Scott McLemee
Out of the Ashes
Recent Work
Commonplace Book
Cat Blog

Newsday, 27 November 2005

POSTWAR: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt. The Penguin Press, 878 pp.

"The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk," Hegel said, sounding, for a moment anyway, like a spy communicating in code. The message is not hard to crack. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom. And by "dusk," the philosopher meant the close of a cycle of experience -- the end of a historical era.

There is more to this, of course, than the notion that hindsight is 20/20. Hegel's formula rests on the idea that there are particular moments when the ebb and flow of human affairs yields a singular, concentrated truth. Passion becomes Reason. The problem is that the wisdom arrives too late for those of us living on the ground. We remain stuck in history, never knowing when the owl is scheduled for takeoff.

As Tony Judt writes in the opening pages of Postwar, the idea for his comprehensive survey of the past 60 years of European history came to him while changing trains in Vienna in December 1989. It was a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and in the cab on the way to the station, he heard on the radio the initial reports of the upsurge in Romania that would end in the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, Eastern Europe's last (and most classically preposterous) Stalinist dictator.

"What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air," he writes. The entrenched and polarizing norms that had taken shape after 1945 "could no longer be understood as the products of ideological necessity or the iron logic of politics. They were the accidental outcomes of history -- and history was pushing them aside."

The author of any book covering both an epoch and an entire continent must have a pretty definite sense of what developments were the "accidental outcome" of history, and what parts were essential. At just about the time Judt was deciding, in transit, to sort all this out, Francis Fukuyama (the State Department functionary and off-hours Hegelian pundit) announced that we had reached "the End of History" -- the moment at dusk when Minerva revealed that liberal democracy was the final embodiment of human possibility.

Without being quite so sweeping about it, Judt is willing to meet Fukuyama halfway on this. What triumphed in late 1989, by Judt's account, was not the market or the American dream, but, rather, the idea of Europe itself. "Long before communism," he writes, "the continent's eastern half had been the Europe that sought recognition and acknowledgment. ... With the coming of the Soviet bloc, the sense that their part of Europe was severed from its roots had become a leitmotif of intellectual dissent and opposition across the region." It was also a longing for "a concrete and attainable set of political goals ... for normalcy and the modern way of life." For those who lived in the Eastern bloc, as Judt puts it, "The opposite of communism was not 'capitalism' but 'Europe.'"

That, anyway, is the big, big picture: the broadest outline of a story unfolding over more than 800 pages of collision and turmoil. The devil, of course, is in the details. As an ideal, Europe is a state of mind -- a sense of the good life broad enough to include German literature, French cuisine, Italian cinema and British plain-spokenness.

But the reality of its history is that, during the past 500 years, collisions of national sovereignty plunged the continent into cycles of violence, culminating in two World Wars in three decades. In that regard then, Judt's title has a double meaning. The six decades he covers were "postwar," not just in the sense of coming after World War II, but in marking a transcendence of war as a fact of European life.

The standoff following 1945 was tense. More importantly, though, it was static -- giving the Westerners a chance to build up trade alliances (culminating in the Maastricht treaty) while the Easterners dreamt of joining (and eventually did).

Judt divides his chronicle into four sections, corresponding to broad cycles in the unfolding of these long-term tendencies. The first is the period between Hitler's death in 1945 and Stalin's in 1953. This was a time of rebuilding and of division into spheres of Soviet and American influence. It was also a period of rather active forgetting, in which each country made limited efforts to deal with the experience of fascism while always tending to underestimate the degree of collaboration and complicity with it.

The second and longer phase ran from 1953 to 1971. In the West, it was a period when "self-governing democratic states" emerged "with neither the means nor the desire to make war ... led by elderly men whose common if unstated political creed was 'No experiments.'" Outside the parliamentary chambers, quite a few radical experiments eventually began taking place in the streets and the communes. But for Judt, these amounted to manifestations of generational discontent among those belonging to the postwar Baby Boom.

Meanwhile, in the East, there were cycles of reform and repression. Local Communist leaders tried periodically to create something a bit more flexible than the Soviet model, only to be reminded by the Red Army that "de-Stalinization" had its limits.

A historian with assumptions different from Judt's might emphasize the parallels between the dissident cultures of East and West during this period -- the shared sense that "official society" (whatever the economic arrangements underpinning it) was governed by a lust for comfort and conformity. There was a common sense that, as a slogan of the day went, "real life is elsewhere." Instead, Judt treats the Eastern efforts to challenge the Communist system in terms of its own ideals as a roundabout way of proving the impossibility of reform.

The next cycle begins in 1971 (just after the first wave of revolt by workers in Poland that foreshadowed the emergence of Solidarnosc) and ends in 1989, when the previously unimaginable began happening across Eastern Europe. It also was the period when, in the West, a broad political consensus began to collapse.

This was the expectation (shared by "German and Swedish Social Democrats, Italian Christian Democrats, French Gaullists and British politicians of every stripe") that the social order required "seeking full employment if possible" and providing "cash subsidies for ailing employers in private and public sector alike." Inflation and other recessionary pressures undermined this consensus. Shock therapy in the form of budget cuts and privatization was tried, with some misgivings and varying degrees of success. And the economic strains exacerbated various ethnic and regional conflicts -- even as the infrastructure was emerging for the united European Community.

The last segment of Judt's book covers the post-Communist phase of the postwar era, including the violent implosion of Yugoslavia and the "profoundly indifferent" public response to the emergence of the European Union. "By not being a state," he writes, "the Union has been able to bind some 450 million people into a single, loosely articulated community with remarkably little dissent. But because it is not a state -- because its citizens' primary loyalties remain to the country in which they find themselves, whose laws they obey, whose language they speak and whose taxes they pay -- the EU has no mechanism for determining or enforcing its own security interests."

Which leaves us, not at the "end of history" perhaps, but certainly someplace off the old ideological maps. Lacking a means of defining and defending its own security, postwar Europe faces a superpower that is not exactly shy about doing either. How will that contrast play itself out? And if something like the recent French riots becomes a new fact of life, what then? Judt, being more historian than prophet, doesn't really have an answer. We'll just have to wait for the sequel.