Though not very warlike, I’ve read my share of war books, from infantry combat memoirs to Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Many of the books that I count as personal landmarks are structured around wars, though some, like Herodotus, range far and wide over humanity. Leaving The Prince and Leviathan aside, even a philosophical work as fundamental as Plato’s Republic is addressed to the question of what makes a society fit for war. It’s with this background that I try to make sense of the challenging implications of the eight hundred plus pages, largely living up to the blurbed “pace of a thriller”, of Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.
War, of course, does have a major role in the book. The American army was a fixture in Western Europe. The first Vietnam War and the Algerian War appear in due order (I’m only a third of the way through). Judt plays down the Cold War, apparently subscribing to the theory that increasingly sophisticated systems of mutually assured destruction were more stable than the early days of conflict over Berlin, and arguing that England, France, and Germany could no longer be expected to make meaningful contributions to their defense in the days of ballistic missiles and hydrogen bombs. The Cold War has been more on my mind lately, thanks to the war in Ukraine, obviously, but also because among my acquaintance, the issue of children on the border has brought up memories of dirty wars in Latin America. From the point of view of someone wanting to think about these issues, reading Judt’s book actually has the downside of focusing on the perhaps the most triumphant episode in recent history, the lasting peace and increasing economic integration between Germany, France, and the other nations of devastated Europe.
Judt’s focus on the politics of Europe, rather than a bipolar world, counters the cynical view that the thoroughly defeated nations deserve no credit for keeping the peace, and led to the title of this post. It’s France that takes center stage here, jealous of Britain’s special relationship with the U.S., determined to prevent German revanchism, nearly upset first by communism and then by militant reactionaries in the wake of the withdrawal from Algeria. Though I’m still a great way from an actual, technical economic understanding of what went into making modern Europe, Judt has shown me how much there is that deserves a closer look.