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Summer Reading - The Titfield Thunderbolt
Heisenberg might have stayed here
Summer Reading
Book Review: Postwar - A History of Europe since 1945, by Tony Judt
I seem to have made a habit of picking out the larger volumes for summer reading of late - Roger Penrose last year, and this is another heavyweight volume at over 800 pages. However, this is a much more readable work.

Judt divides the book into four principal sections. The first deals mainly with the military and political aftermath of the Second World War, including the division of Germany, the emergence of Communism in central and eastern Europe, and the establishment of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Judt describes the process of "de-Nazification" felt to be necessary by the Allies but not pursued all that effectively, and eventually abandoned - there are a number of resonances with political developments in Iraq here, and it does seem to show how little we learned. There's also an interesting assessment of the genesis of the European Coal and Steel Community, ultimate predecessor of the EU, with Britain firmly believing it did not need a place there, and thus leaving this and subsequent European institutions with a French bias. Judt doesn't mince his words on such things, and though the work is intended to be factual it's difficult not to see a chunk of "opinion" in some places.

The second main section deals with the "good times" of the 50s and 60s, in which western Europe at least had "never had it so good". A lot of this section focuses on social and cultural developments, though of course this period also covers some unhappy incidents in eastern Europe, notably the uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

The third section, titled "Recessional", covers the period from 1971 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Judt focuses on the decision to abandon exchange controls as the point at which the economic problems of this period began. There's a lot of ground to cover here, as this section also discusses the various terrorist organisations active at the time - from the IRA and ETA through to Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades. Judt distinguishes the first two as having relatively clear objectives, from the latter groups which are dismissed as plain anarchic criminality - an distinction which may have some intellectual justification but which I'm rather wary of on a practical level. Developments from authoritarian regimes to democracy also begin in this period, with an interesting chapter on Spain, Portugal and Greece. For a work which clearly originates the other side of the pond, Judt fairly credits the downfall of Communism (albeit unintentionally) and the end of the Cold War to Gorbachev rather than Reagan.

The final section deals with the post-Communist period up to 2004/5. Beginning with chapters on the disaster of Yugoslavia and less destructive regionalism elsewhere in Europe, this section largely focuses on the increasing role and enlargement of the EU, of which it seems Judt generally approves.

This isn't a perfect book: there are one or two places where I think chronology becomes confused (for example, Judt discusses UK railway accidents in the context of privatisation before Labour's election victory of 1997, yet I would have thought the worst of those incidents happened in the period afterward - Southall[1997], Ladbroke Grove[1999], Potters Bar[2001]), but it nevertheless gives a very good and often quite detailed description of the last 60 years in Europe. It feels thorough, definitive and readable, a combination which is no small achievement.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
rfmcdpei From: rfmcdpei Date: August 23rd, 2008 05:09 am (UTC) (Link)
[T]he latter groups [. . .] are dismissed as plain anarchic criminality - an distinction which may have some intellectual justification but which I'm rather wary of on a practical level.

I suggested, somewhat facetiously, in a work discussdion that the Baader-Meinhof Gang represented the most extreme and thorough effort by the first post-Nazi generation to deal with the sins of their parents. Was I wrong?

(Haven't read the book, should, I know.)
qatsi From: qatsi Date: August 23rd, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Was I wrong?

Not necessarily; certainly that's the essence of what I've read elsewhere, and Judt makes the point that it didn't take many years before a large part of the government machine was run by former Nazis, in both West and East Germany. However he fails to link this with 1970s terrorist groups in Germany and Italy. Instead, he views it more in terms of anti-establishment movements (in at least some cases with Soviet funding) attempting to overthrow a cosy and "repressive" democracy.

"They were trying to achieve something and would - by their own account - have desisted if their demands were met. ETA, the IRA and their imitators were terrorist organisations; but they were not irrational.
[T]he RAF [Red Army Fraction] and its ancillary offshoots pursued a strategy of deliberately random terror ... [T]he German terrorist underground had no defined goals ... contemporary Italian terrorism was not markedly different from the German kind."

My cynicism observes that Judt is an Englishman living in New York, and I wonder whether the distinction given to the IRA (and ETA) is a little like an incidence of Stockholm Syndrome, derived from the historic sympathy or ambivalence of many Americans to Irish terrorism in the UK.
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