Public intellectuals, trains and automobiles: Tony Judt’s post-war world

By Niamh Cullen

It soon becomes clear from reading any number of Tony Judt’s history books that he has a deep fascination with trains. Postwar, his highly acclaimed history of contemporary Europe, opens in a train station in Vienna. The Austrian capital was traditionally the gateway between eastern and western Europe, with its central position and imperial concerns further east. In post-war Europe, the city’s two separate train stations – one with routes heading east, and the other with trains travelling west, but never between the two worlds – became, in Judt’s mind – the ultimate symbol of the tragic and artificial divisions of the Cold War world. A history of railways was also planned until Judt became terminally ill with motor neuron disease. It is one of the many topics that he returns to in his posthumous new book, The Memory Chalet. He was a strange child, so fascinated by trains that he spent whole school holidays riding them alone across London and the south of England. Later, as he tells us, he discovered Europe from the window of a train carriage. Trains seem to mean two things to Judt; they represent the possibility of boundless travel across the European continent, while remaining connected to the landscape in a way that simply isn’t possibly with air travel. However the great European railways and the grandiose nineteenth-century station buildings are also physical reminders of the great undertaking of public service that Europe’s rail system represents.

These twin concerns; with public service and civic consciousness, and with a continuing desire for exploration and the discovery of new frontiers – in Judt’s case America and Eastern Europe – are strands running through this highly personal memoir. Written in the final months of his life when, unable to move, he had to dictate his thoughts instead, The Memory Chalet is made up of short, sparsely written but beautifully constructed chapters, each giving us a glimpse of a different aspect of his life and how it informed his thinking. As such, it makes the perfect companion piece to both Postwar and Ill Fares the Land. Although he probably wouldn’t approve of the comparison, like Eric Hobsbawm in his Interesting times, Judt doesn’t dwell on the personal for its own sake but uses the indivudual perspective to look outwards, exploiting his own experiences to construct a peculiarly intimate history of post-war Britain and Europe.

Born in London in 1947 when rationing was still very much in place, the austerity of post-war Britain was a constant background to his childhood. At the end of his life, he writes that he is profoundly grateful for the anchoring this climate gave him, and laments the lack of ‘moral seriousness’ that austerity prompted in both politics and the arts – from Atlee to The Bicycle Thieves – in the Europe and America of 2010.

An essay on his father’s obsession with cars reveals a very different post-war world; one where the roads were still relatively empty and likewise, cars still held a patina of glamour and excitement. They seemed to promise speed, adventure and exploration. Such a period was of course short-lived; by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the onset of prosperity meant that car ownership was becoming more and more common. Limitless stretches of empty road, and the possilities they held, were replaced with clogged streets and traffic jams. However, for those who, like Judt’s father, became car owners in the 1940s, cars would always hold a particular fascination, retaining hints of their former glamour.

Although he really made a name for himself internationally with Postwar, in his later years Judt was increasingly making his name as a member of that all too rare species in 2010; a public intellectual. He first made his career as an intellectual historian of France, but came to feel an increasing distaste for this tradition and defined himself equally in opposition to the cerebral Marxism of Sartre as to the what he termed the ‘romantic Communism’ of Hobsbawm. As an English Jew of Eastern European heritage, his later career also saw him becoming increasingly outspoken in his opposition to the Jewish community’s unquestioning support for Israel. The Memory Chalet goes some way towards explaining how Judt came to define his own views in opposition to some of the most alluring dogmas of the twentieth century. Having gone through a brief Zionist phase as a teenager – even working on collective farms in Israel during school holidays – Judt was, in his own words, innoculated against the extreme ideologies that many of his classmates succumbed to in the radical 1960s, by the time he began his studies at Cambridge.

His voice has been one of the sanest and most consistent ones in calling for the renewal of a political system suffering from a dearth of ideas and civil consciousness, through a return to social democracy. However, his refusal to adopt any clear cut religious or political identity, left him a perennial outsider, whether in London, Cambridge or New York; an ‘edge person’ as he describes himself.

An indifference to Marxism or other extreme politics didn’t leave him immune to the climate of ’68, however. His account of those years and his involvement in the student protests is honest and unusually devoid of nostalgia. Like many of his Cambridge contemporaries, he was a half-hearted and fairly ineffectual revolutionary. At a notorious anti-war protest in Grosvenor Square, Judt thought at one stage that he had been hit by police, and seems to have been momentarily diasappointed to realise that what he felt wasn’t blood, but a pipe bomb that had burst in his pocket before he got a change to throw it.

It must, admittedtly, be easy to criticise one’s younger self more than forty years later for misplaced idealism, and he certainly berates himself and his fellow students for their unfocused anger; for fighting against injustices abroad while being slower to recognise those much closer to home. As a historian, Judt’s gaze has moved steadily further east, and Postwar is an attempt to write a history of Europe that integrates accounts of both east and west. It is from this perspective that he is able to chastise his generation for failing to notice where the real revolution of ’68 was happening; in Prague and Warsaw. In his own succinct judgement, ‘we were a revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.’

Even if Judt’s generation missed the revolution, he himself has certainly been making up for it since. Having taken on the mantle of public intellectual for the twenty-first century, his consistent refusal to bow to dogmas – whether Zionism, Communism or the self-congratulatory triumphalism of the post-war world – and his calls for an urgent renewal of politics and civil society have made his one of the wisest, original and important voices of our time. The Memory Chalet – a meditation on identity, place, personal politics and the lived experience of post-war Britain, Europe and the US – provides fascinating glimpses into the myriad influences and experiences that made Judt the historian, and intellectual, that he was. It shows above all how important an appreciation of recent history – whether austerity, student radicalism or the hopeful climate of the late 1950s – is to how we understand our world and seek to transform it.

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1 Response to Public intellectuals, trains and automobiles: Tony Judt’s post-war world

  1. Paul Doolan says:

    I really enjoyed your review of what I think is a wonderful book. Tony Judt will be missed. I reviewed this collection too, for the History Today Blog – But I don’t mind saying I prefer yours.

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