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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 November 2012
This book is a mix of memoires and a critical introduction to 20th C. history. As a historian specializing in contemporary issues, he brings a unique perspective to the major political problems that we have faced in our lifetimes, reviewing them for the basics but also adding his unique interpretation. Indeed, as a "major" in international relations in France, I studied every single issue that he covers in this wonderfully interesting and challenging book.

Starting off in a working class family, Judt outlines how he got into Cambridge, entering an intellectual elite that he never left. It was a combination of brains and extremely hard work, plus a bit of luck in the teachers who encouraged him. He laments that the path that led him to Cambridge is rapidly vanishing as the power of money and privilege is renewing itself as he was writing.

As I see it, there are 3 large issues that he attacked during his career. First, there was the French intellectual tradition, starting in about the 1930s and up to the 1980s. That was the era of Sartre, Camus, and Aron, men that I studied as a student in Paris. Though I have long since left them behind, it was an absolute delight to get his read on them, a journey that I made in a far less scholarly way than he. Second, starting as a young Zionist, he recapitulates his long journey from ardent Kibbutzim to the disillusioned critic, who saw Israel as a colonial power of questionable legitimacy. Agree with him or not, the case he makes - based on personal experience as a participant in the 1967 war that transformed Israel from a defensive power to an aggressively militaristic one - deserves consideration. Third, he covered the communist idea, from its origins in the 19C up to its end and the aftermath in Eastern Europe. This went beyond what had occurred during my studies and so was a great eye opener for me, truly new content that created an agenda of study that I wil undertake over the next decade. Again, an intellectual delight.

Throughout the book, Judt offers details from his personal life, which paralleled his intellectual undertakings. It is a candid and self-critical view, from his divorces to the environment at the New York Review of Books that opened new vistas for him as a writer. He even took up Czech in his mid-30s, to complete his study of the collapse of communism. He is wonderfully candid, to the point that I am not sure I would have liked to work with the man. For example, he cheerfully admits that New York University - his career home base - is mediocre. He also calls Thomas Friedman of the NYT "execrable" as a thinker, which I admit is exactly how I perceive him. Judt was a difficult guy, never wastes time on false modesty, and displays a refreshingly biting cynicism about the pretentions of his milieu. Now that is fun!

The book was written as a kind of dialogue with another historian. I can't say that I particularly liked this style, but it offers a very fun overview of a life's work. The co-author is no sycophant, but he doesn't add much in my view and occasionally disrupts the unity of voice. While rigorous, it also lacks the tightness of a fully academic work, offering generalizations rather than a finely honed original thesis.

Recommended as an introduction to a great thinker and a delightful summary of a life's work. Judt will be missed.
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on 27 October 2012
I wish to clarify that 'moraliste' is how the historian author Tony Judt describes himself in the book. The French word is both more embracing than its English equivalent and quite lacking the implied pejorative nuance. The French call their greatest writers, from Montaigne to Camus, 'moralistes'. These French writers are far more likely than their Anglo - American counterparts to inform their work with explicit ethical engagement.

Tony Judt is a graceful, erudite author. His writing is informed by his English education, he read French history at King's College, Cambridge, his French education at Ecole Normal Superieure, and his Eastern European Jewishness; though born in London, his grandparents were Polish Jews. But I have to clarify that though informed by the preceding still his writing transcends them and acquires a genuine universality. The book bears similarity with'The Memory Chalet' in their autobiographical dimension but similarities end there with the present book the distinctly more consummate work.

The book is a spoken book. The author was afflicted in 2008 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disorder that brings progressive paralysis and certain and usually rapid death. Only his brain remained intact and retained its crystalline clarity.

The book began at the prompting of Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian, twenty - one years junior than the author and with complementary expertise. Though born in the United States, Timothy Snyder went to Oxford and undertook a doctorate in Polish history - he acquired facility in the languages of East - Central Europe and familiarity with the country and the history of the region. The book has a gratifyingly rich presence of East European intellectuals and historians.

The book was the result of a series of conversations of Timothy Snyder with the author which were recorded and transcribed. Timothy Snyder posed the questions or posited statements to which the author responded. The resulting work is impressive in its scope, ideas, subtlety and the number of intellectuals, historians, writers, politicians, and economists that parade in it.

The book is history, biography, and ethical treatise. It is a history of modern political ideas in Europe and the United States. Its subjects are power and justice, as understood by liberal, socialist, communist, nationalist and fascist intellectuals from the late nineteenth through the early twenty - first century. It is also a contemplation of the limitations (and capacity for renewal) of political ideas and of moral failures (and duties) of intellectuals in politics.

The book offered me an intense intellectual stimulation and gratification.
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VINE VOICEon 25 July 2013
The 20th century is a time of illusions shared by many intellectuals.Tony Judt talks without references and notes to a younger American historian Tim Snyder, in a series of conversations,primarily about Eastern and Western Europe with a little of America thrown in.This took place after the ALS affliction that severely shortened Judt's life.I must admit I passed through the 400 pages without much sense of travail.Judt's arguments against the Iraq War(the failure of American intellectuals),his seeking of a binational solution to the Arab-Israeli problem,the benefits of social democracy as a social bulwark against the raging currents of the free market,his search for the public good vs the ethos of privatisation.What best sums up his intentions is: 'I was moving towards the idea that all three men were genuinely independent thinkers in a time and a place where being independent placed you in real danger,as well as consigning you to the margins of your community and to the disdain of your fellowintellectuals. Maybe I thought this story worth telling because there is a subterranean twentieth-century tale to be told of intellectuals who were forced by circumstances to stand outside and even against their natural community of origin'(from The Burden of Responsibility).

Each of the 9 chapters has a biographical and historical component moving through Judt's life and across important loci in 20th century thought: the Holocaust,Zionism,French universalism,the allure of Marxism,fascism and anti-fascism,,liberalism as ethics in Eastern Europe,and social planning in Europe and the United States.Judt was an American by choice and by citizenship,though born in England in 1948.Judt saw himself as an outsider: a former Zionist,a former Marxist,a scholarship student,a doctorate at the Ecole Normale Superieure, a friend to Eastern Europeans,a director for the Institute for the study of Europe in New York.His best,most pluralist work is Postwar,which masters several frameworks,instigated by the year of revolutions in Eastern Europe,1989,the collapse of the Marxist framework,with the survival of social democracy as a base for decency.

They share anxieties about the future following the Fall of the Wall, despite the election of Barack Obama.From the perspective of the 20th century,two catastrophic world wars to the collapse of all major belief systems,what to retrieve,what to leave behind.The improvements in the general condition of humankind,most people live longer, safer,healthier lives.Fascism and communism stood as the most formidable enemies of liberal democracy and were indeed in danger of swallowing it up,but both forms of totalitarianism are now defunct.Liberalism,like capitalism emerged victorious, unpredictably,more adaptable.He does not see democracy as a universal panacea. In a fascinating exchange with Snyder, he argues that the key elements of political stability and freedom are constitutionalism, the rule of law, checks and balances. Without these democracy can be a disaster. His admonition is a sobering sidelight on the "Arab Spring": 'the Social Question, if left unaddressed, does not just go away. It goes instead in search of more radical answers'(BoR).

He believes in building cohesion out of a politics of hope not fear His social and political agenda is resolutely moderate. To the perils of excessive economic freedom, climate change and rogue states, he offers the pragmatic, pluralist, incremental remedies of social democracy. "The choice we face in the next generation is not capitalism versus communism,but the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes versus the erosion ofsociety by the politics of fear". Judt and Snyder ask each other if it would take disaster, even wars, to retrieve that spirit. No, it's for intellectuals "to remake the argument about the nature of the public good". Bringing up his own past from the South London of the 1950s,its place in his formation,has made sense of his study of other pasts.
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on 20 February 2012
'Thinking the Twentieth Century' is the best book on European history to appear for many years. Its genesis is unusual. When Tony Judt realized he was dying, he engaged in a series of conversations with Timothy Snyder. This book is the outcome. Timothy Snyder prompts and Tony Judt conducts a course on recent European history, with a little American history thrown in for good measure. In the process, Tony Judt gives a far more detailed autobiography than we got in 'The Memory Chalet.'
Overwhelmingly, it is a book about ideas and their influence. Almost every page contains new insights into some of the most written-about events in history. (My only reservation is that the book presupposes that the reader is familiar not only with events but the ideas of figures such as Hayek, and Koestler.) That such a book was produced by a man gravely ill with a degenerative disease is a triumph of the human spirit.
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If one test of a great book is one's inability to put the thing down and in being intellectually enthralled, then Judt's 'Thinking the Twentieth Century' deserves to be called great. This may seems unfair to Snyder, who helped translate their discussions from recording to this written form; he writes in a nicely self-effacing yet not unduly modest introduction of his role as cooperator and facilitator to an ailing man, a prepossessing intellectual aide. A considerable historian in his own right, he largely restrains himself, though not in the central chapter on Communism in Europe, he helps to set the intellectual scene, like a nobler Prufrock. In the last third, a dialogue emerges perhaps Judt tiring, perhaps Snyder feeling on home ground: a scholarly debate about democracy in the contemporary West, Hayek and Keynes frequently mentioned, economics a surprisingly prominent topic [an addendum, effectively, to 'Ill Fares the Land']. The results are pyrotechnic: we are given fascinating looks at a Jewish Mittel Europa now gone; an intellectual history of Marxism; of his own Jewishness; of the Jews in the century - a recurrent topic - of the role of Imperial Vienna and all it meant in what is a great history of the Western Twentieth Century; the powerful and often lethal ideas and two World Wars; QUITE a time. So much I cannot sum it all up. A medium-thick book I wished were longer, it is divided into chapters, each with a thematic centre, organised by a principle governed by something like 'oracy' (the ONLY time I have used the word without irony), it is looser, as befits conversation, albeit until halfway only Judt's side 'survives'. Actually what you are doing is eavesdropping on the most stimulating one-and-a-half person seminar. More judiciously, imagine imbibing the thoughts of a brilliant man. He was dying nastily yet manages to sound better than almost anyone healthy imaginable despite it. Not just a tour d'horizon of the 20th century, this is probably the Grand Tour. Gifted thinker, terrific historian, sadly missed. Snyder has done us all a great service, hats off to him. And Judt didn't reckon Sartre; what more could one want?
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on 2 May 2016
A fascinating read. Judt and Snyder have something to say about everything that matters in the modern world and show why our understanding of history is so important. The conversation meanders with no apparent effort or disconnect, from the minutiae of Judt's recollections of childhood and his working life, into reflections on the main currents of twentieth century thought, how and why the century developed as it did, and how that has influenced the way we think about it now. The closing chapters look at the dangers inherent in our dominant philosophical trends, especially the tendency to view society through an exclusively economic lens, while self-consciously warning of the limitations on the guidance we should seek from history, and the abuses to which its study can be put. Wise and thoughtful, this is a great aid to clear thinking. I lost count of the number of pages i dog-eared; this is a book not just for historians, but for anyone interested in the shape of the world.
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on 4 July 2012
Well what else could you call a book that offers the view that the century in question really began in 1914 with the advent of the first world war, and ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union? The twentieth century was thus not a period of time, but an event!
The book is not easy reading but encourages the thought that all men really are not born equal. The reader is in awe of the mind that can describe history, economics and politics on a grand scale and retain a grasp of the realities that have shaped our lives.
Not a quick or easy read but one that will leave you with plenty to think about.
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on 28 April 2013
We historians and intellectuals in general have been long familiar with Judt's ideas and thoughts about teh 20th century, and I like most of all what he has written avout intellectuals and intellectual history. So this book does not offer anything amazingly knew. But it is so well written, Snyder's remarks or questions are all pertinent, and you can almost observe Judt's mind working. A pleasure. I shall recommend the book to my fellow historians.
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on 30 September 2013
I got this book from the library never having heard of Tony Judt [now deceased]. Wow what a revelation about what has been going on over the last 100 years. I'm now an addict of this author and can can recommend it for those who like to know about stuff,history etc. Good entry point [but might be more logical to start with some of his earlier work].
Well done Timothy Snyder for getting this together for our benefit. A worthy tribute.
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on 25 April 2012
Brilliant work. Excellent insights, amazing erudition. It is a must for everyone who wants to understand (intellectual) history/philosophy of the last century. Very little people could write such a work.
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