Book Review: Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder

Tony Judt’s last words: a call to save capitalism from itself

The late historian Tony Judt, who led “an incendiary intellectual life” | Photo: Heribert Corn

Ideas of a Troubled Century

A year and a half ago, we lost Tony Judt – venerable historian, prolific essayist and indefatigable public intellectual – to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, at the age of just 62. A native Briton, Judt began as an obscure historian of the French Left before ascending to the positions of pan-European historian, American moraliste and tireless advocate of social democracy. Following the onset of ALS, he endured the piecemeal shutdown of his physical self: at first merely unable to hold a pen, but by the end confined to a wheelchair and requiring a cumbersome breathing apparatus. Still, Judt continued to lecture and write by dictating his essays to colleagues, family and friends. Which is how the remarkable 2010 publication of Judt’s eloquent treatise on the unraveling of the social contract in the United States and Europe, Ill Fares the Land, came to be in just four short months, arriving in bookstores shortly before his death. Thus it seemed unthinkable he would have produced another substantial work in that final year. But this was indeed to be the case. Thinking the Twentieth Century, released in Austria in February, is in many ways the book Judt was meant to write, and a fitting swan song to an incendiary intellectual life. Co-written with Timothy Snyder, Yale historian of Eastern Europe and an academic heavyweight in his own right, this work is unconventional in format – half memoir, half conversation. The culmination of months of discussions, Thinking the Twentieth Century begins each section with a Judt biography – the journey of an academic through life and letters, evolving, questioning himself, never becoming intellectually lazy, never assuming he had the final answer. Following each mémoire à court is an in-depth discussion between the two historians that traverses time, space, culture and geography with impressive alacrity. Fin-de-siècle Vienna, a city both knew intimately, figures prominently in the cultural and ideological landscape. One interesting exchange concerns the affinity European Jews felt for Communism during this era of dramatic change: “Imperial liberalism in the Central Europe zone,” asks Snyder, “had allowed Jews to migrate to great cities and rise upward in status: Why should Jews (or socialists) abandon it?” One needs only Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterdayto encounter Jewish longing for Habsburg Vienna. Without a liberal monarchy, Judt asserts, Jews sought “non-democratic forms of radical change, with an accompanying insistence upon the irrelevance of religion, language or ethnicity.” The Jews of Central Europe, ever stateless, were at the mercy of the sweeping tide of politics.

Fellow historian and friend Timothy Snyder edited months of conversation | Photo: Christian Wind

Central and Eastern Europe saturate the discussions – Judt, after a decade focusing on France, recalibrated to Mittel- und Osteuropa while teaching at Oxford, prompted by the clear divergence in both Marxist and liberal thought between East and West. He taught himself Czech and became heavily involved with political exiles from behind the Iron Curtain. For this, Snyder is an ideal companion – proficient in ten European languages and author of five books about Eastern Europe. For Judt the goal was to understand the Cold War from an Eastern perspective: “We had all experienced disillusion: I had my disabused Zionism, [the East] what remained of their reformist Marxism. But whereas my illusions cost me nothing more than time, my Polish contemporaries had paid a substantial prices for theirs: on the streets, in prison and eventually forced emigration.” Above all, it is Judt’s dedication to pluralism (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense of the word), which connects his path to the intellectual history of the 20th century. Amid all the big ideas – communism, fascism, Keynesian vs. Hayekian economics – Judt and Snyder stress that true understanding requires abandoning doctrinal orthodoxy. This conclusion, painstakingly arrived at, was liberating for Judt. “No longer was I taken up above all with the inadequacies of Marxism,” he explains. “All political theories… were by their very nature partial and incomplete accounts of the complexities of the human condition… and the better for it.” As the book progresses, the topical and ideological scope becomes broader. From exhaustive dialogues on Habermas, Sartre and Hobsbawm, Kołakowski, Masaryk and Havel, we arrive at Judt’s latter-day raison d’être: the case for social democracy in the Anglo-American world. Perhaps Judt’s most salient point is that Keynes (intervention) and Hayek (free markets) are both essentially capitalistic. Hayek’s long-misunderstood position (a fault of Friedmanites and the Chicago School) was not that government intervention wouldn’t work economically, but that it would invariably give rise to totalitarianism (fascism as likely as communism). Conversely, Keynesian economics, thought by Americans to be socialist, is just as inherently capitalist: “The prudential consideration is that of saving capitalism from itself, or from the enemies it generates.” Answering the 19th-century social question is vital to saving capitalism, along with being morally sound public policy. Timely and inspired, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a prescient look at the ideas that shaped the last hundred years. It is the efforts of two historians to address relevant thinkers, ideologies and issues of the “forgotten” 20th century (to borrow the subtitle from Judt’s collection of essays Reappraisals). To understand how we got here, and to help deduce where we are going, the history in this book is indispensible. It is not a polemic, and there are no easy answers, but as the greatly mourned Tony Judt concludes, “an accurate mess is far truer to life than simple untruths.”


Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder Random House (2012), pp. 414 Available at Frick 1., Kärntnerstraße 30, (01) 513 7364 

Tony Judt sat down with Michael Freund in 2006 for an exclusive interview in the Oct 2006 TVR.

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