Tony Judt
Tony Judt; drawing by David Levine

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.

In retrospect, cold-war Europe was a great deal less dangerous than it felt to those of us who grew up in the shadow of a third—and, we took it for granted, final—world war. Even though both the Soviets and the United States assumed that they would use battlefield nuclear weapons and that escalation would be almost impossible to avoid, both sides were locked into essentially defensive positions. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Red Army could have advanced to the English Channel; but Stalin had no intention of doing anything so adventurous. As Tony Judt says, what Stalin intended was to carry out the foreign policy of his tsarist predecessors. He would ensure that no German army could ever march unimpeded to Moscow; he would be the “Gendarme of Europe” to prevent upheaval on his doorstep in the way his predecessors had done after the Napoleonic Wars. Stalin’s encouragement of the North Korean invasion of South Korea was one of his rare miscalculations, and the subsequent war made it clear that the United States was prepared to hold the line in the Far East and a fortiori in Europe.

The inhabitants of Europe were not comfortable with the idea that World War III might be fought across Central Europe with the aid of battlefield nuclear weapons; but Tony Judt points out that once the uprising of workers in East Germany of 1953 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had been suppressed with the aid of Soviet troops, and the US and its allies had failed to intervene, the boundaries between Eastern and Western Europe were stable, and the risk of war slight. The Hungarian Revolution was the key event. It became clear that the Soviet Union would not tolerate a loss of the Communist monopoly of political power or a declaration of neutrality by any of its satellites—fatally for both his country and himself, the Hungarian prime minister Imre Nagy proposed both and was later executed for doing so. It also became equally clear that the United States would not start World War III to liberate Eastern Europe. An uneasy peace could thus be achieved.

The Hungarian Revolution coincided with the creation of the European Economic Community, and a third of Tony Judt’s themes is the deeply ambiguous quality of the slow march toward the European Union, as the Common Market is now called, as much in hope as in expectation. Its roots lay in the European Coal and Steel Community, set up in May 1950 on the initiative of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman and enthusiastically embraced by Konrad Adenauer as a symbol of Germany’s readmission to the circle of civilized states—“Das ist unser Durchbruch,” he told his colleagues.

The European Coal and Steel Community was, strictly speaking, pointless. The European member countries originally proposed, among other things, a unified market to produce and sell coal and steel. It was overtaken by the Korean War boom that raised the demand for coal and steel, and by the German Wirtschaftswunder—the industrial miracle of the 1950s. But it was the first step toward the creation of the EEC under the 1956 Treaty of Rome. The six countries that joined the ECSC remained “the Six” for the next twenty years. The British stayed out; Ernest Bevin, Labour’s postwar foreign minister, had earlier dismissed suggestions of closer cooperation with Europe with the memorable observation that “if you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out.”

By the time the British realized that they had made a mistake, Charles de Gaulle had become president of the Fifth Republic and in a position to deliver the first of his two Nons in 1963. He, like the British people themselves, thought Britain faced outward to the United States and the Commonwealth rather than inward to Europe. It gave him some pleasure to get his own back for twenty years of real and fancied slights at the hands of Britain and the United States.

As one looks back to the so-called Age of Affluence, it is easy to forget how much unfinished business the European powers still had in the Fifties and early Sixties. Britain abandoned its empire in India, Pakistan, and Burma immediately after the war, but there was a lot left: Israel secured independence in 1948 after a Jewish terrorist campaign against the British troops charged with carrying out the Palestine Mandate. Kenya became independent after the Mau Mau insurgency in the early 1950s, and the independence of Cyprus was accelerated by the EOKA terrorism at the end of the decade. France had a much worse time in Vietnam, staggering from defeat at the hands of Ho Chi Minh in 1954; then it engaged in the long, drawn-out struggle in Algeria fought on both sides with torture and assassinations. This was the final nail in the coffin of the Fourth Republic in 1958 and nearly caused civil war in the early 1960s.

Franco’s Spain retired from its colonies with some deftness, but Portugal fought a war in Angola that ended only with the end of the Salazar regime in 1974; it was promptly succeeded by the Angolan civil war that has hardly ended even now, although in Portugal a moderate democratic system was soon accepted. The inept decolonization of the Belgian Congo and its hideous consequences hardly bear repeating. Almost nowhere in Africa or the Middle East, Judt observes, did the departing powers leave an intellectual, cultural, administrative, or physical infrastructure fit for the task of bringing an underdeveloped country into the modern world.

Nor was it only in their dealings with their colonial dependencies that European countries found themselves drawn into violent conflict. Among the things that catch Tony Judt’s ironic eye, domestic terrorism is well to the fore. Like the Basque nationalists of ETA in Spain, the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, and from time to time in mainland Britain, pursued a recognizable separatist cause; more puzzling were the outbreaks of politically futile but nonetheless appalling murders and bombings by the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Red Army Fraktion in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. Just what provoked these strangely theatrical acts of violent political fantasy and why they flared up in the 1970s remain mysterious.

Tony Judt is a decidedly unenchanted spectator of these events, as he is of their immediate antecedents in the wave of student—and not only student—protest of the late 1960s. He is a historian, not a political philosopher, and in the historian’s perspective, it is no doubt true that the most interesting thing about the student rebellion is how little difference it made, and how many of the enragés went on to comfortable positions in the political establishment—Daniel Cohn-Bendit is now a member of the European Parliament as a Green, and one of my students at the University of Essex, who brought the university to a standstill, went on to the general secretaryship of Tony Blair’s Labour Party and a seat in the House of Lords.

One might take a more generous view. It was, among other things, a time when large numbers of people, women particularly—and women do not get very close attention in Postwar—began to ask whether the prosperity of the previous decade had brought them commensurate happiness. There was only one answer. From rising divorce rates to innumerable strikes all across Western Europe, not for higher wages but for more respect from management, the evidence was that people felt robbed of something they couldn’t quite define. The slogan L’imagination au pouvoir caught the aspirations that had animated the revolutionaries of 1848 rather than the technicians of revolution like Lenin, and it is something of a failure of generosity on Judt’s part not to acknowledge the hopes that the young people of 1968 invested in the ideal of participatory democracy, however much we may justifiably lament the inept political analysis and the violence that accompanied them.

The point is worth making, not to quibble with Tony Judt’s account, but to lend a little more depth to his account of the collapse of communism and the muddled history that ensued. His description of the decayed, repressive, but apparently stable condition of Eastern European communism from 1968 to 1989 is masterly; and his insistence that in regimes where the citizenry are cowed and depressed, change comes from the top is surely right. Mikhail Gorbachev may not have known what he was doing, but he made all the difference; by abandoning the “Brezhnev doctrine” that the Soviet bloc collectively had the right to police the affairs of each member state, he unplugged the life-support system of sclerotic parties and leaders throughout Eastern Europe. Judt shows how the leaders of the Solidarity movement negotiated the “termination of Communism in Poland.”

But having secured their freedom, what were the former satellites to do? The answer was that they wanted to join Europe, literally in the sense of wanting to become members of the European Union and catch up with the living standards of the West, and figuratively in the sense of wanting to be normal, modern, relatively uncorrupt liberal democracies. Countries whose history had mostly been that of a succession of empires, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, or Soviet, could imagine themselves members of a community of independent but cooperative states, the Europe des patries that De Gaulle had offered as the future of the Common Market. But their inhabitants also wanted the everyday freedoms that Westerners took for granted—uncensored newspapers, the ability to be rude to politicians without fear of losing one’s job, the sense of having a life of one’s own to live. The Eastern European movements of 1968 were in part the expression of the same urge.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia after 1991 and the civil wars that followed displayed all too cruelly the limitations of the Europe the satellite countries wanted to join. The antecedent history of Yugoslavia would have given anyone who sought grounds for anxiety plenty to fear; during World War II, the Croatian Ustashe government had murdered large numbers of Serbs; Serb Communists had murdered large numbers of royalist Chetniks; some Muslims had sided with the Nazis in the hope of protection against Serbian ethnic cleansing; and immediately after the war there had been a violent settling of scores. None of this was very visible on the surface, and for many years Yugoslavia seemed to many who did not know the country well about as tranquil and unoppressed as a regime under the control of an unremovable Communist dictatorship could be.

The secession of Croatia and Slovenia was prompted by Slobodan Milosevic’s attempt to alter the federal institutions that Tito had put in place in favor of Serbia. Behind that there lay a great imbalance between the better-off and better-educated north and those in the south. The trouble with Yugoslavia was—as it had been throughout Europe until the population movements at the end of the war had made most countries ethnically uniform—that, ethnically speaking, too many of its inhabitants were in the wrong place. The Serbs of the Krajina region in Croatia might reasonably wonder what Franjo Tudjman and the Croats had in mind for them, and it was all too obvious what might happen to the Albanians in Kosovo and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It did not have to happen, but Slobodan Milosevic was all too willing to exploit the the familiar theme of Serb victimhood. He could rally enough support to ensure that the collection of professional criminals, militias, and individual Serbs happy to grab their neighbors’ property launched the sort of communal bloodbath familiar during the war and nowhere else in Europe since. Tony Judt lays the blame squarely at the door of Milosevic, and this is surely right; he is utterly contemptuous of the Dutch peacekeepers who abandoned the Muslim boys and men who were confided to their care at Srebrenica, and that is surely convincing as well, although it is also true that the Security Council never gave the UN peacekeeping forces the troops or weapons that would have been needed to protect Milosevic’s victims.

What is less clear is whether “Europe”—the Europe that the states of the former Soviet bloc had so longed to join—was quite as incapable of acting to stop the descent into war as Tony Judt thinks. He says, quite rightly, that the European Union is not a state, let alone a superpower; although most of its member states are linked to NATO, the security arm of the EU is the Western European Union, which began as the European precursor of NATO in the 1940s. But it turned into a talking shop for military experts, and became just about moribund. It could have been woken up once it was clear that genocide was being carried out on the European Union’s door-step. The French would have dragged their feet over intervention against Serbia, and the Germans over intervention against Croatia, and the Dutch would have warned that their soldiers might get hurt, but serious action did not have to be delayed until President Clinton was willing to allow NATO aircraft to get into the action.


Postwar ends with two epilogues rather than one. The avowed epilogue is a long and engrossing essay on the Holocaust and the inability of so many European countries to confront their own role in the destruction of European Jewry. At the same time, Judt warns that the preservation of horrific memories, whether in museums or personal accounts, is not the same as the analytic history that is needed if future generations are to understand the monstrousness of the Nazi and Communist regimes. The only criticism one might venture here is that he lets the British off more lightly than he should; he mentions that Winston Churchill took pains to suppress the information that the British government possessed as early as 1942 that the Nazis were sending Jews to extermination camps “lest this incite an increase in anti-Semitic feelings” in Britain. He does not take up the difficult hypothetical question whether the British would have behaved more like the Danes, who rescued their Jewish population, or the Dutch, who went out of their way to help the Germans, or the French, who did the rounding-up even before they were asked.

Given his taste in films, Tony Judt might have mentioned Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here. Produced in 1966, this low-key rendering of what Britain might have been like under German occupation set off a lot of anxious discussion at the time. It was all too easy to imagine the British good-naturedly helping their occupiers to round up troublesome and, in the eyes of many of them, alien Jews; the film performed a public service in deflating the easy assumption that the British were just too decent to behave like everyone else.

One suspects Tony Judt would be reluctant to draw explicit lessons from the past. But he is able to show how the history of Europe since 1945 has been a curious mixture of continuity with what went before and very sharp discontinuity. As he says more than once, World War II did not give rise to the desire to return to a pre-war world that World War I had done. A Europe marked by the Depression, the rise of Nazism, Hitler’s mass murder throughout Europe, Stalin’s show trials, gulags, and famines, and desperate insecurity, was not a world to which anyone wanted to return. “Never again” was the postwar slogan. Auschwitz became the symbol of ultimate evil that we now take it to be only after some years; when it did emerge as a central symbol, the words “never again” took on a new and deeper meaning. But “never again” had been the watchword all along.

At the same time, the statesmen who had to lead postwar Europe were overwhelmingly men who had been born well before the end of the nineteenth century and who had grown up before the first war. Churchill, born in 1874, had been a navy minister in the British cabinet that fought World War I, and his Labour successor Clement Attlee, born in 1883, had been a major during it; De Gaulle, born in 1890, had been an officer in World War I, and a neglected strategist during the Thirties; Konrad Adenauer, born in 1876, was mayor of Cologne during the First World War and a Prussian official under Weimar and was twice imprisoned by the Nazis, in 1933 and 1944. Alcide de Gasperi, the Italian prime minister between 1945 and 1953, was born in 1881 and had been imprisoned by the Fascists for sixteen months. In a curious way, they provided both a link to a world that had been lost and one to the world in which the most ghastly, not-to-be-expected horrors had taken place. On the whole, those of us who have had sixty years of peace and prosperity owe them a debt of gratitude for their work.

Postwar deliberately leaves innumerable questions dangling; that is one of the pleasures of the book. Not the least of these is whether there is “a certain idea of Europe” around which the continent will develop a common political, economic, and cultural identity. Currently, the answer would appear to be no. The European Union constitution has met an understandable rejection at the hands of those citizens who were asked to vote on it, and the British are once again regarded as too fond of the United States and not fond enough of their colleagues in the EU. The degree of union is also in some doubt; to avoid too much disruption in Western labor markets, most of the existing member states have put into effect all sorts of temporary restrictions on movement. As Tony Judt makes clear at the end of his brilliant, skeptical book, the “United States of Europe” is not remotely in prospect.

This Issue

November 3, 2005