Listening to the Ghosts | Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder’s Thinking the Twentieth Century

Some time before I left Ireland, I took a short holiday to Galway, the main town on the west coast. Walking along the Salthill Promenade, a scenic road that traces the northern shore of Galway Bay, I stumbled upon a nondescript, somewhat neglected monument. Its form was both modest and epic: a large granite rock standing sentinel upon a small outcrop jutting out into the bay. Fixed to the rock was a small black marble plaque directing the gaze across the bay to the Mutton Lighthouse: “the last light of their homeland seen by the many thousands of refugees who fled the Great Famine through the Port of Galway.”

I was reminded of this monument and my experience there the other night when, an (admittedly drunken) conversation moved from the beauties of Paris, to the eerie atmosphere of its catacombs and then to Auschwitz and the Choeung Ek killing fields in Cambodia. The general consensus at the end of this rather morbid conversation was that these are places imbued with a special power; an atmosphere of pain and suffering which we must both respect and maintain. These are places where the ghosts of our past remind us of the exceptionalism of our current security and prosperity.

Confronting the ghosts of our past is the major aim of Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder’s Thinking the Twentieth Century; a vitally absorbing and eye-opening journey over the treacherous terrain of Twentieth Century political, economic and intellectual history.

“The authors argue that we must listen to these ghosts. We must endeavour to know their stories, not for current political ends, but so that we can navigate through the world we have inherited.”

Faced with ALS – a devastating and ultimately lethal neurological disorder, in which his body gradually succumbed to paralysis – in his last years Judt embarked on a number of projects of both historical and personal reflection. Arguably the most detailed of these is the dialogue he entered into with another renowned historian, Timothy Snyder. Following the course of Judt’s life; his childhood spent around Jewish émigré family-members in London, through his summers working on a kibbutz in Israel, his studies in Cambridge and France and then various teaching posts in both American and English universities, each stage of the book presents a launching point for a dialogue on a certain major theme of Twentieth Century history: the battle between Communism and Fascism, the unexpected success of social democracy, the Holocaust and its ubiquitous consequences, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, and throughout it all the question of the validity and importance of understanding our past.

It is this final theme that makes this work stand out as essential reading. For in debating the necessity of knowing our past their chief focus is on projecting towards the future. Snyder and Judt’s deep understanding of how we got here means their insights on where we are going next are always reasoned and profound. Writing in 2008/9, they anticipate the rise of a Donald Trump figure, identifying the violent fervour of a native, American fascism, and the incredible contradiction that a maligned, introspective, borderline xenophobic, but vocal American minority is able to project inordinate power across the globe by dint of being courted electors of its only superpower. Their discussion on the importance of separating the “step-siblings” of history and memory provides fascinating insight into a number of cultural conflicts. Most notably, the recent actions of Poland’s ruling party in hijacking the curation of a new WWII museum with the suspected aim of advancing a story of unhistorical, memory based Polish exceptionalism. As the authors write,

“Rigging the past is the oldest form of knowledge control: if you have power over the interpretation of what went before (or can simply lie about it), the present and the future are at your disposal.”

Their plea for developing better historical knowledge amongst the general population has particular relevance for the present day “West” where “many societies…have become far less confident in the last thirty years about interpreting their past.”

“It is not only Americans who no longer know how to tell a coherent national story without feeling embarrassed or resentful….Pretty much every European country today is in turmoil over how to teach its past and what use to make of it. In the worst cases – Britain comes to mind – conventional national accounts have been abandoned altogether.”

It is not too far-fetched to see in this loss of confidence fertile ground for xenophobia and fear to dominate the political agenda. In the west, this is evidenced by British exit from the European Union and the rising successes of far right groups in France, Austria, Poland and the Netherlands. Without confidence in their own stories, in particular the social cohesion created and maintained by the institutions of post-war “nanny” states, “Westerners” cling ever more jealously to the gradually eroding privileges their societies offer them, and become more resistant to an influx of immigrants and refugees.

Timothy Snyder Tony Judt - HeadStuff.org
Timothy Snyder

Use of that word “refugee” directs the attention back to that memorial stone on the shore in Galway. The ships that left Ireland in those years of hunger; laden with starving, impoverished families, and facing the vast and inhospitable expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, were not unsurprisingly referred to as “coffin ships”. Perhaps quite intentionally, the plaque makes no mention of the fate of those refugees. The lucky few created new lives for themselves in America and other foreign lands, but for many whose barques succumbed to the Atlantic or who died of disease along the way, Mutton Lighthouse was not just the last light from their homeland, but the last familiar sight of their days.

The authors argue that we must listen to these ghosts. We must endeavour to know their stories, not for current political ends, or to exact revenge on the apparent wrongdoers – or rather their innocent descendants – but so that we can navigate through the world we have inherited. As Snyder puts it, the historian is there to make paths in the forest to guide us,

“The trees are there whether you like it or not, but the paths are created…Someone has to be there to mark the way.”

To which Judt aptly adds, “the past is full of stuff. But if you don’t have a path through it, you stare at the ground, you search for footing…” in other words you are lost. What is most imperative about these discussions is the inescapable fact that, as Marx noted,

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”.

The circumstances transmitted to Tony Judt were ultimately tragic, but his slowly worsening health did not incline him toward sentimentality or nostalgia. Likewise, perhaps aided by its format as a back and forth dialogue, for a monograph chiefly concerned with intellectual history, Thinking the Twentieth Century retains a welcome dynamism and urgency. Its message; that we should know our past, in order to improve our future.

Which brings me back, once and for all, to that stone on the shore in Galway. It is possible that the monument means little to the people passing it these days. In modern Ireland, the Famine is thankfully a very distant event. But its consequences are there for all to see in the millions of people across the globe who claim Irish descent, in the regrettable association of Irish people and a certain vegetable, and in the ongoing story of Irish emigration, of which I myself am a part.

As Judt writes,

“the job of the historian is to make clear that a certain event happened. We do this as effectively as we can, for the purpose of conveying what it was like for something to have happened to those people when it did, where it did and with what consequences. This rather obvious job description is actually quite crucial. The cultural and political current flows in the other direction: to efface past events – or exploit them for unrelated purposes. It’s our job to get it right: again and again and again. The task is Sisyphean.”

But, as is so passionately and comprehensively argued in this book, no less important as a result.


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