The Atlantic Gap

Neal Ascherson

  • Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt
    Heinemann, 878 pp, £25.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 434 00749 8

As soon as you realise how good it is, this book will frighten you. This is not just a history. It is a highly intrusive biography, especially if, like me, you belong to the British generations who were children before and during the war. When we were learning to read, Europe was a dark word, an inaccessible ‘over there’ place of suffering and menace. But as we grew up and the war ended, so Europe changed into a shore which could be visited, a site for taking independent steps, accumulating our own experience, forming our early opinions. In other words, ‘postwar Europe’ is us. How will we look, in these pages?

Tony Judt might have blurred his focus, as so many writers on the subject do. He might have attempted to define European civilisation, a term which proved meaningless in this black-hearted continent after 1945. He might have struck a transatlantic attitude, asking that baffling Yerp why it finds it so inexplicably hard to be like America. He might have fiddled around with pseudo-geopolitics, asking what it does to people to inhabit a space with no definable eastern edge, like living in a counter-Euclidian square with three sides. He could have presented the European peninsula as a fish-trap, into which peoples have swum out of Asia for at least five millennia to struggle entangled in the mesh and with one another (an image I fancy). But Judt did none of these things. This is a work which, on almost every page, evokes to readers over the age of 40 what they once felt, hoped for, took part in or fled from. Judt has written, in great detail and at great length, the biography of a middle-aged continent trying, after a disgraceful past, to settle down and go straight.

The first point to make is that Judt’s Europe is the newer, larger one with its centre moved firmly towards the east. This scope, in which Warsaw and Budapest are no more peripheral than Amsterdam or Madrid, was established a few years ago by Norman Davies’s Europe: A History (1996), and it’s now hard to remember that previous English-language histories seldom gave more than footnotes to Europe east of the Hohenzollern and Habsburg Empires. Another virtue of Judt’s approach relates to this width of lens; he is extremely well informed about, and interested in, a range of smaller or less familiar countries. He is very good on the politics of Poland, Holland and Portugal, and his six-page section on Belgian regionalism in the late 20th century, for example, is full, sharp and at times satirical. His ability to offer batteries of small details and figures is astonishing. Sometimes, all the same, they raise questions. Can it really be true that 60 per cent of all the monasteries and convents in the world are in Spain? But Judt, unexpectedly, does not do references. He merely says that a list of sources and a bibliography will ‘in due course’ be posted on a certain website. Is this going to be future practice in written history? Most readers will hope that it won’t be, and may ask why such a long book could not find a few more pages for notes.

Judt sensibly avoids paying too much attention to individual political parties. For example, he is interested in social democracy as a European ideology which rises and falls, but not much in the electoral fortunes of the German Social Democrats (SPD). He gives space to them in the 1980s, but this is in order to discuss the inherent paradoxes of Cold War détente exposed by the SPD’s increasingly squalid attempts to support the status quo in East Germany. More striking still is the relatively slight attention he gives to individual personalities. Very few European leaders in this period emerge as who they were rather than as what they did. The main exception is Margaret Thatcher, who gets a page about her character and background – much more than De Gaulle, Willy Brandt or Khrushchev. This is curious for several reasons. First of all, because Judt does not like Thatcher, giving further space to describing the moral and social devastation he considers she left behind her (if there is anyone whose achievement he does admire, it is De Gaulle). Second, because this downsizing of leaders is also, on the face of it, a departure from Judt’s constant emphasis on agency rather than structure in accounting for events. The phrase ‘the work of men, not fate’ recurs to explain, for example, both the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the catastrophic wars as Yugoslavia disintegrated. But awarding a profile to Thatcher may reflect a slight Britocentricity in the book. This is not a fault. Judt simply exploits the fact that he knows his own country better than Sweden or Greece. His section here on postwar Britain – dirty, cold and bankrupt – is wonderful. So is his lethal account of the Suez affair and what it did to British international pretensions, and his survey of clothes and music in the British 1960s, and his note on the impact of cultural studies in English universities (‘its inherently difficult vocabulary had attained a level of expressive opacity that proved irresistibly appealing to a new generation of students and their teachers’). All these insights, like Judt’s acid analyses of Blairism, fit into his wider story of cultural and political change in the whole continent.

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