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After the Fall

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 who hoped to create “socialism with a human face”—the aim of Alexander Dubcek’s ill-fated “Prague Spring” of 1968—and from intellectuals who thought that they had found a third way between the Soviet-imposed tyranny of “actually existing socialism” and the brash, inegalitarian capitalism of the United States. When communism collapsed, it became clear that there was no constituency at all for reform communism. The point was made with some brutality in a Prague student magazine: a cartoon depicted an elderly and sagging Dubcek looking into the shaving mirror and seeing a blowsy middle-aged woman in her dressing gown, with a cigarette dangling from her lip, standing in the doorway behind him. “Don’t you recognize me?” she asks. “I’m your dream of 1968.”

Miserable though it must have been for Dubcek to discover that history had passed him by, it was not a disaster for the Czechs at large; they had no idea just how hard it would be to fulfill their dream of joining “Europe,” but it was clear that their overwhelming desire was to be citizens of a normal European state, or as it turned out, citizens of two neighboring states. History played its nastiest tricks in the Balkans. Although Tony Judt is right that the blame for the breakup of Yugoslavia and the nastiness of what followed lies with Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade rather than Hans-Dietrich Genscher in Bonn, as some have alleged, it is hard to believe that Genscher in 1991 could have persuaded his colleagues in the German government to recognize Slovenia and Croatia as independent states if any of them had had an inkling that the next step would be a prolonged civil war in which thousands of former Yugoslav citizens would be raped, murdered, and subjected to ethnic cleansing.

But how was anyone to know? The “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia gave no hint of the horrors that would attend the breakup of Yugoslavia, and was itself attended in 1993 by the quietest dissolution of a country into two of its components—Czech and Slovak—known to history. The Czechs and Slovaks were never asked to vote on separation, but took it calmly enough. Even the more contentious secession of the Baltic states and the much more significant departure of Ukraine from the Soviet Union led to almost no bloodshed.


Although Postwar is almost nine hundred pages long, it has the coherence of an essay. Whether history is “philosophy teaching by examples” or merely “one damn thing after another” is not a question he ever quite answers, but Tony Judt provides a tightly structured account of European life in the sixty years since 1945. He does not slight cultural matters—he writes briskly but affectionately about French and Italian films, and briskly and contemptuously about German cinematic kitsch as represented in the “Heidi and her Hussar” tradition; and he ends with a long epilogue on Europe’s ability simultaneously to forget and remember the Holocaust—but for most of its length, Postwar is political history in the grand manner. The doings of nation-states are what count; the actions of states determine their citizens’ lives, and their leaders make a difference. Their ideological convictions matter; their competence matters; and as the historian knows, their ability to learn from experience is a crucial part of that competence. But competence is not the same as virtue, and among successful politicians who emerge from Postwar with their reputations shredded, François Mitterrand is perhaps the most damaged by Judt’s account of his deceptions and his failures to reform antiquated French institutions.

Judt’s first theme is the sheer surprisingness of the survival of Europe in the aftermath of World War II—anything but a foregone conclusion between 1945 and 1949. There were many millions of “displaced persons,” most of them trapped in Germany; some were survivors of the camps, others were refugees stranded on the wrong side of new borders, reluctant to return “home,” and unwelcome both there and everywhere else. There were millions of former prisoners of war, a good many of whom did not wish to go home to face Stalin’s commissars. Even though the Nazis had allowed most of their Soviet prisoners to die—as the Soviets allowed their German prisoners to die—the survivors preferred German camps to Stalin’s Russia. The Western Allies stuck by their wartime agreements with Stalin, and, to their shame, sent almost three million ex-prisoners and refugees to the Soviet Union within two years, and more than five million altogether. Stalin was so obsessed by the possibility they might have been influenced by their experience of the outside world that at least a million were either shot or sent to the Gulag on their return.

The economies of even the victorious countries had been all but destroyed: life in Britain got no easier after 1945 because Britain had thrown everything it possessed into the war effort and American aid was cut off the moment the war ended. Although it emerged that a surprising amount of industrial equipment had survived the war—continuous Allied bombing had destroyed no more than a third of Germany’s industry—the means of everyday life had been smashed. Forty percent of London’s housing stock was uninhabitable, and 90 percent of Warsaw’s. Life for many Germans became much harder after the war than it had been during it, because Germany had fought the war by looting the countries the German armies had conquered, and Germans who were not directly in the path of Allied bombing or the Red Army had eaten better and lived more comfortably than the British. Occupied countries had suffered variable degrees of hardship, but all were in 1945 exhausted emotionally, physically, and industrially. In the savage winter of 1947, it was easy to believe that Europe would never recover; 92 percent of the French thought things were either “bad or very bad.”

Paradoxically, Europe’s recovery was much assisted by the onset of the cold war between 1947 and 1950, both because it became apparent to the United States that the rebuilding of Europe was in America’s self-interest, and because the external threat presented by the Soviet Union provided an incentive to Western European states to cooperate with one another to an extent they had never done. The stability of the cold war order is another of Tony Judt’s central themes. Between 1948 and 1989, Europe had two separate histories: west of the dividing line between the Soviet and Western spheres of occupation in Germany, human rights were respected, almost nobody went hungry, and it was possible to believe in the reality of progress; east of that line, censorship, show trials, and political murder were the order of the day until the death of Stalin in 1953, and while repression was less brutal thereafter, people who opposed the party-state were harassed and brutally imprisoned. Romania irrationally got rid of much of its industrial plant, while the other satellite states increasingly lagged behind the West. The idea of progress turned into a bad joke, a mockery of the aspirations of Karl Marx and his contemporaries.

As Judt points out, the nastiness of the regimes installed in the satellite states had several consequences for the West. The Communist parties of France and Italy took their orders from the Soviet Union, and immediately after the war, Stalin had told them to cooperate with parliamentary regimes, so World War II was not followed by the revolutionary outbreaks that had marked the end of World War I. Once the Iron Curtain descended, Western Communist parties were discredited by their Soviet allegiances; the economic hardships of the first few years after the war did not result in the political extremism of the 1930s, and the Marshall Plan arrived just in time to rescue an exhausted Europe. Not every country spent Marshall Plan aid on productive investments; both Britain and France wasted too much of their resources on military expenditures, but Marshall Plan aid at least reduced the impact of the loss of empires.

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