More Thoughts on Tony Judt’s Postwar

I’ve finished reading Postwar and I’m wondering if I’ve done an especially bad job.  I said in my last post that Judt made me want to take a closer look at a lot of things, but nothing stands out to me now.  My immediate reading plans don’t seem to include more recent European history.  Two general thoughts occur to me:

Despite the book’s seemingly centering on the Cold War, I don’t think I learned much about communism from this book.  Its place in intellectual and political debate is still a huge mystery to me.  Judt does not slight the treatment of communist ruled states, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia.  I gathered that communism was not monolithic; upheavals like 1968 were as much between communist leaders as between the central soviet and the oppressed population.  Examples of communist economic catastrophes are fairly straightforward.  I guess I’m not sure what I think is missing.  But I feel little sympathy for either continental theorists, Marxist and otherwise or those who strenuously opposed them, and I wonder why there’s so little room otherwise.

On the other hand, I think I have a better grasp of the European Union.  I knew about agricultural subsides in European politics, but I didn’t know the extent to which the whole union had accommodated with one another on this matter.  I also learned that the EU independently spends quite a bit of money in regions that it deems to be especially needy.  Given that EU decisions can be vetoed basically by any member, that seems like an accomplishment, as does the basic idea of a customs and passport union.  I get the impression that economic protectionism and jostling for resources played a big part in the outbreak of world war and so all of this seems like a tremendous step forward.

I may be overestimating this, however.  In his conclusion, Judt contends that the most important question facing Europeans is whether and how to expand the EU.  He observes (as of 2005) that despite the EU’s epochal economic importance, it’s not yet a country because it doesn’t tax and it doesn’t have military or police powers.  I think the situation is more or less the same today.  He seems to imply that European cooperation in this sphere is necessary to Europe’s truly functioning as the paragon it appears to be, but he doesn’t set out an explicit case.  I’m skeptical of his claim because he says explicitly that questions of right vs. left in politics have lost importance.  It seems to me, though, that it’s just in the matter of economic policy that the EU has had its greatest impact, and this is where left and right should, in theory, diverge.  I know that in pieces written after the 2008 crisis Judt took a more progressive stand than he does in this surprisingly non ideological book, but I don’t recall what he might have said about Europe in particular.

Even if I don’t delve into the technicalities of European integration, I’ll go looking for some of those articles.  I’m also still trying to wrap my head around the upcoming Scottish referendum.  Perhaps the British just need to find a different kind of union.  I’ve started reading Human Smoke.  On the other hand, I’m well along in a really gripping account of a 1932 expedition to the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, so maybe I’ll manage a change of pace around here after all.

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Peace is More Interesting than War

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.

Write it Down, My Friends

What little I manage to put up here would never have come together at all if I didn’t keep a lot of notes.  By long experimentation I’ve hit upon a combination of lists and journals that seems to complement the way I think.  I guess I know this because I don’t find myself unable to locate something I know I have written or starting new lists only to forget about them, at least not as much as I used to.  I don’t claim to have done anything very important with this, but once in a while I manage to gather up the threads of something I’ve been thinking about for a while and at least make myself think that my reading has not all been a waste of time.  Considering the little vogue for affected confessions to the effect that nobody remembers what they read (see How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read), maybe this is an accomplishment.  I’m not saying reading for pleasure or whatever is shameful, just that trying to remember what you read isn’t necessarily stupid.

Shakespeare, of course, has been over this (Sonnet 77):

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste:
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show,
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou, by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know,
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain;
Commit to these waste blanks and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee, and much enrich thy book.

A trifle compared to some of the other sonnets, yet formally perfect, memorable, and more than enough to make me wonder why I want to say anything else in praise of diaries and the like.  (Not my observation, but it makes the most sense as a kind of occasional poem inscribed in a blank book that Shakespeare gave as a gift.)

I only just realized that the phrase “Look what thy memory cannot contain” can be read two ways.  The more obvious, to me, is that the recipient should use the gift as a journal, to help himself remember.  This is borne out by his going back and taking “new acquaintance” with what has been written.  But “thy memory” is not just what you remember, what stays in your head; we also use it to mean what is remembered about you after you die.  This interpretation has the advantage of cementing the connection between the book and what might have seemed to be a separate theme of the poem, namely wearing beauty and mouthed graves.  In addition to pointing out the private advantage to one person of keeping a journal, it also points out the public advantage: there is much that the collective memory cannot contain and even the memory of beloved friends would be lost to time, but the book offers hope.

Loss and public benefit are both apposite to Thinking the Twentieth Century by the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder.   It was put together out of a series of conversations shortly before Judt’s untimely death in 2010.  In each chapter, some aspect of Judt’s biography is drawn out into something wider.  The two are mainly historians of Europe, so the book really focuses on World War II and communism, with excursions into the history of Zionism, liberalism, the war in Iraq, and so forth.  It’s important stuff.  Being mainly an intellectual history, a discussion of why people might have thought what they did and who was right and who was wrong, it seems only fitting that Judt talks about his life, schools, teachers, and colleagues.  I was surprised by Judt’s apparent apology, at the end, for intruding in some way on history which ought to be written impersonally.  He was being modest.  I have no doubt that his reminiscences enrich the work.