Tony Judt died on Aug. 6. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It settled into his body late in 2008 and, remorselessly over two years, shut it down.
He was a professor in European history at New York University. He wrote a big book about that subject, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and assorted essays. The essays got him into a lot of arguments. His tone was always calm, but his topic, the pursuit of justice in a horribly flawed world, did not permit him to shy from fights. “The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it,” he told an interviewer in 2006, “but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly.”
His stoicism in the face of certain death—in the end, paralyzed, he wrote by dictating to assistants—brought him notice and admiration he hadn’t enjoyed earlier. But he had built a formidable reputation in some circles long before. British-born, educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and in Paris, he specialized in the history of the political left in France. He became increasingly critical of his subject, a path he followed later with regard to Israel. That’s what got him into most of his fights. You’ll have to read elsewhere for that story. It’s a debate I’m not well equipped to engage.
Instead, here are two glimpses from his masterwork, Postwar. It is a book about how the world was saved after the Second World War: how democracy and peace were consolidated on the site of centuries of slaughter, first in the West, then in the East, always with American help, never cleanly or triumphantly. Judt, who was less attracted to the reassuring simplicities of ideology as his life progressed, tells the story of a continent that traded murderous ideology for halting pragmatism.
How was the world saved? Three ways. The Americans engaged with the continent, a middle path between withdrawal and nuclear confrontation. Western Europe took baby steps to entrench democracy and co-operation. Eastern Europe waited out the Stalinist cancer.
Judt recounts the European Community’s early days with a keen eye for the misfits in a room. In 1949, Germany was down but would rise again. For centuries it had risen to conquer. Dean Acheson, the U.S. Secretary of State, appealed to Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, to integrate West Germany into the continent’s business. A French official, Jean Monnet, proposed the solution: pool French and German coal and steel production under common authority. Invite other European countries to join. Steel and coal are what you use to build tanks and fuel armies. Now they would build trust and fuel progress. “Das ist unser Durchbruch,” West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer told his staff. This is our breakthrough. The coal treaty would form the basis of the European Union.
Here is where Judt spots his misfits. Adenauer, Schuman and the European Union’s third architect, Italian prime minister Alcide de Gasperi, “were all from the margins of their countries.” De Gasperi’s Trentino region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for much of his life. Schuman’s Lorraine was forever either French or German depending on the latest war. “When they met, the three men conversed in German, their common language.” Nationalism meant less to them than it might to most.
They had never been sure what their nation was. Their project was a triumph of ambiguity over blood-drenched certainties.
The other glimpse from Judt’s tale comes from a quarter-century later. By the 1970s the Soviet Union wanted recognition that its sphere of influence included half of Europe and much of the developing world. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger wanted détente, which meant almost literally they hoped to relax a little. The result, after Nixon resigned, was the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The signatories, three dozen countries West and East, pledged to “respect each other’s sovereign equality” and foreswore “any intervention,” armed or otherwise, in each other’s affairs. In other words, hands off Moscow’s sphere of influence. Writes Judt: “Brezhnev and his colleagues could not have wished for more.”
But the accords were a Trojan horse. They listed the rights of people, not just states, “including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” Neither Brezhnev nor Kissinger thought much of it. But the Soviet bloc’s own people read the words and took them seriously. “Within a year,” Judt writes, “Soviet leaders were faced with a growing and ultimately uncontrollable flowering of circles, clubs, networks, charters and individuals, all demanding ‘merely’ that their governments stick to the letter of that same agreement.” Charter 77, Vaclav Havel’s group in Prague, drew strength from the Helsinki Accords. Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik in Poland appealed to their principles as they dogged the authorities. “Brezhnev and his colleagues had inadvertently opened a breach in their own defenses. Against all expectations, it was to prove mortal.”
Simply calling these freedoms by their name made them impossible to stop. I know of few comparable illustrations of the power of words. I thought about all this again this week, reading about how Tony Judt was left in the end with nothing but his ability to make more words. Two months ago he wrote: “If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.”