At IWM: Not Quite the “End of History”

Timothy Snyder, Marci Shore and Ivan Krastev pay homage to the late historian Tony Judt

Yale historian Timothy Snyder is a permanent fellow at the IWM in Vienna | Photo: M. Gollner

Yale historian Timothy Snyder is a permanent fellow at the IWM in Vienna | Photo: M. Gollner

Free chairs were hard to find at the Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, IWM) on the evening of 10 June, when Yale-Historians Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands, The Red Prince) and Marci Shore (The Taste of Ashes) along with Ivan Krastev of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria were on hand to talk about the late legend among European intellectuals, Tony Judt.

Chairs were squeezed in behind the speakers and others sat on the floor – to accommodate the academics, researchers and students from across Europe. Even in the heat – the library at IMW, where Judt was a visiting fellow and Snyder and Krastev are permanent fellows – was ideal for the occasion.

Judt’s last book, Thinking the Twentieth   Century written together with Snyder, is “about the intellectual history of the decade,” said moderator Marci Shore. But only in part. It is also an analysis of “the political failures of the time,” and an intellectual biography of the historian himself. Introducing his two old friends, she reviewed Judt’s life, his scholarship and his politics, all integral to the book’s concept.

“Tony had a lifelong interest in the Left, its meaning, its failures and its promises,” Shore said. “It was much more than an interest, it was a passion and a moral imperative.” Trained as a historian of France, Judt became increasingly interested in Eastern Europe, and in Europe as a whole. Once a passionate Zionist and a Marxist, Judt later embraced the life of a somewhat rootless cosmopolitan, increasingly distancing himself from earlier labels.

“One of his particularly charming characteristics was a willingness for self-disclosure, even if doing so was difficult or potentially compromising,” Shore said.

 

The role of the state 

Just like Postwar, Judt’s monumental history of Europe after WWII, drafted at IWM, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a tour-de-force – a journey through the ideological matrix of the past hundred years.

“What the disputes between Liberals, Social Democrats and others were fundamentally about,” said Snyder, “was something they did not refer to directly, namely, the purpose of the state.”

It’s a recurring theme in Judt’s and Snyder’s conversations that make up the book – countries that were shaped, overthrown and governed by political powers in an age of great utopias. The aim was to show how these political phenomena still shape the central political questions today: “How do we govern ourselves? What is legitimate about the state?”

The state is central to 20th century historians: Whether it was the imperialist state, the colonial system or the revolutions, it had to do with the way history works as storytelling.

“The story of the future was always part of this classic style of writing history, and has always involved the state,“ Snyder said. History was “pushed around” by the powerful ideas of the “utopian” 20th century, struggling to find its own versions.

 

Keeping history alive 

The year 1989 sounded the death knell to the idea of the socialist utopia and had a profound effect on the writing of history: The “great stories” were no longer legitimate. This is the question both Snyder and Judt take on: “The question becomes: How can we build a sense of solidarity with one another about who we are, without any kind of belief in the future?”

When traditional forms of narrating history are no longer possible, intellectuals can’t just go back to “footnotes and methodology”, commented Ivan Krastev. Scholars like Judt and Snyder have opted for big stories, in order to be able to explain a complex, globalised world: “In the utopian age, being an intellectual, a philosopher, a writer, meant to have an obsession with the future – and constructing the future.

Now, it means to be an historian,” Krastev explained. To be occupied with history is not a profession any more. “To be a historian is the only position that allows you to stay a public intellectual in a world in which the public discourse is starting to be lost.”

 

Is there really no alternative? 

Krastev traced the effects of the digital revolution, playing a role in both the disintegration of society and disinterest in the past.

“With the Internet, is has become too easy to talk to peers… and not to talk to one another.” Nor to have empathy with the past. Why did people join a fascist, communist or liberal organisation? “History has become unthinkable, for most of us.”

In his later years, Judt thought a lot about why it was so hard to imagine a world different to the one we are living in. Unlike his colleague Eric Hobsbawm, Judt had what Krastev called “the courage to be a revisionist.”

But still, Marci Shore said in closing, the loss of faith in great narratives must not mean the loss of faith in truth, and the acceptance of utopia’s impossibility need not inspire a descent into nihilism. Judt represented this ideal.

 

Reviews of the books mentioned 

are available at: www.viennareview.net

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