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Tony Judt: a man of paradox who made perfect sense

A review of Tony Judt’s collection of essays, When the Facts Change, reveals a historian of rare subtlety and foresight

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

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

Heinemann, pp.386, £25

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. Therefore, despite the past crimes and terrorism on both sides, the initiative for breaking the deadlock lies with Israel.

In 2002, Judt still believed in a two-state solution. By the following year he had changed his mind. In ‘Israel: The Alternative’ (2003), he argued that there were now ‘too many [Israeli] settlements, and too many Palestinians’ for a two-state resolution to be viable. The alternative was a bi-national state in which Israelis and Palestinians were afforded equal rights. For many, Judt acknowledged, this was ‘thinking the unthinkable’. But pre-empting the furore this essay would cause, he tried to explain why such a solution was not only necessary but also desirable: most states are pluralist, multiethnic and multicultural — why shouldn’t Israel be? Indeed, it is Israel’s status as a mono-religious/ethnic state which sets it apart from the rest of the western world with which it claims a shared identity.

An adopted American, Judt had no truck with petty European anti-Americanism. But he was dismayed by the foreign policy of George W. Bush and vehemently opposed the Iraq war. In an example of his ability to deploy a humorous and yet devastating simile, he analogises America’s international status with the sports utility vehicle:

Oversized and overweight, the SUV disdains negotiated agreements to restrict atmospheric pollution. It consumes inordinate quantities of scarce resources to furnish its privileged inhabitants…[and] exposes outsiders to deadly risk in order to provide for the illusory security of its occupants.

There is plenty of history in this collection and those who enjoy a good demolition job will enjoy Judt’s review of Norman Davies’s Europe: A History. There are also excellent essays on Eric Hobsbawm and Albert Camus.

What unites all of the essays, whether historical or political, is Judt’s mantra of ‘good faith’. Davies’s book is in bad faith because it distorts the past with errors and false comparisons. America’s standing in the world has diminished because the world no longer believes it is acting in ‘good faith’ — Iraq and Guantánamo have seen to that. And the Middle East peace ‘process’ is stuck in bloody limbo due to the lack of ‘good faith’ on both sides.

Though many will disagree with their conclusions, all of Judt’s essays are written in good faith. They do not exaggerate or distort and, despite provocation, do not descend into cynicism or vitriol. The ‘facts’, contrary to the the title, have also not changed. For this reason, I urge you to read this book, in good faith

Tim Bouverie is a producer for Channel 4 News .Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033


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