The Reminder-General

The Reminder-General

Tony Judt fears the twenty-first century has spawned a culture hell- bent on forgetting the past.


“The past has nothing of interest to teach us.” That, fears Tony Judt, is the presiding assumption of the early twenty-first century. The speed of social and economic change, the exhaustion of the twentieth century’s dominant ideologies and a desire to put the horrors of that century’s carnage behind us all conspire, he believes, to encourage a culture of forgetting. And this belief frames and justifies his sense of his own role; he appoints himself the Reminder-General in contemporary society (or at least in the United States), a particular version of the historian as public intellectual.

He had already played this role for some years through his contributions to the leading periodicals of cultural and political opinion in the United States and Britain and his direction of the Remarque Institute at New York University, but his standing and authority were vastly enhanced by the publication in 2005 of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. This massive volume was acclaimed for its extraordinary synthesis of more than half a century of the history of an entire continent. In it the big questions and the big countries properly receive the greatest share of attention, but the book is in some ways more remarkable for showing us where, say, Norway, Portugal or Bulgaria fits into the larger picture. A work of synthesis on the scale of Postwar, in which, inevitably, some ruthless decisions have to be made about selection and emphasis, benefits from being organized around a small number of large themes; a strong controlling argument has its drawbacks, but it helps keep the potentially disruptive heterogeneity in line.

The most successful collections of essays, by contrast, are likely to exhibit other qualities: a sensibility responsive and sympathetic to a plurality of voices may be one such quality; an engaging and persuasive authorial presence may be another. But there is the danger that essays that may have seemed forceful when initially published can come to seem forced when brought into the company of other, unnervingly similar, performances. In Reappraisals Judt has collected twenty-four of his review-essays from 1994 to 2006, the great majority of which first appeared in The New York Review of Books, so its publication allows us to take stock of his performance in the related role of historian as essayist.

In his introduction, Judt claims that two main themes run through the book: first, “the role of ideas and the responsibility of intellectuals”; and second, “the place of recent history in an age of forgetting.” I’m not sure that these are, in practice, the salient themes, but the announcement does fairly represent the insistent, exigent tone of what is to follow–“the role,” “the responsibility,” “the place.” It might be more accurate to say that the dominant concerns of the volume are, first, the primacy of the political when evaluating ideas; second, the defining significance of attitudes toward the Holocaust and communism; third, the value of transatlantic comparisons and contrasts when thinking about the state; and fourth, the distinctive contribution of Jews to understanding modern history.

Some of the best essays in this collection display the same power to identify and analyze the interplay of political power, cultural identity and socioeconomic change that characterized the strongest sections of Postwar. Learned and illuminating essays on Belgium and Romania are good examples of Judt’s capacity to grasp, frame and narrate. And, as we might expect from someone who began his career as a specialist in French history, there are some good explorations of the distinctiveness of France and its peculiar forms of “backwardness”–France was, “of all the countries of Western Europe, the one which had changed least until very recently.” His strengths as a political analyst and polemicist are also on display in several fine essays, including those on American foreign policy and the role of the state in the global economy. (Speaking as an outsider to the debates to which he has contributed, I find his essays here on Israel sympathetic and perceptive, though I well realize that some readers will not share that judgment.) In all these pieces, Judt gives a master class in the role of the historian as public intellectual, informing and educating his readers, getting behind the headlines and stereotypes to pinpoint the real forces working to determine policies and shape societies.

But there are deeper continuities with his previous work. Postwar ends with an epilogue titled “From the House of the Dead: An Essay on Modern European Memory.” In it, Judt’s concerns about public forgetting take a highly specific form. What needs to be properly remembered, he insists, is the Holocaust. “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket,” and not just to the European Union. “The recovered memory of Europe’s dead Jews has become the very definition and guarantee of the continent’s restored humanity.” This is a highly eccentric construal of European identity, one that is perhaps rather belied by the more complex history of social, economic and political change recounted in the book’s previous 800 pages. But in Judt’s eyes, this topic, above all, confirms the public role of the historian. He quotes Columbia University historian Yosef Yerushalmi on how mere “memory” is inadequate to the task of maintaining a proper grasp on the enormity of the Holocaust: “Only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard.” And Judt concludes, “If Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose–then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation.”

One response to this passionate credo is to feel not just that it may exaggerate the present place of the Holocaust in European societies but that it risks turning history into too narrowly didactic an exercise, as though the main purpose of an interest in the past were to provide us with “admonitory meaning and moral purpose.” This may be a danger in the role of “historian as public intellectual” more generally. The pressure of public debate demands clear messages, “lessons” from the past, whereas that “austere passion for fact” will usually tend toward the recognition of complexity and often the absence of anything that might qualify as a “lesson.” The temper of historical analysis necessarily leans toward the skeptical; its effects tend to be corrosive of all pieties, and those may on occasion include the admirable civic values Judt and other public moralists would have it validate.

Judt’s ready embrace of that public role means that there is no shortage in these essays of lessons for the present, often trenchantly stated. A particularly powerful example is provided by the theme of the function of the state in twenty-first-century societies: “The state, as the history of the last century copiously illustrates, does some things rather well and other things quite badly. There are some things the private sector, or the market, can do better and many things they cannot do at all.” This line of reasoning leads him to conclude in the final essay, “The Social Question Redivivus,” that “only a state can provide the services and conditions through which its citizens may aspire to lead a good or fulfilling life.” He then spells out what a social-democratic ideal revised in the light of a realistic appraisal of the weaknesses and strengths of global capitalism could look like:

For some years to come, the chief burden on the government of any well-run national community will be ensuring that those of its members who are the victims of economic transformations over which the government itself can exercise only limited control nevertheless live decent lives, even (especially) if such a life no longer contains the expectation of steady, remunerative, and productive employment; that the rest of the community is led to an appreciation of its duty to share that burden; and that the economic growth required to sustain this responsibility is not inhibited by the ends to which it is applied. This is a job for the state; and that is hard to accept because the desirability of placing the maximum possible restrictions upon the interventionary capacities of the state has become the cant of our time.

This is, clearly, a minimalist prescription. In most European countries it would be widely assumed, including by many regarded as being on the right, that the state ought to be playing a broader and more constructive role than this, helping to shape the framework within which social and economic activity is carried on, not confining itself to providing a safety net for the losers in the great scramble. Judt goes on to argue that the “task of the Left in Europe” is to “reconstruct a case for the activist state.” But in an American context, simply to spell out this minimalist case in such measured terms as the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from an intelligent analysis of recent history may be to perform an important service as a public intellectual.

The topic on which Judt’s reading of the lessons of history has generated the most controversy in recent years is, of course, Israel. That topic occupies a relatively minor place in this collection, but the same outspokenness and trenchancy are in evidence when he does touch upon it. For example, in the course of an admirable essay written in 2004 as an introduction to a posthumous collection of Edward Said’s writings on the Middle East [which appeared in the July 19, 2004, issue of The Nation], he declares, “After thirty-seven years of military occupation, Israel has gained nothing in security; it has lost everything in domestic civility and international respectability; and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever.” Even those who broadly share this view may wince at the sweepingness of “nothing,” “everything” and “forever,” but we should recognize that in the contemporary United States it takes courage to express this view in such downright terms. Judt has already been vilified for his position on Israel; indeed, he has been subjected to a quite shameful level of denunciation, something that makes his steadiness under fire in these essays all the more admirable.

In some of the other pieces he writes more in the vein of the prosecuting attorney, relentlessly forensic. Here, his touchstone tests of giving rightful pre-eminence to the Holocaust in modern European history and of being properly vehement in one’s condemnation of communism start to grate in the way over-ground axes always do. (It may be relevant here to note that Judt, who was born and spent the first thirty-five years of his life in Britain, describes his provenance in these terms: “Coming from that branch of East European Jewry that had embraced social democracy and the Bund [the Jewish Labor organization of early-twentieth-century Russia and Poland], my own family was viscerally anti-Communist.”) Several of the essays in this style are about individual intellectuals, and although Judt has written extensively about French intellectuals in the past, I have to say that the topic does not seem to me to play to his strengths. This is partly because he focuses so narrowly on the political bearing of their ideas, a focus that in practice often tends to reduce to whether they were (culpably) sympathetic or (properly) hostile to communism. As political critiques, they are always forceful and usually intelligent, but as intellectual portraits they sometimes feel rather thin and monochromatic.

Consider his discussion of the figure often now acclaimed as “the world’s most famous historian,” Eric Hobsbawm. Though at points Judt praises Hobsbawm’s gifts, he generalizes a damning indictment from the fact that Hobsbawm, mainly out of loyalty to his old comrades and their shared ideals, never resigned his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain. This allows Judt to conclude that Hobsbawm “has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.” Even the briefest glance at The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm’s celebrated history of the “short twentieth century,” let alone his many other writings on modern history, is sufficient to demonstrate the absurdity of this judgment (condemnation of the “brutal and dictatorial” Soviet system and the “murderous absurdity” of Stalin’s policies pepper Hobsbawm’s pages). But its substantive and stylistic exaggeration is not an isolated instance. Moving to his peroration, Judt thunders, “The values and institutions that have mattered to the Left–from equality before the law to the provision of public services as a matter of right…owed nothing to Communism. Seventy years of ‘real existing Socialism’ contributed nothing to the sum of human welfare. Nothing.” The table-thumping repetition here seems eerily reminiscent of the commissar at the party meeting, yet to whom are these rhetorical excesses addressed in Judt’s case? Perhaps to those left-deviationists who, reprehensibly, don’t think that a vehement display of anticommunism is the overriding indication of historical intelligence?

This note becomes disturbingly insistent in Judt’s remarks, in the course of a very positive assessment of Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, about another British historian, E.P. Thompson. In 1973 Thompson addressed an “Open Letter” to Kolakowski, expressing dismay at the latter’s repudiation, since his arrival in the West, of the kind of independent Marxist thinking he had bravely upheld as a dissident voice within Poland in the 1950s and ’60s. The “Open Letter,” writes Judt, slipping into adjectival overdrive,

was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst…patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kolakowski…. How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal?

From the outset, Judt’s labored sarcasms start to backfire: even someone who had not previously heard of, let alone read, Thompson’s letter, begins to sense from the overkill of “worshipful,” “leafy” and “inconvenient” that Thompson is facing a firing squad rather than a critical appraisal. Judt goes on to pronounce that Kolakowski’s reply “may be the most perfectly executed intellectual demolition in the history of political argument: No one who reads it will ever take E.P. Thompson seriously again.” The history of political argument is a long one, which can boast some celebrated intellectual demolitions: why would anyone claim they were all outranked by Kolakowski’s response, a document that, to be sure, makes some telling local points but that on the whole talks past Thompson as well as down to him, in a heavy-handed display of misplaced condescension? And “no one” who reads it will “ever” take Thompson “seriously” again? This is stump oratory, not one distinguished historian’s appraisal of the achievements of a surely no less distinguished colleague.

Even in cases where Judt’s criticisms seem broadly right, there is often a betraying exaggeration in his swelling address to the jury. For example, in writing about the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who enjoyed great esteem among many on the theoretically inclined left in the 1960s and ’70s, he jabs his finger in the juror’s chest: “What does it say about modern academic life that such a figure can have trapped teachers and students for so long in the cage of his insane fictions, and traps them still?” I find Althusser’s theories no more compelling than Judt does, but “trapped,” “cage,” “insane”? And can the current interest on the part of a tiny minority of university teachers in what is by any measure a complex and highly abstract body of thinking really be read as damningly symptomatic of something as extensive as “modern academic life”?

Critics usually write more winningly about authors they admire than about those they abhor, but even with these figures Judt can sometimes intrude with a political judgment too soon and too insistently. The lead essay in the collection is titled “Arthur Koestler, the Exemplary Intellectual.” This was originally published as a review of a biography of Koestler, and Judt scores several good points against the parochial and anachronistic judgments made by the biographer about, for example, Koestler’s voracious sexuality and his ambivalent attitude toward Zionism. But as the essay goes on, one increasingly wonders how anyone could now think of Koestler as “the exemplary intellectual.” Judt fairly acknowledges that many of Koestler’s books “were panned by specialists for their idiosyncratic speculation, their searching for coherence and meaning in every little coincidence and detail, their abuse of analogy, and the overconfident intrusion of their author into matters of which he was comparatively ignorant.”

On what grounds, then, could we regard such a figure as an “exemplary” intellectual? Principally, it seems, on the strength of his having written Darkness at Noon, which is “widely credited with having made a singular and unequalled contribution to exploding the Soviet myth.” Even Judt recognizes some of the weaknesses of that book, and he acknowledges that it “seems curiously dated today.” But the failings of this and Koestler’s other writings on the same theme are, somehow, part of what makes him “the exemplary intellectual.” “His obsession with the fight against Communism (like all his other obsessions) brooked no compromise and seemed to lack all proportion…. This made Koestler an uncomfortable presence, someone who brought disruption and conflict in his train. But that is what intellectuals are for.” Is that really true? Like most one-liners about what intellectuals are “for,” it has a certain snappy charm, but if we are being serious rather than merely provocative or epigrammatic, do we really want intellectuals, any more than any other category of our fellow citizens, to “lack all proportion” and bring “disruption and conflict in [their] train”?

Judt’s (qualified) endorsement of Hannah Arendt displays some of the same preoccupations. He again notes that other critics have found her to be “inaccurate in argument and to make a parade of learned allusion without any detailed enquiry into texts.” But he endorses her nonetheless because, in his view, “she got the big things right,” namely her insistence that genocide was the “basis” of Nazism and that “the Stalinist era was not a perversion of the logic of Historical Progress but its very acme.” And in his discussion of Arendt, the themes of not forgetting and of being Jewish come together in a revealing way. Although she was a wholly assimilated product of the German culture of Bildung and Wissenschaft, Judt takes the fact of her having been born in Königsberg to indicate her kinship with the members of the “lost cosmopolitan communities” of Europe, intellectuals who hailed from “vulnerable cities [that were] at once central and peripheral–Vilna, Trieste, Danzig, Alexandria, Algiers, even Dublin.”

And so, he argues, Arendt, like other cosmopolitan “survivors,” felt a special obligation to combat the tendency to forgetting. “In Arendt’s case the responsibility, as she felt it, was made heavier by a conscientious, and perhaps distinctively Jewish, refusal to condemn modernity completely or to pass a curse upon the Enlightenment and all its works.” I am not quite sure I understand what he is saying in this sentence, but on the face of things it is hard to see anything “distinctively Jewish” about “refusing to condemn modernity completely or to pass a curse upon the Enlightenment and all its works.”

We may get some clarification of Judt’s thinking here from the conclusion of his essay on the Central European polyglot writer Manès Sperber, whom he describes as by origin “a shtetl Jew from Galicia”:

The extermination of the past–by design, by neglect, by good intention–is what characterizes the history of our time. That is why the ahistorical memory of a marginal community that found itself in the whirlwind may yet be the best guide to our era. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand the history of Europe in the twentieth century, but it helps.

That closing mot is lightly turned, but it may speak volumes not just about Judt’s preoccupation with Jewishness but about his particular construal of the advantages of “marginality.” The implication is that homelessness, exile and displacement sensitize one’s social and cultural antennae; perhaps the best cultural analysts (and maybe the best historians?) are those who have moved on from their country of origin or who belong to a group who never felt at home there in the first place. It’s a fashionable assumption, but there’s no good reason to think it’s true. Displacement and grievance narrow as well as enlarge horizons, and even being a European Jew in New York may bring with it parochialisms of its own.

Judt’s essays become more important and more troubling for being brought together in one volume. The publication of Reappraisals certainly confirms, were any confirmation still needed, his standing as a significant figure in the public intellectual life of the contemporary United States. I salute the range, the command and the courage displayed in his writing. But spending a prolonged spell in his literary company also leaves me feeling a bit uncomfortable. I feel that I would be forced into banging the table in my turn if I wanted to enter the conversations whose terms he partly sets. We need historians to play the role that Judt so ably does, but perhaps we need them also to be a bit less at ease with that role. The best works of history rarely yield unambiguous support to any political cause or affiliation, and we look to the vocabulary, register and cadence of good historical writing to communicate that chastened sense of complexity that otherwise can struggle to get itself heard in public debate. That’s not everything, of course. But it’s not “nothing,” either.

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