A comprehensive history of Europe from World War II to the present, this hefty volume, a runner-up for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, fulfills its author’s stated mission to chronicle the story of Europe’s recovery from two world wars. The format is a departure for Judt, whose previous works have been shorter studies focused on France. Asserting that he has “no big theory of contemporary European history” to propose, Judt offers a readable if necessarily dense account of what he calls “Europe’s reduction,” by which he means the loss of overseas territories that “re-directed the continent’s attention to Europe itself.” Judt covers a lot of ground in a book best digested slowly, but the persistent reader will be rewarded with an expanded awareness of the direction and significance of what is, in my case at least, the background of a generation’s life. Yes, his perspective in Euro-centric, but then this is a history of Europe, not of the entire world.
Raised in the East End of London by Jewish parents of Russian and Belgian extraction, Judt is at present the Director of the Erich Maria Remarque Institute at New York University. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, he published there in 2003 a contentious article on the subject of Israel. It led to his name being dropped from the masthead of The New Republic, for which he had also written extensively. In the spring of 2006, he once against voiced his opinion that the Israel lobby has too much control over American foreign policy—this despite Judt’s Jewish heritage and participation in Israeli politics, beginning as a teenager.
Although his views on the Israel issue have little to do with his history of Europe, they suggest Judt’s willingness to question received ideas and to suspect what he calls the “master narratives” of the great nineteenth-century theories of history that make his history an “avowedly personal interpretation,” one nonetheless convincing in more general terms. Divided into four sections, the book begins with the immediate post-war period and ends with the beginning of the twenty-first century. The first section, 1945-1953, opens on a devastating description of the condition of Europe in the aftermath of World War II, one that makes the present-day Continent seem a miracle. Judt sees the war as the end of “Old Europe;” while this is hardly a new idea, it is less common to envision the process extending well into the 1950s. Instead, he argues, many historians too often see “the difficult post-war years in the flattering light of the prosperous decades to come.” This first section ends by noting that when previously falling birthrates went up, quite literally a “new Europe was being born.”
The second section, 1953-1971, surveys the relative political stability of the early 1950s that took place, paradoxically, “against the backdrop of a major international arms race.” It closes with Judt’s assertion that the unstable 1960s, usually viewed as a period of revolution, can be seen “in hindsight” to have served as the “swansong” of the revolutionary tradition, as by 1970 the radical left was as discredited as the radical right had been in 1945 “as a vehicle for political expression.” He thus concludes that a “180-year cycle of ideological politics in Europe was drawing to a close.” This and similar thoughtful backward glances make Judt’s book so useful for putting present-day Europe in its proper historical context.
Similarly, Judt sees the 1980s not as a unique and isolated decade but as “the end of the old order,” as embodied in the collapse of the Soviet empire. He points out, however, that the “U.S. played a remarkably small part in the dramas of 1989, at least until after the fact.” Reaganites tend to give their man credit for what happened, but Judt insists that in the “marketplace of alternative models, the American way of life was still a minority taste and America, for all its global clout, was a long way away.”
In the fourth and final section, 1989-2005, Judt argues once again for a Europe that has emerged as a “community of values and a system of interstate relations held up by Europeans and non-Europeans alike as an exemplar for all to emulate,” a development that is merely in part “the backwash of growing disillusion with the American alternative.” He acknowledges the many difficulties Europe faces, from the pressures of immigration to the challenges of what countries to take in - the Turkish dilemma, for instance - but still makes a convincing case for the vitality of the European Union.
Judt closes with an epilogue, an essay entitled “The House of the Dead,” on modern European memory and the Holocaust that is in itself worth the price of the book. In it, Judt concludes that one of history’s compelling jobs is to make it possible “to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz.” He knows that the past keeps on changing as succeeding generations re-interpret it to suit their own purposes. He also knows that the period about which he writes is already receding into the past: “Within a generation the memorials and museums will be gathering dust—visited, like the battlefields of the Western Front today, only by aficionados and relatives.” The new Europe, he claims, “is a remarkable accomplishment, but it remains forever mortgaged to that past,” one to which Europeans must maintain a link and teach anew to each generation. If this is history’s task, then Judt performs it with admirable skill.
Finally, Judt includes a thorough bibliography to assist readers who want to know more about the period in question. One of the remarkable things about his book is that this may indeed be the case, because he has made the subject of postwar Europe seem so important, as indeed it is.