Renowned/historian Reflects on Failings/of a Past/century

Article excerpt

Few scholars are better placed to reflect on our past century than Tony Judt.

The London-born professor and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, a centre that focuses on Europe, is a hugely respected historian, an incisive essayist, a prolific reviewer and the author of over a dozen books.

This collection of essays, all previously published from 1994 to 2006, displays a wide ranging erudition. A thoughtful introduction and a reflective conclusion tie together many of the salient insights drawn from the lessons of the past 100 years.

Judt defines the book's focus as "the role of ideas and the responsibility of intellectuals" coupled with "the place of |recent history in an age of |forgetting".

He stresses the way divided histories emerge from different memories and the way in which our collective purposes today are defined "in exclusively economic terms", with indicators from GDP to stock market performances obsessing us as though they were ends in themselves.

The essays explore the writings of major thinkers, among them Primo Levi and Edward Said, and major public figures such as Pope John Paul II and Tony Blair.

His examination of French intellectuals - notably Albert Camus and Louis Althusser - is superb. It is particularly refreshing to be reminded of the great controversies surrounding Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Camus's engagement with the postwar French left, and Althusser's adumbrations of Marxism.

Judt's vituperative critique of Eric Hobsbawm's ongoing romance with communism and his summary of Lezek Kolakowski's savage demolition of EP Thompson are riveting, as is his discussion of the "European" Jewish intellectual Manes Sperber.

Equally engrossing are his fulminations against Henry Kissinger and the way in which he lambasts the "triumphalist" Cold War history written by John Lewis Gaddis.

Beyond individuals, Judt engages with particular moments in the 20th century such as the fall of France in 1940, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six Day War and its consequences, as well as the decline of liberalism in America. Major liberal thinkers in the United States, he laments, have abdicated their responsibilities and have become cheerleaders in the Global War against Terror. …