Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture


Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony JudtJudt_Postwar

These days, most mentions of the post-war order in Europe seem to involve death. Either from the passing of the last historical links —such as Helmut Kohl this week— or references to the expected demise of the order’s signal creation, the European Union. Yet its achievements PostWar, as this remarkable book make clear, must stand as one of the great achievements and celebrations of life.

Spanning 60 years, 50 countries and 40 plus hours of audio book, Judt’s masterpiece is one of the most deeply impressive and insightful books I have ever encountered. The language is crisp and short. The knowledge broad. The humanity deep. This book renders the complex, chaotic but ultimately inspiring history of Europe into a compelling single account.

This is a long book that took me a few weeks to get through, in burst of 20-40 minutes while travelling. It’s also a subject which I have only limited knowledge and background on. Yet I never felt lost or overwhelmed with details. The book follows a rough chronological organisation, while following thematic movements across countries and periods. At each point there are insightful asides, both of the characters and circumstances, but also the broader nature of human society and order.

Notably, outside actors such as the USA and USSR have only small roles to play. Both because they are outsiders, but also because Europe’s story cannot be reduced to their story or struggle. This is a book which firmly comes down on the side of the importance of agency. While never so crass as to say so explicitly, it reminds the reader again and again of the importance of individuals and individual decisions. Each country, each government had critical decisions to make that need to be recognised and respected if we are to understand their story.

Part 1 on the years 1945-1953 and the coverage of the fall of communism from 1989 onwards were particular highlights blending economic, social, cultural and political changes across each country to paint a picture of changing regions. Judt sees the rise and appeal of communism as founded upon its ability to offer a sense of hope and inspiration for people — particularly the young and intellectual. That mask fell away in the 1960s, never to return and with only power left to hold the order in place.

Judt’s own views sit firmly in the social democratic camp, though far more favourable to America and the benefits of open, capitalist societies than many others of similar ideas. There are, he says, important distinctions between Nazism and Communism. But ultimately the latter lasted longer and harmed many more people. Which, in his view makes talk of its good intentions rather beside the point. This book is a powerful reminder how recent the west’s escape from authoritarianism is, and how many people would be happily complicit in its return.

The book’s epilogue, on the theme of European memory of the holocaust and treatment of the Jews stands out, only because it is uniquely held for a separate chapter. Such a theme is typical of the broad scope, and authors interest in everything from elections and invasions to academic debates and cinema trends. The focus is largely political, but set in the real social context of people trying to work out a way to live as the world changes around them.

The size and topic of this book is likely to scare off many readers today. But though published in 2005, this book is deeply relevant today. Judt identifies many of the perils now facing Europe, from the jarring changes in attitudes from border countries such as Britain and Turkey to the asymmetry of memory and identity between east and west, and the omnipresent spending/currency/debt imbalances and hypocrisies of the European Union. As he remarks at one point, the EU is not a state, but rather a ‘community of passive citizens governed by strangers’.

And yet, I kept coming back to a profound admiration for all that Europe has achieved. The absurdity and tension of their current circumstances cannot discount the honour and nobleness of their achievements in since the war’s end. There is much about Europe that needs to change, as critics from both the left and right identify. But there is also much that should and must remain. To declare it an ‘intractable form of economic and political hell’ as one recent senior analyst did is to speak to a profound loss of perspective compared to our very recent past.

I listened to this book through Audible’s app. The narrator, Ralph Cosham is an excellent choice, with a voice to match the topic. The only downside is that it is clear he separately recorded many of the names of people and places. As such, it sometimes jumps around slightly in accent and sound. But this is a very minor concern about an extremely well narrated book.

PostWar is a magisterial book. It should be on the shelf of every non-fiction reader, and anyone interested in understanding the world of Europe today and the great intellectual, social, political, cultural and moral debates the West is grappling with. A must read

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