Beach reading: Postwar, by Tony Judt

About halfway through this. It’s a history of Europe, 1945 – 2005, and it’s a great roach-killing doorstop of a thing.

It’s good, though. And it’s easy to read in installments of 10 or 15 minutes at a time, which is important for me at this time in my life (small children).

I like that it manages not only to tell me stuff I didn’t know — that’s easy enough — but to tell me stuff I knew already, arranged in a way that is clear and makes sense. A sample:

Social Democracy had always been a hybrid; indeed, this was just what was held against it by enemies to the Right and Left alike. A practice in lifelong search of a theory, Social Democracy was the outcome of an insight vouchsafed to a generation of European socialists early in the twentieth century: that radical socialist revolution in the heartlands of modern Europe — as prophesied and planned by the socialist visionaries of the nineteenth century — lay in the past, not the future. As a solution to the injustice and inefficiency of modern capitalistm, the nineteenth-century paradigm of violent urban upheaval was not only undesirable and unlikely to meet its goals; it was also redundant. Genuine improvements in the conditions of all classes could be met in incremental and peaceful ways.

It did not follow from this that the fundamental nineteenth-century socialist tenets were discarded. The overwhelming majority of mid-twentieth-century European Social Democrats, even if they kept their distance from Marx and his avowed heirs, maintained as an article of faith that capitalism was inherently dysfunctional and that socialism was both morally and economically superior. Where they differed from Communists was in their unwillingness to commit to the inevitability of capitalism’s imminent demise or to the wisdom of hastening that demise by their own political actions…

The politics of social democracy were not always seductive to impatient young people, as later events were to show. But they were intuitively appealing to men and women who had lived through the terrible decades since 1914, and in certain parts of Western Europe social democracy by the mid-sixties was no longer so much a politics as a way of life.

“A practice in lifelong search of a theory”, ha. Well, it works for me.

There’s also all sorts of fascinating factoids (Franco’s Spain did not allow the public display or practice of any religion but Catholicism until 1966), interesting sidebar discussions (how midcentury Scandinavia managed to avoid the rural-urban political division that afflicted much of the rest of Europe, and how this was a huge boost for both political stability and general development), and bits of forgotten history (the importance of the long-defunct International Refugee Organization in getting millions of Europeans resettled in the years just after the war).

I’m sure Postwar has flaws, but they haven’t forced themselves on my consciousness yet. One interesting thing: I’m halfway through the book, and I haven’t been able to suss out author Judt’s own personal political convictions yet. This is rare; when it happens, it means either (1) his match my own closely, and so fall in a sort of blind spot, or (2) the author has managed the difficult feat of writing objectively about recent history. (1) is actually more likely, but I’m reserving judgment. I’m about to hit 1968. Let’s see if he can keep this up.

Anyway. It’s big, it covers all of Europe from If this seems like your sort of thing, by all means seek this book out — it’s IMO entirely worth while.

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About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

6 thoughts on “Beach reading: Postwar, by Tony Judt

  1. Kolakowski: “The trouble with the social democratic ideal is that it does not stock and does not sell any of the exciting commodities which various totalitarian movements – communist, fascist, or leftist – offer dream- hungry youth … It has no prescription for the total salvation of mankind. It is, instead, an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy.”

  2. I’m not surprised that you agree with Judt’s perspective so much, as you are both sort of outsiders looking in on Europe, with a huge (personal and professional) knowledge of history, but not European yourself. In Judt’s case, he’s a Brit living in New York IIRC and you can see how this distances him from his subject. One way in which this surfaces is in his attitude towards socialism and left wing politics, or his idea that people in Western Europe didn’t care or thought much about what happened in the Warsaw Pact countries.

    Personally I found this interesting but disappointing, as he focused too much on Germany, France and the UK and seemed to treat Eastern Europe too much like a monolithic block of countries at times, with much of the rest of Europe given short shift. I was expecting either something more comprehensive, or more generalising.

  3. I’ve read parts of it – though not the whole thing obviously.

    He has a clear political viewpoint on some things, which isn’t surprising because he is a Brit. He is very dismissive of nationalist movements in Europe, like the Basques, Catalonians, or even Northern Ireland. He views nationalism as inherently destructive, and this comes through strongly in certain sections. His sections on Ireland and Britain’s influence there seemed like weasel words.

  4. Alex: right, not a new idea — but expressed clearly and well.

    Martin, I’m not yet seeing the “attitude towards socialism and left wing politics”, but again, I haven’t hit 1968 yet. And I’d disagree that he focuses too much on Germany, France and the UK — those are the three biggest countries in Europe, after all. He spends plenty of time on Italy too, and manages to at least touch on Austria and Scandinavia. If he’s neglecting anyone in western Europe (so far) it’s the Swiss and the Dutch.

    He does treat the two halves of Europe as very separate, but for the period in question (roughly the 20 years after WWII so far) I don’t think that’s unreasonable. For most of this period there was very little coming and going; the Iron Curtain started to loosen in the south after 1962, when Yugoslavia started admitting Western tourists in large numbers, but before then you had 15 years where almost nobody from one side of Europe was able to visit the other. If he’s still maintaining this division into the 1980s, then I’ll be more critical. (Teach me to review a book I haven’t finished, I suppose.)

    Doug M.

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