Tony Judt and Tim Snyder on the twentieth century

Timothy Snyder helped Tony Judt to create a “spoken book” during Judt’s final months of illness through a truly unique series of conversations about biography and history. The book is well worth reading. Snyder is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, and the spoken book he created with Judt is Thinking the Twentieth Century. This work deserves recognition both as a contribution to the philosophy of history as well as to the task of making sense of Europe’s often horrible complexity and darkness throughout much of the twentieth century. The book is a mix of Judt’s reflections about his own intellectual and personal development (biography), and the complicated back-and-forth that the twentieth century embodied between thinking and history — between ideologies and philosophies of society, and the large schemes of social and political systems that dominated the twentieth century — fascism, totalitarianism, liberal democracy, conservative democracy, capitalism, and communism. Each system had its theorists, from Marx to Lloyd George to Keynes to Pareto to von Mises to Stalin; and the theories had important effects on the evolution of the systems and the movements of resistance that sometimes arose within them. So “thinking the twentieth century” is meant very literally: Judt believes that the large movements and shifts that occurred during the century were importantly influenced by ideologies and philosophies, often in pernicious ways. And, of course, both he and Snyder have spent their careers as historians “thinking the twentieth century” through their efforts to make sense of its enormous tides, storms, and seismic realignments.

There is a deep reason why it makes sense to pay attention both the the supra-individual events of the century as well as the theories that were debated in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Budapest, and Warsaw. This conjunction emphasizes the intimate relationships that exist between thinking, doing, and historical change. As Marx observed, “men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” By giving emphasis to the ideas and theories that occupied activists, philosophers, economists, and revolutionaries, Judt and Snyder offer their own affirmations of agency in history. For better, and often for worse, the great events of the century flowed fairly directly from theories and ideas.

Snyder and Judt spend a good deal of time on several large historical features of the twentieth century: the trajectory of Marxist thinking — both communist and non-communist — in western and central Europe; the complexities and contradictions of liberalism, in both western and eastern Europe; the rise of Soviet domination of eastern and central Europe; the critics of Communism whose voices became audible in the decades following World War II (Kolakowski, Koestler, Orwell, Havel, Kundera, Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, …), the internal national dynamics of Soviet-installed regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other central European countries from 1946 to 1989, the Cold War, and the vicissitudes of liberal democracy. It is not exactly intellectual history; rather, it is a history that is sensitive to the ways in which intellectuals — theorists, philosophers, poets — influenced events in very profound ways.

The Marxist left often regarded the intellectuals who renounced their loyalty to the Communist movement as turncoats and reactionaries. Judt and Snyder make it clear that this frequently is not the case. Many critics of Communism in the 1950s retained their progressive beliefs and values, but saw clearly the oppression and tyranny that Soviet Communism had come to embody.

It’s best to think of the Cold War liberals [Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler] as the heirs to American Progressivism and the New Deal. That’s their formation, in the French sense of the word, that’s how they were molded, that’s what shaped them intellectually. They saw the welfare state and the social cohesion it could generate as a way to avoid the extremist politics of the 1930s. That is what fueled and informed their anti-communism: the latter was also driven by a background many of them shared in anti-fascist activities before 1939. The anti-fascist organizations, the fronts, the movements, the journals, the meetings, the speeches of the thirties have their counterpart in the anti-communist liberalism of the fifties. (228)

The “aggressively socialist” is crucial. There’s nothing reactionary about Sidney Hook. There’s nothing politically right-wing about him, though he was conservative in some of his cultural tastes—like many socialists. Like Raymond Aron, he was on the opposite side of the barrier from the sixties students. He left New York University disgusted with the university’s failure to stand up to the sit-ins and occupations—that was a very Cold War liberal kind of stance. But his politics were always left of center domestically and a direct inheritance from the nineteenth-century socialist tradition. (227)

And here is a very good statement by Judt of what these “Cold War liberals” defended:

What made the West a better place, in short, were its forms of government, law, deliberation, regulation and education. Taken together, over time, these formed an implicit pact between society and the state. The former would concede to the state a certain level of intervention, constrained by law and habit; the state, in turn, would allow society a large measure of autonomy bounded by respect for the institutions of the state. (229)

One of the themes that Snyder pursues is how Judt’s identity as the child of working class immigrant Eastern European Jewish parents affected — or did not affect — the development of his interests as a historian. This is all the more important in consideration of the facts of the Holocaust and the central role that Nazi extermination had in virtually all of the historical developments of the period.

Like my mother, my father came from a Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe. In his case, though, the family made two stopovers between the Russian Empire and Britain: Belgium and Ireland. My paternal grandmother, Ida Avigail, came from Pilviskiai, a Lithuanian village just southwest of Kaunas: now in Lithuania, then in the Russian Empire. Following the early death of her father, a carter, she worked in the family bakery. Sometime in the first decade of the century, the Avigails decided to make their way west to the diamond industry in Antwerp, where they had contacts. There in Belgium Ida met my paternal grandfather. Other Avigails settled in Brussels; one started a dry-goods store in Texas. (2)

And his ordinary sensibilities as a boy and adolescent:

Even the very car in which we drove suggests a certain non-Jewish Jewishness on my father’s part. He was a big fan of the Citroën car company, though I don’t believe he ever once mentioned to me that it had been established by a Jewish family. My father would never have driven a Renault, probably because Louis Renault was a notorious wartime collaborator whose firm had been nationalized at the Liberation as punishment for his Vichyite sympathies. Peugeots, on the other hand, got a favorable pass in family discussions. After all, they were of Protestant extraction and thus somehow not implicated in the Catholic anti-Semitism of Vichy-era France. No one ever said a word about the background to all this, and yet it was all somehow quite plain to me. (7)

Judt was named “Tony” in remembrance of his father’s cousin Antonia in Brussels, who was known as “Toni” and was murdered in about 1943 along with her sister at Auschwitz. It is also interesting to learn that Judt spent the better part of two years as a teenager on a kibbutz in Israel before returning to Britain to attend Cambridge University. The Holocaust was a direct and living reality for the young Tony Judt in England — “I cannot recall a time when I did not know about what was not yet called the Holocaust” (6).

The world of my youth was thus the world that was bequeathed us by Hitler. To be sure, twentieth-century intellectual history (and the history of twentieth-century intellectuals) has a shape of its own: the shape that intellectuals of right or left would assign to it if they were recounting it in conventional narrative form or as part of an ideological world picture. But it should be clear by now that there is another story, another narrative that insistently intervenes and intrudes upon any account of twentieth-century thought and thinkers: the catastrophe of the European Jews. A striking number of the dramatis personae of an intellectual history of our times are also present in that story, especially from the 1930s forwards. (11)

And yet Judt did not become a historian of the Holocaust. He did not focus his studies, as so many young intellectuals did, on the question of how the Holocaust could have occurred.

If I have any special insight into the history of the historiography of the Holocaust, it is because it tracks my life quite closely. As I mentioned earlier, I was unusually well-informed on this subject for a ten-year-old child. And yet, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1960s, I have to confess that I was remarkably uninterested in the subject—not only the Holocaust, but Jewish history in general. Moreover, I don’t believe that I was in the least taken aback when we studied, e.g., the history of occupied France without any reference to the expulsion of the Jews. (31)

The more one looks back on the twentieth century, the bleaker it becomes. Mass killings, tyrannical states, deliberate starvation of millions of peasants in Ukraine, war without end; and following the end of the Second World War, a protracted Cold War, more state-sanctioned mass starvation in China, colonial wars in Indochina, and the murderous, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Where in this story does one find grounds for hope for the future? Both of Tim Snyder’s books — Bloodlands and Black Earth — are awesome and admirable demonstrations of honest, unblinking historical research into unspeakable human catastrophe. Consider just a paragraph from Bloodlands:

The twenty-second of June 1941 is one of the most significant days in the history of Europe. The German invasion of the Soviet Union that began that day under the cryptonym Operation Barbarossa was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage in a war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description. The engagement of the Wehrmacht (and its allies) with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers, not to speak of the comparable number of civilians who died in flight, under bombs, or of hunger and disease as a result of the war on the eastern front. During this eastern war, the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and more than three million prisoners of war. (155)

It was, indeed, the “beginning of a calamity that defies description.” And it is a history that all of us need to confront more honestly than we ever have, if we are to create a better world.

Where today is a practical vision of a world that is just, humane, and peaceful? Where are the leaders who can help steer a global world of dozens of armed powers to a stable, peaceful future? Where are the institutions that can help navigate through the challenges our century will face? What in fact have we learned from the horrors of the twentieth century that will help us navigate to a world that permits the full and free development of all human beings?

It is not quite true to say that we altogether lack a set of ideas that might constitute the core of such a vision: nations that embody secure institutions and values of liberal democracy, full equality of opportunity, ample provision of social services, and a reasonable range of economic inequalities; and international institutions that ensure equitable economic relations among states, robust conflict-resolution mechanisms, and effective ability to solve problems of the global commons, including especially global climate change. It is a liberal, social democratic, and internationalist worldview that depends on a simple theory: a just and equitable world is a peaceful world. If our mood today is gloomy, it is because so many features of this vision for the future are under attack by the extreme right, including the frenetic lurches of the current president. Liberal democracy, social welfare policies, economic equality, and international institutions are all under attack from some of the same forces of hate that led to such destruction in the previous century. The platforms of hate and division seem more powerful than ever, amplified by seemingly ubiquitous social media. And our leaders of all stripes seem to have only myopic vision when it comes to the problem of navigating through the turbulent waters we now find ourselves in. We want a world that is more free, more just, more peaceful, and more sustainable than the one we find today.  Is this too much to ask?

Here is an excellent lecture by Tim Snyder on Bloodlands (link).

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