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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What is the future of Europe?, September 16, 2006
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This review is from: Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Hardcover)
"Postwar - A history of Europe since 1945" by Tony Judt is the best book I have read on the subject. Its perspective on events since 1989 up to 2005 is remarkably good.

Only two generations have passed since World War 2, and the risk with a book about this period is that its conclusions and themes may prove to be foolish in the fullness of time. One is reminded of Mao's response to a question about the consequences of the French Revolution, "It is too soon to tell."

We can probably be reasonably sure that the history of Europe from the collapse of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires plus the Soviet upheavals after WW1 to the final territorial and ethnic spasm in the Balkans in the 1990s can probably be written with some certainty, although we still lack access to original source documents for the Soviet role over that period.

All books dealing with post-war European history suffer from the fact that limited archival material from the Soviet Union has been available for study. Historians are forced to rely on sporadic Soviet documents and speeches and the assessments of western diplomats and analysts to interpret Soviet thinking and intentions.

The result is that this book (and others) views the history of the Communist world with Western eyes and Western mindsets. We are denied access to the thoughts, fears and hopes of communist politicians and dissidents and their influence on history. Hopefully, one day, more archival and other documents will become available to historians and a more balanced history will emerge over time.

If I may give another analogy: at present historians writing of the Communist world are peering through the windows of a house trying to understand the lives of the family living there. They see people going to and fro in the rooms. Occasionally they get glimpses of what the individuals are reading and writing. Sometimes a resident will hold up a photo or document for the historian to see. But the historian cannot hear what they say, nor can he go inside the house to talk to them or inspect their documents, or ask them their views on the outside world. He can draw conclusions only from what he sees through the windows.

A big message from this book is that the recovery and prosperity enjoyed by Western Europe for half a century is due to both the US and the USSR. The US provided critical economic aid and political support to Europe, including West Germany, because of the threat assumed to be posed by the USSR. Without such a threat, the US may have retreated into isolationism, leaving the Europeans to sort out the mess. Without the threat of the USSR, there may not have been the will forgo reparations from Germany and to encourage West Germany to recover. These were distinct possibilities in the immediate post-war period.

The book deals only with the history of Western Europe, with very little explanation of the impact of the rest of the world on that history. Events and policies in the USSR and USA are covered to the extent that they directly impinged on Europe. However, Communist and post-colonial developments in Asia and Africa certainly reinforced cold war attitudes in Europe, if they did not directly influence them.

What must still be provisional is the history of Europe since say 1990. Will the European Union and the Euro survive the test of time, or will one or the other go into the dustbin of history?

Judt's description of the moribund Soviet economies in the 1970s is the best I have read on the subject. The joke "You pretend to work and we pretend to pay you" sums up the cynicism and inefficiencies of Eastern bloc economies.

His account of the final years of the Eastern Bloc is excellent, as is discussion of the key issues facing Europe in the aftermath of its collapse and the apparent success of free market ideologies.

The final chapters of the struggle between socialism (in the form of modern European social capitalism) and capitalist individualism on the US model has yet to be written. Communism has probably failed for all time, but that does not mean that unrestrained US-style free enterprise will take over Europe. Beware of historians who proclaim "the end of history" and the "triumph of liberal democratic capitalism". Fortunately, Judt is too sensible to make such hubristic claims, although he does lean towards the European model.

Which model of society will "win" in the course of the 21st Century - the unfettered capitalism of the US, or the social capitalism of the EU? What is the future of the nation state in the face of the challenges from terrorist extremism?

These are important questions, and Judt's book provides the reader with an excellent exposition of the political, social and economic circumstances surrounding them.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 7, 2010 9:16:03 PM PDT
In reality, to call the economic system of the U.S. "unfettered capitalism" beggars the mind.

Posted on Jan 8, 2013 5:28:12 AM PST
It was Zhou EnLai who made the French Revolution quote.

Posted on Feb 6, 2015 11:55:47 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 6, 2015 12:24:48 PM PST
The saying should be we pretend to work because they pretend to pay us

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2015 12:25:59 PM PST
Well, compared to communism it seems that way.
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