Tony Judt: an appreciation

Tony Judt will be remembered as a public intellectual unafraid to address his readers and listeners as moral beings.

New York University
Tony Judt, born in London in 1948, became a frequent and eloquent commentator on postwar European society.

Tony Judt – historian, author, academic – was educated in Europe but built his career here in the United States, where he founded and headed New York University's Remarque Institute. Perhaps it was his insider's knowledge of various Western cultures that allowed him to speak to all of us so clearly.

"I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community," he told an interviewer recently, and certainly Judt never shied away from doing so.

As Lynn Parramore notes in her tribute on The Huffington Post, Judt "pondered American culture and politics with the critical eye of an uncle whose affection was tempered by exasperation but buoyed by an undaunted belief in us. He understood what ails us – our materialism, our selfishness, our delusions of perpetual growth and free-wheeling markets – but he also gleaned our potential to regain our footing if we could but imagine alternatives."

Judt will long be remembered for his books (including his master work "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945"), his many writings for The New York Review of Books, and the robust nature of his contribution to public discussion of both history and contemporary society.

In the pages of the Monitor in recent years, Judt was quoted on a variety of topics including the role of the state in continental Europe vs. the United States ("much deeper and culturally much more built in" in Europe than in Anglo-Saxon culture), the notion of the rebirth of Europe (which Judt saw as a "grand illusion"), French capitulation under the Vichy regime, and the "imperial collapse" of Russia after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

But for some of us, at least, what will be most missed about Judt will be his willingness to speak directly to all of postwar Western culture about the ill effects of its materialism. "In one of the last pieces he wrote ('Ill Fares the Land,' NYRoB, April 29, 2010)," Parramore notes, "Judt gives us a hint on where we should start, after acknowledging that where we've ended up – fixated on material wealth and indifferent to almost everything else – does not make for good living."

Let's hope there are other voices out there today – young ones, perhaps – ready to rise up and speak in their turn with equal clarity and vigor.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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