Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder

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Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Reviewed by Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Summary: Timothy Snyder interviewing fellow historian Tony Judt in his last days, producing a fascinating investigation of the 20th century.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 398 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099563556

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In emulating historians from his geographical area of interest, Timothy Snyder poses questions to, and discusses ideas with, the highly esteemed British historian and writer Tony Judt, best known for his 2005 Postwar. This collaboration of the older and the younger thinker engenders the spoken book Thinking the Twentieth Century, a rather intriguing exploration of said time period. Each of its ten chapters begins with Judt’s narrative of a specific point in his personal life, and continues into debates of specific facets of history; a healthy mix of thematic and chronological approaches is used for the latter.

Though one of the book’s main objectives is to somehow make sense of history, the passages about the now deceased Judt's life and development are not entirely peripheral to this. He demanded that historians, whilst ensuring that they do their job adequately, somehow convey their place in history. In leading by example, the reader is allowed to come to know about his progression through life from being an active Zionist volunteering in the Six-Day War, to reverting to life in academia as an undergraduate in Cambridge, to seeking to understand Central and Eastern European history. Besides learning about significant events in history (and being spurred to conduct some Wikipedia searches of my own), Judt’s own personal reflections enabled me to at least feel that I could understand some of the professional choices he had made, such as delving into a relatively obscure area of history rather late in life. His own wishes for his trade – that a more immersive study of Eastern European history continues – may be a reason as to why he consented to work with Snyder, a rather prominent figure in this area.

Virtually no Western 20th century milestone is exempt from the book, from the turn of the century, right through the World Wars and the Cold War. Depressions, booms and everything in between are discussed and dissected. Mentions of economical and political schools of thought are scattered throughout the book, and these topics are even placed in the limelight at several points.

A major theme in Thinking the Twentieth Century is that of changes in intellectual movements, and the consequences of these changes, all from the emergence of a more secularised Second International Marxism, to the counterattacks of the political right, to the political left’s embrace of the role as protector and champion of social justice. The right vs. left battle, and all of both factions’ manifestations, are also not left untouched; Judt even deems the right to be clearer in style and in enemies than in content.

Something for which I commend this book greatly is the way in which the interviewee and interviewer both broach the subject of the ideas and practices which underlie their field. The nature of history is analogised in quite a few ways, which would potentially be to the annoyance of one who doesn’t want to see history being likened to a forest in which the historian first talks about trees, then chooses the path on which he/she wants to shed more light. The attempts nevertheless point to the significant, and somewhat onerous, charge of the historian, which include being as unbiased as possible, whilst still not being excused from [his/her] own circumstances, ensuring that the knowledge he/she acquires is accessible to those who are interested, and being absolutely sure of telling the “truth”, whatever that may be.

Trends in history writing crop up in conversation between Judt and Snyder, and those which are decried the most are naturally those which do not give a full picture of events. Most notably, the unfortunate tendency of extruding moral context from the narrative of an epoch is brought up. So are the gross oversimplifications of explanations to historical happenings; an example of this is how something like the French revolution was, by some, reduced to being a gender struggle.

As historians who do not excuse themselves from their own circumstances, their interview begins to touch upon issues of the present day as well. Relatively early on in the book, the intellectual sin of the twentieth century is identified as passing judgement on the fate of others in the name of the future as you see it, a sin which reared its head as forcefully as it did in totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century as it did in the attack and invasion of Iraq, romanticised by certain people as having brought about the birth pangs of a New Middle East.

For historians and non-historians alike, Thinking the Twentieth Century is lucid and has no incredibly convoluted sections, without ever compromising profound discussion.

To read one of Snyder’s highly acclaimed works, have a look at Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

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