When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995–2010 by Tony Judt (Edited by Jennifer Homans) - review by Dominic Sandbrook

Dominic Sandbrook

Big Game Hunter

When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995–2010


William Heinemann 386pp £25 order from our bookshop

For a man who died more than four years ago, Tony Judt remains remarkably prolific. During his lifetime he built a well-deserved reputation as one of the most combative, clear-sighted and illuminating historians of his generation, crowned by Postwar, his sweeping history of Europe after 1945. In 2008 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a horrible condition that left him paralysed from the neck down. In the summer of 2010, at the age of only sixty-two, he died.

By this stage Judt was already becoming something of an industry. Only a few months after his death his publishers brought out a slim, moving memoir, Ill Fares the Land, and two years after that his conversations with his friend and fellow historian Timothy Snyder were published with the title Thinking the Twentieth Century. Now we have a third book, collecting some of the best essays and reviews from the last decade or so of his life. To put it bluntly, Judt has published more books since his death that some historians do in their entire lifetime.

I should perhaps declare my hand: I am a Judt fan. In my view, almost everything he wrote, from his early books on the French Left in the mid-20th century to his piercing essays in the New York Review of Books, was distinguished by a remarkable acuity, honesty and intellectual insight. One of the curious things about him, though, was that for much of his career he cut a relatively obscure figure, teaching French history at Cambridge and Oxford. Only in the last years of his life, after he had moved to New York, did his public standing gather momentum. Had he lived a bit longer, I suspect he would have become a household name.

Judt was never afraid of controversy. In particular, his essays on Israel made him a hate figure for many Jewish American activists. When Judt published ‘Israel: The Alternative’, which warned that the Jewish homeland was becoming a ‘belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state’, the New York Review of Books received more than a thousand furious letters, many of them describing him as anti-Semitic. The irony is that Judt himself, who grew up in a secular Jewish household in Putney, had previously been a keen Zionist and even volunteered as an Israeli army translator during the Six Day War. His critics called him a self-hating Jew, which was nonsense. As his wife, Jennifer Homans, notes in her moving introduction to this book, Judt hired a graduate student from the Jewish Theological Seminary to teach their two boys Hebrew. The furore surrounding his articles about Israel, she notes, ‘disturbed him deeply’.

When the Facts Change reprints no fewer than eight of Judt’s essays about Israel, most of them originally published in the New York Review of Books. There is no doubt that these were some of the most personal things he ever wrote, reflecting his deep frustration that the Zionist dream had taken, as he saw it, an ugly turn. Yet though they are powerful and often persuasive, they do not necessarily show him at his best. Judt was a fine polemicist, but he was an even better historian, and it is his historical pieces that really shine. In a splendid essay on the Cold War, for example, he takes an unfashionably long view, tracing its origins back to, among other things, the disruption to the European state system caused by the rise of Prussia. In this context, he suggests, the Cold War was ‘not a problem but a solution’. Perhaps only now do we realise how right he was.

The real pleasure of this book, though, comes from Judt’s evisceration of other historians. He was a quite brilliant negative reviewer. Some of his targets seem a little too easy: among the pieces here is a full-blooded assault on Vesna Goldsworthy’s book Inventing Ruritania, a sub-Edward Said account of the Western ‘invention’ of the Balkans, in which ‘everything is imagined, represented, constructed, Orientalized’. But what was refreshing about Judt is that he was not afraid to go out big game hunting. The very first essay in the book, for example, is a supremely perceptive review of Eric Hobsbawm’s book The Age of Extremes, absurdly overpraised in many circles. Judt rightly acknowledges Hobsbawm’s strengths: the sweep of his narrative, the accessibility of his prose. But he shows very clearly how Hobsbawm, as an unrepentant Marxist, fudged and distorted the history of the early Cold War and failed to deal properly with the terror of Stalin’s regime, which he implicitly supported for so long.

The book’s most blistering essay, though, is an extraordinary review of Norman Davies’s bestseller Europe: A History. Indeed, I am not sure I have ever read a long review that is quite so damning. Europe is not just ‘littered with embarrassing and egregious errors’, says Judt, ‘it is a truly unsavoury book’. In one unforgettable aside, he develops an elaborate comparison between Professor Davies and Mr Toad, united by their ‘unself-conscious immodesty’. Perhaps most woundingly, Judt concludes that the book is ‘not just full of error, disproportion, prejudice, resentment, and boastfulness. It is also strikingly conventional.’ As it happens, I rather enjoyed Davies’s book. But I am not sure that I didn’t enjoy Judt’s review even more.

There are other jewels here, of course: a couple of lovely pieces on the allure of the railways; a powerful tribute to the values of social democracy; a thoughtful and impressive essay on Albert Camus’s book The Plague. Camus was Judt’s sort of person: brave, reflective, rightly contemptuous of his fellow French intellectuals’ bad faith, and devoted to the principle of ‘individual moral responsibility’. And yet, for all the virtues of this and other essays, I am still not entirely sure what this book is for. Many of these pieces were published relatively recently and quite a few are available online. At £25, the book represents a considerable outlay, especially given that most of its likely buyers will probably have read a lot of it already. I suspect that Judt himself might have had something to say about such a blatant posthumous cash-in.

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