More Conscious Than Ever: Historian Tony Judt and His Much-Needed Biography

Tony Judt

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

Today, on what would have been his 66th birthday, we remember the "liveliest mind in New York," iconoclastic scholar of European History Tony Judt, whose biography we most definitely need. Judt was born in 1948 to working class, secular Jewish parents. His mother was from a family of Russian emigres, and his father, who had moved from Belgium to Ireland as a young boy, was descended from a long line of prominent Litvish rabbis. Young Tony excelled at school and displayed a budding fervor for political causes.

In his adolescence, his parents thought joining a Zionist youth group might help him come out of his antisocial shell, but their plan backfired when Judt became a zealous organizer and Marxist. A devout convert to the agrarian, communal ideals of the kibbutz, he expressed a desire to move to Israel against his parents’ wishes, and eventually travel to the Holy Land right after the start of the 1967 War. His experience there was enough to put him off Zionism for life, as he became acutely aware of the leftwing diehards who were "remarkably unconscious of the people who had been kicked out of the country," he remarked. Decades later, his public critique of the Israeli nation, and his expressed belief in a one-state solution that would give equal rights to citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion, would spark outrage among the intellectual community in America, where he was living, and abroad.

The first person in his family to go to college, Judt attended Cambridge, the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and later taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley, and NYU, where he founded an institute dedicated to the study of Europe. Judt’s dissenting views of Zionism and his fatal battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease sometimes overshadow the bulk of his work, which consists of numerous works of European history, many focusing on post-World War II France.

His best-known book is Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, an unsparing look at the forces that contributed to Europe’s decline following World War II. The tome covers the political and social tides in every European country, but despite its weight -- in detail and actual heft -- it’s a spirited, captivating narrative, which went on to be named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer. He also wrote extensively on identity politics, the Resistance movement in various countries during World War II, and social democracy after the collapse of the economy in 2008. His style was unabashed, unsentimental, and provocative; the New York Magazine, in a lengthy profile, deemed him a teller of "impolite truths."

In 2008, Judt was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a motor neuron disease that results in paralysis and, inevitably, death. Within a year was confined to a wheelchair and kept alive with the aid of a ventilator. During his illness, he produced his most emotionally moving, personal work, including numerous pieces on the experience of being locked in one’s body and unable to control it. These pieces, many of which were first printed in The New York Review of Books, were collected and published posthumously in a book entitled The Memory Chalet. As Judt told NPR’s Terry Gross just five months before his death in August of 2010, "I am much more conscious than I ever was, for obvious reasons, of what it will mean to people left behind once I'm dead. It won't mean anything to me. But it will mean a lot to them."

And indeed, it does.