Tony Judt, author of 'Postwar,' Dies at 62
NEW YORK - Tony Judt, a highly praised and controversial historian who wrote with sharp persistence about the changing world at large and the tragic world within - the fatal disease that paralyzed him - died Friday at his home in New York City.
Judt, a native of London who in recent years was a professor of European studies at New York University, was 62. His death, caused by complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, was confirmed by a university spokesman.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006 for his nearly 900-page history of modern Europe, "Postwar," Judt was diagnosed two years later with ALS, which attacks nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and destroys the ability to move and speak.
Although confined like "a modern-day mummy," his thinking was unimpaired, as Judt demonstrated in 2010 through a series of personal essays for The New York Review of Books.
"In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration," Judt wrote in an essay titled "Night."
"(But) there is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, inevitably - as it now appears to me - by those not exclusively dependent upon them."
Judt's illness and his determination to tell the tale brought sympathy and admiration for a historian not known for sparing feelings. He took on communists, free marketers, supporters of the Iraq war and, most contentiously, Israel. In an admiring review of "Postwar," The New Yorker's Louis Menand noted that the book's strength was inseparable "from the personality of its author, who does not count self-effacement a literary virtue."
"He teaches in the United States, but he has retained a distinctly British temperament - not the bluff-and-hearty, Dr. Watson type but its superior cousin, the suffer-no-fools, Holmes type," Menand wrote.
In 2009, Judt received an honorary George Orwell Prize for "intelligence, insight and conspicuous courage." This year, he completed "Ill Fares the Land," a passionate call for a return to liberal governance and for a close look at the "ways in which our grandparents' generation handled comparable challenges and threats."
A Jew descended from Lithuanian rabbis, Judt was sent by his parents to a summer camp in Israel when he was a teenager and became so devoted to the Jewish homeland that he spoke at a Zionist conference in Paris and served as a translator and driver for the Israel Defense Forces during and after the 1967 Six-Day War.
But he soured on his adopted country, later concluding "that most Israelis were not transplanted latter-day agrarian socialists but young, prejudiced urban Jews who differed from their European or American counterparts chiefly in their macho, swaggering self-confidence, and access to armed weapons," he wrote in 2010.
In a 1983 article for The New York Review of Books, Judt labeled Israel a "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state." While most liberals supported a two-state solution, separate lands for the Jews and the Palestinians, Judt called for the two sides to be joined under a single government.
He so angered supporters of Israel that he was removed from the editorial board of The New Republic even as his wife, Jennifer Homans, continued to serve as the magazine's dance critic. In 2006, Judt was scheduled to speak at the Polish Consulate of New York, but the event was canceled after the consulate received phone calls from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
"Apparently, the line you take on Israel trumps everything else in life," Judt told the Financial Times in 2007.
Judt, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, was raised by Marxist parents and wrote often about the downfall of Marxism and communism. His books included "Past Imperfect," "Marxism and the French Left" and other works critical of French intellectuals whom Judt believed naive ("authors of apologias and their accompanying theorems") about Stalin and the Soviet Union.
He was best known for "Postwar," a broad and thorough review of Europe from the end of World War II to the early 21st century, a narrative that covered political, military, economic, social and cultural history. Calling his book an "opinionated text," Judt chronicled the formation and sudden collapse of the Eastern bloc and how the Marshall Plan helped lift the West from ashes and despair to unimagined prosperity.
Judt drew upon hundreds of previous books (The "Suggestions for Further Reading" section ran more than 40 pages) and upon personal observations, incorporating everything from the reunification of Germany to the proliferation of transistor radios. The tone was skeptical, impassioned, inquisitive and, at times, irreverent. Writing of the death of one graying Soviet leader, Judt observed, "Leonid Brehznev gave up the ghost, having long since come to resemble it."
Much of his work was about memory itself, how easily we misunderstand and discard the past. In "Postwar," Judt observed that "only history" could explain "the remarkable accomplishment" of Europe and that the past not only had to be minded, but renewed, "taught afresh with each passing generation." In a 2008 essay that served as the introduction to "Reappraisals," published the same year, Judt worried that the West had advanced too quickly from the previous century's horrors, justifying the Iraq war and casually accepting the torture of prisoners.
"In the wake of 1989, with boundless confidence and insufficient reflection, we put the 20th century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market," he wrote.
"Far from escaping the 20th century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again - or perhaps for the first time - how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war's indefinite continuance. And perhaps ... we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: `Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?'"