Review – Postwar by Tony Judt

JudtPostwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt.
Paperback, 960 pages. Published September 5, 2006 by Penguin Books. ISBN: 978-0143037750

Tony Judt’s Postwar is the sort of book that makes me question my life–how can I know and understand so little when there are people on this earth who can weave obscure Polish philosophers, Soviet dissidents, French intellectuals, British trade unionists and a thousand other bits of data into a coherent, engaging narrative that stretches from 1945 to 2005, from Moscow to Dublin and Norway to Greece? And yet Judt managed just that, albeit delving far more deeply into some countries (France and Czechoslovakia for instance) than others (Ireland and Spain).

Judt sees the forces that have shaped Europe since 1945 as an almost endless series of binary confrontations even as he makes the point that these binaries are false. The most obvious is free-market capitalism versus Soviet Communism, but Judt makes it clear how much of the “free market” was enmeshed with government ownership and economic manipulation, and just how often the various eastern bloc countries permitted free market inroads to stave off total collapse. Judt can acknowledge the cruelties of unfettered capitalism–and his treatment of Margaret Thatcher is notable for its heat–while condemning Soviet Communism and its many satellites for their boundless repression. Indeed, he reserved some of his harsher criticism for the various western European Communists who found it impossible to acknowledge even Stalin’s crimes, let alone the generalized repression and economic failure of the Soviet Union, until long after they were apparent to any reasonable observer.

Postwar makes it clear that history does not unfold as a sporting event, with one winner, one loser, and a clean result. In the introduction he makes the initially jarring claim that, “since 1989 it has become clearer than it was before just how much the stability of post-war Europe rested upon the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.” (9) “Accomplishments” was surely intended to provoke when applied to history’s greatest tyrants, but Judt makes it clear that he means exactly that. Hitler and Stalin both, to varying degrees, sought to sort out the humanity under their control into homogeneous packets, and both succeeded largely in doing so. While the postwar world condemned what later came to be known as “ethnic cleansing,” it did not reverse it. If anything, the victorious allies extended it through the expulsion of Germans from Western Poland and Czechoslovakia and the failure to fully restore the surviving Jews to their homes and property. The resulting countries could pursue “national” goals in ways that would have been difficult or impossible in the multicultural states that preceded the war.

Moreover the European Union rests on foundations laid by Napoleon in his Continental System and vastly expanded by the Nazis to realize their vision of a continental reich. Vichy administrator Pierre Pucheu’s vision for a free market with a shared currency stemmed from frustrating experiences of economic policy planning between the world wars and was shared by Albert Speer and others. By conquering most of the continent and assimilating it into the German Reich, Hitler effectively achieved a common market without borders and sharing the Reichsmark as its currency. Consequently, postwar bureaucrats had experience with something similar to the eventual European Economic Community and European Union–it was not unimaginable because the Nazis had made it happen.

Needless to say the European Union’s core values are the antithesis of and reaction against Nazi ideology, and consequently few if any Europeans want to ascribe their liberal, multicultural superstate to its Nazi forebears. The willful forgetting of the EU’s historical antecedents is but one of the many ways in which parties, nations, and the entire continent of Europe have intentionally obscured and distorted history to form foundation myths and avoid the clashes that come with acknowledging past wrongs. The French mythmaking surrounding wartime collaboration and resistance is well-documented, but Judt dives deeply into the similar process in the occupied western European states, the neutral states, and the occupied states that fell behind the Iron Curtain. He documents the fundamental differences between postwar Britain, which never suffered occupation and can therefore take a purist attitude toward collaboration, and France, Belgium, the Netherlands, et. al. who collaborated to greater or lesser degrees out of necessity. In the east he contrasts the experience of Yugoslavia, which alone could claim a history of fierce resistance to the Nazis (while obscuring and suppressing the internal murder and conflict that required) with nations under the Soviet thumb that ascribed wartime crimes and collaboration to capitalist governments and thereby disavowed all responsibility.

No review would be complete without noting the extent to which Judt foreshadowed Brexit and the centrifugal forces that are roiling Europe today. Reading this book in light of recent developments, one must acknowledge in every section on Britain and its relations with the continental powers that British membership in the larger European experiment was always awkward and contingent. Britain stood apart from the continent before the war, and its greater integration since has often been more window dressing than reality. Britain’s socialism was different from continental socialism–older and more union-focused–and therefore less resilient in the face of economic integration. Ironically, Thatcherite privatization made Britain more vulnerable still. Its social safety net was thinner, its institutions more brittle, and its workers had already taken a significant hit as inefficient industries collapsed or departed. No reader of Postwar should have been surprised at the Brexit vote. France is a different story. Judt, writing before 1999, sees the National Front as an insignificant fringe. He cites Jean-Marie LePen repeatedly as an example of the ineffective far right. No doubt he would be surprised to see LePen’s daughter contending seriously for the presidency of the republic, even though she had to jettison her father and his baggage to make it possible.

At more than 800 pages of text, Postwar is a serious undertaking, but it is not dry or boring, and the narrative remains as engaging on Foucault and Derrida’s influence on the French left as on the blindness and stupidity of Serbian nationalists. Judt’s premature death in 2010 deprived us of a premier public intellectual.

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