Review of “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” by Tony Judt

Tony Judt’s detailed monumental work (over 800 pages) is well-written and well-organized. He begins by documenting the devastation in Europe following World War II. Post-war planning for Europe was heavily influenced by the knowledge that both fascism and communism thrived on social despair; ergo “the physical and moral condition of the citizenry” became a matter of common interest for both the victors and the vanquished. Economic recovery was deemed to be essential. A brutal winter in 1947 exacerbated the urgency. U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s plan for a European Recovery program, proposed in the summer of 1947, helped avert a political crisis in Europe. It’s real benefit, however, was psychological: the infusion of money and aid helped Europeans to “break decisively with a legacy of chauvinism, depression and authoritarian solutions.”


There was a continuing interest in Communism as a promising ideology throughout the world, although it attenuated after Krushchev’s “secret speech” in February, 1956 revealing Stalin’s crimes. Moreover, the invasion of tanks into Hungary in November, 1956 “dispelled any illusions about this new,’reformed’ Soviet model.” But as Judt observes, “enthusiasm for Communism in theory was characteristically present in inverse proportion to direct experience of it in practice.” For Eastern Europeans, however, there was no longer any choice but to accept existence within the Soviet orbit. After 1956, Judt laments, “the Communist states of Eastern Europe, like the Soviet Union itself, began their descent into a decades-long twilight of stagnation, corruption and cynicism.”

Khrushchev's "secret speech" in 1956

Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956

Judt adduces evidence to support his claim that when Communism fell in 1989 it was “Mr. Gorbachev’s revolution.” Not only did Gorbachev liberalize his own country, but he let it be known that he would not intervene in the internal politics of his colonies. Without the threat of military action from Moscow, there wasn’t much to keep them in their antiquated inefficient systems. Much of the book is devoted to a detailed explanation of how each of the Eastern European countries went through the process of liberation. [It should be noted that, contrary to the American narrative, most reputable historians give the lion’s share of credit to Mr. Gorbachev, not Mr. Reagan, for dismantling Communism.]

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Another helpful section outlines the concerns of the European Union, and just what membership means for both members and non-members. In a discussion of the culture of today’s Europe, Judt speculates on the future of identity in Europe, with nationalism competing with Europeanism and now even with Islam.

His final chapter explores the nature of memory itself in Europe; in particular, how the different nations have negotiated the rocky shoals of Holocaust memory. As he emphasizes, “A nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it.” For many nations, their complicity in Fascism is something they prefer not to acknowledge. He ends by relating a popular Soviet-era joke: a listener calls up ‘Armenian Radio’ with a question: ‘Is it possible’, he asks, ‘to foretell the future?’ Answer: ‘Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing.'” Therein, Judt writes, lies the challenge: “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.”

Published by The Penguin Press, 2005

Note: Awards for this book include:

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
Winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award
One of the New York Times’Ten Best Books of the Year
European Book Prize (2008)
Arthur Ross Book Award for Gold Medal (2006)
Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee (2006)

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