Heinemann, £25, 414pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Thinking the Twentieth Century, By Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder

 

In 1979 Tony Judt published an article with the unusual title "A Clown in Regal Purple". In a coruscating attack on "modernisation theory", he laid waste the methodology and reputation of a generation of number-crunching social historians. Within the bitchy world of scholarly politics it made him infamous, but few outside knew his name. His area of expertise was the history of socialism in France, a furrow he ploughed often and deeply.

It was not until the 1990s, when he was professor of European Studies at New York University, that Judt broke out as a public intellectual. Thanks largely to writing for the New York Review of Books and New Republic, he found a demotic voice and a wider audience. He was distinctive among New York intellectuals for his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. An article in the NYRB in 2003, suggesting that a one-state solution was the only plausible resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, added to his notoriety. His majestic, innovative survey of European history since 1945, Postwar (2005), turned him into a superstar.

In autumn 2008, he was diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease. Instead of surrendering to infirmity, Judt drew on unimaginable reserves of mental strength to use every moment left for a series of projects. During almost unendurable nights of total paralysis he conceived and memorised chapters of an autobiography. Through the prism of his own life and family history, he projected a cultural and intellectual history of the 2oth century.

Unable to write, he took up a suggestion from Tim Synder, a gifted young American historian of Eastern Europe, to deliver it in the form of an extended conversation. Starting with the outline of Judt's autobiography, Snyder's task was to broaden the exchanges to consider the Jewish question and the Holocaust, the universality of French history, the attractions and opponents of Marxism, and the rebirth of liberalism in eastern Europe. Their ambitious programme embraced everything from 1930s anti-fascism to social planning in the 1970s.

Perhaps inevitably, Thinking the Twentieth Century falls uneasily between autobiography and history. The structure carries more weight than it can bear and the interlocutors are not always in sync. Snyder has a cloth ear for much of the detail Judt recalls about his childhood in south London. He is too quick to leap from Putney to Prague, where he is more at home. Instead of unpacking Judt's elliptical pronouncements, he tends to embroider them. Some of these obiter dicta are ill-founded, but Snyder fails to tidy them up. Judt is allowed to leave on record several inaccurate statements, notably on British history.

The most luminous segments consist of Judt's ruminations on his life and times. This is territory familiar from his lapidary memoir The Memory Chalet. There is more depth and detail, but it is rough-hewn compared with the elegiac quality of his mnemonic masterpiece. Judt was born in London in 1948. His father came from a Polish Jewish family that had migrated to Belgium. His mother was born in London, of Russian and Romanian Jewish parents. Throughout his early years, Tony would accompany his parents and younger sister to the home of his Orthodox Jewish grandfather for a traditional Friday night sabbath dinner. Although his parents were non-observant Jews, he had a thoroughly Jewish upbringing.

Most of his father's family was deported by the Germans in 1942 and murdered. On Friday nights, Tony watched as Polish Jewish survivors invited into his grandfather's home spoke excitedly in Yiddish, Polish and Russian about the destruction of a civilisation. "I cannot recall a time when I did not know what was not yet called the Holocaust." This nameless thing "penetrated everything - like a fog, ubiquitous but inchoate". In postwar England "such tragedies were commonplace and somehow very familiar". Yet Jewish losses were treated apart from the larger story of the war and only served to underline his own sense of feeling apart from the rest of society.

Thanks to the grandparents with a pot pourri of languages, an album of deported relatives, and casual anti-Semitism at school, Tony grew up aware that he was different. Even vacations set them apart. His father insisted on Continental driving holidays at a time when most English people lived up the summer at Butlins. Tony was a beneficiary of a direct grant school and won a place to study history at King's College, Cambridge. He did so well in the entrance exam that he was permitted to skip A-levels. He used the time he saved to follow his passion for Zionism, and went to Israel.

It was perhaps natural that, growing up with his background, he should be drawn to Jewish nationalism, but the story is not so simple. His grandfather and father were both militant socialists. When Tony was 13, his father gave him Isaac Deutscher's three-volume life of Trotsky. During adolescence, he devoured the classics of Marxism, from a sceptical anti-Stalinist viewpoint.

Somehow, the imprecations against nationalism in Marxist texts and the ridicule heaped upon Jewish nationalism, in particular, seem to have had no effect. Did the Holocaust trump the denigration of Jews? Snyder possibly misses just how deeply the Judts were immersed in the European catastrophe. He doesn't twig that the "boys" who Tony's grandfather invited round were actually members of the The Boys: the 700 survivors airlifted to Britain in 1945. Or that the Primrose Youth Club, where Tony's father and uncle worked as volunteers, was an association for the rehabilitation of young Jews who had escaped the gas chambers.

His parents were early visitors to Israel. They sent Tony to a socialist Zionist youth movement and he duly fell in love with the country and the kibbutzim. When Judt reflects that "The world of my youth was thus the world that was bequeathed by Hitler", he is drawing attention to a singular element in his intellectual formation. Its subsequent recession surely merits more probing than it receives.

To his own retrospective bemusement, Judt had no interest in Jewish history while he was taking his degree or pursuing research. Why should he, when he spent almost every summer in Israel, culminating in auxiliary military service on the Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israel War? This exposed him to the Israel beyond the utopian socialist kibbutzim. While he never entirely abandoned the Zionist diagnosis of the Jewish condition, he reflects bitterly that "I had been indoctrinated into an anachronism".

For his doctoral research Judt explored French history and spent a year at the École Normale Supérieure. There he encountered ex-Communists, like Annie Kriegel, who gave him a sense of why Marxism had seemed so attractive in the 1930s and why it was so hard to renounce it in the 1940s. The magnetic power of a totalitarian idea and the capacity of brilliant people for self-delusion became a subject he would explore almost obsessively. It was more than a little influenced by his own failure to "see" Arabs when he was in Israel; he knew what it was to be "a believer", for ideology to shape "reality".

During the 1970s, Judt oscillated between King's College, Cambridge and US universities. His private life was messy and he had done himself no favours, first, by publishing his thesis in French and, then, attacking some leading historians of his day. But his brilliance, plus backing from George Lichtheim and John Dunn, kept his career afloat. Judt is generous to his friends and allies, even as he is unsparing towards enemies, such as Richard Cobb.

A second divorce and a "mid-life crisis" prompted him to look eastwards for inspiration. He had realised, belatedly, that during 1968 the student "revolutionaries" had missed the real action, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. His interest was piqued through meeting exiles from Poland, notably Jan Gross, and nurtured by Steven Lukes in Oxford, who was forging ties with Czech dissidents. Tony taught himself Czech, started making forays into Prague's underground university, and returned to the question of how Western thinkers could have been so purblind when Soviet tyranny was being established there after 1945.

If Eastern Europe offered "a fresh start", NYU provided the ideal platform. A third, happy marriage, to Jennifer Homans, an ex-ballet dancer and once one of his students, also played its part. However, if Thinking the Twentieth Century reveals a fierce moralist who insisted on speaking truth to power, it also introduces us to a conservative whose observations may surprise some fans.

Judt champions narrative, empirical history against the "cesspit of Theory". He laments the passing of direct grant schools and wants lessons to teach what happened and when before kids are invited to consider rival interpretations of the past. Although he is rude about Simon Schama, they share the same agenda for school history.

His social and political agenda is resolutely moderate. To the perils of excessive economic freedom, climate change and rogue states, he offers the pragmatic, pluralist, incremental remedies of social democracy. "The choice we face in the next generation is not capitalism versus communism... but the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes versus the erosion of society by the politics of fear".

He does not see democracy as a universal panacea. In a fascinating exchange with Snyder, he argues that the key elements of political stability and freedom are constitutionalism, the rule of law, checks and balances. Without these democracy can be a disaster. His admonition is a sobering sidelight on the "Arab Spring", and it is a tragedy that he is not here to comment on events as they unfold.

David Cesarani, research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, has recently completed a biographical study of Disraeli for Yale University Press

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