Tony Judt decided to write “Postwar” while changing trains at Vienna's Westbahnhof terminus in December 1989. One historical era was ending and another was about to begin. Mr Judt, a Londoner who was educated at Cambridge and in Paris, and who is now professor of European Studies at New York University, believes that 1989 marked the end of the legacy of the second world war. The 44 years that followed were, in a sense, an “interim age: a post-war parenthesis, the unfinished business of a conflict that ended in 1945 but whose epilogue had lasted for another half century.”
If the first world war destroyed old Europe, the second, Mr Judt believes, created the conditions for a new, non-ideological Europe. The grand ideas which had shaken the continent since the French Revolution were now dead. All that was left was “the promise of liberty”, a promise fulfilled in western Europe in 1945, but which the rest of Europe had to wait for until 1989.
Europe had proved unable to liberate itself from National Socialism; nor could it keep Communism at bay unaided. It relied for its freedom and security upon the benevolence and goodwill of America. The movement for European unity, Mr Judt believes, “was grounded in weakness, not strength”. It was because Europe's influence was declining that it began to unite; and it was because Britain did not, in the 1950s, see its position in that light, that it did not join the European movement.
General de Gaulle famously had a “certain idea of France”. Mr Judt has a “certain idea of Europe”, a community of values whose system of inter-state relations is a model to be copied, rather than, as in the past, a warning to be avoided. For Europe shows the world that nationalism is obsolete. Mr Judt does not face up to the problem that Europe's virtue is bought largely at the price of loss of influence. How many divisions has the pope, Stalin once asked. The same question may be asked of Europe.
Mr Judt also argues that the new Europe, with the significant exceptions of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, was ethnically homogeneous. The peace settlement after the first world war, based as it was on Woodrow Wilson's principle of self-determination, had created states in central and eastern Europe with large minority populations. Post-second world war Europe was built out of the rubble of Nazism and Communism. “Hitler and Stalin between them had blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid.”
Europe is not the same pre-war melting pot, but is composed instead of “hermetic national enclaves”. Minorities have been either expelled, as with the Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia after 1945, or, as with the Jews, murdered. Mr Judt is particularly good on the centrality of the Holocaust to the new Europe. In a moving epilogue, entitled, “From the House of the Dead”, he declares that “the recovered memory of Europe's dead Jews has become the very definition and guarantee of the continent's recovered humanity.” The new Europe remains mortgaged to its terrible past. That is why, he concludes, the European Union “may be an answer to history, but it can never be a substitute.”
Yet, as Mr Judt, himself shows, the nations of western Europe have become far less hermetically sealed or ethnically homogeneous than in 1945. Immigration and asylum have given rise to new and acute cultural cleavages; and it is precisely because the nations of Europe have failed to become genuine melting pots that so much of European politics now revolves around issues of multiculturalism.
Mr Judt deals with grand and important themes. But, after announcing them in a powerful introduction, he proceeds to tell us at great length mainly what we know already. His discussion is chronological not thematic, and the main ideas get lost in what is now a familiar story, although the story is told with some skill. Nevertheless, few books of nearly 1,000 pages justify their length, and “Postwar” is no exception. When Lord Beaverbrook was sent a 700-page biography of his fellow press magnate, Lord Northcliffe, he dispatched it unread to the University of New Brunswick, saying, “It weighs too much.” Sadly, “Postwar” is likely to suffer the same fate.