It’s not easy to summarize the 900 pages (50 reading hours) of Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Perhaps the most telling fact is that I was rarely bored until the end, where the generalizations pile up and where Judt’s assessment of the prospects for Europe is vitiated by an accident of timing, since the book was written just before the great economic collapse. There was no way for Judt to know that in a few years, there would be a significant anti-Euro constituency even in Germany.
Judt is quick to point out hypocrisy and humbug, such as the fabrication of heroic wartime resistance movements in places like the Netherlands and, to some degree, France, Austria’s pretense of having been Hitler’s first victim rather than his most enthusiastic ally, and the lack of support for East German dissidents among West German politicians. His skepticism is bracing, but also cumulatively rather depressing.
Judt is particularly sour on the supposed revolution of the ‘60s; this surprised me because he was born in 1948 and spent univeristy breaks working on a kibbutz—you would think that he would have fond memories of 1968 and all that, but instead he portrays the student demonstrators as spoiled children of priviledge, mostly battling for nicer dorm rooms and posing for the TV cameras in their tight-fitting red corduroy pants (which were, he says, made by and for men “like everything else in the ‘60s”).
True, the most valuable aspects of the ‘60s here were probably the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, neither of which had much of a role in Europe. I did once meet a Swede who wrote his PhD thesis on the Vietnam protest movement in Sweden; I managed to refrain from asking him how much sleep LBJ or Nixon ever lost over the knowledge that Swedish students disapproved of them.
And the point about so much of the ‘60s being a guy thing is well taken, but when he comes to the later and vastly more revolutionary women’s movement, Judt mostly just goes through the motions. I suppose that he needs the bitterness of the apostate to get his rhetorical engines going, as they are not only in his treatment of ’68 but in his analysis of left-wing politics, to which he brings the ex-Marxist’s savage enthusiasm.
Here are a few quips and quotes to give you a taste of the book:
One French Communist writer, noting that in a cold country like France, you can keep your roast on the window-ledge over the weekend, called the refrigerator “an American mystification.” The poet Louis Aragon dismissed the United States as a nation of bathtubs and Frigidaires. (I always thought it was only Francophobes who thought of France as a nation of body odor and moldy food.)
Describing the growing dominance of American films at the box office: “Cinema in Europe declined from a social activity to an art form.” The bon-ness of this mot is diminished when J makes the same joke a couple of hundred pages later.
On the fascination for the British of the inter-class eroticism in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Upon being asked by the prosecuting counsel whether this was a novel he would let his wife or maidservant read, one witness replied that this would not trouble him in the least, but he would never let it into the hands of his gamekeeper.
On the West’s unwillingness to call out totalitarianism: “As late as September 1983,…Vice President George Bush described Ceausescu as “one of Europe’s good Communists.”
“Indeed, a surprisingly broad range of hard-bitten statesmen in Europe and the United States confessed, albeit off the record, to finding Mrs. Thatcher rather sexy. Francois Miterrand, who knew something about such things, once described her as having ‘the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.’” ( (It is a bit disturbing that Judt brings this up, when he has nothing to say about the sexiness of male politicians, but I find the parenthetical statement about FM pretty funny.)
On the increasingly casual attitude toward work in the command-economy East: “As East Germany’s official Small Political Dictionary put it, with unintended irony, “In socialism, the contradiction between work and free time, typical of capitalism, is removed.”
On Prague’s 15 minutes of fame after the Velvet Revolution: “The gaze of prominent intellectuals, a sure barometer of passing political fashions, had moved away.” (He named Susan Sontag in the next sentence.)
On the top-down, technocratic origins of the EU: “Reflecting bleakly upon his Labor Party colleagues’ obsession with the techniques and rules of party political management, the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee used to advise against the fundamental fallacy of believing that ‘it is possible by the elaboration of machinery to escape the necessity of trusting one’s fellow human beings.’ But this was just the premise on which the institutions of post-war European unity had been built.”
Georges Pompidou: “Should French ever cease to be the primary working language of Europe, then Europe itself would never be fully European.” (A telling quote, plus I never pass up a chance to say “Pompidou.”)
“In October 1991, …Gallup polled Austrians on their attitude to Jews. 20% thought ‘positions of authority should be closed to Jews,’ 31% declared that they would not want a Jew as a neighbor. Fully 50% were ready to agree with the proposition that “Jews are responsible for their past persecution.’”