European Affairs

In nearly 900 pages that read with the compelling fascination of a novel, Judt dissects the half-century of our history from the end of World War II to the present. With admirable intellectual honesty, he warns his reader from the start that he is making no attempt at Olympian detachment. “Without, I hope, abandoning objectivity and fairness, Postwar offers an avowedly personal interpretation of the recent European past,” he writes. Those of us who lived through this period cannot but admire his tour de force in combining objectivity with in-depth thinking, generating profound emotions, and leading us to realize that our fate evolves from the interacting influences of circumstances and human nature. Knowing history is one thing – understanding it is another. This is the point that Judt is trying to make, and in doing so he compels us to join his journey.

Among the themes running through the book is Europe’s weakening to the point where, in “postwar” 1945, the nations of Europe found themselves in a situation where they could no longer aspire to imperial status or global dominance. The book also documents the withering away of the “master narratives” of European history, which had their swan song in the ideological battles of the postwar period. By the time the cold war ended in 1989, he concludes, “there was no overarching ideological project of Left or Right on offer in Europe – except the prospect of liberty, which for most Europeans was a promise now fulfilled.”

The “European model” emerged as a modest substitute for the defunct ambitions of Europe’s ideological past. It was “born of an eclectic mix of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic legislation and the crab-like institutional extension of the European Community and its successor Union,” Judt writes, explaining that “this decidedly unanticipated transformation of Europe from a geographical expression into a role-model and magnet for individuals and countries alike was a slow, cumulative process.”

The last theme interwoven into his account of postwar Europe is its relationship to the United States. He acknowledges the role of American power in rebuilding Western Europe in the immediate postwar era, but he challenges cherished U.S. beliefs about the importance of Washington’s action in ending the cold war. “The U.S. played a remarkably small part in the dramas of 1989, at least until after the fact,’’ he writes. Essentially, Judt argues, the struggles of this epochal change were European, occurring in the countries on both sides of Europe’s postwar separation

Recounting Europe’s continuing destruction after the war’s end, Judt marshals the facts in a manner that addresses the human dimension of the disaster and makes it impossible for any decent human being to remain unmoved. Importantly, Judt recognizes the new discussion about the toll on civilians in Germany in the immediate “postwar.”While they inflicted a lot of damage, they also suffered enormously. “Now Germans, too, should at last feel able openly to question the canons of official memory,” he says. He vividly evokes terrible civilian events of the war’s final phases. “On its route west the Red Army raped and pillaged in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Yugoslavia; but German women suffered by far the worst. Between 150,000 and 200,000 ‘Russian babies’ were born in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany in 1945- 46, and these figures make no allowance for untold numbers of abortions, as a result of which many women died along with their unwanted fetuses.Many of the surviving infants joined the growing number of children now orphaned and homeless: the human flotsam of war. In Berlin alone, there were some 53,000 lost children by the end of 1945,” he writes.

Narrating the hard work undertaken for a decade after the war by the Allied military governments and UN agencies to move millions of refugees and displaced people around Europe, he notes that “no one wanted older people, orphans or single women with children.” This was a reversal of a previous postwar adjustment, he writes: “At the conclusion of the First World War, it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead.” The outcome was a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before. (Ironically, Germany was the major exception: its boundaries were changed, and it turned out that in a new Europe, where other countries did not particularly welcome them, it was in Germany that Jews could best find their place.)

Judt is right: “The war changed everything.” His meditation leads to a meticulous depiction of how the rehabilitation of Europe could take place just as the Old Europe was disappearing, of how the politics of stability and lost illusions led to an age of affluence between 1953 and 1971 and then how diminished expectations led to a time of transition and the end of the old order.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Old Europe meets the New. Europe discovers that it represents “a way of life” and that its future is multicultural. Throughout this period the European Community emerges and becomes the European Union. Perhaps Judt is too good a scholar of European history to be able to sincerely believe in it. His historic memory dominates his perception of the present and the future. His last sentences are: “If Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose – then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. The European Union may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.”

True. But one would have liked this book, which so dramatically opens on historical misery, to conclude on a note of hope: The European Union, with all its flaws, offers to its population and to other regions of the world a new, unexpected model – historically unknown. The European Union is not only a response to history: it is now history itself. It would be an encouraging sign if Judt, with his vast knowledge, could believe in it.

Jacqueline Grapin is the founder and co-chair of The European Institute.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 1-2 in the Spring/Summer of 2006.