Tony Judt’s Journey

Tony Judt’s When the Facts Change offers a valuable opportunity to survey his intellectual odyssey. Like all genuine historians, he spoke for the things he feared were vanishing.

May-June 2015

Tony Judt, ed. Jennifer Homans, When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995–2010 (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 400 pp., $29.95.

TONY JUDT came to be known to a large audience by his unsparing criticisms of the “war on terror” and his protest against the Israeli denial of equal rights and statehood to Palestinians. Both of those engagements took courage, the second more than the first. Judt was partly secured from the slander to which someone with his views would otherwise have been subjected, because he had a connection (by family at one remove) to the catastrophe of the European Jews. But in any setting, he would have been the first to scorn the professions of group solidarity required by identity politics. He hated the cant of secular tribalism as much as he hated political and religious fanaticism.

Judt grew up in England and spent the first years of his academic career in Cambridge and Oxford, but his perspective on modern history, and indeed his sense of himself, was that of a good European. He knew the distinctions of texture between Vienna, Prague and Milan with the finesse a New Yorker may bring to the finer points of SoHo, Murray Hill and Sutton Place. He owed this topographical mastery to the luck of a privileged childhood but also, as he would acknowledge in a memoir, to the system of trains that connected Europe in the postwar society of his teens and twenties. The trains and the termini that housed them—“these remarkable cathedrals of modern life”—could seem an emblem of the possible civic future of the European Union and the United States. America was for Judt an extension of Europe. He lived in this country happily without giving much study to the wildness of our history. Only the last decade of his writings, including some essays reprinted in this collection, registers a fresh stocktaking. One of the losses of his death is that we are now deprived of his further thoughts on America itself.

All of the essays in When the Facts Change belong to an extended later phase of Judt’s writings on contemporary history. While working on his major book, Postwar, he commented widely on politics and international affairs in articles for the New York Review of Books and other journals. The people he admired, his method of composition, the curious sense in which he committed Europe to memory—these aspects of his temperament are brought out with tact and a fine eye for detail in the introduction by his wife Jennifer Homans. Her sketch brings the reader close to a scholar who was elusive by temperament. For all his capability and forthrightness, Judt was a private, not a public, face.

These essays are written in a variety of tones. When Judt casts his eye over Europe and looks at its prospects for improvement, the manner is apt to be lofty and somewhat disdainful. He wrote in 1996:

The essence of the Franco-German condominium around which postwar Western Europe was built lay in a mutually convenient arrangement: the Germans would have the economic means and the French would retain the political initiative. In the early postwar years, of course, the Germans had not yet acquired their present wealth and French predominance was real. But from the mid-fifties this was no longer true; thereafter France’s hegemony in West European affairs rested upon a nuclear weapon that the country could not use, an army that it could not deploy within the continent itself, and an international political standing derived largely from the self-interested magnanimity of the three victorious powers at the end of the war.

The judicious posture and ironic address are insensibly blended here, as they sometimes were in the writings of George Lichtheim—a British scholar and commentator on similar subjects a generation ago whom Judt has generously acknowledged as an influence and exemplar. The manner is adapted to historical narrative as well as polemics, and Judt combined the two genres as skillfully as any writer of our time. Yet he is capable of asking with urgency, as he did in his 1996 essay “Europe: The Grand Illusion”: “If ‘Europe’ stands for the winners, who shall speak for the losers—the ‘south,’ the poor, the linguistically, educationally, or culturally disadvantaged, underprivileged, or despised Europeans who don’t live in golden triangles along vanished frontiers?” This is a different voice, but a voice familiar to readers of Judt’s causerie Ill Fares the Land: an impassioned appeal from capitalism to the ethics of socialism and the ends of democracy.

That book, a primer written for young people and a small masterpiece of its kind, was an important statement to come from a scholar largely known for his anti-Communist rigor. Some of Judt’s pieces from the late 1990s reflect his continuing preoccupation with his “choice of comrades” (Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, George Orwell, Raymond Aron, Leszek Kolakowski, François Furet). There was no contradiction between his hostility to Communism and his belief in social democracy. Still, there was a puzzle. Judt was a latecomer to the polemics of the Cold War. Stalinist thugs had left no personal scar on his life. Though he took the opportunity to speak the truth against Communism as late as articles reprinted here from 1995 and 1998, it was by then a well-worn truth and not lacking in Western supporters. His passion was not exactly a “sacred rage.”