Postwar

Author Tony Judt
Published 2006
Rating 7/10
ISBN 9781441778208
Status Finished on 2020-09-06

Postwar is not a book so much as it is a college course on 20th century Europe. Judt makes it clear in his introduction that rather than try and propose a grand theory or specific thesis with which to plumb the six decades following World War II, he wrote the book in an exercise of gestalt:

I have no big theory of contemporary European history to propose in these pages; no one overarching theme to expound; no single, all-embracing story to tell. It does not follow from this, however, that I think the post-World War Two history of Europe has no thematic shape. On the contrary: it has more than one. Fox-like, Europe knows many things.

As such, this book is a tome. You will — I did — learn a lot about the world, especially coming from a meager historical background. There were lots of revealing areas, and I am forgetting most of them:

  • The general richness and inner life of Eastern Europe, which I had largely marginalized and treated as same-y in the Postwar scene
  • The continued vilification of Jews and minorities in the immediate Postwar scene, with the plight of the Holocaust not being magically ended with the conquering of Berlin
  • The role and cleverness of West Germany in maintaining their frame on the world stage, first through ostpolitik and later through diplomacy in the EU
  • The detente and casual comfort with which most of Western Europe treated the USSR (as contrasted with the open conflict that the US felt)
  • The cylicality of eras of social boom and disruption and change

I have no reservations recommending someone read this book: few histories have taught me more. And yet, it fails in many ways as a book: by optimizing for breadth, Judt has deliberately written a transcription rather than a narrative. I listened to this thing for 44 hours: I spent two of those hours on Lithuanian politics that my brain is not yet seasoned enough to place into the rich context it deserves, and the sheer density of events and figures makes it difficult to grasp the enormity of some of the submovements he espouses.

I will probably reread (or relisten) to this again in ten years, and I’ll be happy to do so. It can be a slog, but it is rewarding.

Highlights

In 1828, the German poet Heinrich Heine made the already familiar observation that ‘it is rarely possible for the English, in their parliamentary debates, to give utterance to a principle. They discuss only the utility or disutility of a thing, and produce facts, for and against.’

The sense that there was no choice and that the government knew best made the first generation of post-war England, in novelist David Lodge’s recollections of his youth, ‘cautious, unassertive, grateful for small mercies and modest in our ambition,’ in marked contrast to the generation that would succeed them.

Upon being asked by the prosecuting counsel whether this was a novel he would let his ‘wife or maidservant’ (sic) read, one witness replied that this would not trouble him in the least: but he would never let it into the hands of his gamekeeper.

…the onanistic satisfaction of producing samizdat for the same two thousand intellectuals, all of whom also write it.

We should not indulge the sirens of retrospective determinism, however seductive.

As in the past, so today: the real boundaries in central and eastern Europe are not between countries but between prosperous urban centers and a neglected hinterland.

A cartoon in the daily Lidové Noviny showed two men talking in front of the parliament in Prague: I am not worried about lustrations’, says one of them.’ I was not an informer. ‘I was just giving orders’.

Legitimacy is a function of capacity.