Tony Judt, author, historian and one of Britain's bravest men, dies at 62

Polymath writer of epic history of modern Europe relished controversy even after disease trapped him in his own body
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Tony Judt, the lauded and controversial historian whose work took on communists, Zionists, monetarists and finally the degenerative disease that trapped him in his own body, has died. He was 62.

Judt's book Postwar, a 900-page European history of epic scope charting developments from the Marshall Plan of 1945 to the fall of communism and the rise and fall of economic prosperity, was listed for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

Two years later, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease (named after the famous US baseball player), which attacked the nerve cells of his brain and spinal cord, destroying his ability to move or speak, rendering him like "a modern-day mummy".

But his illness did not damage his ability to think, and he wrote a series of searing personal essays published this year in The New York Review of Books.

"In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration," he wrote in one. "[But] there is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, inevitably – as it now appears to me – by those not exclusively dependent upon them."

Judt, a Jew descended from Lithuanian rabbis, was born in London and became a professor of European studies at New York University, where a spokesman yesterday confirmed that he had died on Friday of complications caused by ALS. He was probably best known for Postwar, the strength of which was inseparable "from the personality of its author, who does not count self-effacement a literary virtue", according to Louis Menand of The New Yorker.

"He teaches in the United States, but he has retained a distinctly British temperament – not the bluff-and-hearty, Dr Watson type but its superior cousin, the suffer-no-fools, Holmes type," Mr Menand added.

In 2009, Judt received an honorary George Orwell Prize for "intelligence, insight and conspicuous courage". This year, he completed Ill Fares the Land, a passionate call for a return to liberal governance and for a close look at the "ways in which our grandparents' generation handled comparable challenges and threats".

Judt's clashes with Israel lay in his teenage experience of a summer camp in the country. He became so devoted to the Jewish homeland that he spoke at a Zionist conference in Paris and served as a translator and driver for the Israel Defense Forces during and after the 1967 Six-Day War. But he later concluded that "most Israelis were... young, prejudiced urban Jews who differed from their European or American counterparts chiefly in their macho, swaggering self-confidence, and access to armed weapons".

In a 1983 article for The New York Review of Books, Judt labelled Israel a "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state". Rejecting a two-state solution, he called for Jews and Palestinians to be united under a single government. Supporters of Israel were furious and Judt lost his seat on the editorial board of The New Republic, a magazine for which his wife, Jennifer Homans, continued to work as dance critic.

In 2006, a speech Judt planned to give at the Polish Consulate of New York was cancelled after the consulate received phone calls from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. "Apparently, the line you take on Israel trumps everything else in life," Judt told The Financial Times in 2007.

Judt, a Cambridge graduate, was brought up by Marxist parents, and the downfall of communism was a favourite theme. Other work criticised French intellectuals whom Judt accused of naivety in their treatment of Stalin and the Soviet Union.

In a 2008 essay that served as the introduction to Reappraisals, published the same year, Judt worried that the West had advanced too quickly from the previous century's horrors, justifying the Iraq war and casually accepting the torture of prisoners. "Far from escaping the 20th century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn... how war brutalises and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonise our enemies in order to justify that war's indefinite continuance.

"And perhaps... we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: 'Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?"'