'When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010', by Tony Judt - Review

By Bouverie, Tim | The Spectator, February 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

'When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010', by Tony Judt - Review


Bouverie, Tim, The Spectator


When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010 Tony Judt

Heinemann, pp.386, £25, ISBN: 9780434023080

Tony Judt was not only a great historian, he was also a great essayist and commentator on international politics. Few in this country will be familiar with his journalism, however, since it was largely published in America by the the New York Review of Books and the New Republic . Thankfully, this situation can now be remedied through this collection of his writings, ranging from 1995 to his untimely death in 2010 from motor-neurone disease.

As was often observed during his life, Judt was a man of apparent paradoxes. A secular Jew, who as a teenager had been a left-wing Zionist, he was castigated for criticising the actions of Israel. A historian of Europe, he spent most of his career teaching in America. He was an idealist with a profound distrust of ideology and an internationalist who had a natural respect for the nation state. These contrasts do not appear as contradictions in the clear prose of his essays. On the contrary, the logic of his arguments, bolstered by a profusion of historical comparisons and moral reflections, make it hard to disagree with a word he wrote -- though of course many will.

When the Facts Change is divided into three main parts: essays on modern Europe; essays concerning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; and essays on American foreign policy. There are also stimulating essays on the link between the railways and civil society, the state of social democracy in the 21st century and globalisation.

The hallmark of many of these essays is their ability to look forward as well as back -- often with extraordinary foresight. In 'Europe: The Grand Illusion' (1996), Judt warned that the consequences of ever-increasing European integration would be a democratic crisis in which the poorer countries and their non-cosmopolitan citizens would effectively be disenfranchised. Nineteen years later, the inexorable rise of anti-EU parties is testament to Judt's prediction that the EU would divide between 'winners' and 'losers'.

The looking back is no less insightful, with Judt drawing a parallel between the EU's modern architects and the enlightened despots of the 18th century:

For what is 'Brussels', after all, if not a renewed attempt to achieve the ideal, efficient, universal administration, shorn of particularism and driven by reason and the rule of law, which the reforming monarchs... strove to install in their ramshackle lands?

Jean-Claude Juncker should remind himself of the fate of Joseph II.

Judt's analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- tragically -- is in no way out of date. In 'The Road to Nowhere' (2002), he outlines the inequality of the impasse: Israel is a state, with all the capacities of a state, including the region's largest military; the Palestinians do not have viable state and, on the contrary, are under siege and occupation. …

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