Tony Judt: A Final Victory

Historians in the News

Jennifer Homans is the author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. She was the wife of Tony Judt, who died in August 2010. Accompanying her essay in this issue is an excerpt from his just-published book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, written with Timothy Snyder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
 (March 2012)

I was married to Tony Judt. I lived with him and our two children as he faced the terror of ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was a two-year ordeal, from his diagnosis in 2008 to his death in 2010, and during it Tony managed against all human odds to write three books. The last, following Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, was Thinking the Twentieth Century, based on conversations with Timothy Snyder.1 He started work on the book soon after he was diagnosed; within months he was quadriplegic and on a breathing machine, but he kept working nonetheless. He and Tim finished the book a month before he died. It accompanied his illness; it was part of his illness, and part of his dying.

The book is a history of twentieth-century thought. It begins with his reflections on Jewish idealism and Jewish suffering in Europe and ends with a devastating account of the failure of American politics in the post–cold war world. It is also an intellectual autobiography—of sorts. “Of sorts” because Tony rarely wrote in the first person, and the autobiographical sections of the book were wedged in, almost reluctantly, between the ideas, the history, the politics, and the ethical dilemmas that were central to his life.

This doesn’t mean that the book is not personal. For Tony, ideas were a kind of emotion, something he felt and cared about in the way that most people do about feelings like sadness or love. This, as the book shows, goes back to the beginning—even before the beginning—of his life: Tony was named after his father’s cousin Toni, who perished as a young girl in Auschwitz. As he was growing up, his father passed on his own passion for left-wing politics and European history as a form of parental love: Tony’s thirteenth birthday present, which he devoured, was Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume study of Trotsky. Ideas and the need for historical explanations ran deep, back then and right through to Thinking the Twentieth Century....

comments powered by Disqus