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History’s new pessimists

Popular history used to be confident and optimistic. Now it is full of violence and warfare. Is this simply because once-marginalised stories are now being told, or is there a broader cultural turn towards pessimism?

By David Herman   July 2008

There is a curious moment in Tony Judt’s new book of essays, Reappraisals (William Heinemann). He is writing about Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel about Stalin’s purges. Koestler’s book, writes Judt, is “remarkably benign… there are no scenes of torture. There is hardly any violence at all.” Judt’s own book, by contrast, is a reflection on what he calls “the forgotten 20th century.” His account of modern Europe, an important work by one of the outstanding historians of his generation, is dark and ends on a note of bleak pessimism. The words evil, violence and terror recur on…

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