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Postwar

The fall of Communism didn't just change Europe's future; it transformed its past.

| Tue Dec. 20, 2005 1:00 AM PST

In the introduction to Postwar, his massive and brilliant history of Europe in the second half of the 20th century, Tony Judt recalls the precise moment at which he decided to write the book. It was December 1989. He was changing trains at Vienna's main railway station. In Prague, where he'd just been, the Communist government was falling. A few weeks earlier, the Berlin Wall had been breached. Throughout central and eastern Europe the old Soviet regimes were collapsing.

As Judt puts it, "[a]n era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question.... Europe's future would look very different--and so, too, would its past. In retrospect the years 1945-89 would now come to be seen not as the threshold of a new epoch but rather as an interim age: a post-war parenthesis, the unfinished business of a conflict that ended in 1945 but whose epilogue had lasted another half century. Whatever shape Europe was to take in years to come, the familiar, tidy story of what had gone on before had changed forever. It seemed obvious to me, in that icy central-European December, that the history of post-war Europe would need to be rewritten."

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Tony Judt has now rewritten that history, to great acclaim in both Europe and the United States, where Postwar was recently named one of the ten best books of 2005 by the New York Times—no small achievement for a tome weighing in at nearly 900 pages. His always lively narrative traces the continent's uncertain progress as it emerges from the devastation of World War II and develops—unevenly, almost accidentally—into the Europe we know today.

Tony Judt, who was born in London in 1948, recently spoke with Mother Jones from his office at New York University, where he is Professor of European Studies and Director of the Remarque Institute.

Mother Jones: You mention in the introduction that many of the histories of Europe written before the fall of the Soviet Union were composed in a “lyrical key,” in a tone almost of self-congratulation.

Tony Judt: There were various different keys in which European history had tended to be written. One is the lyrical key, the idea that somehow, in Bretton-Woods in 1945, a bunch of well-intentioned men got together and said, “This can’t go on; let’s build a European Union.” And it just wasn’t like that. Another, of course, was a tremendously provincial key, so that you started in 1945 with the history of Western Europe and, starting in ’45, the history of Eastern Europe, which is normally just a footnote to Soviet history. And there was also a sort of institutional key, the idea that the history of Europe since 1945 is the history of European integration, and that seemed to be terribly teleological--viewing history backwards. I wanted to make it clear that this was a continent, in 1939, that had a shape that was very, very different than the one it had in ’45, and the old shape was the one that most European adults at the time knew.

MJ: And in 1945, as well as being split down the middle, Europe was utterly devastated.

TJ: Right. I wanted to convey two things that are connected. One was the sheer scale of the awfulness—and that’s particularly important when writing, as I partly am, for an American audience, because although the United States lost a quarter of a million men and women, civilians and soldiers, in World War II, that’s considerably less than the Russians lost in soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad alone. It’s important to convey to countries and to people and to generations who have no experience of the 20th century as it was lived in Europe just how catastrophic it was.

The other half of it, of course, was to convey the sheer scale of what was then done in the next 25 years. I think I quote de Gaulle as saying it’s going to be a generation before this mess is even behind us, never mind building anything new. And of course that wasn’t true; it turned out to be done in 10 to 12 years. But that is a reminder also that you couldn’t just get over it immediately—the physical evidence remained around, not just in terms of absent people but also in the physical mess of the cities.

MJ: And at the time there was a very real fear that maybe there'd be no recovery at all, that Europe could very easily slide back into war.

TJ: Absolutely. There was a fear in two senses. One, that the sheer scale of the damage that had been done was such that Europe would never recover. The other, that after a war of this scale you could only expect more of the same. In the first three or four years people were afraid of a revival of fascism, or a complete switch to communism in Western Europe. But then, after 1948 people began to look forward and could begin to imagine building a future rather just prophylactically preventing a return to the past. And that’s why I try to emphasize that the Marshall Plan is enormously important, not because it dumped gazillions of dollars in Europe—although that clearly mattered as well—but because it made it possible for Europeans in that crucial period up to '48, to imagine that they were going to recover. But before that, the assumption that Europe was a goner was very deep and widespread.

MJ: Not least because the more immediate reference point was the period between World War I and II, which was marked by economic depression and social and political unrest and the emergence of some very dangerous ideologies.

TJ: Right. It’s important to remember that World War II was experienced very much as a continuity in that sense. Most of World War II in most of Europe wasn’t a war; it was an occupation. The war was at the beginning and the end, except in Germany and the Soviet Union, and even there really only at the end. So the rest of time it’s an occupation, which in some ways was experienced as an extension of the interwar period. World War II was simply an extreme form, in a whole new key, of the disruption of normal life that began in 1914.

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