Judt’s La Trahison des Clercs

John Gray reviews Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, in The Guardian:

The period stretching from the collapse of communism up to the attack on Iraq was a time when western leaders prided themselves on their ignorance of history. They embraced the defining delusion of the post-cold war era: the conflicts of the 20th century are safely behind us, and we have nothing to learn from the past. Backed by America’s seemingly invincible military might and the superior productivity of western economies, the world had entered a new epoch of peace and democracy.

Tony Judt has always been a dissenter from this consensus. In Reappraisals the British-born historian, now a university professor in New York, collects 23 essays, written between 1994 and 2006, in which he undertakes a ruthless dissection of the ruling illusions of the post-cold war years – “the years the locusts ate”, as he calls them. A book of essays originally published over a period of 12 years may seem an unlikely place to find a systematic analysis of the follies of an era, and it is true that the pieces gathered here cover a remarkable range of writers and themes. There are illuminating assessments of Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, a superb deconstruction of Blair’s Britain, a penetrating discussion of the fall of France in 1940, explorations of Belgium’s fractured statehood and the ambiguous position of Romania in Europe, analyses of the Cuba crisis and Kissinger’s diplomacy, and much else besides.This breadth of reference may seem to militate against continuous argument, but in fact these articles and reviews pursue a single overarching theme. Reappraisals is a devastating critique of intellectual life over the past two decades, and it is mostly icons of the left that are smashed.