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Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century

by Tony Judt

Pub Date: April 21st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59420-136-3
Publisher: Penguin Press

Scholarly and polemical pieces, most with very sharp edges, published over the past dozen years, generally in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic.

Judt (Remarque Institute/NYU; The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, 1998, etc.) introduces these essays with a jolting jeremiad about the dismal state of American intellectual life: our ignorance of history, our ready submission to fear, our determination to celebrate martial adventures. He arranges the book in a roughly thematic fashion, beginning with analyses of European totalitarianism, the horrors of the Holocaust and the concept of evil, especially as expressed in Hannah Arendt’s famous conception of its “banality.” He then reconsiders the intellectual lives of some notables: Albert Camus, Louis Althusser (Judt is alarmed that many still take him seriously) and historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose erudition he admires but whose purblindness about Communism he finds confounding. After some hard words for Pope John Paul II (he was obsessed with sex) and some encomiums for Edward Said (“He is irreplaceable”), the author shifts his focus to France, to England (he disdains Tony Blair) and to Belgium, his father’s homeland. Judt reprints his controversial essay about the Six-Day War in 1967 and follows it with more chiding of Israel, a country he compares to an unruly, immature teenager. Next come penetrating pieces on the Chambers-Hiss case, the Cuban Missile Crisis (RFK does not come off well; JFK does) and a blast from both rhetorical barrels at Henry Kissinger. Near the end, Judt delivers body blows to Thomas Friedman and other liberals who cheered on the Iraq War and warns that poor economies are sustenance for the Far Right.

An educative, intelligent voice urges us to attend to history and the life of the mind.