August 7, 2010
Tony Judt, Chronicler of History, Is Dead at 62
Tony Judt, the author of “Postwar,” a monumental history of Europe after World War II, and a public intellectual known for his sharply polemical essays on American foreign policy, the state of Israel and the future of Europe, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 62.
The death was announced in a statement from New York University, where he had taught for many years. The cause was complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he learned he had in September 2008. In a matter of months the disease left him paralyzed and able to breathe only with mechanical assistance, but he continued to lecture and write.
“In effect,” Mr. Judt wrote in an essay published in January in The New York Review of Books, “A.L.S. constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole.”
Mr. Judt (pronounced Jutt), who was British by birth and education but who taught at American universities for most of his career, began as a specialist in postwar French intellectual history, and for much of his life he embodied the idea of the French-style engaged intellectual.
An impassioned left-wing Zionist as a teenager, he shed his faith in agrarian socialism and Marxism early on and became, as he put it, a “universalist social democrat” with a deep suspicion of left-wing ideologues, identity politics and the emerging role of the United States as the world’s sole superpower.
His developing interest in Europe as a whole, including the states of the former Eastern Bloc, led him to take an active role in the developing Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia; it culminated in “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” (2005), a sweeping, richly detailed survey embracing countries from Britain to the Balkans that, in the words of one reviewer, has “the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.”
Mr. Judt was perhaps best known for his essays on politics and current affairs in journals like The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books.
“He had the unusual ability to see and convey the big picture while, at the same time, going to the heart of the matter,” said Mark Lilla, who teaches intellectual history atColumbia University. “Most academics do neither — they float in between. But Tony was able to talk about the big picture and explain why it matters now.”
Tony Robert Judt was born in the East End of London on Jan. 2, 1948, and grew up in Putney. His parents, although secular and apolitical Jews, encouraged him to join the Labor Zionist youth organization Dror as a way to meet friends. He became a fervent convert to the cause, spending several summers working on a kibbutz in Israel and serving as the organization’s national secretary from 1965 to 1967.
“I was the ideal recruit: articulate, committed and uncompromisingly ideologically conformist,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch for The New York Review of Books in February.
After he passed the entrance examinations to King’s College, Cambridge, he volunteered as an auxiliary with the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six-Day War, acting as an interpreter for other volunteers in the newly conquered Golan Heights. There he lost faith in the Zionist mission and began to see Israel as a malign occupying power whose self-definition as a Jewish state, he later argued, made it “an anachronism.”
Mr. Judt returned to Britain disabused and highly skeptical of the radical political currents swirling around him at Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from King’s College in 1969. After studying for a year at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he returned to King’s College and earned a doctorate in 1972.
His dissertation, on the French socialist party’s re-emergence after World War I, was published in France as “La Reconstruction du Parti Socialiste: 1921-1926” (1976). In 1979 he followed up with “Socialism in Provence, 1871-1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left,” and in 1986 he published “Marxism and the French Left: Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981.”
These relatively specialist works led to two interpretive studies of French postwar intellectual life: “Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956” (1994) and “The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century” (1998).
Casting his lot with the nonideological liberals, like Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, who dared to criticize the Soviet Union and third-world revolutionary movements, he subjected Sartre and others to a withering critique that came as a shock to many French and American intellectuals. His target, he wrote, was “the uneasy conscience and moral cowardice of an intellectual generation.”
Fluidly written, with a strong narrative drive and an insistent, polemical edge, both books established Mr. Judt as a historian whose ability to see the present in the past gave his work an unusual air of immediacy. Increasingly he inclined toward free-ranging inquiry across disciplines, pursuing a wide range of his interests reflected in the essay collection“Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century” (2008).
“A historian also has to be an anthropologist, also has to be a philosopher, also has to be a moralist, also has to understand the economics of the period he is writing about,” he told the online magazine Historically Speaking in 2006. “Though they are often arbitrary, disciplinary boundaries certainly exist. Nevertheless, the historian has to learn to transcend them in order to write intelligently.”
In 1987, after teaching at Cambridge, the University of California at Berkeley and Oxford, he began teaching at N.Y.U. There, in 1995, he helped found the Remarque Institute with a bequest from Paulette Goddard, the widow of the writer Erich Maria Remarque. Under his directorship, it became an important international center for the study of Europe, past and present. His skepticism about the future of the European Union found expression in a sharply polemical, pamphlet-length book, “A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe” (1996).
His first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the dance critic Jennifer Homans, and their two sons, Daniel and Nicholas.
His views on Israel made Mr. Judt an increasingly polarizing figure. He placed himself in the midst of a bitter debate when, in 2003, he outlined a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem in The New York Review of Books, proposing that Israel accept a future as a secular, bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed equal status.
In 2006, a scheduled talk at the Polish Consulate in Manhattan was abruptly canceled for reasons later hotly disputed, but apparently under pressure, explicit or implicit, from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, told The New York Observer at the time that Mr. Judt, on Israel, “has become precisely the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised.” Mr. Judt’s name had been removed from the masthead of the magazine, where he had been a contributing editor, after his article on the one-state solution.
Mr. Judt expressed some surprise that he should be defined by his position on one issue and expressed distaste for public controversy, while showing an unmistakable relish for the cut and thrust of public debate.
“Today I’m regarded outside New York University as a looney-tunes leftie self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university I’m regarded as a typical old-fashioned white male liberal elitist,” he told The Guardian of London in January 2010. “I like that. I’m on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”
His discovery in 2008 that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease did not deter him from his work. He continued to write and lecture.
Last October, wrapped in a blanket and sitting in a wheelchair with a breathing device attached to his nose, Mr. Judt spoke about social democracy before an audience of 700 at N.Y.U. He turned that lecture into a small book, “Ill Fares the Land,” published in March by Penguin Press.
During the lecture, his last public appearance, he told the audience that some of his American friends felt that seeing him talk about A.L.S. would be uplifting. But he added, “I’m English, and we don’t do ‘uplifting.’ ”
He did write about his illness, however. In an essay in The New York Review of Books in January, he wrote, “In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration.”
History remained uppermost in his mind, though. In “Ill Fares the Land,” he turned his attention to a problem he regarded as acute: the loss of faith in social democracy, and the power of the state to do good, that had brought prosperity to so many European countries after World War II.
“The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly,” he told Historically Speaking. “A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”