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.

Postwar, in its massive 900 or so pages, travels from the 1945 ‘landscape after the battle’ to the 2005 failed referendums on the European constitution. It has always seemed to me that there are two missing books about the first decades of that half-century. One might be called ‘The Hitler Heritage: The Nazi Legacy to European Institutions’. The other would be ‘Europe’s Buried Revolution 1943-48’, a study of the revolutionary consensus on postwar change which arose in all the Resistance movements, East and West, and how that consensus sank under the floods of Stalinism and Cold War mobilisation. It’s a good measure of Judt’s imagination that he gives both those fringe ideas something to feed on. The Nazi occupations did, he records, leave legislation – on transport, censorship or ‘corporate’ economic structures – which some liberated nations retained. More important, he recognises that ‘resistance was . . . everywhere implicitly revolutionary,’ and describes how the maquisards were prevented from carrying out their vision of radical change. In the West, the returning governments in exile or established parties persuaded them to surrender their arms in return for promises that some of their reforms would be enacted. In the East, the arrival of the Red Army meant the disbanding, arrest or worse of non-Communist partisan units. There is much more to be said on both these currently obscure topics, but Judt has, at least, noticed that they exist.

The narrative of postwar Europe falls conventionally into four sections, which Judt has more or less observed. First comes ‘reconstruction’ and the establishing of the Cold War landscape. Then – in the West – follows the ‘age of affluence’, the trente glorieuses which are held to have ended with the Yom Kippur War and the oil price surge in 1973-74. Next is the revolutionary sequence of 1989-91, the collapse of Communism and the so-called ‘reunification of our divided continent’. Finally, after some penitent remarks about Bosnia, there usually comes an ‘enlargement’ section as the EU swells to 25 members, faces ‘challenges’ and waddles into the 21st century.

The danger with this schema, as Judt obviously saw at the outset, is that it reduces the story of Europe to a pious recitation of how the European Union was born, ate its spinach and grew up to be big and strong. That version inevitably treats contemporary history east of the Elbe and south-east of Vienna as a series of bolt-ons, pausing from time to time to insert sections about the Hungarian Revolution or the Berlin Wall until East and Central Europe are allowed to rejoin the story after 1989. But Judt, who first thought of writing this book on his way back from witnessing the Velvet Revolution in Prague, was determined to avoid that trap. So this is not the story of how Europe was united. It is a history of events and processes, some of them to do with ‘the European project’ based in Brussels but most of them about the development of understanding, the successive ways of interpreting and exploiting (and distorting) the past and present, which often involved the continent as a whole.

Judt constantly returns, with generous space, to European intellectuals. He shows how ideas and the echo of events (the Czech trials of the 1950s, for instance) never ceased to travel back and forth across Europe during the Cold War, especially if they passed through the amplifier of Paris. After the Cold War, it was a different matter. As he writes, ‘the success of political democracy in many former Communist countries had ambiguous consequences for the intellectuals who had done so much to bring it about . . . Most of them were quite unprepared for the messy political and technical issues of the coming decade. They were also quite unprepared for the dramatic fall in the public status of intellectuals in general, as reading habits changed and a younger generation turned away from traditional sources of guidance and opinion.’ With their personal eclipse, their vision of a ‘morally aware civil society’ also vanished; the notion soon looked quaint in free-market Central Europe. Once-influential thinkers in the West were also in eclipse. Who took account of, or now remembers, the tremendous indictment of America over the Iraq war issued in May 2003 by Habermas, Derrida, Umberto Eco, Adolf Muschg and several illustrious others? ‘It was not reported as news, nor was it quoted by sympathisers,’ Judt remarks. ‘No one implored its authors to take up their pens and lead the way forward.’ He aptly compares the post-1989 marginalising of intellectuals with changes after World War Two in the West, ‘when the high moral tone of the wartime Resistance had been dispelled and displaced first by the practical business of reconstruction and then by the Cold War’.

At the centre of much postwar European thinking, and not only on the left, was the ‘third way’ idea: the faith that Communism could take a non-Soviet shape, if it were allowed to, and blossom into a ‘democratic socialism’. How democratic was a matter for argument in cafés, seminars and student bars. Freedom of opinion and no censorship must surely be compatible with Marxist principles, but what about free elections which a Communist Party might lose? This assumption that Communism was reformable, once Soviet imperial domination was removed, seemed to have been confirmed to my generation by events from the 1956 Polish October to the Prague Spring (the Hungarian Revolution was less reassuring, but we preferred to focus on its heroic Workers’ Councils rather than the old-fashioned Catholic nationalism in the streets). But Judt has no time at all for the ‘third way’ between capitalism and Communism. He believes that it was always an illusion, not merely because the Soviet leadership would never tolerate it but because the ‘human face’ was incompatible with the ideology. Describing the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, he writes: ‘The illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism: that illusion was crushed under the tanks.’

That is too sweeping. What perished was any remaining illusion about Soviet power. The thought of a democratic ‘workers’ control’ socialism survived, although its supporters – like those Poles in the 1970s who prepared the ground for Solidarity in 1980 – no longer imagined that any existing Communist Party could be trusted to bring it about. But Judt is also concerned to deflate what he considers to be myths about Solidarity. It was not a ‘harbinger of the downfall of Communist power’, in his view, but a carefully self-limiting revolt which accepted that Communism could not be overthrown. ‘The developments in Poland were a stirring prologue to the narrative of Communism’s collapse, but they remained a sideshow. The real story was elsewhere.’ In other words, not in Gda´nsk but in Moscow. Judt awards the credit for the ‘downfalls’ of 1989 to Gorbachev. ‘If Eastern Europe’s crowds and intellectuals and trade-union leaders “won the third world war”, it is, quite simply, because Mikhail Gorbachev let them.’

Again, it’s not so simple. The posters put up in Poland this August for the 25th anniversary – ‘Today Began in Gda´nsk!’ – were boastful but not untrue. Solidarity’s critical discovery was that it had to prop up the mortally wounded regime, because to let it disintegrate would be to invite Soviet invasion. Even the martial law putsch in 1981 did not permanently change this basic balance of strength and weakness. All through the 1980s, the rest of the world could see that Communism lay on Poland with the weight of a corpse, which would now steadily rot away and be replaced by more meaningful institutions. This would have happened with or without Gorbachev, who in the Polish case determined only the pace of the replacement. It’s easier to agree with Judt, although many will not, when he argues that the fall of Soviet Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union had internal causes and were not brought about by relentless American pressure. ‘Pace the self-congratulatory narrative that has entered the American public record, Washington did not “bring down” Communism – Communism imploded of its own accord.’ Nor was this ‘implosion’ as total as it appeared from outside. The Soviet Union spectacularly and almost bloodlessly fell apart, but as Judt shrewdly notes, ‘the Soviet state did not in fact disappear. The USSR shattered, rather, into a multiplicity of little successor states, most of them ruled by experienced Communist autocrats whose first instinct was to reproduce and impose the systems and the authority they had hitherto wielded as Soviet managers.’

To any intimate biography, the subject reacts touchily. ‘No, we never said that! No, it wasn’t like that at all!’ So it is with Postwar, and a reader of that generation will inevitably compile a list of complaints, most of them minor. Here are some, from my own experience. The men of the Ukrainian SS division discreetly admitted to Britain after the war were not all prewar Polish subjects; British officers helped them to pretend that they were in order to keep them out of Soviet clutches. The Nazis did not ‘obliterate’ the Majdanek concentration camp, which can still be visited. Most West Germans in the 1950s who fancied the idea of reunification in neutrality were not stooges of Soviet ‘peace propaganda’, but had worked out that policy for themselves, often in Christian discussion groups. The original FLN leaders in Algeria were not all ‘Arab nationalists’, but mainly sophisticated Kabyles/Berbers raised in the traditions of the French left. The 1960s student movement in Germany was not committed to violence, but observed a fearfully over-complicated doctrine of ‘symbolic counter-violence against objects’; the charge that they used ‘Nazi methods’ is old Daily Telegraph hooey, like the suggestion that they admired East Germany as a political model. On the Helsinki Process of security conferences, begun in the 1970s, I think Judt has missed one of the main points: that all participant states, large or small, had equal voting and veto rights, which allowed lesser countries to evade Cold War bloc discipline and to co-operate with minor members of the opposing pact. Nearer home, he disappointingly repeats some of the usual south-of-the-border howlers about Scotland, remarking that ‘Scottish nationalism derived above all else from a desire to resist and repulse the English,’ and he also gets EU influence on Scotland wrong. Far from soothing nationalist feeling, the spectacle of what is still a club reserved for sovereign nation-states provides a powerful incentive for Scotland to seek independence.

Yet there is plenty to celebrate about Postwar, above all Judt’s confidence, expressed throughout the book, that there is something enduring which makes Europe European. In the earlier decades, this could be expressed as the ‘postwar consensus’, or (as Judt puts it) ‘the long social-democratic moment’ which provided the last chapter in ‘the Master Narrative of the 20th century’. This ‘moment’ blended memories of the fight between democracy and Fascism, the moral legitimacy of the welfare state and the expectation of social progress. But the chapter began to close in the 1970s, with the end of the ‘golden years’ of boom or – as Judt proposes – with the 1973 publication in the West of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. (This is certainly original, but why exposure of the Soviet past should have effected the discredit of social-democratic policies in the West, Judt does not clearly explain.) There slowly dawned a more individualistic age, as the ‘rights culture’ was successfully introduced from the United States and as the new right-wing governments of the 1980s substituted the play of market forces for the obligations of the state to ‘society’.

In spite of that profound change, which is still unfolding some thirty years later, Judt finds that there remains something like a consensus among Europeans which makes them distinctive. ‘What binds Europeans together . . . is what it has become conventional to call – in disjunctive but revealing contrast with ‘the American way of life’ – the ‘European model of society’. This model, he argues, comes in several styles: ‘Nordic’, ‘Rhineland’, ‘Catholic’ and so on. But at its core is the Europeans’ ‘deliberate choice to work less, earn less – and live better lives’. In return for high taxes, they receive ‘free or nearly free medical services, early retirement and a prodigious range of social and public services’. They pay to be better educated than Americans, to live longer and healthier lives and to encounter far less poverty. As the quarrels currently marring the British presidency show, that bargain is being denounced by a minority alliance of EU governments, from Britain to the Baltic, in the name of ‘globalism’ and ‘liberal’ economics. Nonetheless, Judt is still right to say that this model, as a balance between rights and responsibilities, is regarded by many citizens in Europe as almost a formal constitutional contract.

The survival of this model, or identity, suggests an enduring gap between Europe and the United States. Judt says forcefully that the Atlantic gap is widening. This is not a matter of differences about defence or economic competition. ‘What was really driving the two continents apart was a growing disagreement about “values” . . . America, which had become superficially familiar in the course of the Cold War, was starting’ – in the early 21st century – ‘to look very alien.’ Factors here include not only ‘Washington’s growing disdain for international treaties’ but American religiosity, the gun culture and the frequency of the death penalty. Had it happened earlier, I am sure that Judt would have included the New Orleans flood, or rather the terrifyingly callous social model it revealed to Europeans.

Anti-Americanism, Judt thinks, has now moved from the fringes ‘deep into the centre of European life. The depth and breadth of anti-American feeling in contemporary Europe far exceeded anything seen during the Vietnam War or even at the height of the peace movements of the early 1980s.’ By 2004, three out of five Europeans – including Turks – thought that strong American leadership in the world was ‘undesirable’. And there was a widespread feeling that ‘there was something wrong with the kind of place that America was becoming,’ allowing Europeans to identify themselves and their values as everything this new image of America was not.

One of the things Europe certainly isn’t is a United States of Europe. Nor will it ever become one. The peoples of Europe have broken into the locked halls of decision at last (Judt cites a wonderful remark by Clement Attlee: ‘It is a fundamental fallacy to believe that it is possible by the elaboration of machinery to escape the necessity of trusting one’s fellow human beings’). For the moment, big steps towards political integration are over. It is true that the European Union, from the late 1980s on, acquired a redistributive role, between wealthier and poorer regions and even – indirectly – wealthier and poorer citizens, ‘substituting in effect for the nationally based social-democratic programmes of an earlier generation’. But it has no army. It has a common foreign policy, sometimes effective. But the EU will never be a state, in the sense of an armoured creature able to take instant actions involving force or threat. The greatness of the Union, in my view, which Judt’s book confirms, lies in this lack of carapace and claws. Here is a polity of a new type: a giant, spongy being colonised by a myriad smaller organisms, breathing prosperity and inventiveness in and out through its pores, indistinct in outline, happily incapable of rapid decisions about peace or war.

Will it survive, clinging to its rocky peninsula? We can’t know, but much depends on its self-awareness, which in turn depends on the stories Europe tells to itself. A central theme in Postwar is the changing nature of those stories, illustrated by a remarkable epilogue about memory. Judt is writing mainly about the changing memory of the Jewish Holocaust, but not exclusively; the reinventions of the Communist past which followed 1989 interest him too. ‘The first postwar Europe,’ he writes, ‘was built upon deliberate mis-memory – upon forgetting as a way of life. Since 1989 Europe has been constructed instead upon a compensatory surplus of memory: institutionalised public remembering as the very foundation of collective identity.’

As Judt says, ‘In retrospect, “Auschwitz” is the most important thing to know about World War Two. But that is not how things seemed at the time.’ Back then, we talked with horror about ‘German war crimes’, and ‘Belsen’ became a British word for ‘cruelty’ attributed to one nation. It was many years before it seemed significant that most of those piled corpses were Jewish, or before I realised that the mass murder of European Jews held a unique quality of programmatic evil. Judt’s point is twofold: that Europeans were not inclined to distinguish Jewish suffering as ‘special’, and that almost everyone had an interest in forgetting aspects of what had happened. The postwar French replaced Vichy collaboration with the myth of universal resistance; the Dutch preserved their plucky, liberal self-image by forgetting Dutch people like those who sold Anne Frank to the Nazis; the Poles did not want to share victimhood with their Jews; and the Germans felt that if they could not talk about their own suffering in the war, they could not be expected to talk about anyone else’s.

As time passed, this continental amnesia became one of Europe’s attractions. Not a few nations wanted to ‘escape out of history and into Europe’, as the Turkish elite still does and as young West Germans did in the 1950s (‘I feel European, not German’). Only in the 1960s, when that amnesia had done its healing work (at least, for the compromised postwar political classes), did a revision of history begin to break through. In part, this was the result of the awful evidence in renewed SS trials in Germany and Israel in the 1960s. It was also (though Judt does not mention them) the work of young individuals in revolt against parental silences – the Nazi-crime researcher Beata Klarsfeld, for instance. Finally, there was the ironic way that ‘foreigners’ commanded attention which ‘locals’ could not achieve. It was not French but American and German historians who penetrated the barrier hiding France’s complicity in the deportation of Jewish children to Auschwitz. German families indifferent to German documentaries about the Nazi past broke down and wept over the fourth-rate American soap Holocaust.

Today, the cult of commemoration is everywhere. But museums of ‘victimhood’ can impose new distortions even as they open a previously forbidden past. In the new Terrorhaza which Judt visited in Budapest, the murder of 600,000 Jews under Hungarian Fascism is overshadowed by the space given to the sufferings of the nation under Communism. The European Union itself, Judt might have added, is capable of inventing its own traditions, promoting for example a fictional version of the Iron Age as a Celtic ‘United Europe’, or affecting to discover its own duty-free ancestry in Bronze Age trade routes for gold and amber.

But at least the amnesia and the silence are over. ‘The rigorous investigation and interrogation of Europe’s competing pasts . . . has been one of the unsung achievements and sources of European unity in recent decades.’ It’s a process which must be ceaselessly renewed, and Judt ends this admirable book with a bow to his own discipline: ‘If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us.’