Book Review: Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, New York: Penguin, 2012


This was another random grab at the shelves of the surprisingly well-stocked American Cultural Center library in Ouagadougou. I picked it up because I’m always looking for some more background on the history of ideas, something that my students at Mt. Angel care a great deal about and something that I, with my good old-fashioned neo-Marxist training at Johns Hopkins, have little background in. I started reading there in the library and was immediately hooked.

The first thing that drew me in was the style of the book. Judt was dying of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This is a neurological disorder, common in men in late middle age that robs you of the use of your body while leaving your mind pretty much intact. My father was diagnosed with ALS in 1997 and died December 9th, 1999. Having seen his progressive decline and unpleasant death, I was prepared right from the beginning to be sympathetic to this author.

Judt was a prominent historian and public intellectual who was really just hitting his stride in 2010 when he got his diagnosis of ALS. He had just written Postwar, a very highly-regarded history of Europe after WW2. He was known for good, trenchant reviews in the New York Review of Books, and thoughtful articles in such places as the New Yorker magazine. He commented on a bunch of different subjects – the post-Cold War political situation in Eastern Europe, Israeli-Palestinian peace, but was best known for his opposition to the Iraq War.

He was preparing to write another book, an intellectual history of the 20th century, when he received his diagnosis. Unlike my father, who first lost the use of his voice, Judt’s disease left him the use of his voice right up until the end. So he at first decided to dictate those portions of the book that he couldn’t complete before becoming incapable of typing. But then Timothy Snyder, a former student, approached him with a proposal to write a book in the form of a conversation. The two, both professional historians from very different backgrounds both personal and intellectual, spent six months or so discussing the intellectual history of the 20th century (and the first decade of the 21st) in a series of conversations, which Snyder and his editor then boiled down into the 400-odd pages of this gem of a book.

The story unfolds as, in part, the intellectual biography of Judt himself. The first chapter is entitled “The Name remains: Jewish Questioner”, and looks at Judt’s background as a Jew growing up in postwar Britain and at what the history of Eastern European Jewry and the Holocaust means to the 20th century. The chapters continue in that vein, looking at Judt’s life as a student in Britain, a (temporary) immigrant to Israel, a non-communist Marxist, a French intellectual and student of the French political left, newly interested in Eastern Europe and especially Czechoslovakia after the fall of the USSR, a public intellectual and “pundit” in America, and a social democratic political activist.  In each case, Judt’s own experience is shown to be relevant to understanding the larger history of European (and American) ideas.

Each chapter addresses a different current in European thought during the century, moving from pre-1914 socialists and liberals to interwar communists, fascists, Zionists, to post-war existentialists, and so on. In each case, both Judt and Snyder have something to contribute – Snyder’s expertise is in Eastern Europe, while Judt’s is particularly in France, so the book brings a good geographical balance. Judt is a Brit and Jewish, Snyder is from Ohio, Judt was born in 1948 and Snyder in 1969. They have a remarkable rapport despite the differences. It makes you wish you could have sat at their table, beer in hand, listening to the conversation (and pitching in at points as I found myself doing).

There are some really marvelous moments. At one point, Judt describes a dinner party he was at in the Hamptons with George Soros and Judith Miller, and a mixed group of public intellectuals and policy-makers. It was just before the beginning of America’s disastrous war in Iraq, and Judt was the only one who was willing to stand up to Miller’s assertions that Saddam had nuclear weapons, that he was tied up in the 9/11 attacks, etcetera. He makes the point that his fellow “pundits” – and he expressly calls out Thomas Friedman and David Brooks – don’t know anything about anything. They are specialists in boiling down difficult questions into 20-second sound bites for CNN. When they are challenged on the real facts underlying their broad sweeping generalizations, they just slip right away and nobody challenges them on it. Anybody paying attention and knowing anything about the world situation must have realized that the claims about Iraq were false, but Americans didn’t know this because the people we count on to educate us on this sort of thing were either ignorant (as Brooks admits himself to be in one passage) or complicit (as Judith Miller was in her coverage of the pretended Iraq WMD program).

Judt knew many of the 20th-century thinkers he profiles.  Some very interesting people appear here, some of whom I read in grad school and some of whom I have marked down for future reading. Raymond Aron was a guy my father particularly liked for his essay The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which he turns Marx on his head to assert that, while Marx had called religion the opium of the people, in the 20th century Marxism was the opium of the intellectuals, numbing them to the realities of life both in capitalism and communism.  Arthur Koestler was another ex-communist who comes in for high praise from Judt. Judt remained a social democrat, and in the current context where a social democrat is making a respectable challenge for the nomination of the Democratic Party for president, it is important to realize that social democracy remains an intellectually vibrant force. Judt reserves harsh criticism for the Hayekian “Austrian School” of economics, which asserts – over and over again and without it ever coming true – that any government intervention in the economy leads inevitably to Hitler. Hayek’s Austria did submit to Hitler, but not because of government social programs, as Judt points out, in fact the Austrian conservatives gained power in a bloody coup in 1934 and dismantled, by artillery as well as bureaucracy, the social programs of the preceding liberal government, before rolling over for Hitler in 1938. Judt is correspondingly enthusiastic about the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who comes across as one of the leading intellectual figures of the century.

It’s an engaged book, but an interesting one for the student of ideas. I think my students at Mt. Angel will be reading this in the fourth semester of Humanities next year. Just a heads-up…

One thought on “Book Review: Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, New York: Penguin, 2012

  1. One of my favorite books! Reading it is like eavesdropping on a wonderful conversation between two two smart (really, really smart) historians!


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