Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Tony Judt)

Postwar, by the late Tony Judt, is the type of book for which the term “magisterial” might have been invented.  Judt takes an enormous amount of information and condenses it down to a manageable narrative, not in the service of some overarching thesis, but simply to communicate the basic history of the period (namely, from World War Two until early 2005).  He is even-handed and insightful.  The only problem, though, is that today’s reader finds it hard to care about this period.  Viewed from the perspective of 2017, very much of this strikes the reader as roughly equivalent to discussion of who ruled Mohenjo-Daro in 2413 B.C.  The knowledge is not worthless, but it is not worth much, because it is irrelevant to today’s Europe, barren of children and swamped by barbarians, a continent whose major challenges are maintaining any global relevancy past the next few decades, and surviving in any recognizable form thereafter.  On the other hand, though, the facts narrated here do offer various lessons for us, which is one reason the book is worth reading today.

The book is organized around four roughly equal time periods within 1945 to 2005—the immediate postwar period of reconstruction; the return to (Western European) prosperity and general unity; the discontents of the late 1960s through the 1970s, along with the stabilization of the 1980s and the collapse of Communism; and the “fissile continent” of the 1990s to the mid-2000s.  Within each time period, Judt offers several chapters, each with its own theme, typically discussing the theme from the perspective of a variety of countries.  This organizational structure is quite successful, and much more successful than simply alternating focus by country would have been.  Naturally, a great deal gets left out, but the result is still nearly a thousand dense pages, impossible to summarize, so it’s a good thing that a lot got left out, or nobody would read the book.

The book spends more time on the Czechs than on any other portion of Central or Eastern Europe.  The careful reader will note this is because Judt spent a lot of time in Prague and its environs, and in fact was there during the collapse of Communism in 1989.  This is fine, really, because the personal element actually adds flavor to the book, and in some ways the Czechs are a reasonable proxy for much of Central Europe’s experience in the postwar period.  (Judt really does not like Václav Klaus, sometime Czech Prime Minister and President, though—he keeps sniping at him in the book, mostly for being overly free market oriented.  Good thing Judt didn’t live to see Klaus’s more recent attacks on climate change alarmism and open support for Vladimir Putin.)

Throughout the book, small, yet powerful, facts abound.  “The Nazis administered France with just 1,500 of their own people. . . . The same was true in the Netherlands.”  I’m pretty sure that the French and Dutch don’t want to be reminded about that.  Of course, the Dutch today are too busy “euthanizing” children and the mentally handicapped to focus on their own eager cooperation with the Nazis, or to grasp the irony that their modern practices are morally indistinguishable from their past practices.  Also woven throughout the book, unsurprisingly, is the development of the European Union, beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community.  As of the writing of this book, it appeared that the European Constitution was going to go into effect.  The Constitution, of course, was thereafter rejected by the people, so, naturally, it was still imposed on them by their rulers, via the Lisbon “amendments.”  That course of events is really all you need to know about the democratic legitimacy of the EU.  Not surprisingly, Judt never addresses the possibility of the EU breaking apart; he wrote before the 2008 financial crisis, the Muslim tide of the past few years, and Brexit (which I will believe will happen when it happens).  Thus, though this is not Judt’s fault, much of the book’s pro-EU tilt has the feel of whistling past the graveyard, because the reader knows the direction things were and are heading, and it’s not toward closer union.

As I say, there are here lessons for us today, some of which Judt draws for us, and some of which we have to draw for ourselves.  Not that Judt is didactic—his book is steeped in a light cynicism, or perhaps it’s merely realism.  He writes well, if drily, with occasional flashes of wit:  “Like [Margaret Thatcher], Tony Blair preferred to surround himself with private sector businessmen.  With perhaps this difference: whereas Margaret Thatcher believed in privatization as something akin to a moral good, Tony Blair just likes rich people.”  He claims his book is “opinionated,” which may be true, in that he offers his opinions about many people and things.  But the reader feels that these improve the book, rather than limit it, both because Judt obviously is extremely knowledgeable, and no discernable ideology (other than a generally positive belief in the modern European project and its so-called liberal democracy) drives his opinions.  Dumb people get called dumb, and vice versa, because of what they say and do, not because of how their opinions line up with Marxism or some other ideology.

And this is the first lesson to be drawn from Postwar—that a search for objective truth has been very much the exception among the ruling classes in all of Europe for the past seventy years.  This is best seen in the disparagement and marginalization of anti-Communists throughout the postwar period (though it can be seen in other, related, behaviors as well).  To criticize Communism, or its close philosophical cousin “liberal democracy,” was to “tear up the road map of the twentieth century.”  It was “to challenge the shape of History and Progress, to miss the ‘bigger picture,’ to deny the essential contiguity binding the democratic welfare state (however inadequate) to Communism’s collectivist project (however tainted).”  Therefore, the truth was irrelevant, since the future was determined and was all that mattered, and anti-Communists deserved, and received, persecution.  (It is for similar reasons of challenging the Left narrative that anti-Communism’s current day successors, defenders of traditional values, such as the Fidesz party in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland, are also disparaged and marginalized.)

Along the same continuum, Judt points out the constant direct support for Communism that was an essential and permanent characteristic of the postwar European Left.  He criticizes the faith put in Communism, and the project of the Left generally, as well as the indistinguishability of its tactics from those of the various earlier governments of the right.  “Communism operated on the principle that writers need not think, they need only understand.”  Of course, the Left still operates on this principle, in Europe and in America.  The question of the day is not can you persuade, or why you think what you do, but “Are you woke?”  Although that phrase appears to any rational person as both stupid and meaningless, through the prism of the Left that Judt describes, it and its earlier variants are and always will be the only question that matters.  They all mean, “do you understand?”

Thus, the truth is irrelevant to the Left, then and now, both in discourse and in justice.  “[T]he show trials in the Communist bloc were not about justice.  They were, rather, a form of public pedagogy-by-example . . . . They told the public who was right, who wrong . . . they even wrote a script, an approved vocabulary for use in discussion of public affairs.”  Reality was irrelevant and meant to be so.  “The ‘public’ were not being asked to believe what they heard; they were merely being trained to repeat it.”  “The advantage of the confession, in addition to its symbolic use as an exercise in guilt-transferal, was that it confirmed Communist doctrine.”  Leave out the actual killing (so far), and these are exactly the philosophy and tactics of today’s American social justice warriors.

Similarly, Judt describes how Communists, unable to win democratic elections, “adopted instead a strategy of covert pressure, followed by open terror and repression. . . . . ‘Popular’ militias helped create a climate of fear and insecurity which Communist spokesmen then blamed on their political critics.  Vulnerable or unpopular politicians from non-Communist parties were targeted for public opprobrium, while their colleagues consented to this mistreatment in the hope that it would not be applied to them.”  While it’s early days yet, if you substitute “antifa militias” for “popular militias,” and “Democratic” for “Communist,” you can see that the same tactics are being used in America today.  In Western Europe, fortunately, these Communist tactics were crushed, as well as in places like Greece.  Whether we’ll have to do the same here to keep any semblance of a free society is an open question—but really, not all that open.

The second lesson of Postwar is the irrational attraction that central planning has for many people.  Nearly everyone with power in Europe had, for decades, the pathetic belief that central planning was an infinitely superior way of doing things, and that societies that adopted it thereby gained a huge advantage over backward societies that relied on the free market.  The result was not just economic sclerosis, it was a misallocation of talent, as the brightest people went into working for the government.  This worked for a while, due to the economic boom after the war, but eventually caught up to all of Europe.  (Philosophically related to this was Brutalist architecture and its cousins, meant as a deliberate rejection of the past and celebration of the all-powerful State’s central plans for society.)  Judt doesn’t draw the lesson that central planning is irrational, though.  In fact, he doesn’t seem to really grasp the free market at all, often making ignorant and sneering comments implying the superiority of European “social democracy,” what might be called “central planning lite.”  For example, he alleges that Hayek’s objection to central planning is that “in the very act of eliciting economic information [governments] distort it,” apparently confusing the Road to Serfdom with Schrödinger’s Cat.  He also ahistorically claims that the Depression was caused by “such views [as of Hayek and Friedman] the last time they had gained intellectual ascendancy.”  But the reader can draw the real lesson of central planning without any difficulty.

A third lesson is the bad consequences of sucking up to evil.  A theme that crops up every few pages is the unbelievable amount of feckless coddling and support for Communism engaged in for decades by most European leaders.  Although the worst in this regard were some of the West German leaders, they at least had the excuse of a unique relationship with the Soviet Bloc, because of East Germany and Berlin.  Thus, the least excusable was Francois Mitterrand, who after opportunistically joining, then leaving, the Vichy regime, spent the rest of his life through the fall of Gorbachev doing all he could to prop up Communism.  It’s hard to tell if this support for Communism extended its lifespan, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The fourth lesson, and one that today’s Americans, caught up in our ever-intensifying ideological battles, would do well to remember, can be drawn from Yugoslavia.  Not only from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which of course were largely ethnically based and thus offer fewer direct lessons for us, but more from the earlier conflicts among the mostly Serb Chetniks and Communists, who both opposed the Nazis.  Judt quotes Milovan Dijilas (sometime Communist theorist and later dissident), speaking of that intra-Serb conflict during World War Two:  “For hours both armies clambered up rocky ravines to escape annihilation or to destroy a little group of their countrymen, often neighbors, on some jutting peak six thousand feet high, in a starving, bleeding, captive land.  It came to mind that this was what had become of all our theories and visions of the workers’ and peasants’ struggle against the bourgeoisie.”  The velocity of modern separation into self-reinforcing groups has been greatly accelerated by modern media, social and otherwise.  Combining this with ideology tends to lead to ever more bitter conflicts, where the ideology is forgotten but the hatreds are not.  Judt also, in connection with the Basques, cites Santayana’s definition of fanaticism being where you redouble your efforts when you have forgotten your aim, which seems similarly relevant.  If it fails to find common ground, eventually a society does not share enough common values and bedrock beliefs to survive intact.

The fifth lesson is that intellectuals, Judt among them, have always ignored, or perhaps simply fail to appreciate, the main pathologies that dominate modern Europe:  the demographic collapse of Europeans and the rise of a vibrant Islam pursuing its required theological goal of dominance over the infidel.  Judt barely mentions the former and ignores the latter.  He does acknowledge an upside to lots of children:  postwar Europe had a baby boom, which is, as Judt points out, what made possible later prosperity.  “There are many explanations for the recovery of European fertility after World War Two, but most of them reduce to a combination of optimism plus free milk.”  That makes sense, and suggests why free milk alone doesn’t increase the birth rate.  But the flip side of this upside is that fewer babies means less prosperity.  The babies drive society forward (progress is driven by the young—the productive young, that is, not the shiftless and unproductive, but politically active, “youth” often praised by politicians).  And they make expensive welfare programs possible at the same time—this is the biggest reason why Angela Merkel has allowed the massive invasion of economic migrants to Germany, not the claimed humanitarian reasons (although there is certainly an element of virtue signaling to other elites as well).  Someone has to do the work and provide the tax base, even if it is mostly young men from alien cultures.  This is a new attitude—even in the 1980s, the official position of the German government was that “Germany is not an immigrant country.  Germany is a place of residence for foreigners who will eventually return home voluntarily.”  But then, the demographic disaster was not yet quite so evident.  And certainly these two pathologies will bear bitter fruit.  However, if you won’t have babies, your civilization doesn’t deserve to continue, so whether the end result is an empty Europe or a backward, Islamized “Europe” doesn’t really matter.

Judt, however, seemed to assume that the future for Europe is bright, if tinged with challenges.  In fact, he even suggests, in so many words, that the 21st Century will be the European century.  We are seventeen years in, and we can confidently say that Judt was wrong on that score.  Much more likely is that the European Union will not outlast the next decade, and by the end of this century, most of the countries of Europe will bear little resemblance to their glorious past, though the precise form of their Destructor is still mostly a hulking shadow in the mist.   And while Postwar is interesting, its lessons, as useful as they are to us, will likely mean little to that shadow, or suffice to deter it in any way.


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