Nov 30, 10
Read from November 13 to 30, 2010
This book is filling a gap in my knowledge so large that I cannot believe I never realised it was there. It seems to touch on so many things; it delivers the events, yes, but more interestingly it jumps from political commentary to economics to aesthetic and social theory to intellectual history. It is my first book on general European history, so I can't really critique the content, except to say I feel like I've been brought a long way. Above all I think it is a political history, delving -- sometimes for long periods -- into other areas more as a function of the politics of time. I started on this book to answer for myself the question, raised from reading Wolfgang Munchau in the FT, of why the EU is more a political construct than a streamlined economic entity. Judt's book is framed like if you asked a wise person a question and they told you a really, really, really long story, and at the end of that story you 'feel' the answer rather than 'know' the answer, and along the way you learnt about a lot of related stuff besides.
His thesis is, I think, that the EU started as a French initiative to bind a Marshall-plan aided Germany to the rest of Europe in a way that would preclude another invasion of French soil. Along the way, though, the EU grew from out from being just a political institution and into an identity, a political and social philosophy, an aesthetic, a way of life. It is interesting to a non European reader like myself because I have always seen America as standing for a concrete set of ideals or an idea you could hold on to, Judt's narrative concludes that neither America nor China could ever end up universal ideas, but Europe -- with its social democracy, its mix of capitalism and welfare, ultimately founded on respect for human rights -- can. I wonder what he would think of the EU's budget and debt crisis going on now; he mentions early that the social democracy of Europe was fashioned in the boom of the post-war reconstruction 50s and 60s, and as early as the 70s and 80s ominous hints of budgetary constraint and shrinking demographic base had started to show -- but he doesn't take these economic considerations to their full political implication, choosing instead to end on an optimistic note in support of the European idea.
Separately it is interesting to read of the chaos in Eastern Europe post the official end of WWII as per the Allied narrative -- as an extension of the Nazi occupation under new Communist rulers. I really appreciate Judt's comprehensive knowledge here and how he pointedly covers virtually every country pushing up against Russia's borders. As someone who grew up in Singapore, it also contextualises for me the local politics -- Singapore's independence in 1965 -- and the emphasis (as written in our national pledge, at least) on a neutrality of race and religion.
Finally, he is just a great writer, never sententious, and perhaps more impressively given the topic, never tendentious, and his footnotes are on occasion very very funny.