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Postwar by Tony Judt

June 8, 2013

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Clocking in at 960 pages (paperback) this book is no small dabbling in the modern history of Europe. Keeping in mind its enormous page count I’m still going to say the following: everyone should read this book.

Postwar comprehensively dissects the history of Europe from 8 May, 1945 – the day of the German unconditional surrender – up to the time of writing in 2005. Judt manages to bring together decades of transitions seamlessly that must have seemed anything but at the time.

I was born in 1990, and as such was only even alive for a small fraction of the events discussed in this book, much less politically and globally conscious enough to realize what was happening. As an American, my grasp of the postwar recovery of the European continent through high school and university curriculum was disjointed and hazy, at best. I remember hearing things like Marshall Plan, NATO, Soviet bloc, Berlin Wall, and Kosovo, but those single terms don’t even begin to describe the rich tapestry of interconnected politics and lives that were brought together after the Second World War.

The very identity of a European continent did not exist after World War II. Populations were decimated, cities were destroyed, and everyone had lost something. Not a single corner of what we think of today as Europe was untouched by war. Judt methodically and cleverly visits every country and region of modern Europe, from the UK to Greece, from Sweden to Sicily, the particular hardships and recoveries of every nation involved are given due time and thoughtful discussion through six decades.

The level of detail is amazing and makes for a fascinating read. Judt often cites opinion polls, newspaper clippings, and writings from prominent thinkers from a given country at the time discussed, making his narrative more factually accurate and giving the people being written about the chance to speak for themselves through time. I think this is one of the best things going for this book. As an outsider, an historian runs the risk of playing the accuser, especially when writing about such charged topics as Fascism, Communism, and agressive capitalism. I might not even have believed him if he had presented his information in any other way. For example, when discussing residual anti-semitism in Austria, even years after World War II, Judt might be accused of vilifying an already apologetic people, but a Gallup poll from 1991 says otherwise (50 percent of people polled agreed with the statement ‘Jews are responsible for their past persecution’, a result I was not expecting).

In many ways this book opened my eyes to things I had not taken time to realize before or that had never been presented to me as such. Particularly France. I was taught by French teachers as a child, visited provincial France during the summers, and grew up with a sense of the French patrimoine in my soul – the love for France, even though I will never be French. Most French people, from my school teacher to my host father, will tell you that France had a proud history, from Charlemagne to de Gaulle, and I grew up believing it. The unflattering light in which France is painted throughout this book came as a shock, but once I read about it – France’s surrender in 1940, de Gaulle’s humiliation as a visitor in England, the decline of a once great superpower being overtaken and increasingly excluded by the US and Britain – everything I’ve seen seemed to make a bit more sense. France holds veto power and top spots on top councils in the UN for specific historical reasons, and it has used that power in the past to assert its right to be called a superpower, a standing lost in the events of World War II. Judt grew up in England at a time when the two countries did not tender much respect for one another, and I can’t help wondering if this influences his writing with respect to the postwar French role. Even so, his perspective is fairly neutral and his narrative is super engaging.

He is also very careful to make clear distinctions in separating the events of World War II from what came after. Judt makes explicitly clear the differences between the wartime Nazism and Fascism, and the dictatorships and systems of complete control that emerged under Communism in Eastern Europe. He takes great pains to give time and attention to the individual circumstances of each Soviet state, from the peaceful protests in former Czechoslovakia to the cruel dictatorship of Ceausescu in Romania to the sad fate of former Yugoslavia and the complicated ethnic conflicts that led to the Bosnian War in the 1990’s. Judt’s Europe is a place vibrant with the main actors of the time, both political and cultural, and how they shaped the continent into the place it is today.

Even if you remember the Berlin airlift, the velvet revolution, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book will teach you about so much more. I learned more from this book than anything I’ve ever read, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give.

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From → Non-Fiction

5 Comments
  1. Pamela permalink

    Your comments on the subject matter of this book are descriptive and engaging. Even though this book is not one I would have chosen to read, I am now curious.Thank you!

  2. A beautiful and enthusiastic summary of how modern Europe evolved from the devastation of WWII. I want to read this book now.

  3. Fantastic review. It’s so nice to know that some young people actually still read history. A lot of my granddaughters friends aren’t sure what happened on 9/11, much following WWII.

  4. One additional note: Perhaps everyone should read it, but many people will find it’s length and complexity off putting. I highly recommend the audiobook. It’s long, but it’s engrossing. Tony Judt’s stye adapts well to listening. Reading it on paper is one experience. Listening to it is different. Not better or worse. Different and worth your time.

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  1. A different history — Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt | SERENDIPITY

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