Tony Judt’s Postwar – A Reflection

Berlin Checkpoint Charlie Standoff

Image: US and Soviet tanks face one another at Checkpoint Charlie, October 1961 (source:


The time is vivid in my memory when 1989 was not a subject of ‘history’. Born though I may have been just days after the Berlin Wall fell, in the television, newspapers and overheard conversations of my youth ‘the Cold War’ forever felt and sounded like the very foundation of the adult world I would inhabit. So entrenched such an impression can be, it takes nothing less than a revolution in perspective to remove it from the realm of memory and transfer it into that of ‘history proper’. Perhaps this is why reading Tony Judt’s 2005 tome Postwar was at once an eye-opening and a disorienting experience.

The book, naturally enough, opens with the uncompromising defeat of Nazi Germany. Never have I read a more distressing or overwhelming account of the forced people movements of the late 1940s, of the rape and thievery of the conquering soldiers, and of the arbitrary incarceration and disappearance of so many thousands of political ‘undesirables’. In terms of consequence, Judt claims, the chief European legacy of Hitler is not one of memory, but of demography. Between the Führer and his opposite number in Moscow, the Europe of 1939-1950 witnessed an unprecedented series of mass resettlements across its many lands, generating an incomparable system of national ethnic homogeneity. And it is as a collective of nations that the Europe of Postwar begins its post-1945 trajectory. What follows is a sweeping chronicle, documenting every landmark (Marshall Plan, Iron Curtain, Brezhnev Doctrine, 1956, 1968, 1989, Messina, Maastricht, Kosovo…) from above and from below.

Being so ambitious in scope, the book necessarily sacrifices detail. However, owing for the most part to Judt’s mastery of events, this is often unproblematic. Post-war educational reform and the emergence of intricate eastern police states are two developments which could have warranted individual sections, but this is not of tremendous consequence. And indeed despite Postwar’s scope, it is by no means devoid of characters, from the Neronian megalomaniac Ceausescu to the frustratingly anachronistic Iberian dictators Franco and Salazar, and from the inflexible Mrs. Thatcher to the chillingly disconnected apparatchik Walter Ulbricht. No seminal figure passes by unremarked; likewise none outstays his or her welcome. Methodologically, Judt avows no ‘Olympian detachment’ from that which he documents, and yet rarely does this translate into naked moralising. Similarly, his professed renunciation of any ‘all-embracing story’ for Europe is impeccably translated into practice. We know what comes next, of course, but (and this is the secret of truly exceptional history writing) not once does it seem inevitable. Given that the entire context of Postwar is backgrounded by a bipolar ideological struggle of which there would ultimately be but one winner, this is a truly astonishing accomplishment. An equally remarkable accomplishment is Judt’s effortless ability to thematise his subject matter. Leaping from Baltic to Balkans and Madrid to Moscow, Judt finds his threads and follows them, drawing parallels and contrasts between states and societies which, superficially viewed, share absolutely nothing in common save a desperate unwillingness to look back into the past.

By the time you reach Postwar’s end (a chilling but apposite appendiced essay entitled ‘From the House of the Dead’), the history you thought you know seems very strange and alien indeed. And this is not an impression gleaned merely from the words on the page. Going back to the television and newspapers of the time (as I immediately did), it becomes ever more transparent that the world has since shifted sufficiently for the demise of the Cold War to look and feel like a bygone age. Captured in pictures, as no seismic event before it, we see Ceausescu face his resentful crowd, recoiling in confusion, then anger, then fear; we see John Paul II greeting Lech Wałęsa; we see Yeltsin, Havel, Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand and Kohl seizing (or, at least, pretending to seize) their moments; and, of course, we see thousands of Germans rejoicing at the Brandenburg Gate, tempered by their surprisingly but characteristically prosaic orderliness.

Yet while we may recognise post-war Europe as a series of moments, it remains difficult in Postwar not to find oneself traversing traditional narratives; principally the decline of communism and the rise of Europe. The period succeeds in waves of generations, each epoch engendering its own dynamic. In politics, we see the failure of communism set in early, delayed only by a gerontocracy of Stalinists and apparatchiks, like their Moscow forebears at the corpse of their celebrated Leader, too petrified to look closer. The reformers succeed the Stalinists, the hardliners the reformers, and the new reformers the hardliners. Meanwhile, the west witnesses its Keynesian consensus self-destruct and dissipate in the face of the Friedmanian radicals. On each side of the Iron Curtain we observe the emergence of a youth culture, replaced in turn by youth cultures and (even if Judt enters only into minimal detail) subcultures. Meanwhile, the discredited Old Left departs for the elusive and soon-effete ‘New Left’, leaving behind a vacant intelligentsia disgraced initially by its former Stalinist obduracy and finally by its own pretensions. By the book’s end, the free-market consensus stands monolithic, Judt lamenting the desolation of originality in contemporary European politics. However, in one critical respect it is the passing of ideology for the idea of ‘Europe’ that provides Judt with his ultimate optimism. For, if there was ever any doubt that communism’s downfall and Europe’s rise are the stories undergirding his narrative, their seamless convergence in 1989 makes everything clear. ‘The opposite of Communism was not ‘capitalism’’, writes Judt, ‘but ‘Europe’’.

‘Europe’ had emerged from 1945 not as a geographic space or even an economic unit, but as an idea. That it was the longing for this idea underpinning the protest culture of eastern Europe is certainly a novel view, and one by no means conventional in the historical eyes of the West. But as Europe today remains inveterately fixed in another phase of disenchantment, it is striking that the most vociferous and articulate defenders of ‘Europe’ remain either the spokesmen of generations past or citizens of the former East. The future of Europe, it seems, remains inextricably linked to its past. Populism and nationalism may resurface in ugly spurts, but optimism and a shared sense of duty remain the necessary bulwarks against ‘Europe’ simply becoming a byword for decadence and retrogressive bureaucratism. Postwar, then, conveys above all a sense of urgency; an urgency made incarnate by the author’s untimely death in 2010. A quick survey of Europe today gives the sobering impression that the generation of 1989 has all but passed (Václav Havel – the closest Postwar comes to a conventional narrative hero – died just 16 months after Judt), and with them the decisive hopefulness they embodied. As a lived experience now receding into a bygone, analogue age, the Cold War in Europe will need its chroniclers. The greatest challenge they may initially face, however, is to escape from the shadow of this magisterial work.

– Marcus Colla

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