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  • Review: Postwar November 22, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Tony Judt

    Tony Judt is often touted as one of the great historians of the later twentieth century. Yet really his writings are, with one exception, not the stuff that world reputations are made on The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century or Socialism in Provence 1871–1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left are earnest and perhaps even important, but they are unlikely to appeal outside a narrow range of readers. The exception, however, is important. In 1989 while travelling through Vienna Judt had an inspiration. He would write the history of a changing Europe: he was listening to the description of the collapse, on a taxi radio, of the last Soviet satellite, Romania. He did not begin the task until the early-mid 1990s and finally published the book, after a fight with cancer, in 2005. The result was Postwar, an eight hundred page book that tells the story of the continent from Germany’s surrender in 1945 to those wonderful months when, in 1989, the communist lego bricks came tumbling down. Beach has been rereading parts of the book this weekend.

    For Judt the unifying theme of Postwar (the title suggested by his then eleven-year-old son) is the unusually long memory and the consequences of the Second World War for Europe. All modern wars, of course, have to be processed by the body politic: there is almost always a ‘hangover’. But if Vietnam was about drinking five straight scotches and passing out on a bar stool, the Second World War was about drinking five bottles of vodka and rolling off a bridge. It took a wobbly half century for Europe to pick itself up and move on. Judt is at his best at showing that Europe was only able to deal with the memory of the war by selectively remembering parts (e.g. exaggerating the importance of the resistance in Italy and France) and forgetting other parts (e.g. for a couple of decades the work of the einsatzgruppen).

    Postwar is not just about memory though, it is the story of the continent over fifty years. This is an extraordinarily ambitious task: (i) because Judt covers both East and West Europe and (ii) because Judt covers both large and small countries. If someone had told the present blogger, ten years ago, that a history of contemporary Europe existed that managed to unite east and west he would have shrugged: it could be done if someone had the important western European languages, a Slavic language (Judt was a Czech reader) and some courage and there are lots of such clever, reckless people about. But any attempt to actually describe the history of all European countries (save the real minnows, Monaco, Andorra etc) in the same book seems doomed to failure, in terms of narrative. You can’t write a coherent history with thirty plus countries, it just can’t be done.

    ‘E pur se muove.’ Judt somehow pulled it off. Yes, there are the details of German industrial might and British decline but there are also entire pages given over to Salazar’s interest in ecological politics in Portugal, Greek snafus in Cyprus, Scandinavian eugenics, and Bulgarian show trials. Not only this but Judt jumps back and forth from cultural to economic to political history: with frequent and very welcome references to cinema. He generally avoids all but potted bonsai biographies, save bizarrely with Margaret Thatcher, who he disliked but rated (in terms of importance) just behind De Gaulle.

    Judt believed himself to be a great writer, claiming on one occasion that he was among the best in his academic generation. There might be something to this: here we must remember the violence that baby-boomer academics did to the English language in the social ‘sciences’. Judt had better writing values than most of his fellow lecturers. He read eighteenth-century poetry, took prose seriously as an end in itself and fought bloody Jihad against the excesses of cultural history. This all shows on the page. Beach once listened to all 800 pages (an investment of forty five hours) on the bus and Judt’s style is flowing and witty: reading aloud cannot be done with bad writing. There are some slower passages. Statistics are often resorted to. But there are also superb lyrical moments: the final chapter on the memory of the holocaust; and, at least for Beach, the wonderful introduction in Vienna.

    Judt has a strange ‘tic’ as a historian and speaks with an unrealistic confidence about things: something Beach has examined on previous occasions. Judt’s hobby horses include the viability of our ruinous welfare state; an overconfidence in the European project; his sensible anti-communism; and an understandable obsession with German atrocities (he was named for a murdered cousin, Toni). Maybe for a large-scale impossibly ambitious history of a continent it is permissible, perhaps necessary to project steely confidence? Or perhaps in his next life Tony will be forced to study Dark Age History in penance.

    Mistakes are few and far between, despite the incredible, incredible decision (was the cancer somewhere at the back of it?) not to include notes and bibliography in the book. Beach, with his only mortal knowledge, counted five errors of fact, or one every two hundred pages. That might be a poor record for infanticide in eighteenth-century Bristol. But it is close to remarkable for someone discussing Albanian communism and De Valera’s Ireland in the same book – most of us don’t manage that in the same lifetime.

    Just three years after publication Tony Judt began a descent into one of the most nightmarish neurological illness. It must have been a huge consolation as he lay awake late at night, frozen into his body, writing his last books in his head, that Postwar existed. Not only that, as the first great history written on the postwar period in Europe it set down the boundaries for a new historical field. 1945-1991 might have been obvious and would have emerged without Judt’s diktat. But Judt’s insistence on taking east and west Europe together and his belief in the continuing and central importance of the war have set the tone for those (Dan Stone among them) who came after: Europe was liberated from European Unification and the Cold War and a new territory opened up.

    Beach is always on the look out for great books: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com