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Nov 2010 Journal

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A Jewish intellectual

The historian Tony Judt, who died in August aged 62, was an academic who was also an influential intellectual, one of those widely recognised figures who set the agenda for public discourse and debate, helping to determine the course of ideas far beyond the groves of academe. His towering achievement was his history of Europe since 1945, Postwar, which was first published by Penguin in the USA in 2005 and has since received widespread acclaim.

The book provides a compelling and coherent analysis of the development of the continent of Europe, East and West, starting with its emergence from the destruction of the Second World War, proceeding through the reconstruction of the 1950s, the turbulence of the 1960s and the disillusionment of the 1970s, and taking us on to its reunification in the wake of the fall of Communism. It concludes with an acute analysis of Europe’s current uncertain state, with national entities and identities persisting beneath transnational structures. Its epilogue has the striking title ‘From the House of the Dead’ (taken from Dostoyevsky’s account of life in a Siberian prison) and deals with the half-submerged role of the Holocaust in modern European memory.

Tony Judt was born in 1948 to Jewish parents in the East End of London, though he grew up in Putney. He studied at Cambridge and taught there, at Berkeley in California and at Oxford, before moving in 1988 to New York University, where he founded the Remarque Institute, dedicated to European studies, whose director he remained until his death. From his early studies of French left-wing politics and thought, his prodigious range of knowledge enabled him to broaden out into the history and culture of the entire continent of Europe.

Judt had in his youth been an ardent left-wing Zionist but, after serving as a volunteer driver and interpreter for the Israeli army in 1967, he became disillusioned. Falling prey to the temptation to indulge in political commentary, an occupational hazard of the public intellectual, he pronounced with some trenchancy on the subject of Israel and was not a little put out by the vehemence of the reaction his writings provoked. Fortunately, his scholarship on modern European history was unaffected by these partisan diversions.

Judt wrote copiously for The New York Review of Books, and continued to do so even when smitten by a particularly vicious form of motor neurone disease, which paralysed him from the neck down and obliged him to live encased in a metal tube, entirely dependent on external assistance. His courage in the face of this affliction came across in the series of reflections and recollections that he dictated from his metal tomb and that were published in The New York Review of Books, the last appearing only a fortnight or so before his death. An interview with him was broadcast in June by BBC Radio 4, in the occasional series No Triumph, No Tragedy; it made for compelling listening.

Though he worked in New York, Judt can still be considered a British intellectual, thanks to his British birth and education and to the international nature of modern scholarship, which has made his writings as influential in Britain as they are in America. While Jews have long been prominent in the American intellectual landscape, they have been less of a permanent feature among the leaders of thought in Britain. And while Jewish intellectuals have retained their leading position in America, they seem to be on the wane in Britain.

Where are today’s equivalents of Sir Isaiah Berlin and Jacob Bronowski, the giants of earlier decades? Tony Judt has some claim to be regarded as their successor, but other candidates are hard to find. Jonathan Miller, for all his achievements in both science and the performing arts, is not primarily a man of ideas. Simon Schama, a brilliant historian, is a public figure thanks to his TV programmes, but his status has veered towards that of a celebrity, at least since he has taken to popping up at general election night parties on BBC TV and even on his own cookery programme.

Jews are, of course, very well established in British academic and cultural life, but these days they mostly remain limited to their own particular professional specialities. Jewish academics in Britain no longer reach out, in the manner of the classic intellectual, to a wider public: the difference is that between Bronowski, whose TV series and book The Ascent of Man attracted a huge audience, and his daughter Lisa Jardine, an academic whose work is highly respected in scholarly circles, but not well known beyond them.

Judt’s Postwar is a veritable goldmine of insights, both in its analysis of the underlying long-term trends in European history since 1945 and in its often arrestingly innovative treatment of individual events, people, products, trends, institutions and crises. Judt seems to know about everything. He covers every country in Europe, from the damage inflicted by the war on Norway’s industrial output, set in the context of an illuminating account of the rapid economic recovery of the Western European countries after 1945, to the 1949 show trials of ‘Titoist’ leaders in Bulgaria, graphically illustrating the ruthlessness of Stalinist repression in Eastern Europe.

The book contains a wealth of detailed information, but always deployed in the framework of a lucid and original structure of argument. Judt is your man if you want to know about the politics of the punk rock bands of the 1970s (‘as one-dimensional as their musical range’); or about the failure of the economies of the Communist states of Eastern Europe (in 1989 East Germany was producing one-fiftieth of the number of computers manufactured in Austria); or the complexities of postmodernist thought (‘a level of expressive opacity that proved irresistibly appealing to a new generation of students and their teachers’); or how, in the years 1945-48, France ‘abruptly negated’ 300 years of history and resolved its German problem by Europeanising it within the framework of common European economic institutions.

Judt’s analysis of Britain after 1945, to take just one example, is engrossing. He begins with the stark fact that Britain emerged from the war insolvent, having lost one quarter of its national wealth and burdened itself with crippling dollar-denominated debts that it struggled for decades to repay. But, as Judt shows, the British people were utterly ignorant of the extent of their national bankruptcy, accepting as normal levels of austerity where the queues, rationing and shortages were almost reminiscent of conditions in the Soviet bloc.

Apparently the British government shared this ignorance for, in its eagerness to preserve Britain’s (largely imaginary) ‘place at the top table’, it budgeted £209 million on military expenditure for 1947, as compared to the £6 million spent on all military and diplomatic expenditure in the years 1934-38. Quite what maintaining full naval fleets in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean as well as the Atlantic, plus a full ‘China station’, a raft of 120 RAF squadrons worldwide and military forces from Hong Kong to Trieste, was supposed to achieve for a bankrupt, middle-sized European nation remains obscure. As a result, Britain was unique in devoting hardly any of the Marshall Plan aid it received to industrial investment or modernisation; 97 per cent of the funds it received went on repaying the country’s debts.

This had predictably dire consequences. In a revealing section entitled ‘A Tale of Two Economies’, Judt shows how the shoddy, unreliable and overpriced goods produced by Britain’s inefficient, strike-ridden industries were unable to compete with the products of West German industry, whose costs were kept down and whose quality was kept up by sustained investment in new and efficient production methods. Britain thus lost the peace almost as comprehensively as it won the war.

But Judt’s analysis goes deeper. He pinpoints demographics as the key factor underpinning the spectacular economic growth that characterised the immediate post-war decades in Western Europe. For what transformed European industrial productivity was a vast new workforce that flooded in millions from low-productivity sectors like agriculture into the new, high-productivity industrial sector; the classic example was the extraordinary transformation of Italian industry through the influx of workers from the agricultural south into the factories of the north.

Here Britain was at a disadvantage. For though it shared in the remarkable increase in the birth rate that occurred from 1945, providing Europe’s industries with new consumers as well as new workers, it no longer had a large agricultural sector to provide a pool of cheap labour. This is a significant and frequently ignored factor in the economic decline of areas like Britain and south-eastern Belgium, which had industrialised early and had no agricultural labour surplus left on which to draw. However, as Judt shows, Britain’s baby-boom generation went on to pioneer the explosion of new trends, fashions and attitudes that made the 1960s the era of so-called ‘youth revolution’, fuelled by the consumer prosperity that put money into teenagers’ pockets and by the expansion of higher education that put radical ideas into their heads.

Anthony Grenville

next article:A call to the Third Generation