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An Historian in History: In Memory of Tony Judt

Originally delivered as the prize oration for Prof. Judt’s Remarque Prize award in 2007 from the city of Osnabrueck.

Tony Judt was born in London in 1948, on the edge of the legendary East End. It was the place described by Dickens in his portrayals of the misery of the nineteenth century proletariat. Later it was the London equivalent of New York’s lower east side or Berlin’s Scheunenviertel or the Parisian area around the Rue de Rosieres: the eastern European ghetto transplanted to the west as the Ashkenazim sought lives free of economic misery, social persecution and civic disenfranchisement. Dr. Judt’s father came indeed from the Ukraine and arrived in the UK after a passage through Belgium.

When Dr. Judt was growing up, Britain was marked by three things. One was its post-imperial exhaustion, its obvious loss of power and wealth. There was even a discernible tone not of sorrow but of resentment—at the Americans, at the continental Europeans who were recovering so visibly from economic distress, at a world which regarded the British lion as somewhat mangy and toothless,. and in no case a frightening or impressive creature. Per contra, another development was for a great majority positive: the extension and institutionalization of the prewar elements of a welfare state, achieved by Labour in its two post-war governments., That was Britain’s considerable contribution to the development of the European social model. It included a considerable broadening of the basis of access to higher education, and so made possible a British version of the carriere ouvert aux talents. Dr. Judt himself attended a good local grammar school, in German terms an ordinary Gymnasium, and then won a place at the very pinnacle of the British university system, not only as an undergraduate at Cambridge but at King’s College, jewel in the Cantabridgian academic crown. The third aspect of the national setting of Dr. Judt’s youth was Britain’s early choice of the American alliance over a European vocation—until in the sixties it occurred to successive governments that, with whatever regrets, they had to take geography into account and that the British isles were in fact situated not where Iceland can still be found but some few kilometers from France. Still, it is accurate to say that des[pite this insight, Britain stumbled hesitantly into its membership of what was then the Common Market rather than marching resolutely into it. Resolution was reserved for the President of France, who did not want an American satellite state in his Europe and so for a time blocked British entry.

That sketches the general canvas, but on this Dr. Judt applied some more personal touches. He was, early, a Zionist and visited Israel in the late sixties and after the 1967 war to work on a Kibbutz. This was the period in which the social democratic aspects of the Israel political persona were more salient than they are today, when Israel could still be depicted as an experiment in democracy, when the many conflicts within Israel were rather less visible than they are now (between secular pluralism and dogmatic orthodoxy, between democracy and ethnicity, between pervasive militarization and the development of a civil society) Dr. Judt’s later pessimism about Israel’s future (shared by no small number of Israelis and many reflective Diaspora Jews) is not, then, a matter of remoteness from the Jewish state but is connected to first hand experience of it.

Dr. Judt’s family were part of that extraordinary component of European socialism which was the Jewish labor movement in central and eastern Europe. Its Jewishness was, in the minds of many of its members, made necessary by the anti-Semitism and nationalism of the surrounding societies—and was a stage on the way to a unified socialist movement. . Quite immune to Stalinism and in severe conflict with it, the movement was brought to Western Europe, the UK and the USA by the Jewish emigration and its protagonists had important roles in the union movement and in both British Labour and the New Deal in the English speaking countries. As Professor Judt put it, he grew up familiar with Marxism.

Dr. Judt entered Cambridge Unversity in 1966, took his Bachelor of Arts in 1969 and received a doctorate in 1973—spending two years of this period at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, in a move from the summit of British higher education to an institution of equivalent standing in France. At Cambridge, as at Oxford, one’s college is as important as one’s experience of the larger university, and King’s had a very dense intellectual tradition. It was John Maynard Keynes’ college as well, later, as that of the formidable historian Eric Hobsbawm and its roster of former students and teachers provides an indispensable sampling of British intellectual history (and no small part of its political history). When Dr. Judt was in residence, so was an ageing graduate of the college, the novelist E.. Forster. The early and mid-sixties in Great Britain can not be described, as in France and Germany, as leading up to the tumults of 1968. It would be more accurate to say that the British sixties were consequences of the late nineteen fifties, in which major changes in cultural consciousness and politics occurred. In cinema, novel and theater a genteel tradition was overthrown. A mass protest movement against nuclear weaponry brought tens of thousands into the streets. A younger intelligentsia rejected the turgidities of British Stalinism and the hesitations of British Labour. The most successful political leader of the period was a Tory, Harold Macmllan, but he had a quite striking past as an adversary of the old Tory elite in the thirties, when he disputed Chamberlain on his concessions to Hitler and opposed the refusal of much of his party to accept any governmental responsibility for relieving, much less overcoming, the economic devastation of the great Depression. Macmillan won the election of 1959 with the slogan, ”We are all workers now.” at once a deliberate parody of Labour’s conceptual backwardness and understood as a return to an earlier Tory strength, noblesse oblige.

The consequences of this situation for the universities were considerable. Quite apart from changes in the social composition of both student bodies and teaching staffs (at the ancient universities, too), the legacies the thirties and the constrictions of the fifties were thrown off. Social inquiry and historical study came together, and a new British social history strongly marked by Marxism but at the same time open and undogmatic moved toward the center of the academic stage. Parallel developments in the study of politics and society, and a considerable amount of openess to ideas and methods from both North America and the continental nations, especially France, rendered the British universities far more cosmopolitan. When Dr. Judt attended King’s, its Provost was the social anthropologist Edmund Leach, who actually took the work of Levi-Strauss seriously.

Dr. Judt’s years in Paris were in a contrasting intellectual atmosphere. The excitements and hopes of 1968 were gone. The Communist Party had become a large and ossified sect, the Socialists were looking for but had not yet found ways to deal with the new class structure, the more so as the Gaullists were themselves proponents of the expansive welfare state. French Marxism itself made little sense of the new society, and the regimes in the Soviet bloc were the opposite of inspiring. The attraction of the French intellectuals for an alternative agency of secular redemption, the peoples and regimes of the Third World, had crumbled. Dr. Judt in one of his books records that he started to listen to the lectures of the schematic Marxist thinker, Althusser, found them without discernible reference to historical processes, and stopped.

Dr. Judt did profit from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of a number of French thinkers, the political scientist and publicist Raymond Aron, the historians Francois Furet and Annie Kriegel and others. They asked what was distinctive about the French political tradition, what accounted for the enduring influence of a mythicised French Revolution, why was the French left despite its divisions and often incoherent positions so enduring that it usually set much of the agenda for the center and right even when these were (as often) able to constitute political majorities?

Dr. Judt’s initial books, published in both France and the UK and the US, addressed these matters by going to the past. Using the techniques of exacting historical research, he studied the origins and development of socialism in Provence, the recovery of the French Socialist Party from the secession at Tours of the cadres and members who formed the Communist Party, and then turned to a larger consideration of the historical specificity of Marxism in France. His conclusion was that there was frequently a distinction between the leaders of the French left, its theorists, many of them quite remote from the daily vicissitudes of life for ordinary persons, and voters who supported the parties of the left.

The voters often had their very specific interests in view, were perfectly aware that they lived in a class society, cared less about great transformations which they deemed improbable or set remotely in a happier future and cared more about specific gains—or the defense of their own social worlds. The matter was complicated by France’s economy, half agrarian until the end of the Second World War: smallholding peasants and workers in rather small factories constituted the electoral basis of the old Socialist party in particular, as contrasted with the industrial workers who supported Labour and the German Social Democrats. There were industrial and mining areas where a more modern industrial pattern prevailed, and precisely there the Communists and the Socialists contended for working class votes.

The matter was made more complicated still by constants in French history which Dr Judt rightly held no historian could avoid. One was the omnipresent role of the French state in society. Another was the memory and the myth of the French Revolution, which divided the nation into the second half of the twentieth century. That, in turn, was connected with the French version of the conflict between modernity and traditionalism. It was not a simple antithesis and all kinds of compromise formations marked the cultural landscape.

Still, a Catholic archaism and integralism, often Anti-Semitic and xenophobic as well as racist, confronted an ostensibly secular ideology itself propagated with religious passion, the belief system of a lay church whose gods were progress, republicanism, and democracy. In all of this intellectuals had a special role, not least in reassuring a nation which lived in a vas clos (an closed vase) that it was either defending the substance of eternal truth or championing the cause of liberated humanity entire—even if the rest of humanity did not quite know it.

These were the fruits of Dr. Judt’s early career, as he taught at Cambridge for five years following his 1973 doctorate—and so was able to move with easily back and forth across the channel. His works on France, let it be said, were full of comparisons to Germany and Italy, the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. In 1978 Professor Judt ventured across the Atlantic to teach for two years at the American university most beloved of European academic pilgrims, the University of California at Berkeley. He returned in 1980 to teach for seven years at Oxford, where his appointment was in politics as well as history.

In this period his works were published in French as well as English so he was not only an observer of the French debate on the past (itself a form of politics) but a participant.

It was a period in which any number of very competent and occasionally brilliant French intellectuals were settling accounts with the nation’s recent Marxist past—often their own. Professor Judt’s own reflections on this were set down in a book which won a well merited attention far beyond the ranks of specialists in French history and politics. It was called Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956 and indeed first published in France itself. Professor Judt dealt with the refusal (one can hardly say “inability”) of a group of prominent French thinkers to confront the brutality and repression of Stalinism in central and eastern Europe. They were not members of the Communist Party, but insisted that the party was a progressive force in French society and therefore that criticism of it was ipso facto reactionary. They did not wish to see France allied to the US in the Cold War, were dissappointed that the Resistance did not develop into a movement for the total reconstruction of the nation, and above all preferred their own ideological schemata to an empirical analysis of a rapidly changing social context. Professor Judt drew upon the work of Raymond Aron (his Opium of the Intellectuals) and of the historian of the French Revolution Francois Furet and the historian of the French Communists, Annie Kriegel. Furet and Mme. Kriegel had been in the Communist Party, Mme Kriegel as a rather senior and especially rabid functionary. What Judt brought to a theme often dealt with in way which matched the schematism of the Stalinists was the perspective of a comparativist, combined with the bemused acuity of the outsider. He did not criticise his subjects (Sartre was favoured, if that is the word, with a particularly exhausting examination) because they were not members of the British academic gentry or Kennedyite professors at Harvard, but because they exemplified many of the failures of the French intellectual tradition. Professor Judt, and that is the originality of the book, advanced the view that for reasons deeply embedded in the entire modern history of France, the nation’s intellectual tradition lacked a concern with both justice and what we know think of as human rights. The assertion seems shocking at first, and certainly in the country which gave us the Declaration de Droits de l”Homme et Citoyen counter-intuitive, but Professor Judt had an arguable case. .

The book was first published in 1992, that is, after the collapse of European Communism—and when the search for new foundations for a universal code of democratic behaviour and charter for democratic institutions was quite intense.

It marked the author’s move away from the historiography of France to a wider arena.
Five years before its publication, Professor Judt had crossed the Atlantic again, this time to New York University where he is now University Professor (a title in the US for chairs for distinguished scholars free of disciplinary servitudes.) In between, he became a Professor of European Studies and constructed and directed the Remarque Institute of European Studies. It became a foyer for many of the European visitors to our country’s eastern metropolis and Europe’s most western one, an important site in a new Transatlantic discussion.