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Postwar

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

| Tue Dec. 20, 2005 4:00 AM EST

MJ: You write about the suppression and then recovery of memory over this 20 year period after the war. Do you think there was an upside to this, in the sense that people could get on with the task at hand, which was to rebuild their societies?

TJ: If I wear my hat as a responsible citizen today, I would say it’s appalling that there was this de facto conspiracy to forget or suppress the things that it was impossible to live with. On the other hand as an historian I have to say it was one of the reasons why it was possible to reconstruct civic polities and resume relatively normal life in places like France, the Netherlands, or indeed even in Eastern Europe, in places like Poland or Hungary. In the French case, de Gaulle knew perfectly well what had really happened in the war. Nonetheless, he had good reason to simultaneously encourage two myths. One of course is the myth of French resistance—the idea that almost everyone was heroically resisting the Germans—and the other is the idea that actually Vichy is not quite that terrible, because if Vichy were really that terrible, you’d have to ask much harder questions about the role of French people in it.

MJ: In this immediate post-War period two large political goals shape allied—and especially US—policy in Europe. One is to keep Germany down, but in; and the other is to keep the Soviet Union out. As we know, the Allies gave Stalin pretty much everything he wanted so that he'd stay out of the west. Was that a mistake?

TJ: Well, there were two things going on. One is that the Americans really didn’t plan to stay in Europe. The only model that existed for American leaders in 1945 was the post-1918 model, wherein they had gotten out of Europe as fast as they could; this time they didn’t want to do it in such quite a messy way, they didn’t want to leave troops there. And so they thought that the best way to handle this was to be as friendly as possible with Stalin and come to the best possible agreement--not because the United States was in any sense philo-Soviet or naïve about Soviet Union per se, but because, it was understood that there wasn’t much they could do about the territories he controlled.

MJ: And there was the moral price to be paid for that calculation.

TJ: Yes. The East European small countries have a sense of betrayal, of having been forgotten by Western leaders.

MJ: So the United States didn’t intend to stick around any longer than necessary. But that changed, and if I read you right, with the Korean war.

TJ: That’s correct. The American financial and military commitment really only kicks in with Korea. Not that Korea was the real game for the Americans; their real fear was that this was just the prelude to a second Korea in Germany. We now know from the Soviet archives that the last thing Stalin was going to do was start a war in Central Europe. The Americans didn’t know that, and it was the fear that he might which transformed NATO from a sort of shell game into a real military alliance. That total commitment basically transformed the Marshal Plan into military aid.

MJ: So, speeding forward through the decades, the 50s and 60s saw the wrapping up of the colonial project that had reached its height in the previous century. Why did it take that long? Or is that even the right way to ask the question?

TJ: Well, on the one hand colonialism might have lasted much longer. On the other hand, how did it last as long as it did? I think the answer is that the Second World War had a precipitating effect in that it discredited the empires, as well as bankrupting them. Not only could you no longer, if you were a colonial subject of France in Africa, look to France as a model of power and influence and civility after what had happened in the war. Nor could the French any longer afford to run their empire. And nor could the British, although they were not discredited in the way that the French were.

However, you had two kinds of colonies. You had those like India, and to some extent Indo-China and North Africa, which had quite an advanced nationalist movement between the wars, and most of them had large, urban, middle-class indigenous population that was willing to back the nationalist movement. And then you had colonies, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, where that wasn’t true, where the local elites weren’t strong enough and had no longstanding history of political organization. In those places you the British and the French and the Belgians hand over independence to their colonies only after 1956, in the wake of the Suez crisis and the realization, on the part of the French and the British, that they can’t hope to hang on to their colonies.

MJ: So by the late 50s and 60s, we have an economic miracle bringing unprecedented prosperity to much of Western Europe. But you also have unrest culminating in the student rebellions in ’68. Your broad conclusion is that, on balance, the 60s didn’t amount to much in political terms.

TJ: My generation [those who were students in the late 60s] was always, in the words of the Who, talking about our generation. That’s what we thought of ourselves, as the most important thing since sliced bread. And the “we” that we meant was really the Western Europeans and American generation. And as I think back I suppose I have a sense of guilt on behalf of my generation, a sense that we were terribly provincial and didn’t understand the really important stuff that was going on in Eastern Europe. The 60s in Prague and in Warsaw--that's the 60s that had long-term consequences, consequences for the end of Marxism. By comparison with that, we were being culturally playful. I think when you think about what really mattered in the 60s and the early 70s in the West—the ending of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws—was very much the work of older liberals rather than the young 60s radicals.

MJ: In your account, the early 1970s represent more of a hinge, or a pivot, in postwar European history.

TJ: Yes. The 60s were a continuation of the 50s much more than people realized. They were optimistic. Certainly in some countries, like Britain, there was still a culture of deference, whereas in the 70s we really are in a time of angry transition. The generation that came into young adulthood in the 70s couldn’t find jobs; that wasn’t true in my generation. They entered a time when two depressing things hit them both at the same time. One, there were less jobs to be had and in general the world seemed gloomier and darker and less optimistic. And two, they had just ahead of them a generation which was full of itself and convinced it had transformed humanity ten years earlier and there was nothing left to be done.

MJ: A striking feature of the book is that it doesn’t give short shrift, as histories often do, to the cultural production of the postwar period. So there's a lot in there on, say, film. Did you wrestle with that approach or did it seem natural?

TJ: It seemed absolutely natural. The wrestling had something to do with the how to do it. I’ve always hated the kinds of history books where there’s a section in the back marked “Culture.” What I decided to do was make a virtue of necessity and focus above all on those arts that could be integrated either as an influence or reflection of the story I was telling, so they can become part of the story rather than just the fifth wheel. What that means is that the book neglects those aspects of cultural history that can’t be made to do that, like the sciences or difficult music for example, or the more marginal kind of fine arts. In some kind of ideal world I would have found a way to do that, but it seemed to me crucial with stick to the basic principles, which is that this in integrated history and I would integrate what I could without stretching a point to where it becomes silly.

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