November Books 2) Postwar

2) Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, by Tony Judt

This huge (800+) page history of Europe’s last six decades has been looking at me from the bookshelf for some time, and I finally managed to get through most of it on a transatlantic flight on Saturday (I am in New York for work until Wednesday).

It is pretty impressive: a detailed account of both Western and Eastern Europe, covering in particular detail the immediate aftermath of the second world war, and then going on to survey the Cold War and post-1989 eras. In particular, I learnd a lot about the German Question – having grown up with the realities of a Federal Republic embedded in NATO and the DDR likewise in the Warsaw Pact, I had never quite appreciated the twists and turns of international policy that got to that point from the defeated and occupied Third Reich. Judt is also particularly good on the individual histories of the Soviet bloc states, especially Poland.

I was disappointed by his much more cursory treatment of some Western European countries. Belgium has the same population as Hungary, Portugal or Greece but gets much less coverage here – granted, it did not have the political transition that the other three enjoyed, but I found Judt’s treatment of the linguistic issue a bit journalistic. The same goes for Ireland (with a similar concern about his coverage of the Troubles). Judt devotes a lot of space to analysis of the personalities of Mitterand, Adenauer and Thatcher, but I don’t believe that a single Irish politician apart from Gerry Adams is even name-checked. OK, Haughey was not an international figure in the same way, but I think his story is also of some importance for Europe as well as Ireland.

In the earlier sections (less so in the closing chapters) Judt brings in interesting evidence of Europe’s state of mind by looking at the literature, music and especially cinema of the decades in question. This feeds into his recurrent theme of Europe’s difficulties with acknowledging the past in order to move on from it; he has a thought-provoking epilogue about attitudes to the Holocaust, which in almost every country (except Germany, for obvious reasons, and also Denmark, for better reasons) tends to underplay the extent of local collusion and enthusiasm for the project – almost (though he doesn’t use the word) a kind of soft denial.

In the end though I wasn’t completely satisfied with his conclusion. He doesn’t quite seem to believe in the European Union, by which I mean not only that he doesn’t seem to accept the validity of the political project (which is fair enough, if in my opinion wrong-headed) but also that he doesn’t quite seem to accept what is already there. While he is quite good on the effects of the concept of “Europe” on the transitioning states of the East, he is much vaguer on the reverse effect – what the new states bring to the EU – seeming almost uninterested, which is odd.

Even so, there is a lot of very good stuff here, and it is well worth reading.

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