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Things Fell Apart: Tony Judt's 'Twentieth Century'

"Without history, memory is open to abuse," writes Tony Judt in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Perhaps more than anything else the late British-American historian wrote, that could have been his credo — his work, especially toward the end of his career, was marked by an almost activist concern for morality, what he called an "explicit ethical engagement."

That approach made Judt, author of the critically acclaimed Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, one of the world's most controversial historians — but also one of its most admired. After he died in 2010 of Lou Gehrig's disease, his obituaries made note of both his intellect and his unflagging advocacy. Historians, he wrote, are "also participants in our own time and place and cannot retreat from it," and he never did.

Thinking the Twentieth Century is Judt's final work, and it's fitting that it is just as complex as the historian himself. The book — essentially an edited transcription of conversations between Judt and Yale history professor Timothy Snyder — combines elements of memoir, history and philosophy. Each chapter begins with an autobiographical passage by Judt, tracing his life from his childhood in London, the son of Jewish immigrants, to the months before his death in New York. Following these are discussions with Snyder about European history and political philosophy, covering everything from Marxism and Zionism (both of which Judt once embraced) to the social democracy he advocated in his final years.

Reading the book feels a bit like eavesdropping on two intimidatingly smart friends — the conversations are always clear and easy to follow, but unless you're intimately familiar with, say, the ouevre of Polish editor Jerzy Giedroyc, you'll probably want some reference works close at hand. The format puts Judt's charm and his hyperopinionated nature on display, to sometimes funny, if catty, effect ("[D]ismissing Althusser, ridiculing Martin Amis, diminishing Lucien Goldmann—child's work").

Tony Judt (1948-2010) was the author of <em>The Memory Chalet</em>, <em>Ill Fares the Land</em> and <em>A Grand Illusion?</em> among other books.
John R. Rifkin /
Tony Judt (1948-2010) was the author of The Memory Chalet, Ill Fares the Land and A Grand Illusion? among other books.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book deal with Judt's Jewish identity, from his years as a young Zionist, going to kibbutzim, to the political firestorm he ignited with "Israel: The Alternative," his 2003 New York Review of Books article that proposed Israel become "a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs."

Judt was a provocateur, but maybe an accidental one, and after reading this remarkable, impassioned book, it's hard to doubt his sincerity. He didn't have a cause that he used history to justify; for him, history wasthe cause, and he wasn't afraid to lob a few rhetorical bombs to defend it. "I don't think neglecting the past is our greatest risk," he writes, "the characteristic mistake of the present is to cite it in ignorance." Thinking the Twentieth Century is Judt's final salvo against what he saw as a culture of historical ignorance and political apathy, and it's every bit as brilliant, uncompromising and original as he was.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.