Review: Reappraisals - Reflections On The Forgotten Twentieth Century

By David Cesarani, May 16, 2008

By Tony Judt
William Heinemann, £20

A few biographical details about Tony Judt tell us much about the subjects he chose to write about in the essays 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.

Tony Judt rubbishes Henry Kissinger

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

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011