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

Book Review: Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift

colla book review

Expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia, 1945.

Bookended by the Second World and Cold Wars, 1945-1948 in Europe can often be a neglected period within the popular mind. However, as Giles MacDonogh’s 2007 publication After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift confrontationally demonstrates, it was a period analogous to the Second World War in its barbarity, yet distinct from the Cold War in its disorderliness. In the wake of the fury and carnage of the preceding years, it is perhaps easy to forget that many millions of eastern Europeans perished in the months following May 1945. They died from starvation and cold, at their own hands and those of others, in prisons and in foreign lands. They died because of the callous actions of individuals, the indifference and inefficiency of occupying forces, and the utter uniqueness of their circumstance.

I have now completed a handful of MacDonogh’s works on German history, and never to fail to exit them feeling somewhat dizzy. Descriptive detail is heaped upon descriptive detail, with the inevitable result that the wider picture is subsumed to a form of literary montage. In place of an argument, an impression remains. As such, they tend to reach a curious niche – neither ‘academic’ nor ‘popular’, neither strictly ‘political’ nor ‘social’. And true to form, After the Reich is by no means a conventional history. MacDonogh is content to pursue digressions for the sake of pure interest, and gives scant consideration to equivalent chapter or section lengths. Yet one cannot help but sense that he also reaches his most profound heights precisely when unfettered by custom. MacDonogh is a writer and critic of food and wine as well as German history, and although After the Reich offers little scope for exhibiting his skills in these specific fields, his skill in infusing history with the subjective is what sets this book apart. The distress heaped upon the defenceless women of Poland and East Germany defies quantification, as does the brutality with which whole populations were forcibly trafficked throughout central Europe by guards driven by both vengeance and indifference. This is a tale of human suffering, a topic to which MacDonogh’s method is perhaps better suited than that of more conventional histories, with their structures and institutions, impersonal forces and politics.

Still, while the author’s rich description compensates for his imbalance in focuses, there remain several problems with his method. Characters frequently reappear without reintroductions after many hundreds of pages, while the continued reliance on only certain individual memoirs can detract from the wider picture. The author by no means ignores the politics of the situation – the settlements hammered out in distant lands by distant leaders – but his eye remains firmly fixated on the ground level; on the ongoing misery, distress, uncertainty and fear of ordinary individuals. Winning the peace was always as vital for the Allies as winning the war, but this book is a savage indictment of how that peace was won. And while historians may forever debate the roles of logistics, political exigencies, emotion and comparative morality in causing such a deplorable state of affairs, the very prevalence of this brutality is a fact with which we have never adequately dealt. For all its flaws, After the Reich considers a most important topic, and is highly recommended to anybody with even the most passing interest in twentieth century European history.

– Marcus Colla

So Anastasia wasn’t the first: on nineteenth-century selfies

History in the Making hasn’t quite finished with selfies. As the people who bring us the Oxford English Dictionary have just named ‘selfie’ the word of the year, we’ve decided to dedicate yet another blog post to this phenomenon.

The OED defines a selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”. The Guardian was reported that the word has Australian roots: it can be traced back to a post on an Australian online forum in 2002: “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

So what about selfie’s in history? A recent post on the Oxford University Press (OUP) blog has persuaded us that Anastasia’s 1913 self-portrait was not, in-fact, the world’s first selfie. The OUP blog explains that many early photographic portraits shot by daguerreotypists were self-portraits (Like this mid 19th century photo below of an anonymous daguerreotypist).


Ever wondered what would WW2 look like if the smart phone was invented in 1940? In selfie-related alternative history, the Huntington Post this week published a titillating gallery of famous photographs reimagined as selfies (created for an advertising campaign for a South African newspaper. The doctored photo of Churchill below gives you a taste of what we’re talking about;


Chicago’s White Slaves

In early 19th Century USA, middle and upper class reformers were anxious about white women in the country’s morally corrupt cities. This concern inspired a wave of conservative literature that warned Americans and women in particular of the dangers they faced in the nation’s growing metropolises.

Slate has posted several captivating illustrations from a 418-page book, “The White Slave Hell, or with Christ at Midnight in the Slums of Chicago” Written by Frederick Martin Lehman, a German-born Midwestern pastor in 1910. According to Slate, the “book combines florid testimony from the minister’s fact-finding missions to the red light districts of Chicago, sermons on temperance, hand-wringing poems, and first-hand stories from madams and prostitutes”. The take-away point seems to be, you sin, you die, and go to hell.



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The Battle Of Leipzig, 200 Years On


Carle Vernet & Jacques François Swebach, ‘Retraite Des Français, Après La Bataille De Leipsick (le 19 October 1815) [‘French Retreat At The Battle of Leipzig’], hand-painted lithograph.

As we approach the hundredth anniversaries of the battles of the First World War, we feel a sense of its perpetual importance – a sense in which it overshadows our whole world with such commanding opacity that it need rarely be articulated. Not only does the subliminally inevitable chain of Versailles, Woodrow, Weimar, Depression, Chamberlain etc., flicker through our minds, but also a profound fear of the sombre and macabre ghost of war itself. And because the Great War is forever imprinted in our historical consciousness through the images of young men – swathes and swathes of them – senselessly slaughtered on the fields of Europe in the names of empires we today feign to recall, our commemorations of it should serve also as reflections on the inner nature of war and of the terrifying debt our modern world owes it. It seems fitting, then, that this centenary is to be preceded by the bicentenary of the battle which, until shots rang out in Sarajevo, constituted the greatest, most brutal and most overwhelming military engagement the world had ever seen. This was the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig, a conflict which posterity would recall as ‘the Battle of the Nations’ (or, in German, die Völkerschlacht).

Possessing an army severely depleted by the preceding Russian and Peninsular campaigns and allied with a string of European nobodies, Napoleon faced a forbidding Sixth Coalition comprised of the Prussians, Austrians, Russians and Swedes. The first skirmishes transpired on the morning of 15October, with the outbreak of aggressive hostilities following on the 16th. Yet while Napoleon endured steadfast on this day, his protective advantage was predictably short-lived. Throughout the ensuing two days, he was forced into an increasingly defensive position, facing sustained attacks from the north and south and witnessing the humiliating defections of his Bavarian and Saxon allies along the way. On the 17th, the Prussian general (and later hero of Waterloo) Blücher attacked cohesively from the French rear, helping rupture the Emperor’s communications and exposing his distinct lack of numbers. In large part owing to the attack of General Bülow’s Prussian forces (a corps within the Northern Army of Bernadotte – formerly Napoleon’s Marshal of the Empire and now heir to the Swedish throne), the French forces were effectively cut off from the Elbe early on the 18th. The Prussians lost many thousands of casualties in this advance but, critically, forced Napoleon into an unwinnable position. From there it was a crushing westward retreat to the Rhine and thence to France, with the Coalition entering Paris six months later.

In a purely political sense, the battle was of tremendous consequence. As the first total defeat of Napoleon, it effectively concluded the Wars of Liberation in Germany and thus signalled, for the first time at least, the beginning of Napoleon’s end. This would ultimately culminate with the Treaty of Fontainebleau, bringing Europe’s first continental peace in years and sending Napoleon into exile at Elba. To the Coalition allies, it seemed not only to herald the end of the Napoleonic Empire, but of the Revolutionary era itself, with Metternich remarking on the 18th that ‘the cause of the world has been won’. Europe’s borders would be redrawn in its wake, and Germany would begin its meander toward unification. However, the monumentality of this event as a battle nevertheless bears emphasising. It constituted some half a million soldiers, drawn from all corners of Europe, employing over two thousand artillery pieces. Of these, more than one hundred thousand were killed, either in the battle itself or by the typhus epidemic it left in its wake. In total, it constituted the largest battle to have ever occurred; a mantle it would retain until the twentieth century. Yet in the Anglosphere at least, the battle perhaps lacks its continental fame, flanked in the Napoleonic chronology by Trafalgar and Waterloo. The bicentenary, then, may be the jolt that our historical consciousness requires.

Today the surroundings of Leipzig lay under the shadow of the colossal Völkerschlachtdenkmal, a 90m high monument to the battle erected on its one hundredth anniversary in characteristic Wilhelmine ostentatiousness. More a monumental crypt of antiquity than any emblem of dignified solemnity, it consists of some 300,000 tons of granite and is encircled by ten enormous sandstone ‘guards’. While purposely designed to surpass the Statue of Liberty in height, however, it embodies nothing better than the decadent power of the Hohenzollern spirit. For the timing of its construction could not have been more apposite. Within a year of Kaiser Wilhelm II proudly declaring the monument open, troops of the German Empire were marching in his name toward Paris, and before long French soldiers would again fight on German soil. In their different ways, both the National Socialist and Communist regimes would come to celebrate the Völkerschlacht as an unprecedented triumph – for the former as the birth of German unity, for the latter as an emblem of German-Russian friendship. But when tens of thousands of people from all over the world converge on Leipzig this month, little if none of this will feature. The official commemorations will centre on reconciliation, community and European interdependence. It will be in many ways a celebration, and a time to reflect on the past, present and future of the ever-ambiguous European Project. But throughout this month and long into the future, it is the monument and the battle itself which will loom largest: the former for its scope, impact and body count; the latter for reminding us of the interminable fragility of peace.  Perhaps the last word should therefore be left to the British diplomat George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, who surveyed the carnage of Leipzig in the battle’s wake:

‘For three or four miles the ground is covered with bodies of men and horses, many not dead. Wretches wounded unable to crawl, crying for water amidst heaps of putrefying bodies. Their screams are heard at an immense distance, and still ring in my ears. The living as well as the dead are stripped by the barbarous peasantry, who have not sufficient charity to put the miserable wretches out of their pain. Our victory is most complete. It must be owned that a victory is a fine thing, but one should be at a distance’.

– Marcus Colla

Feathered and Tarred

Feathered and Tarred

This week Slate brings us the fascinating story (with photographs!) of the “German-American farmer John Meints, who was tarred and feathered on the night of August 19, 1918 in Luverne, Minn., under suspicion of being insufficiently loyal to the United States. Like some other German-Americans threatened during the war, he had refused to participate in a war bond drive to his neighbors’ satisfaction. (Unlike miner Robert Prager, lynched in St. Louis in 1918, Meints escaped with his life.)”