a much more interesting figure


Judt’s story is in many ways very familiar: His forebears were Eastern European Jews who ended up in Britain, where they assimilated into English life. He was not brought up in a religious home — his father was a Marxist — but consciousness of the Holocaust was central to his identity; he was named after a cousin who died at Auschwitz. He attended Cambridge and began a career as a Marxist historian in the mold of his idols Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, writing initially on obscure topics like French socialism in Provence. Intellectually, he was as French as he was English, participating in the événements of 1968 and spending a year at the École Normale Supérieure, where he befriended Marxist luminaries like the historians Annie Kriegel and Boris Souvarine. Whatever Judt’s initial ideological commitments, he later concerned himself with a stark and important question: “how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories with all the terrible consequences that ensued.” The story was that of Communism, which perpetrated “the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, . . . concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.” Looking back at the history of left-wing figures from the 1930s like the French socialist Léon Blum, he saw their central failing as the lack of “any appreciation of the possibility of evil as a constraining, much less a dominating, element in public affairs.” This was to become the theme of his 1992 book “Past Imperfect,” which chronicled French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre who publicly supported Stalinism while remaining willfully blind to its horrors.

more from Francis Fukuyama at the NY Times here.