Europe's New Narrative

Europe's New Narrative

Mini Teaser: Why the Cold War was so instrumental in Europe's success.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (Penguin Press: New York, 2005), 964 pp., $39.95

THE THEME of Tony Judt's magisterial history of Europe since 1945 hinges on the symbolic moment that he suggests took place in Paris on December 28, 1973, when "the Master Narrative of the twentieth century . . . [and] its core assumptions began to erode and crumble" with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. This was not the first, and certainly not the most literary, exposure of the Soviet experiment as "a barbaric fraud", but it was the fatal blow to the long and lingering loyalty that so many Europeans had maintained to the utopian hopes of the 1917 Revolution, a loyalty that was given a new lease of life by the epic of the Red Army's resistance and its march to Berlin in 1945. And in rejecting the last claim of Soviet communism to be on the side of history or social progress or even human decency, the recognition of the gulag required Europeans to question anew the assumptions that lay behind so many of the national and political myths that had survived the double suicide of Old Europe in the First and Second World Wars. Like Auschwitz, the gulag was unforgivable; there was nothing inevitable about "History" that could not be changed by individual courage and decision; the Left could not therefore be pardoned for Marxism's sins by pleading good intentions.

After The Gulag Archipelago it was no longer conceivable that an eminent British liberal Marxist like E. P. Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class (1966), could complain to East European dissidents, as he did to Poland's Professor Leszek Kolakowski after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, that their critiques of Moscow were undermining the West's faith in socialism. By 1978, with the publication of FranÂois Furet's Penser la RŽvolution FranÂaise, Frenchmen even had to reconsider the great myth of 1789 as the founding triumph of the Rights of Man and of the modern politics of Left and Right. The British rethought the welfare state of 1945 and the abiding political fairy tale of One Nation and in 1979 elected Margaret Thatcher to transform their economic system and their social order. Germany's Social Democrats had to ask searching questions about the utility of Ostpolitik and to acknowledge the lethal cunning of an American foreign policy that had inserted the Helsinki process like a crowbar into the vulnerabilities of the Soviet empire. By 1982 Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats were in power, and France's Socialist President FranÂois Mitterrand was calling on his country's businessmen to modernize "ˆ l'AmŽricaine." By the end of that decade, the heirs of Helsinki across Eastern Europe had seized their moment, and first the Berlin Wall and then the entire Soviet edifice had crumbled away unlamented.

JUDT, BORN and educated in Britain, now lives and teaches at New York University, where he directs the Remarque Institute for European Studies. But this is a book of a classic European intellectual who is as at home with the thought and intellectuals of Paris, Warsaw and Prague as he is with the details of British economic crisis and German Wirtschaftwunder (economic miracle). He has written a magnificent conventional history of modern Europe, but its quality and its power come from the way he insists that his narrative is also a history of ideas and of the peculiar vulnerability of the European mind to ideologies and to the patterns of thought and political loyalty they impose. He takes with great seriousness and respect intellectuals and their essays, small magazines and half-forgotten debates, as well as those fashions for existentialism and structuralism and post-Marxism and the Frankfurt school that he persuasively contends were critical to the development of Europe after 1945. The collapse of the European Left was contingent on the demoralization of the traditional intellectuals, who in Judt's words were "uneasily aware that the disintegration of great historical schemes and master narratives boded ill for the chattering classes who had been most responsible for purveying them."

"Every politically significant revolution is anticipated by a transformation of the intellectual landscape", Judt maintains, to open his chapter which recounts the significance of Thatcher's transformation of Britain. This theme permeates his book. The key to understanding the social democratic consensus that defined the West European body politic for three decades after 1945 was the almost complete discrediting of traditional conservative thought, blamed for both the Great Depression and the coming of Adolf Hitler. As de Gaulle put it: "To many, the disaster of 1940 seemed like the failure of the ruling class and system in every realm."

British Conservatives ceased to conserve but competed with Labour to see who could deliver a more efficiently generous welfare state. Italian, German and other conservatives rallied behind a Christian democratic consensus whose important characteristics were almost indistinguishable from the social democrats. The British coined the word Butskellism, after the prominent Conservative R. A. Butler and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, to describe the convergent commitment to the beneficent state and its welfare policies, to a strong state role in economic planning and investment along with institutionalized consultation with the labor unions and industrial groups, to public works to ensure full employment, and to massive subsidies for education, healthcare and the arts. The broad similarities of this system across national frontiers, along with the postwar boom that was fueled by the Marshall Plan and public investment, made the transition into the European Economic Community all the easier.

This in turn meant a significant European divergence from the American experience, an argument stressed by the British historian A. J. P. Taylor in a talk on BBC Radio in November 1945: "Nobody in Europe believes in the American way of life--that is, private enterprise, or rather, those who believe in it, are a defeated party which seems to have no more future than the Jacobites in England after 1945." This was by no means an antipathy limited to the conventional Left. In 1952 the French Catholic journal Esprit noted proudly, "We have, from the outset, warned of the dangers posed to our national wellbeing by an American culture which attacks the very roots of the mental and moral cohesion of the peoples of Europe."

Modern Europe is in a profound way the child of the American conquest, occupation and continued military presence, and of the extraordinary altruism of America's Marshall Plan and the officials who administered it deliberately as a way to foster European integration. Prostrate in the winter of 1947, Western Europe staged a miraculous recovery; by 1950 the industrial and economic output of every West European country had surpassed the levels of 1938. And 80 percent of all the wheat consumed by Europeans in the years 1949-51 came from dollar-zone countries, paid for with the dollar credits furnished by the Marshall Plan. (So did many of the cigarettes, thanks to the insistence of congressmen from the tobacco-growing states of the American South, inspiring one British parliamentarian, Robert Boothby, to thunder that the British Empire was being sold "for a packet of cigarettes.")

THE LONG American Watch on the Rhine, of which Senator Pat Moynihan once exclaimed, "This is the stuff of Roman empires", was the essential protective shield behind which postwar Europe flourished. And if there is one salient weakness in Judt's account, it is his lack of emphasis on the role of NATO as the institutional twin of the European project as it developed from the initial Iron and Steel Community to the 1957 Treaty of Rome and eventually the European Union. The British, who routinely spent twice as great a proportion of GDP on defense in the 1950s as the West Germans, played a stout supportive role, and the recurrent fashion for sneering at the "Anglo-Saxons" serves to illustrate the old saw that no good deed ever goes unpunished and perhaps also to explain the British tendency to Euroskepticism. Britain had never rationed bread during World War II but began to do so in 1946 in order to feed the desperate Germans. As Prime Minister Harold Macmillan later observed: "Of course, if we succeeded in losing two world wars, wrote off all our debts--instead of having nearly 30 billion pounds in debts--got rid of all our foreign obligations and kept no force overseas, then we might be as rich as the Germans." (This is one of a more than a hundred well-chosen quotations that launch each of Judt's 24 chapters; they alone very nearly justify the book's cost.)

Judt's book is studded with gems, brief but erudite essays on the seductive intellectual role of Paris, on the sudden German fashion for studying the young Marx rather than the mature thinker, or on the way British cinema in the mid-1950s suddenly changed from replaying the heroics of World War II--The Cruel Sea (1953), The Dam Busters (1954), Cockleshell Heroes (1955), Reach For The Sky (1956)--to much darker and more nuanced portrayals like The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) and Dunkirk (1958). And he links this to the sudden emergence of the loose-knit group of radical playwrights known as the Angry Young Men and cites that telling statement of Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's seminal play Look Back In Anger (1956): "It's pretty dreary living in the American age--unless of course you're American." Even better is the line that Alison, Porter's upper-class girlfriend, hurls first at her father and then at her lover: "You're hurt because everything's changed. Jimmy's hurt because everything's the same. And neither of you can face it." From this cultural interlude, Judt segues cleverly into the European resentments of American power and presence and geopolitical mastery. After Eisenhower ruthlessly crushed the last fling of independent strategic decision by France and Britain during the ill-fated venture in 1956 to retake the Suez Canal, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer wooed the bruised French with the feline assurance that "Europe will be your revenge."

Essay Types: Book Review