The Turbulent History of

A Divided Continent

By William I. Hitchcock

Doubleday. 513 pp. $35

The saga of postwar Europe presents a remarkable dramatic tableau on many levels. Indeed, the human progress achieved by the Old World in the span of the past half-century staggers the imagination. In the wake of a devastating war that killed 40 million and left a quivering mass of survivors hungry and homeless, Europe staged an amazing economic recovery and managed to conquer the demons of Nazism, fascism and communism and to survive a Cold War that sundered the continent. As the European Union prepares to expand its membership to 25 countries next year, the continent's future as a community of peaceful, prosperous and democratic nations has rarely looked so bright.

William I. Hitchcock, a professor of history at Wellesley College, has written a lively and insightful account of Europe's extraordinary transformation since World War II that draws on a fresh trove of information released since the demise of the Soviet empire. He has synthesized the many twists and turns in the continent's modern history and woven different perspectives on crucial turning points into a thoughtful narrative that challenges some previous assumptions about key events that shaped our world, such as the launch of the Marshall Plan, Stalin's threat to the West, the Suez crisis, the rise of Gorbachev and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Americans have long believed that they were the architects of Europe's postwar economic revival by doling out more than $12 billion through the Marshall Plan. That aid program, sketched by Secretary of State George C. Marshall in a speech at Harvard in 1947, is widely regarded as having rescued Europe from chaos and starvation and put the continent on a fast track toward affluence. Yet by the time the U.S. funds started flowing in 1948, Hitchcock makes clear, Western Europe's recovery was already well under way. Even more important, the Marshall Plan appears to have aroused Stalin's paranoia to the point that he banned Eastern states from participating and accelerated his efforts to consolidate control over the eastern half of the continent. "It is sobering to consider that one of America's most selfless and farsighted gestures," Hitchcock writes, "contributed directly to the Communist seizure of power in Eastern Europe."

The opening of archives in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has also provided new context for several critical events. In 1956, as Britain and France were launching an invasion of Egypt to seize control of the Suez Canal, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev assumed -- wrongly -- that the attack had the blessing of the United States. Having already been placed on the defensive by political foes who were shocked by his denigration of Stalin, Khrushchev believed that a Suez takeover would compound the image of political weakness at a time of restiveness in the East bloc. So he launched "Operation Whirlwind," the brutal invasion of Hungary by 60,000 Soviet troops that crushed the reformist regime of Imre Nagy, to send a tough message to any Eastern neighbors who might have been yearning to stray from the Soviet orbit. In the end, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who projected an image of weakness in the face of Soviet aggression, when he declared that it was foolish for the Hungarians to launch a revolution that could never succeed against overwhelming force. A divided Europe, Ike believed, was a stable Europe.

At the same time, Ike delivered a harsh ultimatum to the British, telling them to back off in the Suez invasion. Faced with American financial pressure that could have ruined the British pound, Prime Minister Anthony Eden telephoned his French counterpart, Guy Mollet, to tell him that Britain would accept a ceasefire and end the invasion. By an extraordinary coincidence, Mollet was meeting at that moment with West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. After receiving the bad news from Eden, a stunned Mollet rejoined Adenauer, who told him that the Suez fiasco proved that the "Anglo Saxons" could not be trusted and that it was time to build a countervailing alliance between France and Germany. As a result, a long negotiating impasse was broken and the European Union's founding Treaty of Rome was signed four months later. Today, as Britain and the United States lead the charge in urging military action against Iraq, France and Germany are again standing apart as skeptical allies leading a rival European front against the unreliable "Anglo Saxons."

Such fascinating anecdotes provide a striking human dimension to Hitchcock's work without diminishing its scholarship. Throughout the book, he emphasizes how key personalities managed to shift the course of history despite the preponderance of superpower might. It was French President Charles De Gaulle who insisted that the interests of France -- and in turn Europe -- must be respected in the titanic struggle between the United States and Europe. It was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who restored British pride through the Falklands War, broke the power of the labor unions and ushered in a more free market-economy that shook the Labor Party free of its socialist moorings and made possible the election of a centrist figure like Tony Blair. But perhaps more than any other figure in the last half of the 20th century, it was Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev who altered the course of continental history with his failed reform measures, which inadvertently resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the emerging vision of a new Europe, whole and free.

Hitchcock believes that the European Union's successful expansion toward the east offers hope that "for the first time in their long history, Europeans have discovered a way to settle national differences without resort to war." The European Union now represents the world's largest trading bloc, with nearly 20 percent of total global exports, and soon it will embrace nearly 500 million citizens within its prosperous and peaceful domain. A lasting reconciliation between France and Germany is now taken for granted, and for the first time in more than 350 years the younger generations in both countries are not preparing to wage war against each other. But as the ghosts of Bosnia attest, Europe can never rest easy given the fractious ethnic and nationalist tensions that lie just below the surface. The test for future European leaders will be to channel their competing political interests into an exemplary vision for the rest of the world. *

William Drozdiak, a former Post foreign correspondent, is the executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Center in Brussels.