Szplug's Reviews > Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Postwar by Tony Judt
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Sep 06, 10


This is history writ large done to perfection. Judt has compressed a lifetime of study and exploration of European cultural memes into this masterwork, one which abounds with erudition, penetrating analysis, and wise reflection. Judt states in his introduction that he hoped to produce a work that might compare favorably with that of the historians he had read and enjoyed, such as Eric Hosbsbawn. Speaking as one who has read the latter's brilliant tetralogy that runs from the French Revolution to the end of the twentieth century, I can announce that the author succeeded in every single way. Fifty years of European history, producing such an amazing amount of transformative change and renewal, presents a daunting task for the historian; that Judt manages to pull it off with prose that is compulsively readable and effortlessly scintillating, that combines broad overview with pinpoint observation, is endlessly impressive. This truly is as good as it gets.

The period under examination encompasses the broken, ruined remnants of a shattered Europe that grimly faced an exhausted world in 1945 through to the 2005 admission of several former communist states—Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech, Slovak, and Baltic Republics—into the European Union, the continent's overdue response to the cycle of war and destruction enacted with sanguine regularity throughout the first half of the twentieth century. These five decades witnessed the astonishing economic and political recovery of the western half set against the repression and stagnation endured by those eastern realms with the misfortune to have been liberated by the mighty Red Army and wrapped in the strangling bonds of Real Existing Socialism. This bifurcation was enacted as the Cold War under the auspices of the twin superpower patrons, the United States and the Soviet Union—a continental standoff that sparked a handful of terrifying flash points before settling into a more endurable détente—until the eastern communist edifice shrugged its shoulders in 1989 and the entire house of cards tumbled down.

From his vantage point circa 2005, Judt posits that the World War was a single event which began in 1914 with the onset of mass mobilization and mechanized slaughter, and didn't end until the global embers of the Cold War were fully extinguished with the Soviet Empire's final implosion in 1991. The eighty-some year conflict—a search for workable political and economic systems to go along with military and colonial conquest—ended with the United States globally regnant from its ocean-moated stronghold; Russia dazed and reeling after its recent tumultuous imperial dissolution; and the former Great Powers of Europe—having been thoroughly chastised and humbled by the ruinous outcome of their own folly and hubris—shadows of their former dominant strength and influence. The ofttimes troubled and resentful attitude of Europeans towards their American protector and benefactor—whose tendrils were uncomfortably taking root everywhere—was deeply intermingled with a profound gratitude and appreciation for America's unyielding and unending support over the decades. Needing America yet resisting America—this would become Europe's seemingly permanent modus operandi. This love/hate relationship would subsequently emerge in the Eastern nations that rejected communism and undertook crash courses in market economies in the nineties—the painful lessons quickly learned from Shock Therapy and the resulting liquidation of savings and support networks meant that before the dawn of the new century, a sizable portion of the Eastern populace looked with a nostalgic longing upon the staid, boring security that Real Existing Socialism provided for its closed-off citizenry. Not everybody finds it easy—or preferable—dealing with freedom, with the rapid, daily change that is inherent to democratic capitalism with unfettered markets. As Judt points out, Europe needs both to remember and forget its history in the past century if future generations are to expand upon the continent's remarkable resurrection and transformation and put paid to the ghosts that haunt a collective memory's retreats.

It really is difficult to convey, in the space of a review, the extraordinary range of Judt's knowledge of this tumultuous and historic epoch of our recent past. His assessments are liberally spiced with wry commentary and thoughtful opinion, and there really is no corner of the European landscape that escapes his sure-footed stride. The impossible task that faced the triumphant allies, as they surveyed the endless wreckage of a continent brought low, is laid out clearly; and while he stresses the admixture of American generosity and commitment with European forbearance and resolve that wrought such transformative changes upon the West, he also illuminates the willful amnesia that was both tacitly encouraged, and required, by the postwar governments in order to bring off this stunning turnaround—a collective disremembering that would surface in future years seeking payback with interest. On the Soviet side of the liberation the introduction of Stalinist terror and repression—with the brutal show trials and torture-induced confessions that inevitably accompanied them—quickly snuffed whatever enthusiasm for communism existed in the repressed nations and opened the West's eyes to exactly what they were dealing with. In this, as in so many things, Stalin proved his own worst enemy—his murderous implementation of Soviet-style communism increasingly diminished the political power of communist parties in the Western half of Europe, ceding the left-wing ground to the various Social Democratic parties that were resolved to work within the confines of elective political systems and capitalist economies. As acute as Judt is in relating the story of the West, he truly excels in his dissection of the miseries and impositions enacted upon the East, especially the travails of long-suffering Poland and perpetually betrayed Czechoslovakia. As the dynamic recovery in West Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom churns along—even as the latter two shed their remaining Imperial territories, peacefully and bloodily—the festering wards of the Red Army endure the crushed hopes of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the 1968 Prague Spring. The brutal subjugation of these doomed-but-inspired attempts to pull free of the Soviet Union's grasp shattered what remained of the unity of the European Left, along with whatever traces existed in the Communist buffer states of a belief in Socialism's Historical Necessity.

Judt's take upon the sixties and the seventies, and their impact—both perceived then and realized later—upon the courses of European history is masterful. The origins of the European Union in a sidebar French project to unite France, West Germany, and the Benelux countries in a tariff union against the overweening domination of the Anglo-American alliance; the re-birth of democracy from the authoritarian ashes of Portugal, Greece, and Spain; the Post-Keynesian enthusiasm for Hayekian market reforms, privatization, and tax cuts that launched the eighties into a remarkably affluent, and destructive, financial boom; the Soviet Union's long road to dissolution and ephemerality that proceeded from the unlikely turning point of the Helsinki Accords through the Afghanistan invasion, the formation of Poland's Solidarity movement, and the unrelenting bravery and passion that exploded over Gorbachev's introduction of glasnost and perestroika, reforms that lead to the unforeseen and swift shedding of communist shackles by the Warsaw Pact realms in the miracle year of 1989; Judt produces the entire story, beautifully written and packed full of immensely courageous individuals—Adam Michnik being a favorite of mine—in history that probes and sheds light in prodigious abundance.

Yet perhaps the best is saved for last: the seesaw struggles that played out in the East—newfound, shaky freedom greeting these blinking patients awoken from stasis—and the wary enthusiasm these desperate struggles were greeted with by a West startled out of a complacent and accepted duality. The author's disappointment is palpable at the manner in which these fledgling Eastern democracies were treated by their Western cousins, who abandoned the American wisdom in the aftermath of the Second World War in favor of the misguided approach of the First: there was no Marshall Plan to be extended in 1990—rather, a slew of consultants and corporations offered their advice and money, and made a fortune purchasing national assets (in Russia foremost) for a fraction of their market value. This avaricious plunder of the East's resources would be a source of simmering anger and foster a sense of betrayal in the years to come. The story arc of the European Union—its bureaucratic complexities, its financial strictures and structures, the long waltz that wended its way across the dance floor of the nineties before the post-Communist nations, impatient to embrace their new continental destiny, received their invitations to the European community—is described better than any account I've read. The overarching need for a purpose for the new communal powerhouse makes itself clear in the shameful response of the European powers to the tragedy that was enacted by murderous bands of paramilitary thugs in the broken shards of Yugoslavia, filled with bloodlust by cynical and power-hungry demagogues and enjoined to genocide while the UN peacekeepers idly stood by. Without the firm directing hand of the US, who knows how much more blood would have soaked the already well-watered soils of the Balkans?

Judt closes with a pair of chapters that examine the modern European identity, contrasts it favorably with that of the dominant economic titans, America and China, and posits that if the EU and its plurality of ethnicities, religions, and nationalisms can manage to seriously get its shit together, there is really no reason that the twenty-first century couldn't belong to a Europe that has learned so many painful lessons, and crafted so many prudent and preventative responses. The epilogue, a thirty page essay examining the lingering memories of the Holocaust that have hung over the postwar continent for decades—a relentless burden of guilt that had been studiously ignored, prevaricated over, avoided and then finally accepted and acknowledged, in various (perhaps necessary) stages as the savage slaughter of World War Two began to fade in the rearview mirror—brings this masterpiece to a close with a sober, but optimistic caution. Evil was unleashed in the war, and of necessity this evil had to be confronted by those who had participated in or enabled it; but if this guilt can be cleansed without leaving the stains of self-pity or angry ressentiment, there is a real possibility that the future existence of Europe may be—finally, enduringly—one of peace.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Szplug (last edited Sep 15, 2010 08:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thank you, Abigail, I really appreciate that!


message 2: by AC (new) - rated it 5 stars

AC man..., just *reading* this made me feel smart.... I can't writing it... Great review...!


Szplug Thanks, AC! I have to give all the credit to Judt - this amazing book inspired me in all of the right ways.


message 4: by AC (new) - rated it 5 stars

AC False modesty...!

Anyway, I look forward to driving now...


Wilson Tomba Excellent review of an outstanding book!


Szplug I apologize for the late acknowledgement, Wilson—GR notifications blow—but thank you!


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