Thinking the Twentieth Century
Tony Judt
with Timothy Snyder
by John Toren

Sometimes the best books are talked rather than written. This is because the challenge of facing an audience that might well fall asleep or leave requires that an author measure words carefully, avoiding tiresome digressions and tedious asides designed merely to cover some anticipated minor objection from academic colleagues—in short, to keep to the point. Some examples? Igor Stravinsky’s The Poetics of Music; Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture; Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium; Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being.

Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century falls into this category. It consists of a series of conversations taking place across several months between Judt and Timothy Snyder, an expert in the history of Eastern Europe (though he hails from the depths of Ohio) about the course of Western civilization during the century we recently completed. Judt, an English historian widely known for his articles in the New York Review of Books and his highly-praised history of modern Europe, Postwar, among other things, does most of the talking. But Snyder is no slouch, and he adds plenty of his own comments, insights, quibbles, and leading questions to move the conversation along.

In crafting the manuscript Judt didn’t face the challenge of keeping a live audience amused, but he faced a more considerable one—he was struggling with ALS at the time. No time to consult the notes or nuance the position. This is magisterial conversational history, off the top of the head, as it were.

The book’s title is a bit of a misnomer, however. It might better have been called Rethinking the Twentieth Century, or Talking the Twentieth Century, because that’s what Judt and Snyder are doing. Every chapter begins with a few autobiographical pages, as Judt describes his parents’ and grandparents’ backgrounds in Eastern Europe, his youthful infatuation with Zionism, and his career as an academic historian in England, France, Berkeley, and New York. These personal reminiscences are refreshing rather than self-indulgent; they give us an inside look at what the career of an academic historian might be like, and how his background and personal life might affect his career moves and choice of research topics. They also give us a rather scathing (and fairly accurate) critique of the pressure brought to bear on genuine historical scholarship by the onslaught of various “hyphenated” disciplines during the last half-century. Judt writes:

What happens, after all, when the proletariat ceases to function as an engine of history? At hands of practitioners of social and cultural studies in the 1970s the machine could still be made to work: you merely replaced “workers” with women; or students, or peasants, or blacks, or—eventually—gays, and indeed whichever group had sound reason to be dissatisfied with the present disposition of power and authority.

Which brings to mind yet a third strand to these wide-ranging conversations. Judt is not only rethinking the century and analyzing the shifting currents of academic fashion he was immersed in, and found himself swimming against more often than not; he’s also rethinking the ideas that populated the intellectual landscape during the twentieth century, and especially its early decades, when Marxists, communists, labor-socialists, syndicalists, Fascists, Nazis, and liberals struggled for control of their neighbors, comrades, constituencies, parties, nations—and the world.

These discussions are interesting, though as the conversation progresses we begin to feel, reading between the lines, that ideas per se had almost nothing to do with shaping the twentieth century, except in so far as they drove men and women to form allegiances with one another for the purpose of seizing power and destroying other similarly “committed” groups. After all, the logical deficiencies of Marx’s teleological theories of historical development had been largely exposed by the turn of the twentieth century. Marxism was theoretically dead. But that didn’t stop organizers, reformers, labor leaders and revolutionaries from making use of his pseudo-scientific prognostications to bolster their self-confidence and rally their cohorts. This is no longer a matter of thinking, however, so much as of persuading for political ends.

Yet Judt, like most intellectual historians of the era, loves to talk about Orwell, Camus, Antonio Gramsci, Koestler, the Spanish Civil War, and all the rest, as if it were a grandiose tale on the order of Parsival, or better yet, Orlando Furioso. He does it well, with erudition poking its head up in the midst of nearly every conversational aside. And many readers, myself included, enjoy reading about such things—up to a point. But halfway through the book, we begin to get the odd impression that Leon Blum is the twentieth century’s dominant figure. In part this reflects Judt’s focus, early in his career, on French intellectual history; it also reflects his estimable concern for social justice, and his desire to find models of exemplary conduct in a century replete with tyrants, ideologues, and mass-murderers. He could have done worse. Blum was France’s first Jewish prime minister. A Marxist, he distrusted the French communists but relied on their support. That was a mistake, though he would never had risen to power without them. During his tenure as leader of the Popular Front, the French government instituted the 40-hour work week, paid holidays for employees, and collective bargaining. It’s hardly a proletariat utopia, but a remarkable achievement under the circumstances.

There are two passages that highlight what might be called the occupational shortcoming of Judt’s interpretation—an overemphasis on intellectuals. At one point he writes that “the biggest story of the twentieth century” was how so many smart people could have developed such astounding misconceptions about the destructive import of communism “with all the terrible consequences that ensued.” This could be considered the “biggest story” only by an intellectual historian who imagines that if “the intellectuals” had not been so blinded, everything might have turned out differently. As if the intellectuals were responsible for Stalin and Hitler murdering their millions—or could have done anything about it.

The second telling passage concerns a more recent generation:

The year 1968 is crucial because a new generation was emerging for whom all the old lessons seemed irrelevant. Precisely because the liberals have won, their children had no grasp of what had been at stake in the first place. Aron in France, Hook in America, Habermas in Germany all took a very similar view: the crucial asset of Western liberalism was not its intellectual appeal but its institutional structures.

There are some strange lacunae in this passage but the central point is well taken and needs to be reemphasized and expanded: intellectual appeal is never important except to academics who make their living by noodling out the details and ramifications of arcane ideas that are seldom acted upon; meanwhile, institutional structures—courts of law, legislative assemblies, labor review boards and all the rest—are important to everyone who falls under their purview. Property rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech, habeas corpus: such notions date back several centuries at least and there is little glamour left in them, but they mean far more to most people than what Camus said to Sartre one day at a theater in Montparnasse.

Timothy Snyder sums all of this up when he comments:

If Leon Blum has to muddle through his own Marxism in the 1930s and finds his hands tied, that may be something of a national disaster; if Blum is more confused than he should be when he finally gets into power, that’s a European problem. But after the war, when France matters least as a traditional power, then—at least I think this is your argument if one puts all the books together—discourse matters more because the French only matter in so far as people are listening to them or not listening to them.

To which Judt replies: “That’s very well said and summarized.”

But for Judt himself, French ideas came to matter less and less in the course of time, and he found himself drifting away from that field toward the recent history of Eastern Europe. He began making friends with Polish, Czech, and Hungarian scholars who were not merely students of someone else’s revolution—they were in the process of making a revolution of their own. And Judt was also, no doubt, relieved that in the context of Eastern European liberation, he no longer had to balance his socialist ideals against the brutal and repressive tactics of those who were ostensibly pursuing them. Marxist apologetics fall by the wayside, and we enter the domain of Vaclav Havel, the Helsinki accords, and the politics of “as if”:

The politics of “as if” could take two forms. In some places it was possible to behave as though the regime was open to negotiation, taking seriously the hypocrisy of its laws and—if nothing else—revealing the emperor’s nakedness. Elsewhere, particularly in states like Czechoslovakia where even the illusion of political compromise had been destroyed—the strategy consisted of acting at an individual level as if you were free: leading, or trying to lead, a life grounded in non-political notions of ethics and virtue.

In the course of their erudite stroll across the recent history of Eastern Europe, Judt and Snyder dump on Milan Kundera for a page or two—rather unfairly, I think—and proceed to describe Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of the Polish magazine Kultura, as the most important Cold War liberal in the world. (Who?) The flow of analysis remains in the sphere of intellectual history, on the order of: “The Central Europe of Nicholar Kaldor, a Hungarian economist whom I knew in Cambridge, was still a German-speaking Central Europe. . . . But the next generation was writing in Hungarian. The only foreign language that they learned obligatorily was Russian . . .” And so on. By the time the Berlin Wall falls and the various colored revolutions take place, however, socialist rhetoric has taken such a beating that the only thing left standing to replace the decrepit Soviet model is a Thatcherite capitalist individualism.

Judt accepted a teaching position in New York City in 1987, and fell in love with the place. The way he describes its appeal underscores how unacademic his approach to scholarship is, yet how deeply committed to participating in the grand conversation that, in his view, might just lead us to a better world.

At one point he’s offered a job at the University of Chicago. He declines, and explains his reasoning:

From an academic point of view, New York resembles the continental European model rather than the Anglo-American template. The most important conversations in town are not those conducted among academics behind college walls, but the broader intellectual and cultural debate exchanged across the city and taking in journalists, independent writers, artists and visitors as well as the local professoriate. Thus, at least in principle, universities are culturally and intellectually integrated into the wider conversation. In this sense at least, by staying in New York I could also remain European.

Judt and Snyder then engage in an extended discussion of historiography—what makes history history—and the sorry state of modern history as an academic discipline. The whistle-stops on this route will be familiar to many—Gibbon, Michelet, Butterfield, A.J.P. Taylor, Quentin Skinner, Hannah Arendt—though an entirely different itinerary could also be adduced. It’s interesting stuff, though we seem to be slipping into a slightly less compelling key. Judt is also concerned that intellectuals at large find it increasingly difficult to exert any kind of influence on political events nowadays. And when they do, it often seems to be for the wrong causes. An outspoken opponent of the invasion of Iraq, Judt refers to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as “contemptible,” and after appearing on a panel with David Brooks, he offers the opinion that Brooks “knows nothing.” There are moments when Judt seems almost to be endorsing the centuries-old notion of enlightened despotism. You know the line: Voltaire influenced Frederick the Great; why can’t I influence anyone?

As usual, one-liners abound:

Thus, labels to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no such thing as a ‘global intellectual’; Slavoj Žižek does not actually exist.


If you look at the history of nations that maximized the virtues that we associate with democracy, you notice that what came first was constitutionality, rule of law and the separation of powers. Democracy almost always came last.


. . . Americans rarely encounter a foreign currency, nor do they consider themselves affected by the dollar’s relationship to other currencies…The United States therefore remains mired in a series of myopic considerations, even though it is still the only world power and exercises huge military leverage across the globe.


As for Washington: that is not a place in which dissent, or indeed intellectual activity of any other kind, is encouraged.

But just when when’re starting to wonder if we should have left this particular dinner party a bit earlier, Judt and Snyder come roaring back into the realm of economic theory with a discussion of Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, and how the British reformers of the nineteenth century began to ask, and answer, the question we’re still asking today: How do you manage the human consequences of capitalism? In England, Judt observes, the question was usually put in ethical, and often religious terms: What do you do with the downtrodden poor who have come into the cities to labor in the factories? In Germany, on the other hand, it was posed in prudential terms: How can a conservative state prevent social despair boiling over into political protest?

It seems we’re right back where we started from, though the story is made more interesting the second time around by the inclusion of the English example of intermittently successful reform without too much revolutionary crisis or ideological cant as accompaniment. The theories of William Beverage crop up repeatedly. The man is hardly on the order of Marx or Camus in terms of name recognition or cachet, but he was evidently more successful at reaching the desired end.

Summing it all up, Judt writes:

In this perspective, the great victors of the twentieth century were the nineteenth-century liberals whose successors created the welfare state in all its protean forms. They achieved something which, as late as the 1930s, seems almost inconceivable: they forged strong, high-taxing and actively interventionist democracies and constitutional states which could encompass complex mass societies without resorting to violence or repression.

He adds that we would be foolish to abandon this heritage carelessly . . . though he fears we may be in the process of doing so.

We leave this section not at all convinced that Judt has a firm grasp of the nuts and bolts of economics. The only specific reference to such matters that I can recall concerns the price of bread in France. Then again, those who profess to be economists have done little to inspire confidence either. Judt doesn’t think much, in fact, of the ascendancy of economics as an intellectual discipline. Those who practice it tend to ask the wrong question—whether a policy is efficient or inefficient—without pausing first to ask whether the end result is worth pursuing in the first place.

Judt considers himself, not an economist or even a social scientist, so much as a moraliste in the French tradition stretching from Montaigne to Camus. “My historical studies,” he writes, “no less than my journalistic publications, were driven by an explicit set of contemporary concerns and civic commitments.” He also shares with these writers another important quality: he writes well.

The end result is a literary package on the order of The Education of Henry Adams. It may not excite the academics or the pundits much, but it will give enormous pleasure to any reader who possesses even a passing familiarity with the ideas and events under review.

Click here to buy this book from

Click here to buy this book from

Like us on Facebook!
Follow us on Twitter!
Follow us on Pinterest!
Join our mailing list!
Print This Page
Voted Best Literary Events!