Review: Postwar, by Tony Judt

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sat Jan 7 19:51:59 PST 2023

by Tony Judt

Publisher: Penguin Books
Copyright: 2005
ISBN:      1-4406-2476-3
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     835

Tony Judt (1948–2010) was a British-American historian and Erich Maria
Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University. Postwar
is his magnum opus, a history of Europe from 1945 to 2005.

A book described as a history of Europe could be anything from a
textbook to a political analysis, so the first useful question to ask
is what sort of history. That's a somewhat difficult question to
answer. Postwar mentions a great deal of conventional history,
including important political movements and changes of government, but
despite a stated topic that would suit a survey textbook, it doesn't
provide that sort of list of facts and dates. Judt expects the reader
to already be familiar with the broad outlines of modern European
history. However, Postwar is also not a specialty history and avoids
diving too deep into any one area. Trends in art, philosophy, and
economics are all mentioned to set a broader context, but still only at
the level of a general survey.

My best description is that Postwar is a comprehensive social and
political history that attempts to focus less on specific events and
more on larger trends of thought. Judt grounds his narrative in
concrete, factual events, but the emphasis is on how those living in
Europe, at each point in history, thought of their society, their
politics, and their place in both. Most of the space goes to exploring
those nuances of thought and day-to-day life.

In the US university context, I'd place this book as an
intermediate-level course in modern European history, after the survey
course that provides students with a basic framework but before
graduate-level specializations in specific topics. If you have not had
a solid basic education in European history (and my guess is that most
people from the US have not), Judt will provide the necessary
signposts, but you should expect to need to look up the signposts you
don't recognize. I, as the dubious beneficiary of a US high school
history education now many decades in the past, frequently resorted to
Wikipedia for additional background.

Postwar uses a simple chronological structure in four parts: the
immediate post-war years and the beginning of the Cold War (1945–1953),
the era of rapidly growing western European prosperity (1953–1971), the
years of recession and increased turmoil leading up to the collapse of
communism (1971–1989), and the aftermath of the collapse of communism
and the rise of the European Union (1989–2005). Each part is divided
into four to eight long chapters that trace a particular theme. Judt
usually starts with the overview of an theme and then follows the local
manifestations of it on a spiral through European countries in whatever
order seems appropriate. For the bulk of the book that covers the era
of the Cold War, when experiences were drastically different inside or
outside the Soviet bloc, he usually separates western and eastern
Europe into alternating chapters.

Reviewing this sort of book is tricky because so much will depend on
how well you already know the topic. My interest in history is strictly
amateur and I tend to avoid modern history (usually I find it too
depressing), so for me this book was remedial, filling in large
knowledge gaps that I ideally shouldn't have had. Postwar was a runner
up for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, so I think I'm safe
saying you won't go far wrong reading it, but here's the necessary
disclaimer that the rest of my reactions may not be useful if you're
better versed in modern European history than I was. (This would not be

That said, I found Postwar invaluable because of its big-picture focus.
The events and dates are easy enough to find on the Internet; what was
missing for me in understanding Europe was the intent and social
structures created by and causing those events. For example, from early
in the book:

  On one thing, however, all were agreed — resisters and politicians
  alike: "planning". The disasters of the inter-war decades — the
  missed opportunities after 1918, the great depression that followed
  the stock-market crash of 1929, the waste of unemployment, the
  inequalities, injustices and inefficiencies of laissez-faire
  capitalism that had led so many into authoritarian temptation, the
  brazen indifference of an arrogant ruling elite and the incompetence
  of an inadequate political class — all seemed to be connected by the
  utter failure to organize society better. If democracy was to work,
  if it was to recover its appeal, it would have to be planned.

It's one thing to be familiar with the basic economic and political
arguments between degrees of free market and planned economies. It's
quite another to understand how the appeal of one approach or the
discredit of another stems from recent historical experience, and
that's what a good history can provide.

Judt does not hesitate to draw these sorts of conclusions, and I'm sure
some of them are controversial. But while he's opinionated, he's rarely
ideological, and he offers no grand explanations. His discussion of the
Yugoslav Wars stands out as an example: he mentions various theories of
blame (a fraught local ethnic history, the decision by others to not
intervene until the situation was truly dire), but largely discards
them. Judt's offered explanation is that local politicians saw an
opportunity to gain power by inflaming ethnic animosity, and a large
portion of the population participated in this process, either
passively or eagerly. Other explanations are both unnecessarily complex
and too willing to deprive Yugoslavs of agency. I found this
refreshingly blunt. When is more complex analysis a way to diffuse
responsibility and cling to an ideological fantasy that the right
foreign policy would have resolved a problem?

A few personal grumblings do creep in, particularly in the chapters on
the 1970s (and I think it's not a coincidence that this matches Judt's
own young adulthood, a time when one is prone to forming a lot of
opinions). There is a brief but stinging criticism of postmodernism in
scholarship, which I thought was justified but probably incomplete, and
a decidedly grumpy dismissal of punk music, which I thought was less
fair. But these are brief asides that don't detract from the overall
work. Indeed, they, along with the occasional wry asides ("respecting
long-established European practice, no one asked the Poles for their
views [on Poland's new frontiers]") add a lot of character.

Insofar as this book has a thesis, it's in the implications of the
title: Europe only exited the postwar period at the end of the 20th
century. Political stability through exhaustion, the overwhelming
urgency of economic recovery, and the degree to which the Iron Curtain
and the Cold War froze eastern Europe in amber meant that full European
recovery from World War II was drawn out and at times suspended. It's
only after 1989 and its subsequent upheavals that European politics
were able to move beyond postwar concerns. Some of that movement was a
reemergence of earlier European politics of nations and ethnic
conflict. But, new on the scene, was a sense of identity as Europeans,
one that western Europe circled warily and eastern Europe saw as the
only realistic path forward.

  What binds Europeans together, even when they are deeply critical of
  some aspect or other of its practical workings, is what it has
  become conventional to call — in disjunctive but revealing contrast
  with "the American way of life" — the "European model of society".

Judt also gave me a new appreciation of how traumatic people find the
assignment of fault, and how difficult it is to wrestle with guilt
without providing open invitations to political backlash. People will
go to great lengths to not feel guilty, and pressing the point runs a
substantial risk of creating popular support for ideological movements
that are willing to lie to their followers. The book's most memorable
treatment of this observation is in the epilogue, which traces popular
European attitudes towards the history of the Holocaust through the
whole time period.

The largest problem with this book is that it is dense and very long.
I'm a fairly fast reader, but this was the only book I read through
most of my holiday vacation and it still took a full week into the new
year to finish it. By the end, I admit I was somewhat exhausted and
ready to be finished with European history for a while (although the
epilogue is very much worth waiting for). If you, unlike me, can read a
book slowly among other things, that may be a good tactic.

But despite feeling like this was a slog at times, I'm very glad that I
read it. I'm not sure if someone with a firmer grounding in European
history would have gotten as much out of it, but I, at least, needed
something this comprehensive to wrap my mind around the timeline and
fill in some embarrassing gaps. Judt is not the most entertaining
writer (although he has his moments), and this is not the sort of
popular history that goes out of its way to draw you in, but I found it
approachable and clear. If you're looking for a solid survey of modern
European history with this type of high-level focus, recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-01-07


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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