Tony Judt, who passed away this weekend, always struck me as an old-fashioned historian, in the best sense of the phrase.
First, he liked big, ambitious themes. Lots of historians today write textbooks that cover broad geographical areas and time periods, but they generally distinguish these efforts from their “serious” work, while carefully calibrating their sentences to fit the comprehension of ill-educated adolescents and the dreary correctness of curriculum committees. Very few historians take on a massive subject like post-war Europe, read everything they can find on the subject, and put it together in a sweeping narrative with brio, eloquence, and–gasp–real arguments. Judt’s masterpiece, Postwar, has a grandeur that has become all too rare in the field.
Secondly he wrote brilliantly and was as much a man of letters as an historian. This prose talent came through most brilliantly of all in the arrestingly beautiful memoirs he published over the past year in the New York Review of Books, but it was on evidence throughout his career. Even Postwar, which weighs in at 831 pages, has very few dull sentences.
Finally, he was cheerfully, and relentlessly, judgmental. Not for him careful shavings of opinion, or a nervous insistence on giving all parties equal due. His work had heroes and villains, and if their identities shifted over time–well, whose have not? His early sympathy for French socialism was soon colored by a disgust with Marxist French intellectuals, and he wrote a book–Past Imperfect–which harshly chastised those of the immediate postwar period for their Stalinism. Once an enthusiastic left-wing Zionist, over the past decade he became a fierce critic of the state of Israel. But from the start he maintained a deep, abiding commitment to social justice, defined in terms of the postwar British welfare state into which he was born. Postwar‘s greatest heroes were the Eastern European dissidents. But he reserved his sharpest criticism not for any Soviet leader, but for Margaret Thatcher, whom he accused of presiding over a deliberately orchestrated “meltdown” of British society, and of doing “serious harm to the fabric of British public life.”
Few will have agreed with all his judgments. But it is hard to disagree with the proposition that his death leaves all serious readers of history terribly impoverished.
David A. Bell teaches history at Princeton University.