The title of this blog post is likely one of the more bombastic posts concerning the life of the late Anglo American historian and public intellectual. In addition to being three years late, it will undoubtedly be less well poised and written than those who knew doctor Judt or had spent any time with him.
Nonetheless, I propose to do some of my own positing in the mention of his unfortunate and untimely demise.
I admit I opened my first chapters of Judt’s magnum opus Postwar just as the last pages of his life were being written by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). In 2009 I was studying at the University of Salzburg in the aforementioned city in Austria, studying in the department of history with coursework in contemporary and historical roots of fascism through the lens of affected central European nations. On the assigned coursework for the year was Judt, along with synonymous names on Europe: Mazower, Kershaw et al.
Judt’s work had the effect on me like the crashing sound of a sheet of glass. I was in my third year studying history, had read Mazower and Kershaw of course, and embarrassingly had spent a great deal of time reading Hobsbawm and EP Thompson and Marxist theories of history, trying in vain to get my older and jaded professors who had slumped toward something less than my admitted fantasist manner to see the error of their ways.
Previously, the history of Europe after the Second World War had had little to no interest in me. I was more concerned issues that, (to me) had greater urgency: grain strikes in France in 1789 or the establishment of the Spartacus League in 1917. These looked and sounded more appealing to me, and I wondered what on earth I could learn from the formation of homogenized nations in an increasingly peaceful Europe?
Judt showed quite eloquently, and quite impressively, that the urgency and scope that involved the creation of nation states after the Second World War was not the neat and tidy reorganization American school children are fed. It was messy, violent and at times corrosive to civil society. Despite this, the formation of new and more equitable Europe coalesced. Understanding how nations dealt with the trauma of war and walked back is impressive enough. That Judt wrote it in a readable manner as such is a scholastic achievement worth noting.
After I completed my studies, I went back to the United States and with my thesis research project on the election of Waldheim in 1980 fully underway, I parted ways with Judt’s work if only intending for it to be a moment.
In spring of that next year, 2010, I was reading the New York Times in a not unlovable diner in Milwaukee, my hometown, when I glanced over the obituaries only to find a neatly printed eulogy to a man whose works I had so valued and then forgotten. I still have the clipping from that day’s paper.
Since then, I have changed jobs several times, gotten married and moved, but when Judt’s posthumous: Thinking the Twentieth Century was published, I knew I had to read it. And re read it. I now own a copy of every one of his works. I try to re-read them from time to time to maintain a clear head. Anytime I despair about the rightness of social-democracy I open to the front page his minor work, Ill Fares the Land and read the quote: “There is something wrong with the way we live today” and feel hope that I was not the only one to have ever felt thusly.
Judt made many enemies with his calls for what he believed to be justice in the case of a multinational Palestine, and for a more collective USA. I think that those beliefs came from the heart and the head, and if they do not occur, it does not make him any less of a brave thinker for having spoken the words.
As a full time professor, researcher and writer for a myriad of organizations and papers, Judt was not featured frequently as a talking head on Cable TV. His words appeared in publications and his interviews look to be generally egalitarian.
Unlike his fellow Anglo-American, the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens, Judt’s face does not appear on a wide variety of images in the web. Top among my favorite of those small number is one in which Judt, kneeling between the partition separating his bedroom and another room, looks off camera with a sort of still calm. Holding a simple glass, and behind his left shoulder at the foot of a bed lies an unfurled newspaper with a pen set beside it. The bed is a clean white and made neatly. Unassuming except for the red piece of cloth lying at the foot of the bed, the room and the surroundings are a fantastic image of the man’s life itself. Eloquent, tidy, and unassuming. Judt never seems to have sought fanfare or prestige. His work was what counted, and much like the man in the picture, the rest is just filler.