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Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 - Tony Judt

“By the end of the twentieth century the centrality of the Holocaust in Western European identity and memory seemed secure”.


Even if memory remains somewhat… asymmetrical across European nations, even if this book was completed, ironically, just a few years before the fiscal crisis kicked off – which means that the much appraised postwar recovery doesn’t register as an economic miracle in individual conscience anymore, and rightly so – Europe, as we know it today, is still a phenomenal achievement.


And so is this book; a massive yet captivating narration of an astonishingly heterogeneous continent between 1945 and 2005, encompassing an enormous amount of political, economic, spatial and cultural knowledge, which is sufficiently documented, eloquently explained and geographically balanced.


Postwar covers truly EVERYTHING from the old West under reconstruction to the old East under Real Socialism and from the privileged North to the obstreperous Balkan countries and the sui generis Mediterranean area. Sixty years in the making, postwar Europe has seen a dramatic transformation and again, EVERYTHING is recorded here.


Liberalism against Communism, The Iron Curtain and the political involvement of the left wing French intellectuals; Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Stalin versus the West, but also Stalin versus Tito.


The socio-economic and cultural processes in the context of the early/mid Cold War and the era of affluence. From the long-playing vinyl record in 1948 to the mid 50s economic boom and the modernist explosion in the arts, literature and theatre. The age of Beckett, Brecht, Pinter, the young Peter Brook and the French nouvelle vague later on; Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut.


The early, hesitant European integration, the rearment of West Germany and Moscow’s attempts to build its bridges with the West, Yugoslavia and the rest of the ‘non-Aligned’ communist world following Stalin’s death in 1953. Intra-European migration and aggressive urbanisation in France and Lithuania through ahistorical, uninspiring architecture targeted solely to meeting demographic pressures, with its notoriously known ugly results.


The age of transformation of the baby boomers’ consuming habits between the 1950s and the 1970s. The miniskirt and the invasion of the fridge, the washing machine and the transistor! The impact of television, the explosion of pop music and the expansion of the Italian film industry.


The unavoidable “Americanization” of European societies on the one hand, and the widespread notion within the cultural elite that “America was a land of hysterical puritans, given over to technology, standardization and conformism, bereft of originality of thought” on the other hand.


Swinging Sixties and the revolution of the intellectuals in the West. The era which saw the apogee of the European state; the era when protesting on the streets and being mobilized for a cause was a regular routine. The anti-Vietnam war public activists. The Who and the Beatles! Carnaby Street, London and its cloning across Europe. The sexual revolution. Marx’s intellectual legacy and the youthful impulse not to understand the world, but to change it leading to the legendary May ‘68 student revolt.


But also the Sixties as experienced in the East, which was undergoing de-Stalinization. The emergence of the Hungarian, the Yugoslavian and the Romanian / Albanian Communist political models. The critical difference between the oppressive and repressive totalitarian state and the hypocritical encouragement of both types by the US nevertheless, as “suitable for the East”, stemming in reality solely from the satellite states’ decision to differentiate politically from Moscow. The tragic events in Hungary 1956, and more importantly later on, the events in the context of the Prague Spring 1968, which marked the death of the very soul of real socialism.


The illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism: that illusion was crushed under the tanks on August 21st 1968 and it never recovered”.


The self-doubting Seventies. The rise of the price of oil, inflation and the inevitable economic slowdown leading to depression for well.., everyone. A decade that signalled the emergence of raw political violence and a symbolic shift of focus for young people: from changing the world to finding a job. Political instability and/or lack of democracy in the Mediterranean countries.


The contribution of the German thought. “Michel Foucault’s radical skepticism was in large measure an adaptation of Nietzsche. Other influential French authors, notably the literary critic Jacques Derrida, looked instead to Martin Heidegger for their critique of human agency and their ‘de-construction’, as it was becoming known, of the cognitive human subject and his textual subject matter”.


...On to the cynical punk generation, the Sex Pistols and the replacement of writers and artists by satirists and political comedians as the new intellectual heroes. The Monty Python. And the rise of the feminist movement, environmentalism, and peace activism.


Further European integration in the 80s as Greece, Spain and Portugal join the EEC and the desperate attempts of the Spanish society to make up for lost time as also reflected in Pedro Almodovar’s work. The Single European Act and the commitment towards a single internal market of goods and labour. The privatisation wave that took the West by storm. Censorship of literature and exile of authors in Central Europe and the tragedy of communist totalitarianism.


The leninist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, the relaxation of censorship and the emergence of Perestroika, which led to the end of Communism from within. Not from America, but from the Soviet Union itself.


The 90s and the Yugoslav catastrophe. The mid 00s which marked the progression to a new era: The Maastricht Treaty, EU enlargement to the East and the Euro (ironically...)


Last but not least, globalization and the rise of… football!


Indeed, Postwar gives a brilliant portrayal of almost every aspect of collective human activity that has had an impact on the old continent; the old continent that managed to pick up the pieces and transform itself from the shattered buffer between Washington and Moscow to a thriving new world; from a haunted graveyard to a land of hope.


That said, there is one minor kink here: Judt's criticism of the Left is observably harsher than that of the Right. It is one thing to boldly condemn Stalin’s actions or Moscow’s political choice over the Prague Spring, but it is quite another to occasionally suggest that the West represent the good guys here (the latter being clearly inaccurate). Nevertheless, this is also understandable, on the basis of how the author’s own left-leaning disposition had fought with his renouncement of his marxist past through the years. Even more importantly, Tony Judt’s opinion is well declared and carefully documented throughout. It is in fact, obvious, justified and transparent. Postwar is not an apolitical document, which is exactly why this book is so engaging and often entertaining.


Highly recommended and absolutely lives up to its appraisal. Postwar is a very easy 5 star for the thinking man.