“Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945″ by Tony Judt (Penguin Books, 2006)
I caught the last bits of a repeat of an earlier interview with author Tony Judt on The Charlie Rose Show in August (re-run, I would guess, because of the author’s death at 62). I was immediately interested in his 2006 book on the history of postwar Europe, and tracked it down at my beloved local library. Little did I know that it was one of those books that would take me a month (one renewal and a new check-out) to complete! It’s been worth the work.
The events that make up European history from the defeat of Naziism to (roughly) today are now far enough in the past for some meaningful perspective, and yet recent enough to be completely relevant to the issues facing Europe in particular and the West in general, today.
Judt’s style is concise and highly readable, yet carries a gravity that inspires confidence in his conclusions. It is almost dizzying to contemplate the sheer number of countries and rulers that are encompassed in this book: a study of all of the varied cultures, political movements, ideologies and governmental experiments of so many countries, large and small (and — ever since World War Two — in the shadow of the U.S. and it’s relationship with the Soviet Union) provides an all-you-can eat buffet of the many different incarnations of democracy, social democracy, socialism, communism and monarchies that were (and continue to be) tried out in postwar Europe.
(One thing that struck me is the perspective such an education gave me on the current conviction of America’s far right that we are living under a would-be Socialist state. I can tell you that even a casual reading of this book will show one what a real Socialist or Communist state is like and brother, we ain’t it).
Enough to satisfy my own vanity, the U.S.A. does play a role in this book. It almost has to! For Judt goes into detail about how America’s Marshall Plan (imperfect though it was) was fundamental to the rebuilding of an economically self-sufficient Europe (a sad contrast to Europe’s revival is provided by the decades of bleak economic stagnation that faced a “victorious” post-war England!).
It’s all in here: the immediate task of rebuilding Europe after a World War, the beginning, middle and end of the Cold War, the famous events in the Gdansk Shipyards, Perestroika, NATO and even popular culture. It is really a breathtaking sweep of history that all of us have lived at least a part of (though generally watched from this side of the Atlantic).
If you don’t want to take my word on it, Postwar was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, and was also a Time and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year.
Tony Judt died this last August of Lou Gehrig’s disease. For a fascinating and compelling obituary on the author, see this article from USA Today.