Out of the Ashes

Berliners cultivate vegetables by the ruins of the Reichstag in June 1946.
Berliners cultivate vegetables by the ruins of the Reichstag in June 1946. (Bettmann/corbis)
Reviewed by David P. Calleo
Sunday, January 8, 2006


A History of Europe Since 1945

By Tony Judt

Penguin Press. 878 pp. $39.95

Tony Judt's new book is brave and remarkable. To begin with, it is very long -- 831 readable pages of text divided among 24 chapters, an introduction and an epilogue. The chapters are grouped into four parts covering successive periods of Europe's evolution since World War II: "Post-War" (1945-53), "Prosperity and Its Discontents" (1953-71), "Recessional" (1971-89) and "After the Fall" (1989-2005). The epilogue, "From the House of the Dead," is an essay on the role of historical memory -- particularly of the Holocaust -- in sustaining and advancing Europe's integration.

Judt, a New York University historian, has an admirable range of interests and competence. He is, for a start, a fine social historian; he has thought seriously about Europe's demographic patterns and their likely economic and social consequences; he clearly loves and studies the movies and popular music; and he is very much a historian of ideas. Although he regularly professes not to take the world of Parisian intellectuals very seriously, he himself seems an splendid product of that milieu, as might be expected from a graduate of France's cole Normale Suprieure.

His chapters are so numerous, diverse and polished that Postwar occasionally seems like a collection of distinct encyclopedia articles by a single, self-confident author. But in due course, the artful links that hold things together reveal themselves.

Not all parts of this massive book are equally good, of course. Judt's analyses of economic and globalization issues are often exceptionally perceptive, but military, strategic and foreign policy issues are perhaps less his forte. The discussion of strategic questions during the Cold War is somewhat cursory. Despite his extraordinary breadth, Judt cannot be expected to be equally expert on all the topics he deals with. He necessarily adapts the work of others. Many of the questions about Europe's future have been argued ardently for decades, and respectable experts still disagree strongly about them. Under these circumstances, it's unfortunate that Postwar initially came out with minimal scholarly apparatus, including footnotes; by now, NYU's Remarque Institute, which Judt directs, has a website offering a bibliography of the major sources. In any event, it is more interesting to talk of the book's many virtues than to argue about its possible defects.

One interesting feature is a certain ambivalence that runs through Judt's views of France. Passages denigrating French intellectuals for their embarrassing and protracted sympathy for Stalinism coexist uneasily with sections that, somewhat grudgingly, count the postwar European Community as above all a French creation. Of course, the two attitudes are not necessarily contradictory. The France of the statesmen (de Gaulle, Schuman, Monnet, Mitterrand, Delors) is not altogether the same country as that of the theorists (Sartre, Camus, Foucault, Derrida). But something else complicates Judt's attitude toward France: Like many lovers of France, Judt seems to expect more from the French than they can always provide. When speaking of France's reticence about the Vichy regime's "complicitous, pro-active role in Nazi projects, above all the Final Solution," he notes, "It is not that France behaved the worst. It is that France mattered most. Until 1989, Paris . . . was still the intellectual and cultural capital of Europe." La grande nation , it seems, has its own standards to live up to. When France fails, civilization is betrayed.

Notwithstanding Judt's Francophile preoccupations, one of the book's major virtues is that small countries get discussed in loving detail. In Western Europe, alongside passages on Britain, France, Germany and Italy, Postwar offers knowledgeable essays on Belgium and the Netherlands, Scotland, Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal. The countries of Eastern Europe are also covered closely, perhaps to a fault. Judt pays reverent attention to the elegant ghosts of Habsburg culture and empire. Although he gives an ample account of the region's own sins, he also seems to reflect the view (particularly fashionable among British intellectuals) that the Central and East European states are above all victims of the cowardice and selfishness of the West. This perspective looks increasingly sentimental as the European Union comes to grips with the realities of East European societies and politics.

The book is on firmer ground when it stresses how much Europe's east and west must now take each other into account more seriously. The Soviet collapse has forced the east of Europe, like its west, to come to terms with its own genocidal legacy. Judt argues that racial hatred may play a large role in Europe's future, as it has in its past. While two world wars and the Cold War seemingly eradicated the old multicultural Europe that flourished before 1914, today's mass migration patterns are making the enlarging EU much more diverse -- thus creating a 21st-century version of the situation against which Europe reacted so violently in the last century. This increasing admixture of political cultures is, of course, a major challenge for the EU.

Judt's analysis of the EU and its current problems begins in a fashionably skeptical mode. But in his last chapter, "Europe as a Way of Life," after a dyspeptic account of the current state of Europe's main countries, Judt suddenly reveals his pro-European colors. The European project, he admits, is not so bad after all. Europe's nationalism has come and gone, but its nations and states have remained. They continue to provide real poles of political legitimacy and consensus -- offering shared habits and identities that make liberty and diversity compatible with social peace. With the EU, Europe's old nations have added a new, transnational structure and identity that they share, one that severely limits the likelihood of a return to the continent's bloodthirsty past.

This European interstate model is not only a great achievement for Europe, Judt argues, but could also be a major contribution to world order. Whereas neither China nor the United States has "a serviceable model to propose for universal emulation," Europeans are "now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes." As a result, "the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe." Whether Europe's new political formula will survive depends on how Europeans respond "to the non-Europeans in their midst and at their borders." That response, however, remains "an open question."

Judt's closing theme is a plea for the redemptive power of studying history: Preserving Europe's present accomplishments, he warns, requires keeping alive a vivid memory of its previous horrors. Today's Europe must not forget its competing past -- "the dark 'other' against which postwar Europe was laboriously constructed." Facing up to the Holocaust has enabled postwar Europe to redeem itself. But that vital memory must be kept alive as a warning to each passing generation. Surely this is good advice. Of course we should remember not only the Holocaust. Europe's history provides ample evidence for the collective possibilities of original sin -- from unchecked governments and unchecked peoples. Every nation has been a victim, and no nation is without sin.

David P. Calleo is Dean Acheson Professor and director of the European studies program at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of "Rethinking Europe's Future."

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