As some of you might know, as part of my ongoing research I’ve been reading books on 20th century European history. Although I’ve read some great stuff over the years like Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 and its sequel The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 as well as Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II one particular book has eluded me. For well over a decade I’ve been meaning to read Tony Judt’s 2005 tour du force Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. I’m embarrassed to admit its 900 plus page length scared me off. Then, by a stroke of good luck my online book club decided to read it and that was all the encouragement I needed. Due to its length we tackled the first half of the book one session and the second half a month later during our follow-up. Postwar was well-received by all participants, myself included. As high as my expectations were Postwar did not disappoint me.
I always struggle whenever I write about an outstanding book and believe me, this is no exception. I feel there’s little, perhaps even nothing I could put in a review that could do this book justice. Alas, to not say anything would do even a worse injustice. I feel foolish regurgitating a long litany of Postwar‘s highlights since the book’s title alone tells you it’s a history of Europe since the end of the Second World War. But I must say something.
Even though I’ve spent the last few years reading up on 20th century European history Postwar taught me a lot of things. I had no idea the Korean War led to heightened tensions in Europe, as America and it Western allies feared Soviet-led forces would similarly attack West German in hopes of reunifying the divided nation. I also was unaware formal neutral countries like Ireland and Portugal were offered aid under the Marshall Plan. (In his assessment on the Plan’s influence in keeping Western Europe from sliding into the Communist camp Judt takes a contrarian approach. According to him despite the Plan’s huge price tag its greatest benefits were symbolic rather than financial.) Nor did I know the Soviets once pitched the idea of a united Germany, provided the reunified German nation was banned from joining NATO and had to adhere to political neutrality.
I could also talk about the many things I liked. For 50 years Europe was a divided continent with its eastern half subjugated and cut-off from the rest of the Continent. Insulated for years from the political, economic and social developments that swept throughout Western Europe some historians are tempted to take a more cursory approach when discussing the region’s history after the Second World War. Thankfully, Judt doesn’t do that. He treats both halves with equal attention. As I’d hoped, he hit all the landmark developments: Yugoslavia leaving the Soviet orbit, the Hungarian uprising, the Berlin Crises leading to the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring, the rise and fall of Polish Solidarity and the eventual Fall of Communism. But he was keen to point out during the early postwar period there were Europeans who might have been thankful the Red Army held an iron grip over Poland and half of Germany because it prevented the Germans from reasserting themselves militarily and retaking territories lost after the war.
According to Judt, ironically it was this subjugation that helped bring while maybe not peace but an imposed stability to a region that had been highly volatile during the first third of the 20th century, supplying the sparks that ignited not one, but two world wars. Unlike the more ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation states of Western Europe, those in the East that emerged after WWI were almost microcosms of the vanquished land-based empires that painfully birthed them. Either binational states like Czechoslovakia; multiethnic entities cobbled together and dominated by one party like Yugoslavia; or countries like Poland with a sizable non-Polish/non Catholic German, Ukrainian and Jewish populations.
But World War II and the period following it would unleash previously unimaginable horrors. Throughout Central and Eastern Europe Jewish communities were murderously destroyed. After the war ethnic Germans who’d been dwelling in the lands bordering Germany were forcibly deported and settled in a vanquished Germany. Poland and Soviet Ukraine swapped ethnic minorities in hopes of making their respective states ethnically homogeneous. The end result was a collection of linguistically, religiously and ethically homogeneous states unable to claim the territory of their neighbors in hopes of rescuing some oppressed nationality. Soviet troops and tanks imposed the peace and Socialist brotherhood, and the West being the new common enemy.
Other aspects of 20th century European history that many historians gloss over that Judt addressed in detail are both the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece and the separatist/autonomy movements in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Basque region and Catalonia. In addition, his chapters on Thatcherite Britain, Gorbachev’s role pivotal in USSR’s implosion, and the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia were surprisingly good. (And by good I mean comprehensive while still being succinct.)
Postwar is an outstanding book and a must read for not just those interested in history but anyone wanting to understand contemporary European politics. Even though it’s just January I’m confident this book will easily make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider Postwar highly recommended.