant minds

Lead­ing his­to­rian Tony Judt as­sesses the men and women who mat­tered dur­ing the dra­matic and deadly decades REAP­PRAISALS: RE­FLEC­TIONS ON THE FORGOTTEN TWEN­TI­ETH CEN­TURY

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS & BOOKS -

AREVIEWED BY DAVID CE­SARANI FEW BIOGRAPHI C A L d e t a i l s about Tony Judt t e l l us much about the sub­jects he chose to write about i n t he e s s a y s and re­views col­lected in this vol­ume. He was born in the East End in 1948 of im­mi­grant par­ents; his mother came from Rus­sia, his fa­ther from Bel­gium. They were left-wing, Yid­dish-speak­ing and Zion­ist. Judt spent his gap year on a kib­butz and rushed to Is­rael prior to the 1967 war. He stud­ied his­tory at Cam­bridge and taught in Ox­ford be­fore mov­ing to New York Univer­sity.

One of his themes is the use and abuse of his­tory. At first sight, it might seem odd for a his­to­rian who is Jewish to de­cry the per­va­sive cul­ture of com­mem­o­ra­tion, es­pe­cially re­mem­brance of the Shoah. But Judt ob­jects to the “lessons” drawn from the past be­cause the “past” in ques­tion is usu­ally heav­ily edited and fre­quently shaped to cul­ti­vate a sense of vic­tim­hood. He would pre­fer the trans­mis­sion of “tra­di­tional”, na­tional his­to­ries that cre­ate a sense of com­mon be­long­ing.

This di­rigiste approach to his­tory teach­ing re­flects his at­tach­ment to the state. He laments the al­leged down­siz­ing of gov­ern­ment, the de­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of pub­lic ser­vices and ero­sion of wel­fare-ism.

In es­says on Bel­gium, Ro­ma­nia and the “so­cial ques­tion”, he warns that right-wing pop­ulism may rise to fill the vac­uum. Per­haps be­cause he sits in Man­hat­tan he fails to grasp just how in­tru­sive the nanny/sur­veil­lance state has be­come in Europe.

But his big­gest theme is the role of peo­ple like him, in­tel­lec­tu­als. Judt is ter­rif­i­cally judg­men­tal. He seems to have taken it on him­self to give al­most ev­ery thinker of the past cen­tury marks out of ten for “get­ting it right” ac­cord­ing to his own, Olympian view of what con­sti­tutes cor­rect­ness.

Ca­mus and the Pol­ish philoso­pher Leszek Ko­lakowski score highly. And Judt praises Primo Levi for set­ting out the “in­fi­nite gra­da­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity, hu­man weak­ness, and moral am­biva­lence”. Yet there is noth­ing equiv­o­cal or for­giv­ing about his de­mo­li­tion of Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Louis Althusser, Eric Hob­s­bawm, or Amer­i­can lib­eral sup­port­ers of the in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003.

I have to de­clare an in­ter­est: in the first re­view reprinted here he judges me harshly for be­ing cen­so­ri­ous about Arthur Koestler. Space does not al­low me to re­fute his sug­ges­tion that Koestler should not be as­sessed too harshly be­cause, af­ter all, he only per­pe­trated one rape. (There is, in fact, ev­i­dence of more.) What is curious, though, is his readi­ness to dis­miss as re­duc­tive my ar­gu­ment that Jewish­ness was a key to un­der­stand­ing sev­eral key mo­ments in Koestler’s life when he makes ex­actly the same points in his lu­mi­nous es­say on the writer Manes Sper­ber.

Like Koestler, Sper­ber lurched from Zion­ism into Marx­ism, see­ing so­cial revo­lu­tion as an al­ter­na­tive cure for the “Jewish con­di­tion”. Th­ese two friends were both scarred by the Nazi mass mur­der of the Jews. Of Sper­ber, Judt writes: “Auschwitz is the key to the rest of his life”. Whereas Sper­ber ven­ti­lated the trauma, I ar­gued that Koestler sup­pressed it so deeply that he went to live among the mur­der­ers.

Judt writes feel­ingly about Ed­ward Said but glosses over the con­tra­dic­tion be­tween his ex­co­ri­a­tion of vic­tim­hood and praise for Said’s role as “re­mem­brancer of Is­rael’s very own vic­tims”. While in­clud­ing two in­sight­ful pieces on Is­rael’s his­tory, he omits his con­tro­ver­sial New York Re­view of Books 2003 es­say ad­vo­cat­ing a one-state so­lu­tion to the Is­rael-Pales­tine con­flict. He men­tions Said’s step in this di­rec­tion but seems un­will­ing to ad­ver­tise his own. Per­haps he has changed his mind. David Ce­sarani is Re­search Pro­fes­sor in His­tory at Royal Hol­loway, Lon­don

PHOTO: AP

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

While Tony Judt rub­bishes Henry Kissinger ( above left), he res­cues the rep­u­ta­tion of Arthur Koestler ( above)

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