Tony Judt,
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
(Penguin, 2005)

This 800-odd page tome sets out to be the history of postwar Europe. Scholarly but readable, with useful and brief foonotes, it cruises along for about half its length doing just that.

From the beginnings of the Cold War and the partition of Germany to the pro-Russian takeover in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary and the beginnings of the European Union, Judt masterfully outlines the major diplomatic, political and economic developments of the postwar period. In an account worthy of historian A.J.P. Taylor, he dissects the various stresses on European life, the personalities (Adenauer, De Gaulle), including the relations with the great powers, decolonization, deStalinization, the rise of the social safety net, and other trends and events. The Hungarian and Czechoslovak failed revolutions against Sovietism (1956 and 1968), the Suez Crisis (1956) and other major events are dealt with in outline. So far, so good.

But, about halfway through, this author loses it. Instead of simply telling us what happened in Europe, he begins to preach about it. He first becomes mildly irritating when discussing the student revolts of the 1960s, citing approvingly the French Communists, "this is a party, not a revolution."

When dealing with the violent movements that emerged in Europe (IRA, ETA, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof), Judt falls into this preachy tone again, condemning such groups (as most people do) but failing to equally condemn state-sponsored counterterrorism, which he calls -- referring to Spain's GAL -- "a remarkably moderate response."

Then he follows with a bizarre drive-by attack on continental philosophy, tarring writers such as Derrida, simply by association with the thought of Heidegger, the German thinker who he says is "identified with Nazism." Concluding this sorry chapter, which he calls "Diminished Expectations," the book hits a low point as he takes a swipe at the Eurovision Song Contest, perhaps one of the easiest targets he could find. In these sections, he seems to be overcompensating for something -- perhaps his own former enthusiasms.

At this point, (and after almost losing this reviewer), Judt again rewards our patience. He altogether rights the ship with a fair assessment of 1970s Europe, including the fall of the Southern dictatorships (Greece, Portugal and Spain). His assessment of the rise of Thatcherism in Britain is relatively fair, and suitably critical, as is his discussion of the phenomenon of Mitterand in France. With Lech Walesa and the Pope facing down the Iron Curtain, and several hundred pages to go, he is going strong once again.

His assessment of the post-Yugoslav wars in the Balkans does not stray far from the standard Western account (Serbs bad, and Croats not much better; Western Europe complicit through its inaction) but at least he backs it up and is obviously familiar with the subject.

Concluding with a meditation on the idea of Europe, including a few notes on the importance of soccer football, he strongly delineates the differences between the European and American superpowers, and England's attempts to live a middle ground.

In fact, the strength of Postwar is the author's familiarity with the countries of central Europe and their fight for freedom and return to Europe.

The weaknesses of this book -- and 60 years and an entire continent is a lot to digest -- turn out to be his lack of interest in some of the smaller, more interesting corners of Europe and in particular, the South. The peoples of the South also fought for freedom and return to Europe against dictatorships -- often U.S.-backed rather than Soviet-backed, and of a different character -- but these could be just as murderous, authoritarian and repressive. Yet Spain, Greece and Portugal are given inadequate space in this story.

Smaller, successful countries such as Ireland and Finland (not to mention Scotland) virtually don't appear at all. The aspirations of nations that never managed to achieve statehood, Judt, for the most part, dismisses. The "postwar" story might have been written differently, with more attention to the peripheries, by a writer such as Norman Davies.

Judt's epilogue is a thoughtful essay on the treatment of the Holocaust in various European countries through the past 60 years. He manages to use his critical faculties without preaching to us. The strengths outweigh the weaknesses in Postwar. Critical, intelligent and above all, a good read; either to read straight through or as a reference, it's worth the time.

review by
David Cox

6 October 2007

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