How Historians Can Rewrite the Future

When the noted and controversial scholar Tony Judt fell fatally ill,Yale professor Timothy Snyder stepped forward to write one last book with him. Here, Snyder recalls the collaboration and the legacy Judt left behind.

Left, Tony Judt (John R. Rifkin); right, Timothy Snyder (Ine Gundersveen)

"An intellectual by definition is someone temperamentally inclined to rise periodically to the level of general propositions." Thus spake the great historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, and this is just one of the memorable lines we are lucky enough to have on record in his last, posthumously published work.

For the last few years of his life, Judt suffered from a disease that left him trapped in his own body, eventually unable to write or walk. Famous among non-academics for his erudite and occasionally controversial essays on current affairs in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, Judt remains a giant in the field of 20th-century history--the author of the definitive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945--and it was one of his colleagues who had the idea to enable one last literary offering to the world.

From January to July of 2009, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder met with Judt for a series of recorded conversations that would let Judt's voice communicate to the world what his arms and fingers no longer could. Thinking the Twentieth Century, released February 2 from the Penguin Press, is the product of those discussions. The tome covers far more than, as was originally intended, the British-born, Jewish-raised, and Cambridge-educated Judt's life and work. It is a breathtakingly pithy exploration of some of the great questions of our time, and what it means to be a historian. The alternately joyous and somber ramble touches on the sex lives of French intellectuals, the dangers of the Holocaust museums, and how high schools should teach the history of the Civil War. Observations about the modern media and the English language emerge amidst a provocative reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as we know it today.

Ultimately, the immensely quotable dialogue, whether you agree with the positions or not, is an argument in hard copy that words matter--that, to quote the equally quotable playwright Tom Stoppard, with words "you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos," and "if you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead."

To get a better sense of how this book came into being, and the concerns motivating its authors, we spoke by phone with Timothy Snyder.

Where did you first get the idea for this book? Conversational books aren't all that common.

It came to me in a flash. Like most of the people in Tony's broad circle of acquaintance, I had known that Tony was ill. It was, I think, the day after that I understood that he couldn't use his arms that I thought that we should talk the book together. So simply a moment of empathy. If I couldn't use my arms, I would still want to write.

Then I had to persuade Tony to do it. I started out by giving him my idea, which was that we would talk through his previous work and, in doing so, try to raise some questions that I thought had been half-hidden or implicit -- like the Jewish question, like the role of the intellectual in politics.

But then, as our weekly meetings continued, it became clear that there were a couple other approaches that were worth pursuing. We had a couple mutual friends, including Timothy Garton Ash and my wife Marci Shore, and both said we should talk about Tony's biography, because there was something inherently interesting about this working class kid from south London going through Israel, and Cambridge, and Paris, and Berkeley, and Oxford, and New York, and becoming Tony Judt.

And then also it emerged that Tony had a couple of books that he was under contract to write already. One was called Locomotion, a history of rail travel, that I think it was a great pity that he couldn't write, and the other was called Modern Republic of Letters, which was meant to be an intellectual history of the late 19th century to the present.

So I started out by talking through his previous work. We then went through the biography and then went through, chapter by chapter, this book that he had meant to write.

The book resembles, in some sense, a guided tour through personal mental library. Is this what you mean when you say in the introduction that "this book makes a case for conversation but perhaps an even stronger case for reading"?

One of the very special things about Tony was the sovereign command he exercised over facts and arguments. He was really just as good, if not better, in person than he was on the printed page.  And part of that, of course, was that he just had a very special mind. But part of it was that he was immensely well-read in a very old-fashioned way.

Neither of us was reaching for books or Googling anything as we proceeded. You have to remember that Tony was paralyzed and that we were working alone, just the two of us together. We were just talking. And that was only possible because there were all these layers of reference that were in his mind and in mine. I guess what I was trying to get across in that introduction is that a lot of solitary reading makes direct conversation possible. Because there's this world of letters that you wander around in alone for a long time. But then, when you meet someone else who has been doing even more of that wandering, you have an awful lot to talk about.

The other thing that I was trying to get across, gently and implicitly, is that reading books and not doing anything else forces you to learn to concentrate. What Tony did in this and his other final projects required heroic acts of concentration that wouldn't have been possible without his lifetime habit of concentration over books. In the world of Internet--where everybody has to Google everything all the time, where we're unsure about our own memories, where we revisit fragments and where we write based on fragments--well, if that world had conquered everyone, then this book would have been impossible.

Judt says at one point in this book that, as an intellectual today, you can write essays for the New York Review of Books or you can blog and tweet--but you can't do both. Could you speak a bit more about this distinction between intellectuals and "media intellectuals," investigative journalists and pundits?

Tony wrote books like Postwar and also wrote for The New York Review of Books, and I think he understood that these are two different approaches. You can't be a good historian if you are trying to change the present too directly through your history book--that won't be a good history book. You also can't be a good essayist if you spend too much time in the past. So he allowed himself to bifurcate, and I think that was really the right thing to do.

But once he bifurcated, his anger was directed at other essayists, the people you're calling pundits. I think he was angry with the people who have positions of authority but actually have no authority to say the things they do say. I think he was also angry that people who were making important decisions were referring to the past, in a way that would affect the future, but were actually caught up in the minutest of presents.

So if you think of the way Tony dealt with the run-up to the Iraq War, it was clear that he was disturbed by the shallowness of the analysis, the reluctance to see the war as a future historical fact rather than just an expressing of our strong feelings about the present. Most historians tend to think that the present is very fuzzy and difficult but that we can see some of the patterns, if we try. But most historians aren't very good at articulating what those patterns might be.  Tony was unusual: he was able to articulate what the patterns might be. Historians usually fail because they usually say "it's more complicated than that," and no one wants to hear that.

Why the focus on the Iraq War in these conversations about the place of the historian as an intellectual?

For me it was an interesting moment. I was against it from the beginning, and I had been writing op-eds since I was a teenager and had never failed to get any of them published somewhere until right then. There were basic logical issues here--like if you want to fight Islamic fundamentalism, knocking over secular states is maybe not the way to go--and no one wanted to publish that stuff. Tony was one of the few people who managed to get a little bit of public space with these arguments from reason. I happened to see him once talking on Charlie Rose about this, so that's what made me talk to him about it in the book.

More broadly, the Iraq War was an obsession of mine, not as a historian but as a citizen, because I think it's where America lost the American century--I don't think the 20th century was the American century, I think the 21st century had a chance of being the American century and we blew it by spending absurd amounts of moral, political, and literal financial capital on this undertaking. It's very hard to imagine how we can recover from that--we're so far gone, and so many of what we see as the problems of today arise from that one foolish choice.

There are an awful lot of public intellectuals running around now who say, "I supported the Iraq War at the time and now I see it was a mistake." I don't really understand that position, because all the things that made it clear that it was an error were just as clear to anyone who thought about it in 2002 as they are in retrospect. So for me, it was a kind of crisis of the public intellectual in the U.S. If there's anything where people should have been able to figure out there was going to be a problem and--if there was any opportunity for public media outlets to give people a voice--it was precisely 2002 and 2003, and it just didn't happen.

There's a lot of talk in this book about the role of the historian and some of the problems with the way history is currently being approached. What are the challenges the two of you saw in the field?

People today don't have a firm grip on what just happened, and what happened before that, and what happened before that, and how these things might all link to each other. In order to understand the present, you have to have these links back to the past, rather than seeing everything as unprecedented, which is the fashion today.

Both Tony and I think that when you teach or write history, you ought to be giving people a coherent picture of a series of events. You want to aim for understanding rather than deconstruction. Historians and literary critics and psychologists and others are fond of saying, "Those things you think you know--well, you don't really know them. They aren't really true." And as important as that exercise can be, it's not clear to me that's what we should be saying and publishing, at least initially: it destroys the very few reference points people already have.

The second sense I share with Tony is that the language itself is going to pot. English itself is really suffering under the weight of the Internet, under the weight of the way people communicate in general. And very few people are working against that.

What would it mean to "work against that"?

One of the things I do with my graduate students is tell them to pick days of the week when they're not using the Internet at all. It means they have to read books from start to finish, they have to have an idea of what a good book is and what a good book isn't. They have to be widely read.

It's also important to have a command of the language that goes beyond specialization. You have to be able to get up in front of any group of people at any time and talk at any length on any topic you know. Tony was extremely good at that, and I think it's something we should be striving for. It's not our job as historians to say "we can't explain that in 30 seconds." It's our job to have a 30-second version of something, just as we have a 30-minute version and a 300-page version.

You said part of the public task of the historian is "reminding people that things actually happened." What do you mean by that?

The current predisposition in discussing history is to say, "Well, you feel very strongly about slavery, but I feel very strongly about apricots," or "You feel very strongly about the Holocaust, but I feel very strongly about the U.S. space program," and then we all go off to be preoccupied with things we're preoccupied with.

But historians have to say that slavery isn't just a personal preoccupation: it actually happened in some irreducible way that no one else has a right to forget. You have to accept not that the past is something that you just divide up according to people's present identities, but the past is in some sense shared. It matters to me, to all of us, that the Civil War happened--it's not just a matter of how white people in Kentucky feel about it or how black people feel about it.

For Tony Judt's generation, ideological commitments were helpful in providing a sense of civic responsibility. Judt himself had some Marxist leanings. Can this cause a conflict, or can it propel scholars towards producing socially useful work?

That's a dilemma that certainly appears in this book. The task of intellectuals has to be to take responsibility without having certainty.

In some sense intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century had it easy. You know you're doing the right thing if you're a Victorian liberal, because you know free-market capitalism is going to bring about prosperity for everyone. You know you're doing the right thing if you're a fascist intellectual in Italy, because you know the future belongs to those who believe and those who act. Or you know you're doing the right thing as a French Communist following the Soviet line, because ultimately there will be a world revolution.

If you have that kind of confidence in a view that links together past, present, and future, it gives you a pretty good idea of what you ought to be doing in the present. Of course, that ended very badly for everyone in the 20th century. That doesn't mean that all of these ideas are simply things to throw away, because various versions of them might come around again. But also--and this is a point Tony stresses--we have to understand what those commitments were like if we want to understand the century itself.

I think that's a perspective that is available to Tony because he was in some ways a bit behind the times. He was never a Communist, but he did grow up in a family where the father was Marxist.  He read Marx very young and he understood Marxist commitments. I think one of the advantages he had was that mentally he was closer to the world of the Hobsbawms than he was to the world of his own contemporaries.

It's easy to look at the century and say, "Goodbye to all that, it's all over." But of course it's not. Americans reject Communism and all that, but they also maintain this view about the future that any kind of intervention in the marketplace or any type of redistribution or so on will lead to some horrible form of totalitarianism. That is a counter-ideology, but it is still an ideology, and without any intellectual rivals it has become something like common sense--even though it is entirely wrong. It is the mirror image of Communism's certainty about the future and many minds in America are still trapped by that. Tony was trying to work against that with his arguments for social democracy.

What accomplishments of this book are you most proud of or pleased by, and what did you have the most fun with?

I wouldn't say that this was fun, but parts of it were much closer to fun than people might imagine. What Tony and I were able to do in an objectively horrible situation was have conversations where what mattered was Tony's mind and the ideas: where those ideas arose in his very interesting life, and where they might apply in the wider world beyond the apartment where he was trapped. At least for a couple of hours every week, Tony had that, and I got to have that with him, which was a great privilege because Tony's mind was incredible.

I am very pleased by it as a history of political ideas, and as a study of the relationship between ideas and politics, on the example of Tony's life and that of other intellectuals.

We should let readers decide the overall message of the book, but I will say that now that I've touched the finished book, I am happy about it in a way that I have never been happy about anything else that I've done. The project started as an unusual thought at a difficult moment and it required a very special person--Tony--to make it possible. It has gone from idea through conversation through transcript to book, all as a collaborative effort. There was real pleasure in the contact that involved. There were enormous expenses of effort and concentration on his part. This unusual approach to writing a book, carried out in such difficult circumstances, has now made its way into the real world as this book you can read. I think it's a wonderful book. But the simple fact that it has arrived in the physical world--that alone brings me a great deal of joy.