The poet Paul Celan said of his native Czernowitz that it was a place where people and books used to live. Tony Judt was a man for whom books lived, as well as people. His mind, like his apartment on Washington Square, was full of books—and they walked with him, arguing, to the very end.
Critical though he was of French intellectuals, he shared with them a conviction that ideas matter. Being English, he thought facts matter too. As a historian, one of his most distinctive achievements was to integrate the intellectual and political history of twentieth-century Europe—revealing the multiple, sometimes unintended interactions over time of ideas and realities, thoughts and deeds, books and people.
In Postwar (2005), a history of postwar Europe conceived as the continent’s cold war division was crumbling, he performed another great integration. While the two halves of the divided continent were being sewn together politically and economically in the years after 1989, he brought together their histories. His 1968, for example, was not only Paris, and not only Prague, but rather the whole complex of their simultaneities, contradictions, and malentendus. His was the first major history of contemporary Europe to analyze the stories of Eastern and Western Europe in equally rigorous, nuanced detail, but also as part of a single, larger whole.
As an essayist and political commentator, he continued the great tradition of the spectateur engagé, the politically engaged but independent and critical intellectual. A fine selection of his essays (most of them from these pages) was published as Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008). His commentaries and book reviews were often hard-hitting. Prominent writers carry the bruises to this day. I note that the word “polemical” keeps cropping up in the obituaries. He would not necessarily have minded that. In one of the last e-mails he sent me, discussing the topic of a lecture he had invited me to give, he wrote—that is, dictated from his wheelchair—“I don’t see any harm in going for the ad hominem in this case.” I can just hear him say it. But it is important to understand what his version of ad hominem was.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of polemical intellectuals. There are those for whom the taking of controversial positions is primarily a matter of personal peacock display, factional or clique positioning, hidden agendas, score-settling, or serial, knee-jerk revisionism. Then there are those who, while not without personal motivations and biases, are fundamentally concerned with seeking the truth. Tony Judt was of the latter kind.
Sharp and cutting his pen could be, but his work was always about seeking the truth as best we can, with all the search tools at our disposal—from the toothpick of Anglo-American empiricism to the searchlight of Gallic overstatement. Unlike the…
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