Writing a comprehensive, intellectually serious account of the history of Europe between the closing days of World War II and the early weeks of 2005 is on the face of it impossible—certainly for one writer and within the compass of one book. There is the war and its aftermath; the origins of the cold war; the retreat from empire by Britain, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal; the creation and the fits-and-starts development of the Common Market; the achievement of prosperity and the unexpected discontents that it provoked, culminating in the strange year of 1968; the brutal installation, long reign, and sudden downfall of communism in the Soviet bloc; the recent horrors in the Balkans; and the present reality of a Europe that increasingly resembles a comfortable island beset by refugees, illegal migrant workers, and the allies of al-Qaeda. And it would hardly be possible to omit the daily lives of the citizenry of thirty-odd countries, as reflected in their sports, music, movies, and other cultural attachments.
If anyone can bring off the impossible task that Tony Judt has set himself in Postwar, it is he. He is of an age with his subject, British by birth and much of his education, a specialist in French politics and history by training, and the head of the Remarque Institute at New York University by present occupation. He brings to Postwar an astonishing range of knowledge and an intense political, intellectual, and emotional engagement; these are nicely offset by the intellectual distance that the Channel and the Atlantic have helped to provide and by a wry sense of the innumerable ways in which events play tricks on all of us. The result is a book that has the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia; it is a very considerable achievement.
Not all the tricks that history played on postwar Europe were unkind or unwelcome. As Professor Judt reminds his readers, nobody predicted the unprecedented economic growth experienced by Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries during the late 1950s; in 1945, De Gaulle told his French compatriots to expect twenty-five years of “furious effort” to dig themselves out of the ruins of war. Within ten years, they were better off than ever before. But people who were exceedingly surprised to find themselves owning automobiles and houses for the first time were delighted. Harold Macmillan told the British electorate “You have never had it so good” in 1957; they hadn’t, and they were correspondingly grateful. European countries had achieved a growth rate of barely one percent per annum in the fifty years to 1950; for more than a decade thereafter, they tripled, quadrupled, and even quintupled that.
Some of history’s other tricks were less welcome to those who experienced them, but in the larger scheme of things they were of little account. Before the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pressure for reform came from Communist Party officials …