An article commemorating the fantastic historian Tony Judt, written last summer.
For those of us missing the historian Tony Judt’s brilliant scholarship, this year has brought a fine treat. Judt died of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a form of motor neurone disease, in August 2010, totally paralysed but still in command of his mind. He was therefore able to create a final book through the transcripts of conversations with his Yale colleague Timothy Snyder. The volume, titled Thinking the Twentieth Century, was published this spring as an autobiography-cum-intellectual discussion, with Snyder’s promptings and contributions included. Their discussion is hugely varied, as is fitting for Judt, the man behind the monumental Postwar, a compendious history of Europe post World War Two. It also reflects Judt as an individual – as Snyder notes in his foreword, he has been both an insider and an outsider for much of his life. As a Jew who went from teenage kibbutznik to controversial critic of Israel; a graduate of King’s College Cambridge who never felt at home in England; a descendant of Eastern European immigrants who felt underqualified to attempt to understand the region; an enthusiastic American who opened a centre for the study of Europe in New York and vehemently opposed the Iraq war, Judt was a complex man.
Much of Judt’s work focussed on memory and perceptions of the past. He felt that one of his purposes as a historian was to make sure that the past was not oversimplified. For him, the expansion of “heritage”, rather than improving public understanding, was hindering perceptions of a wider history. The twentieth century was being reduced to tragic sound bites – Munich, Auschwitz, Rwanda – and triumphalist monuments, rather than appreciated as a whole, in context and in detail. Part of the reason for this is the perception that we are living in a time without precedent, and that such horrors will not happen again. Judt believed we had lost a sense of a collective past, alienated from its experiences. Two examples he cites are our relationship to the state and our perception of war. In the reasonably comfortable twenty-first century, we have lost our understanding of the need for the welfare state and government in our lives. True deprivation and poverty is, for the most part, a thing of the past in the developed world. We now seek to cut back the state, equating it with socialist tyranny – and deprivation – without fully appreciating the cost, both economically and socially. Similarly, our disconnection from the realities of war, especially in the USA, means we think little of conflict overseas; the memory of Europe immediately after World War II has faded sufficiently for the thought of bombing campaigns not to bring revulsion. In America, the experience of war as a civilian simply doesn’t exist. These twin disconnects show our selective understanding of the past: Saddam Hussein was “Stalin on the Tigris”, but the Iraq’s sectarian divisions were not anticipated; we want trains that run on time, but demand tax cuts.
Judt’s concern that we remember may, to a degree, be down to his background. In his own words, “you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the history of Europe in the twentieth century, but it helps”. He also regarded himself as a European, something that few brought up in Britain really do. Yet Judt was certainly English, and regarded himself to a large degree as so. At school, whilst standing out as Jewish, he acquired an understanding and respect for the Church of England as an institution, and even more for English literature. He felt “deeply” English[*]. This affinity is recognised in his work, some of which touches on the issues of identity, traditions and memory. English identity is notoriously problematic – when does it become British, for example – and is deeply relevant this year with two events being presented as pageants of Englishness: the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Part of the problem of Englishness is our perception of our place in the world: usually hubristically elevated. This is undoubtedly an imperial legacy – Judt and Snyder discuss how for many Englishmen in the twentieth century, Europe was an exotic place. To be overseas and familiar was to be in Empire. Judt describes how even for his own generation, people from Jamaica or Calcutta are more immediately accessible, as opposed to a person from “Brno or Bologna”. The necessities of war, over a millennium or more, have often required fellow Europeans to become a hostile “Other”, whereas the newly discovered regions of Empire were viewed as “empty” before colonisation. Hence English history – and memory – is dominated by Empire and a sense of faded glory, rather than a kinship with our neighbours’ European project.
This view is perpetuated by the construction of the past, as the heritage industry creates, in Judt’s view, an ersatz history. Judt describes the English ability to “feel genuine nostalgia for a fake heritage” as a defining national flaw. Rather than seeking to understand the past, heritage recreates a simplified version. The past is ever-present, but in a shallow form, broken down into monuments and memorials, with no sense of relevance. We tell “Our Island Story”, but it is a selective narrative, rather than a sympathetic understanding. The feeling that we live in a time without precedent is linked to this, but it is also the way we consign recent events so quickly to history. Judt cites the example of a recreation of the “Battle of Orgreave”, the 1984 clash between police and striking miners, for television in 2001. The reconstruction suggests that the event is now simply another part of history, to be recalled but not understood. It joins the list of historical occurrences to be cited when something relevant happens – but we learn nothing constructive about industrial relations from it. Perhaps it is our distance from true suffering now; strikes become a nuisance, a minority issue, and the anger at Orgreave cannot be appreciated. Furthermore, Judt sees the current generation of politicians as responsible to a large degree: “ours is an age of the pygmies”. He holds particular scorn for Tony Blair, whose shallowness he believes reflects the English treatment of its history. The loss of the twentieth century as a genuine example for us is palpable.
In 2010, Judt published Ill Fares the Land, a call to arms for social democrats to embrace true social equality and create a new type of politics, based around respect and the desire for a better society. He was seriously ill by the time he wrote it; the book feels like Judt passing the baton of social responsibility to a new generation, and appealing for them to do a better job than his. In our time of depression and austerity, Judt’s social democracy is required as an antidote to the status quo of markets and cuts. Tony Judt posed us a question before he died: can we use the past to create a better future? It is a question we need to answer before it is too late.
[*] I use English as opposed to British simply because it better conveys the type of memory discussed here. The Celtic influence on Empire (and Europe) is undeniable, but, for example, the Scottish sense of their history is different and, in some ways, more clearly defined than the English. It is therefore not as relevant to Judt’s discussion of a failure to remember – although he would no doubt include the clichéd Scottish identity of kilts and tartan within it!