Lessons Ignored

Book cover
Reappraisalsby By Tony JudtThe Penguin Press. 464p $29.95

Tony Judt, a distinguished university professor at New York University, director and founder of the Remarque Institute dedicated to the study of Europe, is the author of about a dozen books, mostly on 20th-century European history. That alone might make us question the argument, explicit in his subtitle, that the 20th century is somehow forgotten. Forgotten? For most of us it is autobiography. Memorials, commemorations, even postage stamps constantly call to mind the catastrophes as well as the triumphs of the 20th century. At my university students flock to 20th-century history courses, dismissing the more remote past as irrelevant to their lives.

Judt acknowledges all this, but distinguishes the ubiquity of 20th-century history in popular and academic culture from a genuine understanding of our most recent past. The history that is most with us is the history we are “seeking actively to forget.” That which we choose to remember is confined to a “moral memory palace: a pedagogically serviceable Chamber of Historical Horrors.” The lessons it might have taught us are being willfully ignored.


This is one of two key themes that the author identifies within 23 reviews and essays collected in this volume, most of them written between 1994 and 2006 and published in The New York Review of Books. The book’s other theme is the “role of ideas and the responsibility of intellectuals” in the shaping of our world. Judt is foremost an intellectual historian, whose earliest work was on the French left, with its dazzling array of engaged luminaries, two of whom, Albert Camus and Louis Althusser, are represented here. But a wide swath of 20th-century intellectual history is comprehended in this collection, from the famous Communist apostate Arthur Koestler to the Holocaust survivor Primo Levi to John Paul II and the post-colonialist Edward Said, among others. And we are constantly reminded that in the world we have lost or forgotten, intellectuals had a greater stature and impact than they have today.

Forgetting the past and demoting the intellectual are both connected to the discrediting of ideology by the short-sighted, present-minded of today. The fact that ideologies were so hard-fought in the 20th century and responsible for the extraordinary death tolls associated with its wars and revolutions certainly makes us want to “turn the page,” as a current political campaign would implore. This is part of the forgetting, transcending the past and embracing the present as a new beginning, where the formerly divisive issues no longer signify. We are complacently celebrating the end of ideology, marked by the collapse of European Communism. This has taken the form in the United States of triumphalism, not only the end of ideology but the end of history as the Hegelian liberal state is fully realized. Ideas have become anachronistic, and so their partisans, the engaged intellectuals, can no longer claim a prominent place in public discourse. Ideas have been so degraded that it has become necessary to create ahistorical new ones, like Islamo-fascism, to extend the American century into the 21st century—inflating a tactic into an ideology that announced itself on Sept. 11, 2001.

The United States and Great Britain are also victims of the triumphalism of the free market, vindicated by the fall of Communism. One of the consequences of forgetting the past has been, Judt argues in several essays here, the decline of the welfare state. There are some things—education, health, responsible energy and environmental policies, basic social services—that cannot be left to the free market, and the provision of these can be secured only through the vast resources of the modern state. Judt reiterates the alarming slippage of the United States in categories such as worker productivity, infant mortality and health care. “We may find that a healthy democracy, far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends on it.” It is ironic that the provision of an adequate safety net created the conditions of security in which the welfare state could be discarded. Will that discarding create again the social conditions based on insecurity and desperation that necessitated its rise in the first place? It is useful to remember that the welfare state was not the ideologically freighted creation of wild-eyed socialists, but a bipartisan attempt to balance market forces and the public good. Judt’s acerbic essay on Tony Blair and New Labor reminds us that the post-ideological is profoundly ideological. It is the flattening and distorting of history that allows this sleight of hand to succeed.

Reappraisals is an engagingly written book of innumerable pleasures and deep insights. The essays provoke a mental conversation with the author. Ideas and observations are thrown out as something of a tease, leaving the reader eager for fuller, lengthier discussion. There are essays on uniquely national experiences—British, French, even post-Communist Romanian—several pieces on the cold war, two rather controversial and critical essays on Israel, views on the Holocaust from both victims and the banally evil perpetrators, and brooding, pessimistic ruminations on George W. Bush’s America and how a past forgotten or distorted has surely come back to haunt us.

One may agree or disagree, but intellectual engagement with recent history has been made. The 20th century is seen as both useful and necessary for understanding the present.



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