I haven’t finished the late British historian Tony Judt’s major work Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, but I wanted to write a brief review anyway. I can’t have a postwar Germany blog without including something about this amazing book.
Amazing not because I agree with everything Judt says. He admits up front much of what he writes is controversial and up for discussion. I like discussion, especially about history. People think history is a done deal, something in the past that doesn’t need to be rehashed. I think history is living memory, even if people who lived it have passed away. And something alive should be argued about, examined, rethought.
For that alone, Postwar is an amazing achievement.
The next thing is the book’s scope. After the Cold War world order fell with the break up of the Soviet Union, Judt thought about taking a new look at the post-World War II era. What everyone assumed was a more or less permanent or even natural state of things — the bipolar world of Soviet Union v. United States — and the role Europe played in it, was really an interlude, Judt argues. The conflicts that arose in Europe after the Soviet Union dissolved are some of the conflicts that lay dormant since World War II (or even World War I). It was time to look at Europe’s history again as a whole, not cut into west and east. Without Cold War blinders or the usual ideological tug-of-war that historians had during that era, it’s now possible to look at the whole postwar era in a new light.
And that’s what Judt did. A sweeping, epic look at sixty years of history framed by two Europes — the one that bled itself in two horrific wars, and the one capable of cooperation in a whole new political form, the European Union.
The book is beautifully written, accessible, full of interesting facts, references and quotes. The controversy comes in what conclusions Judt draws from his material (and what material he chose to include, of course), and when you read the book, you should do it carefully. Germany is so central to the postwar story. It’s what I know most about, so I look most closely at those references in Judt’s book. I got snagged in a problem with one of Judt’s conclusions early in the book, and it bothered me enough that I ended up discussing it with my German husband one night.
It wasn’t even a post-World War II issue, but post-World War I. Judt concluded Germany was in a relatively stronger position than it was before World War I because the cost of the war to the Allies was so high, and Germany didn’t pay its reparations after the war. This struck me as totally wrong, especially if you look at *why* Germany didn’t pay its reparations. This argument can’t ignore the famine, inflation, unemployment, assassinations and civil war fighting in Germany after World War I, as well as its difficult time establishing what for Germany was a brand new and unpopular political structure — a republic. France, which had suffered the worst along with Belgium in the war, sent troops to occupy cities in the German demilitarized zone when Germany couldn’t comply with reparations demands. In 1921 this turned into a full-blown occupation of the Ruhr area, Germany’s center for coal, steel and heavy industry. A “relatively stronger” Germany wouldn’t have allowed this. I’m not arguing about the right or wrong of the Ruhr occupation or even of reparations. I just can’t understand how Judt could conclude Germany was relatively stronger in this situation than it was before the war, even if the losses of the European allies are taken into account.
Regardless, I’m really enjoying Postwar, and would recommend it to anyone interested in 20th century history.