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.

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.