Thinking the 20th century

Yalta. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yalta. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How can we begin to ‘think’ the twentieth century? How do we start to make sense of the masses of figures, events and ideas that gave shape to it? How can we reconcile its horrors and its achievements in our mind within a graspable synthesis? How can we understand the world of Verdun and Hiroshima, of the Holocaust and Israel, of Hitler and Stalin, of Keynes and Hayek, of Sartre and Koestler, of Reagan and Gorbachev? More importantly, how can we derive lessons from it all?

These are the questions addressed by Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century.1 Judt was a prominent historian of contemporary Europe who obtained fame beyond academia following his criticism of post-war French intellectuals 2,of Israel, and of the Iraq War. This book is his intellectual testament, a series of conversations he had with a younger historian, Timothy Snyder, during the last months of his life. These conversations are structured around Judt’s life, and thus include quite a bit of his biography. However, this grounding is just the basis for an incredibly ambitious project: to chart the main intellectual currents, problems and figures of the twentieth century, and to see what lessons we might derive from them.

We should notice, first of all, that Judt and Snyder’s account is centred mostly on Europe, Russia and the USA. Asia or Latin America, for example, only come into the story peripherally. In this sense, a more appropriate title for the book would have been ‘Thinking the European Twentieth Century’. But Judt and Snyder are not guided by a blind Euro-centrism: rather, they are trying to remain grounded both in Judt’s life-experiences and in their academic interests. And as a counterbalance, the authors bring Eastern Europe into the main European story, integrating the Czech, Polish and Hungarian experiences with those of Britain, France and Germany. They thus attempt to tell the story of one ‘Europe’ or one ‘West’, however dense, varied and complicated that story might be. In this, Judt follows the perspective of Postwar, his most recognized academic achievement, which tracked Europe’s history from 1945 to the present day 3.

It would be impossible to summarize all of Judt and Snyder’s arguments throughout this book. They discuss many of the intellectual giants of the century, paying particular attention to Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Maynard Keynes, Eric Hobsbawm, Léon Blum, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin and Friedrich Hayek. But we can identify three main centres of gravity in their account: Marxism, the Jewish question, and social democracy.

Having been a Marxist himself for a number of years, Judt is able to track the changing fortunes of this ideology throughout the century. He starts with the debates between revisionists and orthodox Marxists in the Second International, and then looks at how they were altered radically by the advent of the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s (and, later, Stalin’s) Russia faced European socialists with the abundance of moral problems posed by ‘real socialism’. From this moment on, Judt shows how the relationship with the Soviet Union became one of the main variables and conditions within left-wing thought throughout the century.

Judt remains intellectually respectful of Marxism while also providing a strong critique of its insufficiencies. His strongest argument against it is based on epistemology (how can we be certain that Marxist predictions will be right?) and ethics (how can we make other people suffer based on a distant and hypothetical greater good?). As he argues, “the intellectual sin of the century [was] passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information”.

The Jewish question appears as another centre of intellectual gravity of the twentieth century, though in a more fragmented way. On the one hand, Judt and Snyder deal with the contributions of Jews to the intellectual currents of the century, with a particular focus on the Vienna of Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Sigmund Freud. More broadly, they examine the situation of Jews across Europe, and the contrast between the integrated Jews in cosmopolitan capitals like Vienna and the isolated ostjuden in places like Lithuania. They then point out that the introduction of the ‘nationhood principle’ after the First World War was actually detrimental to the concept of pluralism within national societies. This affected Jews more than anyone else, as the Jews were often the minority that problematized attempts at grounding new, national states in a unified ‘history’ or ‘tradition’.

This leads to the other major way in which this book deals with the Jewish question: the Holocaust. Judt discusses how this event could happen in the first place, and how it has operated as an informing presence on Western thought since 1945. He traces the varying fortunes that ‘remembering the Holocaust’ has had within individual states (each with its own traditions of anti-Semitism), and how it has influenced the moral reconstruction of Europe and, particularly, of the post-1945 Germanies. He then moves on to another of its consequences, the creation of the state of Israel. Here, Judt lets the polemicist in him trump the scholar, as his opposition to the contemporary politics of Israel leads him to say that the Holocaust has been used by Israelis “as a get-out-of-jail-free card for a rogue state”. In my opinion, Judt’s vehemence leads him to overlook how the visceral antagonism of Israel’s neighbours has contributed to creating modern Israel’s ‘fortress’ mentality, in what is more a vicious cycle than a Manichean situation.

The last centre of gravity within this book is social democracy. Judt sets up the post-war social democracies (particularly Britain) as the brief Golden Age of the twentieth century. He examines the various intellectual currents that led to the creation of the modern welfare state and its harmonization with liberal politics, and then describes how Austrian-school liberalism began to undo its foundations in the 1980s. In this sense, the heroes of his story are Keynes and Beveridge, while the villains are Hayek, Reagan and Thatcher. Judt and Snyder then analyze contemporary America, criticising both its commitment to neoliberalism and the mentality that led to the Iraq War. They end by mounting a passionate defense of social democracy, proposing this as the great ideological tool we can take forward into the twenty-first century.

There are many faults that can be found in Judt’s account of twentieth-century intellectual history. For example, although there is much talk about ‘intellectuals’, Judt and Snyder are very imprecise regarding what they mean by this term, travelling freely between what the intellectual is and what he should be. This imprecision in general usage has recently been castigated (and rightly so) by Stefan Collini 4. Furthermore, the focus at the very end of the book on the US rather than on Europe makes it a somewhat awkward read in today’s world. It is true that Judt and Snyder’s conversations took place in 2009, and thus they could not make reference to the present crisis of the European Union. But their arguments for social democracy are blunted by being based so strongly on the American case, as the debate has now shifted from the US back to a Europe that is profoundly questioning the very model Judt is proposing. More largely, the authors are often too willing to become polemicists rather than historians, especially when it comes to the subject of contemporary liberalism and conservatism. Snyder at one point describes Judt as “a rebel on the Left, but not a rebel against the Left”, and this shows throughout the book.

Regardless of these shortcomings, Judt and Snyder show us that we are the products of an extraordinary century; one as filled with ideas and arguments as it is with wars and massacres. Perhaps none of us will ever make sense of it all; not even people who have been blessed with extraordinary minds (like the authors of this book) can avoid having their blind spots and partialities. But they make some excellent points that should stimulate our thinking, and particularly three that I think are worth keeping in mind above everything else. The first is a question: “how could so many intelligent people have told themselves so many lies?” The second is a historical assessment: the great debate of the twentieth century was that over the proper role of the state. And the third is a projection for our future analyses: even in a globalized world, we will always be thinking in terms of “the middle ground – the space between local detail and global theorem”. And this space remains the individual nation.


  1. Judt, Tony and Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Vintage, 2013.
  2. Judt, Tony, Past Imperfect. French Intellectuals 1944 – 1956. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
  3. Judt, Tony, Postwar, London: William Heinemann, 2005.
  4. Collini, Stefan, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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