Harpal's Reviews > Thinking the Twentieth Century

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt
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Jun 12, 12

Read in June, 2012

Tony Judt's final book is an extended conversation piece that is part autobiography and part history. Its title, an homage to the venerable Francois Furet's seminal work "Penser la Revolution Francaise", gives one an idea of its scope and aim. Sadly, it fails to live up to its own great expectations. The unusual format, introductory monologues by Judt about his life followed by questions and answers with co-author Timothy Snyder, is a refreshing change of pace but also makes the book hard to judge as either a work of history or commentary.

Judt reflects on his own life and career at the beginning of each chapter before delving more into the intricacies of a lifetime of work: the moral flaws of French intellectuals, the pitfalls of Israeli foreign policy, the intellectual appeal and speciousness of Marxism, the irony and hollowness of social history, and the oft neglected cultural and political history of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. As usual, Judt is masterful in his knowledge and clear in his prose. Hence, as a summary of his work and insights over the years, this is a very useful and mostly accessible piece, save the several recondite forays into obscure Marxist and Eastern European intellectuals. If Leszek Kolakowski and Arthur Koestler are unfamiliar to you, then you might want to skim through these sections, as those two are the most famous in a long list of arcane figures that are discussed. However, the real weakness of the book lies in Snyder's overweening and almost obsequious affirmation of some of Judt's points, particularly with regard to social democracy and present American foreign policy. He almost falls over himself to agree with Judt, and the quality of the discussion suffers as a result, devolving into an escalating series of leftist lamentations and invectives of little value. I found his (and Judt's, to a lesser extent) description of Hayekian theory to be a particularly unjust and crude caricature, thus doing violence against even their more valid claims.

Judt's brightest insight, and I think the underlying point of the book, is that the twentieth century was the absurdist century, one where innocent third parties simply could not believe the tragedies that unfolded around them because they sounded too absurd to be real. In this way, Kafka, according to Judt, was one of the few who anticipated the macabre absurdity of the twentieth century. In short, this is an enjoyable summary of Judt's life and work, containing even the occasional stroke of brilliance, but overall less thought-provoking and detailed than his greatest works.
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