"For the first time I met Israelis who were chauvinistic in every meaning of the word: anti-Arab in a sense bordering on racism; quite undisturbed at the prospect of killing Arabs wherever possible..." (117). This was historian Tony Judt's observation when he served as a translator in the Israeli army in 1967. Those who have heard of professor Judt may remark that, while his statement is controversial, it is nonetheless indicative of his left-leaning positions.
It would be inaccurate, however, to reach such a conclusion after reading Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder's Thinking the Twentieth Century, a text which explores and critiques in uncensored detail the dominant ideas, leaders, and events that helped shape the twentieth century. His final testament to the world before succumbing to ALS, Judt, through his discussions with renowned Yale historian Timothy Snyder and author of Bloodlands, evinces a masterpiece that will regale those who thought his greatest feat was Postwar.
Stated in the foreword and reiterated in the afterword, Judt wants to impart to his reader his view of himself as an outsider. In each of the nine chapters, for example, he provides autobiographical information as a means of placing himself squarely in the context of the twentieth century but more as an observer rather than as active participant.
To support this image of the outsider, we learn that the origin of his name was from a relative, which is not particularly unusual, until he adds that his relative died in Auschwitz. There is the history of his family, which includes Eastern Europe and his socialist father and grandfather, but it also includes a mother who is more interested in being British than anything else. In his youth, which he characterizes primarily as lonely, his teachers praise his intellectual prowess in history, politics, and literature, but at the same time he has to contend with a public whose anti-Semitic attitudes cast blame for the deaths of British soldiers on "those Jews."
In college, his professors recognized his intellectual abilities, but at the same time he was aware that privilege had allowed students entrance into an elite institution that they had not earned. Considering himself a Marxist at Cambridge, he never really participated in student protests with the exception of the Vietnam War. Finishing his Ph.D. at 24, he was always the youngest member of college faculty members and often in disagreement with their historiography and academic political correctness. He married and divorced twice before falling in love and marrying one of his graduate students, Jenny.
While teaching in Atlanta, he struggled adapting to its climate and southern culture. He finally found his niche in New York, only to alienate himself from members of the history department, whose neo-liberal approach to history irritated him. Finally, he antagonized much of the elite media when he was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, calling their journalism habitually reckless. Saying that one is an outsider is merely lip-service; in the case of Tony Judt, his personal life mirrored his approach to intellectual pursuits: that one should be honest enough to view reality for what it is regardless if it may hurt the sensibilities of those deemed "insiders."
And in his discussions with Timothy Snyder, Judt does not hesitate espousing what he believes to be the truth on a variety of twentieth century topics. In chapter one, for example, he states that the Jewish question was never his focus in academia, even though it certainly spills over when he writes about a "general history."
He criticizes both Jews and non-Jews for isolating themselves culturally, which unfortunately leads to stereotypes that would have disastrous human consequences. Even in the Jewish community, he expressed that there was a pecking order (common in all ethnic groups) where those of German stock were revered more than those who were Polish. He explores why Jews were overrepresented in socialist and communist groups, concluding that European democracy lowered their standing and naturally lent a stronger voice to anti-Semitism.
Not only Jews but other groups found Communism alluring because it proselytized salvation to those who joined provided that they follow the dialectics of history. He even indicted those such as Jean Paul Sartre, who, even though they knew that Communism was a complete failure, still followed the party line as their "comrades" shot and tortured innocents.
In chapters two, three, and four, there are many stimulating intellectual topics, but two that stand out are their discussions of Marxism and the state of Israel. Judt goes so far to suggest that the logic of Marxism and Christianity are quite similar, which explains its popularity in countries dominated by rigid religious orthodoxy. There is also his insight that Marx to him was a historical commentator rather than revolutionary agitator.
Indeed, in England Marx was popular among the upper middle class, and it was the foundation of left thinking. However, he criticizes those who refused to see to its conclusion the detrimental impact of Marxist ideology upon Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This was one of the recurring traits of the twentieth century: the willingness to believe in an ideology even though it was painfully obvious that it enslaved rather than liberated.
Chapter four, by far the most controversial, contains Judt's excoriating views of the state of Israel. A former Zionist and Israeli soldier, Judt attacks Israel in ways that only a "Jew could" (his words) since any non-Jew who were to argue these points would automatically be called anti-Semitic. His position is that Israel is immoral for using the Holocaust to excuse its brutish behavior, and that he sees no real purpose for its existence since the Holocaust is no longer likely and because it has created greater instability in the region. There are points in chapter four where one will ask: Can he really get away with saying that? Even near his death, Judt maintains his principle that history must be told, even if it makes him a loathed outsider in his community.
Chapters five, six, and seven may not be as salacious as chapter four, but Snyder and Judt address historical topics that most of us would not care to venture: fascist intellectuals, political correctness in American universities, his disagreement with multi-cultural history, and his condemnation of previous American presidents.
Of particular insight on fascist intellectuals is his definition of the fascist Italian model. Not until the early 1930s did it take on a racial component, and its origins he suggests comes from those born a generation before World War I, who witnessed the destruction of their world and were looking for a new order that could help them reclaim their greatness. Fascist intellectuals were likely to be critics of modern culture, with its loose morals and its rampant focus on materialism. Part of its popularity was that many viewed it as the only alternative to Communism, which was spreading from east to west and whose followers were trying to use elections to their advantage. By no means does Judt support fascism; his brilliance is that he shows how one extreme naturally leads to another.
In chapters eight and nine, Judt and Snyder tackle more current topics, such as 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the growing age of insecurity, the fragility of American democracy, the welfare verses the warfare states, economic theory, the impact of privatization, the unfair distribution of resources, and the remaking of capitalism into a Chinese model.
Much of these ideas can be found in Judt's Ill Fares the Land, but nonetheless Judt is likely to have offended several people--i.e. he called Bill Clinton "smug" and George Bush "disastrous" when it came to foreign policy; he said that Republican politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin purvey a national fascism that has damaged the political climate; he argues that feminism advanced "privatized politics" which worked to solidify the privatization model of American life; he contends most politicians today are "mediocre at best" and lack the expertise to fully understand the issues that confront us; and surprising even social democrats, he agrees with free market proponents in that guaranteeing loans is a threat to capitalism.
There is much that I have left out, partly so as not to reveal every "hot topic" that is discussed in detail, but also because there is not enough space in a review to categorize them. Certainly, Thinking the Twentieth Century is nor for the faint of heart, but then again the title should serve as a warning to those who would approach this 400 page text as historical laymen. As Judt has done in all of his books, he forces the reader to think critically about everything that transpired in the twentieth century.
Having read his books, I truly understand that his goal is to provide us with a general history that can serve as clarification for those who lived through it and as a springboard for future discussion for those who want to make the twenty-first century better than it has started. The brilliance of Judt's accomplishment is that it displays what thinking looks and sounds like beyond political labels.