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Tony Judt on the West's Misremembering of its History
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-06-23 08:31:26
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Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
Tony Judt
2008, The Penguin Press

Tony Judt, as the consummate engaged historian that he is, has recently written another book on the lessons of history. It is a collection of brilliant essays meant as a reprimand to the liberals who "acquiesced in President Bush's catastrophic foreign policy.” A Londoner by origin and a New Yorker by adoption, Judt was educated at Cambridge, and is now a professor at New York University and director of its Remarque Institute. One of his best books is The Burden of Responsibility, essays on Léon Blum, Albert Camus and Raymond Aron.

In Reappraisals, he looks back at the tragedy of Europe in the 20th century: the four decades from the outbreak of World War I until the death of Stalin - and in particular at the Jewish tragedy. Judt writes about well known Jews such Manès Sperber, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt and Arthur Koestler, another survivor from the wreckage of Jewish Europe, whom Judt defends from his detractors and who leads Judt on to the riveting question of Communism and its foes. In reply to historian Eric Hobsbawm's sneering words that "there are certain clubs," meaning ex-Communists, "of which I would not wish to be a member," Judt points out that it is precisely the members of those clubs - Jorge Semprún and Margarete Buber-Neumann as well as Silone, Camus, Sperber and Koestler - who have written some of the best accounts of their age. Judt observes that European progressives have been better than their American counterparts at allowing "that there might really have existed a secret Communist underground." The Communist-turned-anti-Communist Ignazio Silone once told Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian Communist leader, that "the last battle" of the 20th century would be waged between the two camps they personified, and there is a great book that remains to be written on the subject.

While gazing about contemporary Europe, Judt encounters a very striking recent phenomenon, a confection of nostalgia, commemoration, invented tradition, "heritage industry" and la mode retro; what in another voluminous book on Europe since 1945 he called “misremembering.” He sees this absorption with the "world we have lost" as a reaction to the breathtaking changes that have overtaken Europe since 1945. Judt finds England awash with whimsical "heritage." There is a long narration on the decayed state of British railways, compared with modernized French railways.

One of the more interesting essays is the one on the "strange death of liberal America" where Judt wonders why the liberal intelligentsia has had so little to say "about Iraq, about Lebanon or about recent reports of a planned attack on Iran." He has in mind particularly the "liberal hawks," whom he has also attacked on The New York Times Op-Ed page for the rhetorical cover they gave the Bush administration and its court. And yet one cannot forget that intriguingly Judt, while an opponent of the Iraq war, was himself an interventionist hawk over Kosovo. That perplexing enigma remains unexplained in the book.

Be that as it may, not only does Judt lament that the United States has suffered a catastrophic loss of international influence in recent years, thanks to "self-defeating and even irrational" conduct, in the Middle East above all; but he also points out that the reflexive charge of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel, and of the American alliance with Israel, must ultimately be "bad for Jews - since it means that genuine anti-Semitism may also in time cease to be taken seriously, thanks to the Israel lobby's abuse of the term." This is quite an insight, coming from a Jew nonetheless.

He points out that at the time of the 1967 war, it was possible for Israelis to bask in glory, and to cheer when Abba Eban said that "never before has Israel stood more honored and revered by the nations of the world." Those words would be impossible to utter today, even if, as Judt observes, many Americans don't seem to have caught up with the great shift of sentiment throughout the rest of the world.

Looking back from our latest fin de siècle, the theme that stands out in Judt's account is lost time, not in the Proustian sense but in Goethe's: the moment that, once lost, Eternity will never give back. That is true of the West as a whole since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of Soviet Russia, years of "wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic," but true first of all of Israel, which after 1967 threw away a priceless chance for peace and for her own ultimate security. In reading the book one gets the feeling that indeed the chickens may be coming on to roost in the beginning of the 21st century.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose Judt explained the title of the book by this sad experience of his: in his thirty some years as professor of history he has never encountered a generation, on both sides of the Atlantic, more forgetful and ignorant of its own history. It is almost as if it were assumed that to be a new European is to forget one’s history. He lamented less and less points of references to which a history or political science professor could appeal to. He mentioned Arthur Koestler as an example, a name which invariably draws a blank even from graduate students. That is indeed ominous of where we may be navigating in the 21st century and explains why the lessons of the past are not being reflected upon never mind learned. For indeed, “those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” Marx may have been wrong on many points of his social philosophy but he certainly had it on target when he uttered that famous comment.

Reappraisals Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century By Tony Judt 448 pages. $29.95. The Penguin Press; £20. William Heinemann Ltd. 

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Thanos2008-06-25 13:12:41
Lately I have the feeling that you want me to run to bookshops every so often!!! :))

Emanuel Paparella2008-06-26 17:19:57
Don't do it too often Thanos or, with the prices of books nowadays, you may go bankrupt. Besides, too many books on one's shelves, more often than not accumulate guilt! But it is good to do it often enough so that one is not mistaken for a Philistine. As the ancient Greeks would put: harmony and balance is the secret.

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