Two brilliant scholars parse the politics and economics of the past 100 years.
That could be a dry task, but for the quiet passion of Judt (The Memory Chalet, 2010, etc.) and Snyder (History/Yale Univ.; Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 2010, etc.), who spent most of 2009 talking about, in Snyder’s summary, “the limitations (and capacity for renewal) of political ideas, and the moral failures (and duties) of intellectuals in politics.” The authors consider these questions within the framework of 20th-century history and the biography of Judt, who died in 2010. Born in London in 1948, the son of immigrant Jews, Judt grew up with the modern welfare state, benefiting from its meritocratic educational system to attend Cambridge and pursue academic studies focused first on French history, then Eastern Europe after World War II. He was an ardent youthful Zionist who later severely criticized Israeli policies, creating a furor in 2003 with an essay arguing for a one-state solution to the Palestinian problem. Judt reluctantly took on the role of public intellectual because of a sense—clearly shared by Snyder, their conversations reveal—that the problems currently plaguing America in particular and the advanced industrial economies in general cannot be meaningfully addressed without understanding their deep roots in a history that stretches back to World War I. This history includes the ravages inflicted by unrestrained capitalism, the appeal and very similar failings of communism and fascism, the misguided uses to which the Holocaust has been put and the post-WWII social bargain that unraveled in the ’70s. Judt and Snyder analyze these and many other historical issues with lofty erudition matched by unabashed polemicism—Judt skewers David Brooks as a know-nothing and characterizes Thomas Friedman’s support of the Iraq war as “contemptible”). Social democracy has rarely had better-informed, more ethically rigorous advocates than these two distinguished men.
For readers who like to be challenged, this searching look at our recent history provides a firm intellectual and moral foundation for understanding the dilemmas of our time.