Postwar

by Tony Judt

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin Books
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 1-4406-2476-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 835

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Tony Judt (1948–2010) was a British-American historian and Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University. Postwar is his magnum opus, a history of Europe from 1945 to 2005.

A book described as a history of Europe could be anything from a textbook to a political analysis, so the first useful question to ask is what sort of history. That's a somewhat difficult question to answer. Postwar mentions a great deal of conventional history, including important political movements and changes of government, but despite a stated topic that would suit a survey textbook, it doesn't provide that sort of list of facts and dates. Judt expects the reader to already be familiar with the broad outlines of modern European history. However, Postwar is also not a specialty history and avoids diving too deep into any one area. Trends in art, philosophy, and economics are all mentioned to set a broader context, but still only at the level of a general survey.

My best description is that Postwar is a comprehensive social and political history that attempts to focus less on specific events and more on larger trends of thought. Judt grounds his narrative in concrete, factual events, but the emphasis is on how those living in Europe, at each point in history, thought of their society, their politics, and their place in both. Most of the space goes to exploring those nuances of thought and day-to-day life.

In the US university context, I'd place this book as an intermediate-level course in modern European history, after the survey course that provides students with a basic framework but before graduate-level specializations in specific topics. If you have not had a solid basic education in European history (and my guess is that most people from the US have not), Judt will provide the necessary signposts, but you should expect to need to look up the signposts you don't recognize. I, as the dubious beneficiary of a US high school history education now many decades in the past, frequently resorted to Wikipedia for additional background.

Postwar uses a simple chronological structure in four parts: the immediate post-war years and the beginning of the Cold War (1945–1953), the era of rapidly growing western European prosperity (1953–1971), the years of recession and increased turmoil leading up to the collapse of communism (1971–1989), and the aftermath of the collapse of communism and the rise of the European Union (1989–2005). Each part is divided into four to eight long chapters that trace a particular theme. Judt usually starts with the overview of a theme and then follows the local manifestations of it on a spiral through European countries in whatever order seems appropriate. For the bulk of the book that covers the era of the Cold War, when experiences were drastically different inside or outside the Soviet bloc, he usually separates western and eastern Europe into alternating chapters.

Reviewing this sort of book is tricky because so much will depend on how well you already know the topic. My interest in history is strictly amateur and I tend to avoid modern history (usually I find it too depressing), so for me this book was remedial, filling in large knowledge gaps that I ideally shouldn't have had. Postwar was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, so I think I'm safe saying you won't go far wrong reading it, but here's the necessary disclaimer that the rest of my reactions may not be useful if you're better versed in modern European history than I was. (This would not be difficult.)

That said, I found Postwar invaluable because of its big-picture focus. The events and dates are easy enough to find on the Internet; what was missing for me in understanding Europe was the intent and social structures created by and causing those events. For example, from early in the book:

On one thing, however, all were agreed — resisters and politicians alike: "planning". The disasters of the inter-war decades — the missed opportunities after 1918, the great depression that followed the stock-market crash of 1929, the waste of unemployment, the inequalities, injustices and inefficiencies of laissez-faire capitalism that had led so many into authoritarian temptation, the brazen indifference of an arrogant ruling elite and the incompetence of an inadequate political class — all seemed to be connected by the utter failure to organize society better. If democracy was to work, if it was to recover its appeal, it would have to be planned.

It's one thing to be familiar with the basic economic and political arguments between degrees of free market and planned economies. It's quite another to understand how the appeal of one approach or the discredit of another stems from recent historical experience, and that's what a good history can provide.

Judt does not hesitate to draw these sorts of conclusions, and I'm sure some of them are controversial. But while he's opinionated, he's rarely ideological, and he offers no grand explanations. His discussion of the Yugoslav Wars stands out as an example: he mentions various theories of blame (a fraught local ethnic history, the decision by others to not intervene until the situation was truly dire), but largely discards them. Judt's offered explanation is that local politicians saw an opportunity to gain power by inflaming ethnic animosity, and a large portion of the population participated in this process, either passively or eagerly. Other explanations are both unnecessarily complex and too willing to deprive Yugoslavs of agency. I found this refreshingly blunt. When is more complex analysis a way to diffuse responsibility and cling to an ideological fantasy that the right foreign policy would have resolved a problem?

A few personal grumblings do creep in, particularly in the chapters on the 1970s (and I think it's not a coincidence that this matches Judt's own young adulthood, a time when one is prone to forming a lot of opinions). There is a brief but stinging criticism of postmodernism in scholarship, which I thought was justified but probably incomplete, and a decidedly grumpy dismissal of punk music, which I thought was less fair. But these are brief asides that don't detract from the overall work. Indeed, they, along with the occasional wry asides ("respecting long-established European practice, no one asked the Poles for their views [on Poland's new frontiers]") add a lot of character.

Insofar as this book has a thesis, it's in the implications of the title: Europe only exited the postwar period at the end of the 20th century. Political stability through exhaustion, the overwhelming urgency of economic recovery, and the degree to which the Iron Curtain and the Cold War froze eastern Europe in amber meant that full European recovery from World War II was drawn out and at times suspended. It's only after 1989 and its subsequent upheavals that European politics were able to move beyond postwar concerns. Some of that movement was a reemergence of earlier European politics of nations and ethnic conflict. But, new on the scene, was a sense of identity as Europeans, one that western Europe circled warily and eastern Europe saw as the only realistic path forward.

What binds Europeans together, even when they are deeply critical of some aspect or other of its practical workings, is what it has become conventional to call — in disjunctive but revealing contrast with "the American way of life" — the "European model of society".

Judt also gave me a new appreciation of how traumatic people find the assignment of fault, and how difficult it is to wrestle with guilt without providing open invitations to political backlash. People will go to great lengths to not feel guilty, and pressing the point runs a substantial risk of creating popular support for ideological movements that are willing to lie to their followers. The book's most memorable treatment of this observation is in the epilogue, which traces popular European attitudes towards the history of the Holocaust through the whole time period.

The largest problem with this book is that it is dense and very long. I'm a fairly fast reader, but this was the only book I read through most of my holiday vacation and it still took a full week into the new year to finish it. By the end, I admit I was somewhat exhausted and ready to be finished with European history for a while (although the epilogue is very much worth waiting for). If you, unlike me, can read a book slowly among other things, that may be a good tactic.

But despite feeling like this was a slog at times, I'm very glad that I read it. I'm not sure if someone with a firmer grounding in European history would have gotten as much out of it, but I, at least, needed something this comprehensive to wrap my mind around the timeline and fill in some embarrassing gaps. Judt is not the most entertaining writer (although he has his moments), and this is not the sort of popular history that goes out of its way to draw you in, but I found it approachable and clear. If you're looking for a solid survey of modern European history with this type of high-level focus, recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-01-07

Last modified and spun 2023-01-09