By Niamh Cullen
We think we have learned from enough from the past to know many of the old answers don’t work and that may be true. But what the past can help us to understand is the perennial complexity of the questions. (Tony Judt, Reappraisals)
Historian of twentieth century Europe Tony Judt, who died last Friday, will be remembered as one of the most sane, wise and passionate voices of twentieth century intellectual life. Professor of European history at New York University and historian of the twentieth century, his influence extended far beyond the reaches of academe. His definitive history of post 1945 Europe, Postwar, was on the bestselling lists in several different countries and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reappraisals, his 2008 essay collection comprising reflections on twentieth century intellectual thought received similar acclaim despite the fact that its theme is hardly the usual stuff of popular history, while his latest book Ill fares the land, a clarion call for a return to social democracy, looks set to do the same.
Convinced that a greater understanding of Europe’s recent past was necessary in order to address the challenges and uncertainties of the present, he passionately and consistently made that case, showing his readers exactly why, in both his books and essays. Critical of the historical mindset that, in response to the horrors of the European twentieth century, has erected memorials and founded museums to the human tragedies of the holocaust and the world wars, and the victims of totalitarianism to create an official memory that releases people from the burden of remembering the complexities and the deeper histories of such events; remembering, in a sense, to forget.
Judt also founded the Remarque Institute at NYU, a centre for European studies, where he took on the task, in his own words, of explaining Europe to the Americans, and America to the Europeans. A deeper understanding of the histories of both cultures, and how their experiences of the recent past inform their differing attitudes to the pressing issues of our day; war, and the role of the state in welfare and economics. War, he wrote in Reappraisals, was experienced by the Americans as, essentially, something that worked. While taking into account the failures of Korea and Vietnam, the US never knew territorial invasion, destruction and civilian casualties as they were experienced across the European continent in the twentieth century, leaving even the victors of the world wars with a lasting fatigue and horror of warfare. This goes some way towards explaining the very different approaches to the second invasion of Iraq by the US and most European states.
A public intellectual for the twenty-first century, Judt regularly wrote essays for the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and other magazines, contributing ceaselessly to the ongoing conversation about the big questions of contemporary life; how to live, as individuals and as citizens, in a world characterised by rapid change, uncertainty – ideological, economic, political – and insecurity, and how best to govern such communities. As one of the last ‘engaged’ intellectuals of the twentieth century tradition, and as someone who was convinced and convincingly argued for a greater understanding of our shared European past, he will be missed.