Copyright The Chronicle of Higher Education
CONTINENTAL DIVIDES: In the introduction to his new book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press), Tony R. Judt writes that the moment of inspiration for the 878-page volume came as he changed trains in Vienna’s Westbahnhof in December 1989.
Mr. Judt, a professor of European studies at New York University and director of its Remarque Institute, had just returned from observing Czechoslovakia’s “velvet revolution.” In his taxi, Austrian radio reported the start of Romania’s violent revolution. “A political earthquake,” he writes, “was shattering the frozen topography of post-World War II Europe.”
But 1989’s upheavals did more than end the cold war. When the Iron Curtain dissolved, two separate ideas of Europe and its history were shoved together in a sudden and uneasy embrace after 45 years. Mr. Judt says a central question as he wrote Postwar was: “How do you relate the two parts together, since they are neither separate nor the same?”
First he tried to weave the two Europes together into one narrative. But that approach “drowns out the very real differences, particularly as experienced in the East,” he says. “It became clear to me that I would have to treat them as different and treat them as separate, while at the same time showing how there are not similarities, but points of contact, particularly at the starting point in 1945.”
Key points of contact occurred in two tumultuous years: 1956 and 1968. In 1956 the Soviet Union violently suppressed an uprising in Hungary, while France, Britain, and Israel launched a failed attack on Egypt to prevent the nationalization of the Suez Canal. In 1968 the Soviet Union sent tanks into Czechoslovakia to halt a wave of political reform, and massive student protests rocked Paris and other European capitals.
“What I tried to do,” Mr. Judt says, “was to look at the major moments of international crisis — particularly in 1956 and in 1968 — when the two halves of Europe experienced crisis but in very different ways. By highlighting that, I would be able to show both that they have a history in common, but that it is a very different history on each side.”
Although Postwar runs thick with the dates, facts, and data that constitute the spine of any history, Mr. Judt liberally weaves films (The Bicycle Thief), literature (Czech writers such as Pavel Kohout and Ludvik Vaculik), and music (punk rock) into his account.
“Most general histories,” he says, “even very good general histories, don’t quite know what to do with culture — ideas, novels, film, and art — and either ignore it completely or else pop it in a little section called ‘Culture.’ I was determined neither to ignore it nor to segregate it.”
Along with a dose of cultural history, Mr. Judt also dispenses judgments that will raise eyebrows, especially in the United States. Poststructuralist theory, for instance, takes a few sharp knocks. (In one footnote, Mr. Judt writes of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan that “even by the lax standards of Sixties-era Paris he remained quite remarkably ignorant of contemporary developments in medicine, biology, and neurology, with no discernible harm to his practice or reputation.”)
Quizzed about those barbs, Mr. Judt observes that “one of the distorting effects” of theory’s influence in American academe is that theory’s totemic figures — Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva — are “seen as much more prominently at the center of European thought than they actually are. Whereas I deliberately ‘decentered’ them, to use a cliché, and put them where I think they belong, which is within the intellectual and cultural world of Europe, but much more at the periphery.”
Today’s European intellectuals, he adds, have lost their public platform. As an example, he cites the apathy surrounding a 1993 essay project, led by Derrida (who died in 2004) and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, to forge a European response to growing American unilateralism. “The whole project sputtered out,” writes Mr. Judt. “One hundred years after the Dreyfus affair, 50 years after the apotheosis of Jean-Paul Sartre, Europe’s leading intellectuals had thrown a petition — and no one came.”
It will strike American readers that Mr. Judt has also “decentered” the United States itself in Postwar. Both in the book and in conversation, he acknowledges American power’s role in rebuilding Western Europe in the immediate postwar era. “But from the 70s onward,” he says, “Europe and America are growing apart.”
That gap is central to Mr. Judt’s debunking of a cherished (in Washington) notion that the United States was the major player in ending the cold war. The author disputes or qualifies key elements of the American version of 1989 — that President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric and accelerated defense spending drove the revolutions of that year. Summing up those events, Mr. Judt writes, “The U.S. played a remarkably small part in the dramas of 1989, at least until after the fact.”
The dramas of 1989, he argues, were essentially European dramas. And in the epilogue to Postwar, the author addresses Europe’s most horrific drama, the Holocaust. He describes Europeans’ slow and imperfect recognition of the crimes committed against Europe’s Jews, and takes on the disturbing trend of “equivalence” in commemorating other crimes perpetrated during and after World War II. (Mr. Judt approvingly quotes a Polish Holocaust survivor’s attack on a proposed “center for expulsions” in Berlin, which would commemorate German citizens expelled from other European countries after World War II, as “a timely reminder of the risks we run by indulging to excess the cult of commemoration — and of displacing perpetrators with victims as the focus of attention.”)
It is no surprise that a historian would argue that history is the key to preserving recall. “Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself,” writes Mr. Judt, “history contributes to the disenchantment of the world.” He also quotes a Soviet-era joke in which a listener calls a radio station to ask if it is possible to predict the future. The host answers: “Yes, no problem. We know what the future will be. Our problem is with the past. That keeps changing.”