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In some circles, an “intellectual” is someone to be mocked. But Tony Judt was determined to show that ideas matter in society. As a historian, he analyzed the clash of ideologies in the 20th century. As a public figure, he thrived in argument. One colleague said Tony Judt “enjoyed the acrobatics of intellectualism as others enjoy baseball.” In 2008, Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Soon, he lost the ability to write, but he could still think and talk. His final book emerged from a series of conversations with a friend and fellow historian. They reflected on the 20th century, on Europe and America, on communism, fascism, zionism and capitalism. They finished their project just a few weeks before Judt died. Historian Timothy Snyder describes his collaboration with Tony Judt.
- Timothy Snyder Professor of history at Yale University and author of several books, including "Bloodlands," "Reconstruction of Nations" and "Sketches from a Secret War."
In 2008, historian Tony Judt was planning to write a book about the intellectual history of the 20th century after he was diagnosed with ALS and lost the use of his hands and arms. His friend and fellow historian, Timothy Snyder, offered to help. They met every week for six months and recorded their conversations. Just a few weeks before his death at age 62, the editing, introduction, and conclusion of Tony Judt’s book in collaboration with Timothy Snyder was finished. The book has just been published under the title, “Thinking the Twentieth Century.”
Who Was Tony Judt?
Judt was “that very rare thing, an independent intellectual,” Snyder said. “After he became well known as a historian, he began to pronounce on issues of foreign policy, on the United States’ national interest, on world affairs generally, in a way which was generally against, rather than with the current, and very often he was right. So he was also, to use an old-fashioned word, he was a self-made man. He was a working-class kid, a working-class Jewish kid from south London, scholarship boy at Cambridge in the U.K.,” Snyder said.
Judt’s Struggle With ALS
After his diagnosis with ALS, Judt continued to work. “As his physical condition deteriorated, we continued to talk, and the work actually got better and better as time went on,” Snyder said. People with ALS lose control of their muscles, but they’re not paralyzed in the sense that they still retain sensation. Snyder said the loss of control ALS patients feel as a result of these symptoms is terrifying but that Judt reacted to it by not being humiliated. “He reacted to it with humility which I think is in a way the opposite. He took it as, strange as this may sound, a kind of opportunity to work in a different way,” Snyder said.
What The Title Means
“It’s a very French way actually of looking at things, that you can think a century, you can think a revolution,” Snyder said. “The idea is that you’re working your way through something, that the history doesn’t really ever come to an end. That history is something that you continue to process, you continue to think. And by thinking your way through it, by thinking the twentieth century for example, you might come to a sense of what was actually happening. And with that sense of reality you might then have some attraction on what’s going on today,” Snyder said.
Knowledge Of Your Own Death
Gjelten asked how knowing he was going to die changed Judt and changed the book. “Tony thought that in general we are quite certain about our own eventual death but we don’t know what’s going to happen to us in the next six months or the next year. His position was reversed but he was quite certain he was going to die very soon and that therefore he had no control over the other things that might be happening. It did change him. He faced a choice. He was thinking about not working anymore at all. And then he decided that, in fact, he was going to work and concentrate in the way we worked together and also in the way that he worked by himself,” Snyder said. “His wife Jennifer Homans has an article in a coming New York Review of Books where she describes Tony as thinking about the afterlife, not in a spiritual sense but in the sense that in writing you help to create the world that is going to be here on this earth after you are gone, that that’s a perspective you can adopt when you know that you’re going to die soon,” he said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. In 2008, historian Tony Judt was planning to write a book about the intellectual history of the 20th century after he was diagnosed with ALS and lost the use of his hands and arms. His friend and fellow historian, Timothy Snyder, offered to help. They met every week for six months and recorded their conversations. Just a few weeks before his death at age 62, the editing, introduction, and conclusion of Tony Judt's book in collaboration with Timothy Snyder was finished.
MR. TOM GJELTENThe book has just been published under the title, "Thinking the Twentieth Century." Timothy Snyder this morning joins me in the studio. Thank you very much, Timothy for coming in.
MR. TIMOTHY SNYDERDelighted I could do it.
GJELTENAll the way from Yale University where you are a professor of history, and he is also the author of five award-winning books of European history. First, Timothy, tell us about Tony Judt. How long did you know him, how did you know him, what did he mean to you?
SNYDERI knew Tony from the time when he was a respected, but largely unknown historian of France to the time when he became a world-class intellectual. I met him when -- I'm a generation younger than Tony. I met him when I was a student. I met him just as he was beginning to make his name. Tony was one of our best, if not our best historian. He wrote a wonderful, wonderful book called "Post War," which managed to bring the histories of eastern and western Europe together right at the moment when that was possible in the early 21st century.
SNYDERHe was also that very rare thing, an independent intellectual. After he became well known as a historian, he began to pronounce on issues of foreign policy, on the United States' national interest, on world affairs generally, in a way which was generally against, rather than with the current, and very often he was right. So he was also, to use an old-fashioned word, he was a self-made man. He was a working-class kid, a working-class Jewish kid from south London, scholarship boy at Cambridge in the U.K.
SNYDERThen a kind of French intellectual, and then slowly he became an American. He made it all the way to the top in one generation, which is after all the American Dream. But he did it in such way that he remained a -- he retained a kind of potent individuality the whole time, and that was no more on display than at the very end when despite a really dreadful illness, which meant that he lost all of the use of his limbs, his voluntary and involuntary muscles right down to his eyes and his voice which were what was left when we were talking. Right down the end he remained his own person. He remained a kind of mastery -- retained a kind of mastery over self, and over an understanding of the world which is truly extraordinary.
GJELTENAnd he wrote about Europe, he wrote about the 20th Century, and his own life sort of reflected the arc of events that he wrote about. So he brought his own personal experience, and one of the things that strikes me about his writing is it's -- it was often first person. He often referred to his own experience, particularly in the book that you did with him.
SNYDERI think one of the things which is hardest about the present moment is that everything is so emotional. As technology brings the world closer and closer to us, the way the world is expressed to us becomes more and more emotional. And so while it's true that Tony did use his own experiences, and his own experiences mattered what impresses me, and always will impress me, is the way that he reasoned his way through his life. So he's someone who was raised on Marxism.
SNYDERHe was someone who was a Zionist for a time. He was Jewish. He had a strong association with France. He was educated in England, but none of these things made him in any simple way who he was. He processed them all. The fact that he went through these various phases helped him to gain a sort of distance, I think an unusual sort of distance which he combined with really lively writing to give us a very pure and clear sense of where we are.
GJELTENAnd then came ALS. Timothy, first of all, remind us what ALS stands for and describe the disease as you saw it develop in Tony Judt.
SNYDERWell, it's Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, but it's best known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Some sports fans might remember the speech that Lou Gehrig gave in Yankee Stadium where he said he thought he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. That was a graceful exit into a disease which is utterly debilitating and terribly sad. All that's retained at the end is mental capacity. Lou Gehrig made an exit. That was the last anyone saw of him.
SNYDERThe difference between him and Tony is that Tony chose not to make an exit. Tony chose -- although he did withdraw into his family and to his closest friends, he chose to continue to work, and what we did, and the way that work started was that I proposed to him that once I understood he couldn't use his hands and arms, I proposed to him that talk a book together, that we work through a book together. And so as his physical condition deteriorated, we continued to talk, and the work actually got better and better as time went on.
SNYDERAnd Tony, in a remarkable way, even emancipated himself from me and wrote two other books, dictating them all by himself, "Ill Fares the Land," and "Memory Chalet." And then throughout the entire period of this illness, he continued to work with me, editing these conversations, editing more than a million words of conversation into the book we'll be talking about.
GJELTENHow hard is it to dictate a book? I mean, you know, I've written, you've written many books, that's not normally the way books are written, and I have to think it would be a real challenge.
SNYDERThat's a good question. I appreciate that question because it is much more difficult than it looks. Tony was one of the very few people, and this was part of why he was so special, who spoke in paragraphs. You could actually transcribe what he said, and it would look more or less like beautiful prose. That was something special about him, and the fact that he was so articulate is one of the reasons that he's such a loss.
SNYDERThe care that he took with the language, the love that he had for the English language, made him special, and I think that's something which I hope this book and his other books can get across. But the reason -- one of the ways that we were able to do this, was that we both had access to another tradition, the tradition of spoken books in eastern Europe and France. In eastern Europe and in France, people do do this sort of thing. Those are countries where rhetoric is perhaps more important than it is here, and conversations can take on the form of something which is much more like a book.
SNYDERSo Tony and I had references. The very first book he wrote in Czech was a famous spoken book between a Czech philosopher -- a Czech writer and a Czech philosopher president. One of the books we had in common was a wonderful exchange called "My Century" between the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and another Polish poet called Alexander Wat. And also in eastern Europe there's something else that we shared which is a sort of extravagant idea of friendship, an extravagant idea of intellectual friendship.
SNYDERThat you might actually do something in a way excessive like this, something which requires a good deal of discipline, but also a good deal of generosity. That sort of intellectual friendship I think is something else which this book expresses, and it's one of the many reasons I'm so glad it exists.
GJELTENWell, you're collaboration with Tony Judt seems to me to have been the epitome of an intellectual friendship, given the circumstances under which he lived in the end, and I do want to talk a little bit more about the disease from which he suffered, and this is something that our listeners may want to join in on. Some of our listeners I'm sure have had experiences with relatives or family members who have had Lou Gehrig's disease. You can call us on 1-880-433-8850 or send us your email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join us on Facebook or Twitter.
GJELTENYou know, one of the things, Timothy, that struck me in the way that Tony talked about his disease, and I have to say I didn't realize this, is that is there is -- first of you all, you have sensation. You do not -- even though you lose all control of your muscles, it's not as though you're paralyzed in the sense that you don't have any feeling in your body. You still have all the normal sensation, and no pain, so that must be a very strange situation to be in with respect to your body.
SNYDERWell, it's one of the countless ways that this is a terrifying disease, especially if you're someone like Tony who had spent a life developing a kind of mastery of the world around him, a mastery by way of reading and writing to be sure, but a certain amount of control, right? If that is your notion, and this is one of the English parts of Tony, if that is your notion of the way of living life, then that loss of control, the ability to take in the world passively, but apparently not to be able to affect it, to control it, to master it, to put it into proportion, to give form to it, that's one more thing which is particularly difficult.
SNYDERBut Tony reacted this not by being humiliated. He reacted to it with humility which I think is in a way the opposite. He took it as, strange as this may sound, a kind of opportunity to work in a different way. Every kind of artistic work has limits, and his limits simply became far more radical than the limits of other people, or the limits of the old Tony as he called himself. And he worked within those limits, and within those limits he did something I think which was truly extraordinary, which is to take what he had, which was his mind and his memory, and from his memory, from the memory of all the books that he had read, from the memory of the book that he wanted to write about the world of letters, to do this book together with me.
GJELTENAnd how was it to work with him physically. You write in the introduction something very poignant. You said you often stopped before you went to see him and washed your hands in very hot water. Can you explain why you did that?
SNYDERI had to do that, because I wanted to be able to shake Tony's hand, or grasp his arm, or clasp his hand when I entered the apartment. That was important to me. It was just one of the normal everyday ways that you take a situation which is not normal and you make it human. You make it as normal as it might be. I washed my hands so Tony wouldn't get colds. In a situation like Tony's where you can't move or someone else has to clean your sinuses and so on, a cold, rather than being an annoyance, becomes just one more source of agony, frankly.
SNYDERBut the interesting thing is not so much what I was doing in that situation, which was totally obvious, and what any decent person would have done, the interesting thing is what Tony was doing in that situation, which was rousing himself for our meetings.
SNYDERBeing at his best, being absolutely on top of his game, abstracting himself completely from his physical condition. So the way we always abstract ourselves from the world when we have to think or work, he abstracted himself not only from the world around him, but from his own body and became himself. I think for those hours when we were taking he became himself. He focused. That is an extraordinary act of concentration, and it's interesting not only for what it says about him, it's interesting for what it says about what we ourselves might be able to do if we concentrated.
GJELTENThe book that Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt did together is called "Thinking the Twentieth Century." I'm Tom Gjelten. We're going to take a short break now. We'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking in this hour about the late intellectual historian Tony Judt and the book that he produced with his fellow historian Timothy Snyder, even though Tony Judt was immobilized by Lou Gehrig's disease in the final two years of his life.
GJELTENYou can join our conversation. The number is 1-800-433-8850. You can also of course email us email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. The title of the book, Timothy, that you and Tony did together is "Thinking the Twentieth Century." You know, one of the things that struck me about this title is that you're using the word thinking here in the transitive sense. It's not thinking about the 20th Century, it's "Thinking the Twentieth Century." What did you mean by that?
SNYDERWell, the question is what Tony meant by it. It's a...
GJELTENHe actually has used that term in that way before, hasn't he?
SNYDERYeah, it's a very French way actually of looking at things, that you can think a century, you can think a revolution. The idea is that you're working your way through something, that the history doesn't really ever come to an end. That history is something that you continue to process, you continue to think. And by thinking your way through it, by thinking the twentieth century for example, you might come to a sense of what was actually happening. And with that sense of reality you might then have some attraction on what's going on today.
SNYDERSo thinking is something which continues to go on. The century doesn't just recede from us. The century continues to offer itself up to us as a way to understand our own problems.
GJELTENNow what was the story that you -- now I know that Tony wanted to do this book even before he knew he was sick, right? What was the story that you were able to tell in the end? I mean, you did sort of reduce the twentieth century to a narrative, to a story. Can you sort of summarize it in a few sentences?
SNYDERWhat Tony wanted to do was write a book called Modern Republic of Letters. which was going to be a straight up intellectual history of the 20th century. And that would've been a wonderful book. It would've been an irreplaceable book, just as Tony's mind was an irreplaceable mind.
SNYDERWhat we ended up doing was, however, something which I think might be a little more interesting, which is that in talking we tried to sort out how it was that the ideas of the twentieth century attracted and repelled thinkers and how those thinkers mattered, where in the story Tony himself becomes one of those thinkers. He becomes the Marxist, he becomes the Zionist, he becomes the liberal, the various things that he was. And from my side, I tried to show how those ideas worked on him. I tried to extract that from him in a way he might not have been able to do himself.
SNYDERSo we do end up with a history of the twentieth century, but it's an active history of the 20th century. It's a kind of participatory 20th century where I hope the reader can read his or her way into the conversation because it's a kind of lively active process. The overall story, if there's an overall story, has to do with the state. There are these big ideas, fascism, communism, nationalism, socialism, liberalism. They're all very important. They all have their attractions. They all continue to matter.
SNYDERBut if you sift away the ideological surface, if you work your way down to what's really going on, what you really have is a history of the state, what the state should be doing. What are the duties of the state? What are the purposes of the state? Can the state make a society? What should the state be doing? And what strikes me is the key question of the twenty-first century and one of the reasons why we have to have our minds around the twentieth century to have any idea what's going on around us.
GJELTENNow both of you were -- in your case, you are so well read you were able sitting there spontaneously to refer to a vast literature on these subjects and talk about authors, talk about books. You know, I think reading this I got new appreciation for the term off the top of your head because both of you -- and in Tony's case literally, because his head was all he had left in a sense at that point. Both of you were able spontaneously to draw on literature, great ideas, great thinkers, great titles of the twentieth century. That really is a tribute to your own erudition, I have to say.
SNYDERWell, you know, I'm not going to say I'm impressed by it 'cause it's what we're supposed to be doing. That's our line of work. I think if the book has a virtue, it shows how important conversation can be. You know, what Tony and I did and also what you and I are doing right now has become rather unusual. We're talking to each other. There's nothing else going on. There are no pictures. As long as I don't look at the engineer, there are no, you know, there are no lights flashing. We're just talking to each other.
SNYDERAnd the idea that you can create something extraordinary through conversation I think is a message in and of itself. But also that what you have in your mind -- it's a very simple idea of what you have in your mind can only be the things that you've chosen to put in it. So, yeah, I read. That's my job. Tony was extraordinarily well read. And to concentrate on books means that you then have access to them throughout your life. It means that paradoxically because you know something about the past you have a perspective, you have a solid grounding when you try to figure out the present.
SNYDERWhat historians tend to think about these things, and Tony and I certainly agreed about this thing, is that if you have these references it means that the present is not like an earthquake. The present is more like a steady surface. It's more like solid ground. It means that you're never completely lost. You have something you can hold onto to try to figure out this difficult reality which is in front of you.
GJELTENNow, of course, you mentioned before that one of the big ideas of the twentieth century was the rise and fall of communism, the rise and fall of fascism, the rise and perhaps we may yet see the decline of social democracy. These trends were a reflection of things, developments in Tony Judt's own life. Talk about that a little bit. I found one of the most interesting sections where he talks about how he was, as a young man, a kind of an antiwar activist, very much part of the left. And then, at a point, he discovered a whole part of Europe and a whole part of drama and ideological struggles that he says he hadn't even been aware of before. Talk about that and what that signified in kind of ideological terms.
SNYDERYeah, for me. that was the most exciting part of the book because what you're asking about is the moment where the biographical part of the book comes together with the intellectual part of the book. So Tony comes out of a certain sort of West European background where his concerns and his references were first English and then French. And he takes that as far as it can go. He writes about the twentieth century in his early work from the point of view of Marxism and its problems as experienced in places like Paris.
SNYDERBut then he does something in midlife, which I think many men are searching for a way to do in midlife, which is to become young again. But he does it in a very productive way. He takes on another biography. Rather than just being the Jewish English kid who learns French, he meets people of his own generation, very often themselves of Jewish background from Eastern Europe. And Tony himself had a grandfather who was from Warsaw. His entire family could go back just a couple generations just from Eastern Europe.
SNYDERAnd what he did in the 1980s was to come to understand their experiences. So in 1968 he's protesting the Vietnam War from a kind of leftist perspective. Meanwhile, these people who'd become his friends are getting beaten by batons or literally being put into prison because they're protesting the communist regime in Warsaw. He is able to -- and this is one of the many things which was special about him, he was able to integrate that perspective into his own in midlife.
SNYDERAnd that was one of the ways that he moved away from his Marxism and moved towards something which I think of as a kind of pluralist liberalism where you understand that there are very many points of view on European history or on any subject. You can't reduce any difficult subject down just to one thing, whether it's communism or anticommunism. There are a whole lot of relevant points of view. And ultimately you have to start with individual experience. Because he was so good at tapping into the individual experience of others he was able to think his way across things like centuries and continents.
GJELTENAnd he was very critical of the left -- the European left, the American left for not taking seriously enough what had been going on in Eastern Europe. And even in 1968 when he was in Paris as a leftist demonstrator, there are of course demonstrations going on on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain. And he says that too many people really paid no attention to what was going on in the communist world at that time.
SNYDERYeah, this is one of his productive biases as a historian, that you have to actually take into account what is in fact happening, and not just what your ideology predicts should be happening, whatever your ideology might be. In fact, communism in Eastern Europe was a dreadful thing. It wasn't just that it didn't fulfill the ideas that Western leftists would want. It was for real people living in real societies, a dreadful sort of experience. And you have to take onboard that actual experience if you want to break down a discussion of the world which functions only in terms of ideologies for or against.
SNYDERSo taking it up a notch, one of the things which is interesting about Tony is that it's not that easy to pigeonhole him as being on the left or on the right because you can't take a grab bag of ideas on the left or right and say, yes he's on this grab bag or yes he's on that grab bag. He criticized in all directions, and that's one of the things that made him special.
GJELTENHe wrote about communism that it was the intellectual sin of the century. And tell us what he meant by that. Intellectual sin, I presume, is something that is done to people's minds.
SNYDERThe intellectual sin of the century, as Tony understood it, was the attraction to big attractive coherent beautiful ideas about changing the world at some point in the future, but at the cost of killing, torturing, persecuting real people right now. The appeal of communism -- and at the time in the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, even into the '70s and '80s, communism was appealing because it offered a beautiful vision. It offered a group of people you could join to try to realize that beautiful vision. But it also required hard sacrifice.
SNYDERTony's objection to communism is precisely that you ought not to be imagining worlds, you intellectuals, that require the sacrifice of people besides yourself. It's a very -- Camus made a very similar point actually in "The Rebel," and so this is a point which goes beyond communism, right? It's a telling point about communism but it speaks to any ideology, which has a clear vision of the future. All you need is some sacrifice of other people right now.
GJELTENI want to go to some of our callers right now. And if you'd like to join the conversation you can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. First, to Kathy who's calling us from Sarasota, Fla. Good morning, Kathy. Thanks for calling.
KATHYHi, thank you for taking the call. I actually wanted to know -- I'm a student at a college down in Florida and we're actually discussing life and death. And we just went over a story about a man who also had ALS and how his experience, knowing he was dying, changed his point of view of everything. And I wanted to know if either member that wrote this book, Tim or the other gentleman, if either of you noticed a different point of view knowing that Tim was going to die and how you feel like it might have changed him or changed the way he went about creating this book.
GJELTENTony Judt was, in fact, dying. Timothy fortunately is here with us.
KATHYOh, I'm sorry.
GJELTENHow did knowing he was going to die change this book or change Tony, Timothy?
SNYDERWell, I'll just say what Tony himself had to say about that. Tony thought that in general we are quite certain about our own eventual death but we don't know what's going to happen to us in the next six months or the next year. His position was reversed but he was quite certain he was going to die very soon and that therefore he had no control over the other things that might be happening. It did change him. He faced a choice. He was thinking about not working anymore at all. And then he decided that, in fact, he was going to work and concentrate in the way we worked together and also in the way that he worked by himself.
SNYDERHis wife Jennifer Homans has an article in a coming New York review of books where she describes Tony as thinking about the afterlife, not in a spiritual sense but in the sense that in writing you help to create the world that is going to be here on this earth after you are gone, that that's a perspective you can adopt when you know that you're going to die soon.
GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, speaking of this, Timothy, I'd like to read something that Tony wrote that actually was not in the book. It was in one of his New York review essays. And this is a little section of something he wrote about night. He talked about during the day -- we talked earlier about how he still had all these sensations in his body even as he was dying. And he said during the day he could at least request a scratch, an adjustment, a drink.
GJELTENBut then comes the night. I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse's need for sleep. Once I've been prepared for bed I am rolled into the bedroom in the wheelchair where I had spent the past 18 hours with some difficulty. I am maneuvered onto my cot. I am sat upright at an angle of 110 degrees and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows. If I allow a stray limb to be misplaced or failed to insist on having my midriff carefully aligned with legs and head I shall suffer the agonies of the damned later in the night.
GJELTENI'm then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since. He says he's offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe and then comes the night. Ask yourself how often you move in the night, he writes. I don't mean change location altogether. Merely how often you shift a hand, a foot, how frequently you scratch assorted body parts before dropping off. How unselfconsciously you alter position very slightly to find the most comfortable one.
GJELTENImagine for a moment you'd been obliged instead to lie absolutely motionless on your back for seven unbroken hours and constrained to come up with ways to render this Calvary tolerable, not just for one night but for the rest of your life. My solution, he wrote, has been to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, my missed memories and the like until I have chanced upon events, people or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased.
GJELTENThat section to me, Timothy, really sort of brought home what it must've been like to have that malady and to spend those long hours every night absolutely alone, absolutely immobilized. But from that experience and rolling through his thoughts and his memories came a remarkable series of essays which he then published, recounting specific events in his childhood, his memories, probably at greater length than he would've otherwise been able to do.
SNYDERWe, of course, won't hopefully ever know just what it's like to have ALS. What we can say is that Tony, in describing his experience of this disease, covered this horrible world with words in a way which few other people would've been able to do, making that experience much more real and accessible to the happy majority who've never had to suffer any such thing. I think there's another virtue which is worth noticing here, which is that Tony, even at this point, was able to separate out his own experiences from his work as a historian of ideas.
SNYDERAs you say, he did write -- that essay is remarkable -- he did write about his own experiences and his own past. And he and I talked about those things of course as well. But that is not at all what our book is about interestingly enough. He was -- the book is not about his experience of dying at all. There are some sidelong references to it here and there but the book is rather a product of this particular moment in his life, the conditions it created that had to do with the disease. But it's not at all about the disease.
SNYDERIt's a wonder -- it's an extraordinary history of the world of ideas as it already existed in Tony's mind, as he was able to call it up at night, but also during the daytime. And I think that's ultimately what's of interest. Not only that Tony was able to describe this dreadful disease in an enviable way, but also that he could work.
GJELTENTimothy Snyder. He co-wrote "Thinking the Twentieth Century" with Tony Judt. Coming up your calls and questions. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back, I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm today. Joining me here in the studio is Timothy Snyder. He's a professor of history at Yale University and the author of five award winning books of European history. His latest work is "Thinking The Twentieth Century" which is based on a series of recorded conversations he had with the intellectual historian Tony Judt in the final months of Tony's life. And I'm going to go to the phones now, first to Jorge who calling us from Miami, Fla. Good morning Jorge, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
JORGEMy question -- yes, my question is, as a graduate student at Florida International University in historical memory, Tony Judt was a seminal figure in that regard. And my question is, to what extent was he influenced by the French (word?) school and in particular by such figures as, for example, Pierre Nora? And secondly, to what extent did Tony consider, or can we consider the 20th century as a lieux de memoire, a sight of history as Pierre Nora did? And I'll take my response off the air, thank you.
GJELTENWell, I have a very short seminar in graduate history here, Timothy.
SNYDERWell, these are actually big important questions. Tony was very much influenced by French social historians, especially in the first part of his career as he tried to sort out how it was that ideas such as socialism could gain traction in political life, but on the bigger question of memory in history. I think Tony was concerned that we keep the two things apart. As you have, I think, quite properly in your question, that we realize that the things that we remember or the people we respect remember or the people of older generations remember, they're not the same thing as history. They change over time. There are materials from which we make history.
SNYDERAnd in that way Tony was actually quite conservative. He thought that memory was a subject of history. It was a source of history. But that it wasn't the only subject or the only source of history. It had its place but it was precisely a place that memory has a place. We can't think of the 20th century just as a source of memories. We also have to think of the 20th century as a source of reason, as a source of arguments which are still going on.
GJELTENTimothy, your book is about the 20th century. The word Europe does not appear anywhere in the title. And yet your book is almost entirely about Europe. And I'm sure that you know that Frances Fukuyama said critically of Tony Judt that his ideas about Israel reflected sort of a European bias, the idea that liberalism is practiced in Europe so it could be exported to Israel.
GJELTENYou know, also, your analysis of the phrase captive mind, by Czeslaw Milosz reflected, you know, the captive mind as it was experienced behind the iron curtain. But what about jihadis who are themselves sort of captured by the ideology of radical Islam? Again, something that you -- a very important force in the 20th century, you don't even mention it in your book.
SNYDERI think it's important to write about what you know. And both Tony and I were historians of Europe. That said, you can draw lessons which continue to be relevant. So Israel is a Middle Eastern country which was founded, for the most part, by European's whose own points of reference were precisely intra-war East European politics. There's no way to understand the people who run Israel now without knowing that they come from a tradition in the early 20th century in Eastern Europe of a certain kind of Zionism.
SNYDERYou can choose not to know that. You can choose to separate Israel from its European roots, but you're impoverishing your understanding of Israel. When it comes to jihadis or any example of that sort of totalizing thought, Europe offers us ways of breaking that down. It offers us ways of seeing what totalitarian thought was.
SNYDERAnd the great wisdom, I think, of the kinds of East European thinkers that Tony admired, and in some sense as himself, was their conclusion that you simply cannot reduce all of life to any one thing, whatever that thing might be, whether it's an idea of religious salvation, whether it's an idea of a perfect socialist future or whether it's an idea of a small state generated by capitalism. If you only have one idea, you've got to be wrong.
GJELTENWell, we have a caller, actually. Let's go now to John who's calling us from Columbia, Mo., because I think John has a question very similar or reminiscent of one that I was going to ask. John, good morning, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show." You're on the air.
JOHNOh, thanks, good morning. I listen every day.
JOHNI read Tony's book called "Post War" which is a useful survey of Europe after World War II and particularly strong in critiquing Soviet, sort of puppet states in the East and opposition there. But the one area, and it's a very small area, that I think he was wrong in is that he seems to have no sympathy or understanding of Irish nationalist opposition to occupation. By British forces in the North of Ireland, I think, in that respect, he's like a lot of British left, is that they just cannot extend their critiques so close to home. And in view of what's happening in Scotland and how that may break away, I find that a weak point in his reasoning.
SNYDERI'll defer to your knowledge of Irish history, but I would say that Tony was critical of everything with which he had a connection, whether that was written or Israel or the United States or France. He was critical of everything. That was his way of seeing himself as being an outsider, but also as somehow belonging, that if you care about something, you criticize it. And his critique, actually of the way, that Western civilization is going begins with Britain. I mean, not with Northern Ireland, I admit it.
SNYDERBut with the decision made in the Thatcher years in the 1980s, to treat capitalism in the small state, as ideals in and of themselves, right, he sees that as the beginning of a process which then spread to the United States in which helped to form the intellectual world in which we live, right now. But, you know, "Post War" was more than a useful survey. "Post War" was by far the best book on its subject. I think it's unlikely that anyone's ever going to replace it. I have points where I fundamentally disagreed with Tony as well. That's what history is about. But it is an extraordinary book.
GJELTENNow, Jorge mentioned a particular issue, a current issue, in Europe that he was curious about Tony's thoughts on. I have to wonder, if Tony Judt were still here, what he would be thinking about the Euro crisis which actually came upon us only in the months after Tony died. You know, I noticed what he wrote about the Marshall plan from immediate "Post War" period after World War II.
GJELTENHe said it was primarily a political, not an economic response. The view in Washington was that Europe was so lacking in political self confidence that it would be unable to recover economically and fall prey to communist disruption or reversion to fascism. The idea was, you had to save Europe economically lest it collapse politically. Boy, we're in a same situation like that right now where Europe is facing, not just a debt crisis, but a real existential crisis. What would you and Tony have concluded or talked about with respect to that?
SNYDERYeah, I'm sure Tony would've come up with smart things that I'm not going to come up with. But one connection, you've made very wisely, I think is one that he would've made, namely that, you have to have statesmanship in times of economic crisis. An economic crisis always is a political opportunity. Both Tony and I saw the Marshall plan. That is the very wise decision of the United States to help the Europeans economically in the 1940s as a political move designed to keep both the far left and the far right away and to allow democracies to survive.
SNYDERThe question now, I think, is whether Berlin can be as wise as Washington was in the 1940s. Whether the Germans can see this as something more than just an economic crisis where you slap the Greeks on the hands and tell them they have to save more money, but rather an opportunity to remake Europe in such a way that it would be fundamentally more democratic.
SNYDERThe fundamental problem of the European Union is that there is no fundamental source of democratic political legitimacy for the large scale economic decisions that are made. And whether this gets patched up or not, that problem is going to continue unless someone does something decisive at this point.
GJELTENOkay, let's go now to Renee who's on the phone from Pensacola, Fla. And Renee, I know you've been holding a long time. Thanks for your patience, thanks for calling.
RENEEThat's quite all right. It's been perfectly worth it. This is a brilliant discussion and I want to thank you, Timothy, for coming on the show today. I'm taking notes. I'm almost in tears at some points. You're speaking to my heart because of the way you're describing Tony, himself, about accepting his limitations and working within those. The fact that, you know, he took this situation with -- and I loved how you spoke about how he abstracted from his body like we have to abstract from noise.
RENEEBut this mind, I can't wait to read the book. I'm a reading teacher, reading skills at a community college here and the relevancy that I'm -- I talk about relevant, excuse me, current affairs all the time. I want to bring this to my students' attention. But what I wanted to ask, you covered some of it beautifully already, about the emotional part of what he had to deal with, especially that part of the book when you read about his -- going to head. But I wonder, Timothy, how did your collaboration begin? Did he ever speak to you personally on this level about his disease on a purely emotionally level?
GJELTENWell, you said, Timothy, that the book is very much intellectual, that there's nothing, really, in there about his struggle with the disease. Yet it's certainly something that he had to share with you personally.
SNYDERBut the book arose because I understood something very simple about his disease, namely that he had lost the use of his hands and his arms and wasn't going to be able to write in a normal way anymore. The day that I understood that, it was a day that I proposed the book to Tony. I just thought, if this happened to me, I would still want to be able to write and so I can offer Tony this chance to write. And it goes back to the beginning of your question, Renee, because the other reason why I did it was because I thought Tony had an utterly irreplaceable mind.
SNYDERAnd it would be a very good thing for us all if we found a way to make sure that that mind could still realize itself, express itself in the world. So the way the book began had everything to do with a little glimmer of understanding in my mind of what the disease was going to be like. And, of course, he and I talked about it all the time, just as we talked about all sorts of things in my private life that I'm not going to talk about now.
SNYDERIt stared me in the face the entire time I was speaking to Tony when he was on a breathing apparatus, in a wheelchair, a wheelchair which he couldn't even direct himself. That was the fundamental physical reality. But the interesting thing, I think, is the way that Tony transcended that reality. Those limitations, as you say.
GJELTENNow, Timothy, you proposed the book and yet this was a subject that Tony wanted to write about at the end. I get the feeling that in a sense, this was not just the perfect solution to -- for both of you but in fact the book may have come out better as a result of it being, in your words, a spoken book. Do you think so?
SNYDERI think it was certainly different. I think if Tony had written his history of ideas in the 20th century, it would've been remarkable, elegant book. And I think that book is a book that we miss. That said, the fact that he and I were in it together meant that I was challenging him in certain ways that he might not have challenged himself. And it's important to see that. This is not just a matter of my being kind to Tony or Tony being kind to me because, of course, his company was an extraordinary kindness.
SNYDERThere were all sorts of other things he might've been doing with his mind in his time besides talking to me. But it's not just about our kindness. It's about a certain kind of challenge, a certain kind of argument. It's a room where you have two men, you know, each of whom are occupied with the same kinds of ideas, trying to bring out the best in each other.
SNYDERAnd I think, in that sense, it is -- it might be better than a traditional book because you can feel, not just the playfulness but I hope also you can feel the energy and the challenge which was implicit in this sort of thing. Not just the challenge of Tony's limitations, which we've already talked about, but the challenge of dealing with someone else, the challenge of reacting to things, the challenge of adapting yourself to things you might not of thought of yourself.
GJELTENNow, you say that Tony was very critical of anything that he personally had been associated with. In order to bring out the best in Tony Judt, did you find that you had to provoke him, did you have to challenge him, did you have to sort of prompt him into an argument?
SNYDEROh, absolutely. I mean, Tony and I were always gentle and kind and respectful of each other from beginning to end in our entire friendship. And that's one of the many things that I treasure about it. But it would've been useless to go to him and say, oh, Tony, you're so smart, or, oh, Tony, you certainly had this right. The entire book is based upon not agreement. The entire book is based upon argument and discussion. It's not an argument in the way we usually mean the word where people are upset with each other. But it's an argument in the intellectual sense.
SNYDERThe book starts out with a Jewish question. It starts out with the holocaust and it starts out with us disagreeing. That's right where the book begins and it continues that way the whole way through. And I'd like to think that makes it more interesting as a read, but also that it brings out things in me and in Tony which might not have come out otherwise.
GJELTENLet's go now to Bob who's calling us from Boston, Mass. Good morning, Bob, thanks for calling. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BOBThank you very much. Actually I'd like to say two things. The work itself as I hear it being described stands on its own. And just I really look forward to reading it. I think we can be so well served by intelligent, I would say, courageous people like your guest and the deceased contributor who can help us look at the world in which we live in and really try to come to an understanding that's not just headline after headline after headline. The other thing I would like to say is that my wife, in fact, is challenged by ALS.
BOBShe's an English professor who, unfortunately, is no longer able to speak. Her disease started with everything in her upper body, if you will. So her speech is gone and really she can't swallow anymore. But I wanted to say how grateful and moved I am by your guests' just describing his dear friend and just the compassion that he has for him.
BOBAnd maybe as importantly, the respect that he maintained for that person, nothing to do with ALS, I guess I would say. In other words, people are exceptional and I'm just moved by the way your guest worked with this person from a solidly intellectual point of view, recognizing that this is a person who could do exceptional things. I'd like to say the same thing about my wife. I know it's true and I just I'm moved by the work you do and how you befriended this person. So thank you very much.
GJELTENWell, thank you Bob very much for sharing your own struggle with your wife. Do you have anything to say Timothy?
SNYDERNo. Just to thank you Bob for sharing that and for using two words which I think were absolutely crucial to the whole enterprise, which are respect and understanding. Thank you very much.
GJELTENThe end, is there anything you can say about the end? I know that Tony, at the end, did in fact begin to lose his ability to speak. Is that right?
SNYDERTony and I did this book in two stages. In the first stage, I was visiting him in New York. We were talking, we were recording. And the second stage was the literary part where we edited the chapters, we sent them back and forth by email, we discussed with each other, we argued with each other down to the level of the words and Tony was doing that as he was reaching the end of his life. When we finished the book in early July of 2010, Tony was still absolutely, completely functional in every way which was relevant to the book. It was only at the very, very end that he lost that.
GJELTENA remarkable book "Thinking The Twentieth Century." I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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