When I met Tony Judt twenty years ago, he was on his way to catch a train. But he lingered instead in Providence to lunch with a couple of Brown University undergraduates. He gently gave career advice to two young men hesitating between history and journalism. Of course I wouldn’t suggest that whoever had a meal with Tony either became a historian, as I did, or won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, as did Gareth Cook. But Tony was always exceedingly generous with his time, especially with younger people. Brief requests for advice yielded pages of well-crafted counsel. He wrote letters of recommendation for dozens of people who were not formally his students, and organized conferences at which younger people met more established scholars. At his Remarque Institute at New York University, the criterion for participation was merit rather than renown.
Tony Judt was, in effect, two historians: first, a Marxist from a working-class English-Jewish background educated at Cambridge and at the École Normale in Paris who wrote four excellent books on the French left, and then a grand New York scholar who wrote an unimaginably good history of postwar Europe as well as strikingly clear studies of leading European intellectuals, such as Albert Camus and Leszek Kolakowski. The hinge was Past Imperfect, Tony’s eloquent critique of Parisian intellectual politics after World War II, published in 1992. On the surface, this was a close study of Jean-Paul Sartre’s communism and the political narcissism of Left Bank intellectuals who celebrated Stalinism while ignoring its consequences in Eastern Europe. At another level, it was the repudiation by a French Marxist of his own tradition.
Tony wrote his first book, La Reconstruction du parti socialiste, 1921–1926, in French; one French reviewer rightly noted that Past Imperfect read like an argument by a living French intellectual with several dead ones. Fundamentally, Past Imperfect was Tony’s first attempt at a philosophy of history that would survive the crash of Marxism and of the other great political and intellectual systems of the twentieth century. Yet even as he distanced himself from French Marxists, Tony resisted the temptation to substitute another source of intellectual authority for Marxism. Whereas some intellectuals of his generation replaced Marxism with something that seemed like its opposite—the market, for example—he instead rejected the very idea of a single underlying explanation of historical change.
Past Imperfect was possible because Tony had taken, during the 1980s, a kind of mental journey to Eastern Europe, against the drift of his own profession (Western Europeanists remaining such, despite the upheavals in Eastern Europe) and family history (Jews moving west from the Russian Empire). This intellectual move was more fruitful, if less dramatic, than his political encounters with the Jewish state. His youthful Zionism was a halfhearted rebellion against his parents, who wanted him to study in England; his later critique of Israel was, among other things, a …