Trying to clear my desk this afternoon before going off to other climes, I recognize I'll never find the time to write the review of Postwar it so richly deserves. That would be Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.
I've said this before but I'll say it again. This is one of the best history books published in recent years, certainly one of the best I've read in years. First, there's the language. Often reviewers praise the language of a book when they've not got much better to say. In this case, I'm praising the language because it's clear, understated, but always a pleasure to read. Judt has the ability to wander over his terrain, looking at things from a changing perspective and through diverse lens, all without our being aware of his mechanics. It's like listening to a particularly compelling teacher roam over terrain he knows better than the back of his hand.
There's the breadth of knowledge. It is, quite simply, inspiring. Wow.
There's the author's perspective, and his professionalism. True, he really doesn't like Margaret Thatcher, and doesn't manage to hide it. Yet he's also a man with strong political convictions and a well-known writer on contemporary political issues. This never stops him from pointing out the weaknesses, cynicism or other foibles of the actors he's describing, even if you suspect he mostly agrees with some of them - and he does this all in a calm, British understatement tone.
It must be said that the historical depth shallows out as he goes, but that's the way it has to be. We have far more perspective on the late 1940s and even the 1970s than on the 1990s. Eventually, his final chapters are not much more than exceptionally good Economist reports - but The Economist is, after all, the best news magazine out there, so that's not so bad. And all the previous chapters were much better.
The content: he says at the beginning that he doesn't have a grand thesis. His story, however, is the story of how present-day Europe came to be: and it's a very different place than it was. His first section, titled Post-War, deals with 1945-1953, and it starts with a litany of how awful things were in the various corners of Europe in 1945, and how the different countries went about their first attempts of climbing out of the mess. So it's a story of many strands. Then there's a section on Prosperity and Its Discontents: 1953-1971, then Recessional: 1971-1989. Without trumpeting the fact, his narrative loses strands and begins to coalesce: South joins West, West is different than East in uniform ways. The poignant part is how West Europeans essentially wrote off the East, while the East pined after the West. (A friend who read the book summed up it's 900-some pages in one sentence: It was because of the different quality of the refrigerators produced in East and West Germany).
The final chronological section is called After the Fall: 1989-2005. By now Judt is describing the world we're in, there's only one major strand, yet he has shown that it wasn't planned, wasn't even contemplated in its present form, rather it grew out of a long serious of events and decisions and compromises. A sobering thought for those who see the European Model as humanity's future (Judt may; many of us don't).
He then finishes with thoughts on the role of memory and history.
It's a long book, but also a long pleasure to read.
Of course, Judt isn't just anyone. From the perspective of this blog and its themes, he's part of the problem: a Jew with a weighty voice who takes anti-Israeli positions and is widely recognized for them. How does this fit with the magnificent historian, I hear you wondering?
I don't know. People are complex, and the author of this intelligent a book can also be the writer of profoundly wrong and wrong-headed columns about the Jews, their identity, and their place in the world. Fact.
Yet as is publicly known, he is suffering from a horrible and incurable sickness. That's not a justification for anything, but I choose to regard it as cause for reconciliation. I have no will to criticize him anymore. On the contrary: I hope, for him, that in the future he will be remembered as a fine and important historian, and his other writings will fade into oblivion.