Historian 'saw the big picture, but went to the heart of the matter'

Zionists, the Left, French post-war intellectuals and Marxists collectively lost one of their most acerbic critics over the weekend with the death of the British historian Tony Judt.

The 62-year-old academic died at his New York home after a prolonged and debilitating battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neurone disease which left an unimpaired and brilliant mind trapped inside a paralysed body for the last two years of his life.

The Jewish historian was born in east London but had lived in New York since 1987 where he continued to develop a reputation for being a ferocious critic of many political ideologies he had once fervently subscribed to.

As a young man fired up by Marxism he became a kibbutz volunteer and went on to serve as a driver and translator for the Israeli Defence Forces during the Six-Day War before taking an ideological U-turn and becoming a major critic of both Marxism and Zionism. Although his critiques of Zionism only formed a small proportion of his academic output the subject often over-shadowed much of his other work. Five years before moving to the States in 1987, Judt wrote that Israel was a "belligerently intolerant, faith- driven ethno-state", incurring the wrath of vast swathes of Jewish and pro-Israeli intelligentsia. In 2003 he returned to the subject in an essay where he called on Israel to accept a "one-state solution" where Jews and Arabs could live peacefully in a secular country.

Among fellow historians, his 900-page 2005 opus Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 was regarded as one of the most sweeping and comprehensive attempts to sum up the post-Second World War period in a single volume.

"He had the unusual ability to see and convey the big picture while, at the same time, going to the heart of the matter," Mark Lilla, a history professor at Columbia University, told The New York Times. "Most academics do neither – they float in between. But Tony was able to talk about the big picture and explain why it matters now."

In an interview with The Independent earlier this year, Judt, wheelchair-bound and only able to speak with the aid of a microphone, described his condition.

"There's nothing saccharine about this; it's a crappy disease," he said. "It imprisons you, it turns you into a bundle of jelly, it's going to kill you sooner or later, and in a very unpleasant way, because it almost certainly strangulates you or chokes you. Having said that, I get satisfaction out of understanding what I'm going through, which I can only achieve by describing it with an almost externalised dispassion. It makes me feel like I'm not dead yet."

He was also bitterly critical of modern-day British politicians, who he described as being "political pygmies". This year's general election, he said, was a choice between a hollowed-out social democratic party and a Conservative Party which highlighted the "broken society" but couldn't admit that it was the legacy of Thatcherism that broke it.

"Neither side can directly speak to the depths of the problems they claim they would fix," he said. "Both are fraudulent."

Judt's final work, the short but polemical Ill Fares the Land, was an impassioned plea for the world to return to the values of social democracy, the centre-left political philosophy that had shaped so-much of Europe's thinking post-Second World War and enabled a continent to rebuild itself after five years of devastating conflict.

He described himself as a "universalist social democrat" with a deep suspicion of left-wing ideologues, identity politics and the emerging role of the United States as the world's sole superpower.

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