Thinking the Twentieth Century (No. 1)...

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Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder is a conversation about the twentieth century between two historian-friends. The book is mostly Judt speaking, but Snyder speaks also. So we have the thoughts of two men who spent their lives inside the cloistered environment of the Academy, yet without quite succumbing. Happily, there's some derring-do that pops up now and then as they talk. 

Synder is the Yale historian who wrote Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. A couple months ago I read this book and it's indispensable to understand what has misleadingly come to be referred to as "The" Holocaust, meaning Germans killing Jews in Germany. Translated into 24 languages now, Bloodlands will correct that misimpression and should be on your reading list.

Judt taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkley, and NYU (from which he retired). Founder of the Remarque Institute and author of fourteen books, Judt contributed regularly to The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and other American and European journals. During the writing of Thinking the Twentieth Century, Judt was in his final months of the degenerative neurological disease ALS (commonly called Lou Gehrig Disease). He died in August 2010.

As time allows, I'll record parts of the book I found noteworthy. This is the first installment...

Since a good bit of the men's discussion concerns Jewish history, I suppose it must be said that Judt was, himself, a Jew.

* * *

JUDT: When thinking about the 1890s and the 1900s, a lot perhaps hangs on whether one understands the father is a symbol of authority, or authority as a symbol of the father... (p. 21)

That's how a twentieth century intellectual would put it, but try replacing "authority" with "responsibility." Man next to woman has always been the responsible one, and authority flows from responsibility. There can be no responsibility without authority.

JUDT: (Jews place) their own history the center of the twentieth century and its meaning. It can be very difficult, particularly when teaching here in the United States, to convey how far the Holocaust was from the center of people's concerns or decisions concerning World War II. (W)e cannot, if we wish to give a fair account of the recent past, read back into it our own ethical or communitarian priorities.... The centrality that we now assign to the Holocaust, both as Jews and as humanitarians, is something that only emerged decades later. (p. 42)

This comes through so clearly in Bloodlands. Seventy years ago, no one cared about the many millions of Jews, Ukrainians, or Russians slaughtered by Hitler and Stalin. And today, no one cares about the billions of unborn babies we are slaughtering, either.

SNYDER: the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989, the debate had shifted to contentious claims and counter-claims: who suffered, at whose hands and how much?

JUDT: Until very recently in Germany, the very question of competitive suffering would not have been regarded as a legitimate way to frame the historical question...

Since this shift in perspective occurred in exactly the decade when "victimhood" was taking center stage in historical and political debates across the West, we should not be surprised that questions of comparative suffering, apology and commemoration—familiar from American identity politics to the South African truth commissions—have their place in German conversations as well.

...the bigger the truth you have to tell, the greater your claim upon the attention of fellow citizens and sympathetic observers. (pp. 44, 45)

Excellent turn of phrase, "competitive suffering." Competing for "sympathetic observers," victims pitch their tales of woe. To postmodern men, victimhood is everything, so it's little wonder pastors don't preach God's Law and call men to repent. When victimhood is everything, responsibility is dead.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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