Part II of a remembrance of Tony Judt by Norman Birnbaum ’46. Part I is here.
To that discussion, Professor Judt contributed quite apart from his books and role in the projects and programs of his university, by joining colleagues in editing volumes on some of the central themes of contemporary historiography: language and identity politics, post-war retribution in Europe amongst these. He has also been a prominent, one could almost say omnipresent contributor to those symposium collections which frequently mark the advance (and just as frequently and just as instructively, the puzzlement) of contemporary thought before problems like the Mideast crisis and Zionism, the past, present and future of the left, the new dimensions of European consciousness and European reality. Professor Judt worked in these settings with scholars in the humanities, social scientists from the more systematic disciplines (or those like the study of politics and sociology which thought of themselves in this way, sometimes with entirely too much self-aggrandisement.) His own method might be termed weighted narrative, weighted with a great deal of knowledge, and shaped in the last analysis by the open acknowledgement that historical judgements are just that, judgements which require the moral engagement of the scholar.
In the book that followed Past Imperfect, his study of three French figures, the political commentator and scholar Raymond Aron, the Socialist leader and major political figure, Leon Blum, and the essayist and novelist Albert Camus, these three disparate spirits are connected by their own assumption of responsibility for judgements which often contravened the reigning assumptions of their contemporaries, not least of their allies and friends., That is why, presumably, Professor Judt entitled the book, The Burden of Responsibility. Interestingly, the sub-title did not list the protagonists alphabetically, but put Blum first, followed with the novelist and gave Aron (a fellow scholar) the third place. Blum’s break with the constrictions and dogmas of the pre-war Socialist party, his steadfastness in the face of the implacable hatred of the French right, his courage at the Vichy show trial of leaders of the Third Republic, made him in Judt’s view unique amongst French politicians. Camus impressed his chronicler for his insistence on the sense of place, rootedness, as an end of politics and not as an unreflective and often exclusionary assumption. Aron (Professor Judt had he written the book later might have included Francois Furet) earned his place not only for the range and specificity of his historical knowledge, but for his sense of historical limits, his capacity to imagine the dilemmas of politicians acting in real time and not the imaginary universe of the Parisian scholastics of the left.
The accidents of life had brought me to Paris often in the fifties and in the mid-sixties as a visiting professor at Strasbourg with Henri Lefebvre, one of the most interesting and least dogmatic of the French Marxists (perhaps because he began his intellectual career as a Surrealist and always kept his sense of the volcanic idiosyncrasies that were beneath the surface of the ostensible uniformities of society.) I knew, then, some of the protagonists in Professor Judt’s pages. He will forgive me if I raise the question of whether he attributes too much influence to Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, and possibly, too much ideological fixity to each. Sartre of the Phantom of Stalin was noit the Sartre of The Communists and The Peace and Merleau-Ponty of The Adventures of the Dialectic was not the same as the author of the earlier Humanism and Terror.
In any event, as he acknowledges, their contemporaries included any number of figures fully aware of the contradictions of the Marxist eschatology and of the nature of Stalinism. The French Catholic community included scholars an d thinkers far more critical of the Communist Party than the group singled out by Professor Judt (around the early incarnations of the weekly Temoignage Chretien and the monthly Esprit)—and far more open in judgements of French society. The French Catholic left (through the theologians Chenu and Congar) did have a remarkable share in bringing about the Second Vatican Council with its rupture with the Catholic integralism that was cultivated by the French right. There were after all exceedingly influential academics and technocrats who understood that no simple model of a France divided in two suffice: Aron was hardly a solitary voice in that respect. If the Communist Party’s scholars were marked by morbid turgidity, the ex Communists were often quite lively. A France intellectually dominated by the PCF could hardly have produced the second and third generation of scholars around the review Annales, or sophisticated social thinkers like Touraine. In politics itself, one thinks of Mendes-France, the younger Rocard, and Jacques Delors, a Catholic trade unionist who worked for DeGaulle and then with Mitterrand..
Professor Judt also has given some valuable portraits of that not quite inscrutable figure, Mitterrand. A traditional Catholic rightist as a young man and a Vichy official, his biography owes more to Talleyrand and to Julien Sorel than to the socialist ancestors and even friends he was at pains to claim later—rather retroactively. Professor Judt ‘s understanding of the Mitterrand regime (and it was a regime) follows from his grasp of the distortions in the intellectual tradition of the Socialists. They did not as did the Communists assign primacy to the interests of the USSR, but that did not render the party’s grasp of French society more acute. The party as refounded by Mitterrand did find room for technocrats and French social democrats (or would be social democrats) with authentic sensibilities for just those changes in the nation which the old party’s fusion of Marxism and French republicanism could not encompass: the differentiated class structure, centralized cultural and ideological production, different loci of social antagonisms (the question, for instance, of immigration.) The internationalism of the Socialists, moreover, had taken little account of the internationalization of capital and the ensuing limitation on the power of any one nation to construct western socialism in one country. The Swiss historian Herbert Luethy wrote a book on France, Frankreichs Uhren Gehen Anders (La France a Son Clocher). Professor Judt’s analysis of the Mitterrand electoral success of 1981 and its pronouncedly less triumphal consequences has France learning to use Greenwhich Mean Time—and in the process historicizing Marxism.
Mitterrand had to deal with the complexities of the late phases of the Cold War, which before the end of Soviet rule in central Europe included a terrifying intensification of the nuclear arms race on the continent and a broad movement of protest against it. He also had to deal with the efforts of the Europeans to construct new institutions of cooperation, and to achieve a relative degree of emancipation of American tutelage. Professor Judt’s own change of scholarly focus, from concentration on France to consideration of the larger fate of Europe, followed France’s descent (flight would be too strong a term) from the heights of Gaullist striving for independence to the uneven foothills of its situation as a large middle power.
In fact, in Professor Judt’s work for a long time before the publication of his magnum opus, Post-War: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), a number of large European themes became predominant. One was the rigidification and then dissolution of Marxism, closely connected to the limited successes and conspicuous failures of the parties of the left. Another was the singular course of memory in post-war Europe, amnesiac on some matters for long periods (the Holocaust, the uneven course of political justice, the expulsions, the new careers of former fascist collaborastors), obsessively insistent on others (tales, sometimes true, of heroism and resistance, bouts of national self-exculpation and self-pity, ritualized symbolic burials of what in fact could not be interred..) Yet another was the resignation of the western European elites and peoples—or most of them—to the division of the continent, accompanied by a guilty acceptance of the limitations of civic rights in Soviet dominated central Europe. Professor Judt did not think that the usual political reckoning, which concluded that this was the heavy price to be paid for averting the total destructiveness of a nuclear war, especially one the two superpowers were willing to fight to the last European, was realistic. For all of the difficulties of the left, however, it could claim in Professor Judt’s view, the enduring monument of the European welfare state, a consensus on its retention, if one largely shared with social Christians and the more intelligent of European capitalist elite .
Gaullism was gone, but the idea of one Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals was not. Disenchantment with the US combined with a sense that Europe had global responsibilities to impose a cautious search for a new European world role —especially after the events of 1989 required a re-evaluation of the recent past. Meanwhile, within Europe, the erosion of full employment and the spectrum of problems entailed by the presence of Third World migrants each posed social and cultural problems which destroyed the certitudes of much of the past half-century: suppose western Europe was not as remote from the sort of pathologies that afflicted it in the thirties as it would have liked to think? With LePen and the German NPD, the Liga Nord in Italy, terrible spirits were rising from tombs proving temporary.
Professor Judt in the preface to Post-War tells us that he resolved to write the book in Vienna, city of post-imperial traumas and plenty of them—after experiencing the contrast between the modern trains connecting the city to western Europe at the Westbahnhof and the obsolete ones running from eastern Europe to the Sudbahnhof. Sooner rather than later, the new nations of the EU will have modern trains but as the rhetoric we hear in Warsaw tells us, some changes will be slower, if they are achieved at all. What, clearly, moved Professor Judt to write on so large a canvas was the conviction voiced already in his writings on political responsibility, that history is sometimes open, that the distinction between the exacting description of a complex process and the acceptance of a rigid determinism is indispensable, that the writing of history is also the making of it. The very title, Post-War, tells us a good deal. The period after 1945 was a consequence of what went immediately before: the suicide of bourgeois Europe, the struggle of the imperial powers to retain their colonies (continued afterward, by the French in Vietnam and Algeria, the British wherever they could .) Secure for a long while in its possession of the Tsarist conquests in Asia, the USSR could exploit these atavisms to its ideological advantage. Meanwhile, the real imperial winner was the US, its imperial managers’ Calvinist good conscience even more striking than that of Lenin’s increasingly sclerotic heirs. Much of Post-War is the story of the slow revival of a European consciousness after the much more rapid recovery of the material structures of west European existence Professor Judt is particularly acute in showing how the development of a west European sensibility was punctuated, no accelerated, by events in the Soviet bloc, from the coup in Czechoslovakia and the purges of 1948 to the risings of the mid-fifties and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. With each sequence, west European dependence on the US began to seem more expensive, the need for west European autonomy more acute—if also perplexingly remote. The German Ostpolitik, however connected with Germany’s own division, was Germany’s contribution to the solution of a European problem abd eventually to the end of the Cold War. Whether the Cold War could have been ended earlier is a question readers will ask after reflecting on the book, The telling is just that, a story in time—but the protagonists are not governors and the governed alone but those who in film, novel and theater, in schoolbooks and philosopohical texts, in newspapers and on television, formed the language and the self-images of elites and publics alike. The replacement of local and traditional cultures, the often embittered rear guard actions fought to keep these (and being fought still), the end of the old countryside, above all, the mixing of the once separated cultural strata, constitute much of the narrative. Not the linear rise of the standard of living but the alteration in consumption patterns is what challenges the historian. If, as the German press has just told us, sixty percent of the nation thinks it an unjust society, and one of every seven in the labor force has had to recur to the social supports grouped under Hartz IV, it would be interesting to know just what those who think of themselves as conservative wish to conserve.. These questions are intrinsic to the texture of the book, so that the reading of it is an intellectual challenge, history live.
Essentially, the book is about the emergence, partly purposeful, partly unintended, of a new European consciousness. From the project realized by two former subjects of His Imperial Majesty, Wilhelm II (Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schumann ) aided by the former deputy from Trento in the Austro-Hungarian Reichstag (Alcide DeGasperi) to the present European Union, the legacies of the past, the hopes of the present, the uncertainties of the future have combined, and collided. Central Europe, once thought of as the east, is now rejoined to the west, whatever the discrepancies in economy and political culture., The large loss of prestige suffered by the US under the second Bush may be reduced by his successor, but there are candidates quite capable of making it permanent. In any event, Europe if it is to define itself by what it is and not just by what it is not will have to move, however uncertainly, in new directions. China is not a new Mongolian Empire, Russia is not the land of Orthodox obscurantism, India not in need of Christian uplift and Africa not any longer to be plundered: an entire set of relationships will have to be rethought and reconstructed. To that, the book is a large contribution and that explains whyit is being translated into nearly all the European languages as well as Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew,Korean and Turkish.
However, the book was written by a European living in the US—indeed by one of the increasing number of dual citizens in our midst. Given the large numbers of US citizens with European origins, the considerable number who have served in Europe in our armed forces, the educated who staff our foreign policy apparatus and are conspicuous in the senior ranks of our military, the bankers and businessmen who know Europe, the university teachers who regard Europe as a second home—it is astonishing how provincial, how self-centered American attitudes remain.. A case could be made that this is a regressive phenomenon, connected to the relative decline in the US capacity to order other nations about. In any event, it is in this setting that Professor Judt’s role as an educator of the general public is significant.
How general our public may be is a question entailing some difficulty. The readers of general journals like the New York Review of Books are relatively few in number. (Die Zeit has four hundred thousand readers in a country of eighty million, the New York Review has appreciably less than half of that in a nation of more than three hundred million.) The intellectual culture of Washington and its so called centers of research is rather different than that of the universities and the publishing houses. In Professor Judt’s case, it is interesting that he has terminated an earlier association with The New Republic, close to the so-called neo-conservatives (a euphemism, frequently, for unquestioning supporters of Israel)—once a major voice of US progressivism and over the past decades the querulous voice of an invincible provincialism.. Especially in the field of international relations, with some honorable exceptions, articles and books may be understood often as statements of candidacy for appointments in the governmental apparatus.
That has made all the more important the role intellectuals are supposed to play—keeping a certain distance from the uncritical assumptions of a national tradition and from rendering ideological services to power. There is plenty of substance left in American intellectual life, but it is often confined, even imprisoned, in our universities, in journals of relatively small circulation. Professor Judt has situated himself in the American tradition of systematic dissent, and may be thought of as an heir to other European figures with whom on many matters he disagreed, like Marcuse and Morgenthau. There are two issues in particular on which his views have occasioned controversy, some of it evidence for the impoverished cultural and moral standards of his critics.
One is his scepticism of the unconditional US alliance with Israel. Professor Judt dared to raise in the New Yoirk Review of Books a question which is frequently posed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but which to many in New York and Washington was heretical.
The idea of a purely Jewish state, even of a predominantly Jewish one, certainly reflects the influence of nineteenth century European nationalism on Zionism., It is striking that it is advanced, Professor Judt with others has observed, by a Jewish community in the US which is a minority in a Christian (or nominally Christian) nation—but which claims full rights in the US owing to our universal criteria of citizenship. Given Israel’s situation in the Arab Mideast, given the Arab population within the 1967 border, and given Israel’s unwillingness—backed by the US for its own imperial reasons—to allow the formation of a viable Palestinian state, is not the emergence of a bi-national Israel inevitable and even desireable as a way of ensuring an enduring Jewish presence in the Holy Land? The storm of abuse that has broken over Professor Judt for raising a question more than a century old within Zionism itself, the campaign initiated against him by certain Jewish organizations, has at least the function of contravening a familiar stereotype of the anti-Semites, that of overwhelming Jewish intelligence. In fact, Professor Judt has widened the space for an American discussion which has also been marked by the contributions of former President Carter, and by the work of the University of Chicago and Harvard scholars, John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt. The American Israel lobby’s belief that it is morally empowered to dictate the content of discussions of the nation’s relations with Israel is untenable in a pluralist society, and the outrage occasioned by Professor Judt’s analysis is explicable by his having made this contradiction explicit.
That is part of a larger effort by Professor Judt, and an exceedingly difficult one—to overcome the narcissism and provincialism of much American thought. No distortion or fiction, no exhibition of total ignorance, is too embarrassing in the US at the moment for those critical of the European public’s reluctance to see in President Bush a reincarnation of the figure with which he, incredibly, compares himself: Winston Churchill. Perhaps, back of that in the President’s mythology, there stands Saint George slaying the terrorist dragon.. These grotesque pathologies apart, Professor Judt has insisted that the dreams of empire indulged by many in our foreign policy apparatus (and above all by those whose experience of combat is limited to struggles for space on opinion pages, academic or quasi-academic appointments, and the eyes and ears of the powerful) have in the Mideast turned into the nightmare of Iraq. He has declared that systematic denigration or relatively polite under-estimation of the Europeans makes rational policy impossible, and has warned those able to make somewhat more nuanced judgements (many preparing themselves for office in what they hope will be a Democratic Presidency) that they too over-estimate American power and under-estimate the European capacity for independent judgement and policy. He has joined those of us who recall a different country, the nation of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, of the late John Kennedy, in warning of the authoritarian and anti-democratic consequences all too evident in the obsessive prosecution of that simple minded and historically illiterate formulation, the war on terror. He has declared that the convenient American assumption, that the nation alone can claim credit for victory in the Cold War, is a transparent invention and not a well founded historical judgement.,
These arguments have been presented to the public in a variety of ways, most prominently in a series of articles in The New York Review of Books. The controversy occasioned by his sober analysis of the historical situation of Israel has merged with indignation at Professor Judt’s continuing rejection of that self-righteousness which is Calvinism’s nearly crippling legacy to American consciousness. Professor Judt’s uncontested mastery of modern history has made it impossible for his detractors to dismiss him. It remains to be seen to what he will now turn his formidable talents: I would welcome a major work on the past fifty years of American history—or a portrait of the US in its full imperial age,which began in 1898 and is ending.
Erich Maria Remarque came to us because he had to. Professor Judt crossed the ocean in search of more space than afforded by post-imperial Britain, and has used the ensuing time and distance to look back on all of Europe. An authentic Transatlantic community would entail Transatlantic freedom of enquiry for those prepared to cross many of the conventionalized borders. Professor Judt’s work oin Europe, then, was to some degree made possible by his residing in the westernmost of European cities, New York. His gift to his second country is very large—a pointed reminder that our own exceptionalism has its negative aspects, and that in the end, we may not be all that exceptional. For so much brilliant pedagogy, our thanks.. It remains to be seen if the larger body of students can appreciate the lesson in time for it do some good.