One of the founding texts of the Negritude movement--the Caribbean iteration of the Harlem Renaissance--Cesaire's hybrid book combines essay, memoir aOne of the founding texts of the Negritude movement--the Caribbean iteration of the Harlem Renaissance--Cesaire's hybrid book combines essay, memoir and poetry. It's very much of its moment, a time defined by the seemingly intractable Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. and of not-yet-collapsing colonialism in most of the rest of the world. Cesaire was influenced by the French avant-garde which he encountered as a student in France, and it shows in the way he relies on images to carry meaning. But there's also an unmistakeable political anger, part black nationalist, part universalist claim for full equality. In ways, the piece has dated badly--you have to know the history to be able to decode the racial politics--but it remains a valuable ancestral voice of later writers like Walcott, Braithwaite, and Earl Lovelace....more
All the standard superlatives risk sounding a bit flat--cover blurb speak rather than real praise. Nonetheless, Judt's Postwar is brilliant, magisteriAll the standard superlatives risk sounding a bit flat--cover blurb speak rather than real praise. Nonetheless, Judt's Postwar is brilliant, magisterial, definitive, choose your own adjective. My appreciation for it is increased by two factors that set it off from the other five star history books I've read in recent years. First, the book assembled a whole lot of fragments of information and analysis I'd been carrying around into a coherent picture. Second, I learned a lot about how to put together a massive amount of information in a clear manner, something that's very much on my mind as I edge closer to setting pen to page (or pixel to screen) on a large project about the 1960s. I'll address those factors in turn.
1. The mosaic of Europe, part 1 (chronological patterns). It didn't take me long as I began reading Postwar to realize how fragmentary my knowledge of Europe has been. Judt provides the tools to put things together, both geographically and chronologically. The overarching structure of the book consists of four movements, each focusing on a particular era of post-war European experience. The first covers the period from 1945-53, centering on the immense challenges of rebuilding the physical, economic and social infrastructure of Europe in the wake of 30-some years of devastation. I'd known that the challenge was daunting, but had no idea of just how unlikely the recovery of Europe was. I'll come back to Judt's handling of the origins of the Cold War in a moment, but he makes it clear that the problems faced on each side of the Iron Curtain were intimately related. The second section of Postwar focuses on the period of Cold War stability from 1953-1971--he makes it clear that, rhetoric aside, leaders on both sides of the Cold War were in fact somewhat relieved to have a fairly stable structure in place. In the West, that was the period when a consensus on the value of planning by states and of some version of social democrat guarantees emerged in a variety of local guises. In the East, it was a period of relative stasis interrupted by the challenges to Soviet hegemony in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Judt's very good on the variety of systems developed within the East--neo-Stalinism, Reform Communism, Tito-ism. Section three, covering 1971-1989, tracks the movement through the economic discontents of the 1970s, the transition from the ideologies of social democracy to those of neo-liberalism (which took different but related forms in England, France, and Germany), and, of course, the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Empire. Judt's convincing that Gorbachev (much more popular in the West than at home) was in no sense an historical inevitability--I came out feeling like the events of 1989 were much more contingent and in some ways unlikely than I'd previous thought to be the case. Part 4, inevitably not as clear as the first three (present tense history's more or less impossible to write in the same register as that written when the aftermath's at least beginning to take form--concentrates on the emergence of the European union--not to be confused with any sort of traditional nation state--and the immense challenges posed by changing demographics, especially the presence of a large and growing Muslim community.
2. The mosaic of Europe, part 2 (geographical patterns). It's not like I couldn't find Latvia or Macedonia on a map, but after having read Postwar, I feel a bit like I'd been a reasonably attentive grade schooler in my understanding of why and how geography matters in Europe. This simplifies just a bit, but Judt builds his stories around a number of geographical/political clusters. I'll list them in general order of how central they are to Judt's story. 1. The "big four" of Western Europe: France, West Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy. 2. USSR, Poland, East Germany. Especially during the first period, the disposition of the borders between those three was absolutely central. 3. The Benelux countries. Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg. 4. The Soviet client states, each facing a similar challenge, each negotiating it in its own way: Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria. 5. The Mediterraneans, which were part of the military sphere of the West but until the 1970s didn't have much in common with the social democratic or Christian democratic states: Greece, Portugal, Spain. 6. The Scandinavians. 7. The Post-Sovietn east block: the Balkans and the Baltic states, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, on the one hand, on the other, the fragments of Yugoslavia. One of the things Judt does very well is break down the chaos of the Croatian, Siberian, Bosnian wars in a clear and comprehensible, if really depressing, manner. 8. The Alpin democraticies, Switzerland and Austria. 8. The interface with Asia, itself a subject of intense concern, especially in the 21st century, but with deep historical roots.
In addition to providing concise summaries of the distinctive histories of each region--the things that tie them together--Judt makes it clear that each shares various problems and attitudes with its neighbors. In addition, he's excellent on regional differences within particular states or clusters, arguing that, especially in recent years, the difference between the northern and southern regions in Italy, or the eastern and western regions in Germany, are almost as important as the differences between nations. He's also excellent on the changing importance of languages and the emergence of English as the shared language of 21st century Europe.
3. Style. To move on to the technical aspects of the book, I learned a huge amount about how to organize large amounts of material. One key is that within each chronological section, Judt gives himself flexibility. Each of the chapters in part 1, for example, follows a theme through the post-war period, moving incrementally forward in time from chapter to chapter, but allowing for movement back to the beginning of the period when it helps clarify the new theme. Often, Judt will devote a series of segments (4-6 pages would be an average) to examples related to a single issue, as when he's looking at Eastern European encounters with the Soviets in the 60s. At other times, however, he'll identify the big theme and then incorporate a few sentences or a single paragraph focusing on how it plays out in a particular locale. There's nothing exactly revolutionary about the approach, but Judt has an extremely sure hand at which approach to use in a given situation.
A couple of minor criticisms. 1. Judt underestimates the Sixties (and yes, I'm speaking as a partisan, smile). Because he's concerned first (but not exclusively) with political and economic history--he knows a hell of a lot about ideology--Judt tends to undervalue cultural change. As a result he endorses the only partially comic comment that the radicals of the 60s just weren't serious. He's right, of course, that Paris '68 was never close to bringing down DeGaulle's government. But, as he acknowledges in the entertaining but somewhat bemused final pages on the 60s, a decade that had begun as the possession of old men, ended with a thorough questioning of authority that absolutely overthrew old ways of thinking. That's serious change in my book. 2. Although he's okay on the cultural aspects of the 60s and 70s, he pretty much stops paying attention to literature, film and popular music in the last half of the book. Missed opportunity, but it does nothing to seriously undermine the monumental achievement of Postwar. ...more