Tony Judt (1948–2010)

Tony Judt.jpg

Gina LeVay/Redux

Tony Judt in his office at NYU, New York City, June 2006

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, 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. 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 other kind of polemical intellectual, he was always in good faith. And he was always serious. Not drearily earnest—he enjoyed the acrobatics of intellectualism as others enjoy baseball—but morally serious. This was as true in private chat as in public discourse. In what he said and wrote, there was always that moral edge. He felt what he himself called, in a study of three French political intellectuals, the burden of responsibility.

Every stage of his biography contributed ingredients to a cosmopolitan mix. America was his last staging post, one of the longest and most enjoyable, but perhaps not the deepest influence. He delighted in the mega-Czernowitz that is New York. The New York Review and New York University, in particular, provided stages on which, and company in which, a talent already largely formed could flourish and expand. His personal discovery of Central and Eastern Europe, made while he was teaching at Oxford in the 1980s, was both passionate and formative. Before that, he was a West Europeanist, a specialist in the intellectual and political history of France, and especially of the French left. To this he devoted no fewer than five scholarly books, from the published version of his doctoral thesis on socialism in Provence to Past Imperfect, a carefully researched and acerbic reckoning with what he saw as the postwar failure of (most) French intellectuals.

Yet while he liked to contrast the political and moral responsibility of Central European intellectuals such as Václav Havel or Czesław Miłosz (the subject of one of his last short essays) with the irresponsibility of Jean-Paul Sartre or Maurice Merleau-Ponty (especially in relation to the horrors of Stalinism), the truth is that he found a great positive exemplar in France too—Raymond Aron—and the French influence on his way of thinking was profound. His conversational style, with its frequent use of paradoxes or near paradoxes of the form “this is at the same time X and Y,” sometimes felt like a translation from the French.


He taught at Oxford for eight years, appreciated its worldly engagement with politics, and contemplated coming back. A sabbatical year’s return to Cambridge, by contrast, left him with little appetite for more. Yet it was Cambridge that had made him—and specifically King’s College, where he studied as both an undergraduate and a graduate. He always retained something of the high seriousness of those chilly fens. A deep consciousness of his European Jewish inheritance led to his most passionate early commitment, in and for Israel; to perhaps his deepest disillusionment; and to his most controversial pronouncements in the last decade of his life.

Behind and before all this, there was a very English childhood spent in quiet southwestern suburbs of London such as Putney and Kingston, with their pubs, little shops, buses both red and green, and chuntering local trains. During his final illness, I was struck by how often he emphasized that he was, after all, English. Witness, for example, a remark he made at the beginning of his last public appearance, when he used the 2009 Remarque Lecture at NYU to deliver a heartfelt argument for a revived, rethought social democracy. Wrapped in a blanket on his large electric wheelchair, with a bi-pap breathing device strapped over his head, he observed that some colleagues had suggested he speak about his illness, in a suitably uplifting way. “But,” he said, “I’m English, and we don’t do ‘uplifting.'”

Under all those cosmopolitan layers, there was, I think, a solid foundation of English empiricism, English scepticism, and English liberalism (using the L-word in one of its true senses, not the perverted one now current in American politics). It was in Putney, after all, that in 1647, when the United States was still but a glimmer in God’s eye, the Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainsborough declared:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.

Tony Judt was a very public intellectual but a very private man. He had a rich, close family life. In the last months of his illness, his wife, Jennifer Homans, and their sons, Daniel and Nicholas, set up for him a screensaver slideshow on his desktop monitor. Besides happy moments from family holidays, it showed a lot of mountains (particularly the Alps) and railway stations—trains and mountains being two of his private passions.

Tony had a couple of characteristic gestures. There was a motion of the hand, as if cooling it down after touching a hot saucepan or shaking off water. This denoted that something was silly, toe-curling, inauthentic. And there was a sideways inclination of the head, accompanied by a quick, wry lifting of one end of the mouth and a twinkle in the eye. This had multiple applications, ranging from satire and self-deprecation to an attitude that might inadequately be verbalized as c’est la vie. As motor neuron disease (ALS) relentlessly immobilized him, he could no longer make these characteristic gestures; but somehow he still managed to convey them with his eyes.

Tony was a fighter, and he fought this illness with all his strength and will. Not for him the consolations of imagined eternity or Kübler-Rossish “acceptance.” We laughed at the great line that the English playwright John Mortimer reported coming from the mouth of his dying father: “I’m always angry when I’m dying.” He was a clear-sighted realist about what was happening to him, and what would or would not come after. Less than three weeks before he died, I said something to the effect that I knew he was going through hell. “Yes,” he said, with the eye equivalent of that no longer possible shake of the head, “but hell is a nontransferable experience.” So better to talk of other things: friends, bêtes noires, politics, books.

With the dedicated support of his family, devoted students, and professional carers, he found a way to go on doing what he did best—thinking, talking, and writing. In fact, the two years of his fatal illness were the occasion for a creative outpouring, with the Remarque Lecture on social democracy expanded into a short book (Ill Fares the Land); a set of memoir essays, composed in his head in those long periods of immobilized solitude, and then dictated (some have been published in these pages, the complete set will appear in book form as The Memory Chalet); and a book in which Tony talked through his planned intellectual history of the twentieth century, in conversation with Timothy Snyder. On e-mail—for once, an unmixed blessing—he could continue to “speak” in his old voice.


It is probably inevitable that his life and work will now be viewed, at least for some time, through the prism of his cruel illness—and the quite public way in which he described and fought it. But death should not be allowed to define life. These were, after all, only two years out of sixty-two. As a hardheaded, nonreligious, unsentimental realist, Tony would have greeted any formulaic sentimentalities about what “lives on” with that dismissive shake of the hand. But in some important sense, his intellectual Czernowitz is still alive; and his books will long be walking and talking among us.

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