“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.