The book is a history of twentieth-century thought. It begins with his reflections on Jewish idealism and Jewish suffering in Europe and ends with a devastating account of the failure of American politics in the post–cold war world. It is also an intellectual autobiography—of sorts. “Of sorts” because Judt rarely wrote in the first person, and the autobiographical sections of the book were wedged in, almost reluctantly, between the ideas, the history, the politics, and the ethical dilemmas that were central to his life.
Tony Judt faced the terror of ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, from his diagnosis in 2008 to his death in 2010. Judt managed against all human odds to write three books during this period. The last, following Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, was Thinking the Twentieth Century, based on conversations with Timothy Snyder. He started work on the book soon after he was diagnosed; within months he was quadriplegic and on a breathing machine, but he kept working nonetheless. He and Tim finished the book a month before he died. It accompanied his illness; it was part of his illness, and part of his dying.