Cause to laugh, forget and yet remember

February 10, 2006

A harrowing, heartening and triumphant portrait of a middle-aged continent gives Europeans a fresh sense of themselves, says Alex Danchev

Postwar" is a state of mind. Tony Judt's conception of it is, as artists say, "after" Luc Sante, his coeval, who grew up in that frigid but Frigidaire-less world of larders, cellars, pot-bellied stoves, short pants and inkwells, "where 'postwar' was a season that stretched for nearly 20 years". Sante is Belgian. The place he was talking about was not some undiscovered pocket of the Carpathians, as he put it, but Western Europe.

Judt is British, transplanted American, but his beat is Europe - Europe whole -and his project is all of a piece. He is director of the Remarque Institute in New York. This takes its name from Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front ; it is dedicated to the public understanding of Europe and to the intellectual dialogue between Americans and Europeans. Its director embodies this mission. If Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus, Judt may be described as a Venusian probe. He proposes that for Europe postwar was a season that stretched for nearly 60 years: more an era than a season, perhaps, ending only yesterday but already history, cased and commemorated. Postwar is Europe brought to book.

It is a remarkable achievement. Here is Europe, black-hearted and benign, arrayed for our instruction. The lesson is by turns harrowing and heartening as the instructor attends not only to the histories but also to the memories: the troublesome psychological dimension. The novelist Milan Kundera has spoken eloquently of organised forgetting. Judt is a kind of counterpart Kundera in historian's clothing. Postwar , too, is a book of laughter and forgetting, but its ultimate concern is organised remembering.

Europe itself is a memory place, in Pierre Nora's formulation, and Judt is adept at weaving and unweaving the memory traces in the patterns of the past. The technique is epitomised in his epilogue, "From the House of the Dead: An essay on modern European memory", a statement of exemplary sobriety on that intransigent subject. Postwar is indeed an exemplary work - as it is intended to be. It is a passionate avowal of a professional calling: the historian as public intellectual - vocal, timely, outward-looking but morally alert.

Judt seems ideally suited to the role. He has succeeded in writing the biography of a middle-aged continent trying, after a disgraceful past, to settle down and go straight, as Neal Ascherson has aptly said. Like Eric Hobsbawm, he has also succeeded in injecting something of himself into the mix, with tonic effect. This is not merely a history of Europe since 1945.

It is his history - lived history. "The present author" (born 1948) makes fleeting Harry Lime-like appearances in the text. He is first glimpsed buying gobstoppers from an old crone in a sweetshop in darkest Putney, southwest London. Shaking the sawdust from his heels, he is able to vouch for French as a kind of student lingua franca from Barcelona to Istanbul as late as 1970 - but no later. In 1989, he is there to witness the delicious intoxication of the Velvet Revolution in Prague. In 1999, on a fact-finding visit to Skopje, he is informed by the Macedonian Prime Minister that Albanians (including one who has just left the room) are not to be trusted.

"You can't believe anything they say - they are just not like us. They are not Christian." In 2004, he receives a greeting from a correspondent in the Foreign Ministry in Zagreb: "Things here good. Croatia got EU membership invitation. This will change many mental maps."

The authorial persona introduced here - capacious, judicious, well connected yet undeceived - is congruent with an authorial stance at once learned and opinionated, and unabashed on either score. "Fox-like," he observes, "Europe knows many things." The same might be said of this cosmopolitan European. He knows when the Portuguese dictator António Salazar's mother was born (1846), and can throw out a sharp remark about it ("for a man still ruling a European state in the late 1960s he was unusually deeply rooted in the mores of the previous century"). He knows facts, public opinion-poll data in particular, but is not fazed by them.

(In a 1952 poll, 25 per cent of Germans admitted to having a "good opinion" of Hitler, a finding comfortably outdone by a 1991 poll, in which fully 50 per cent of Austrians agreed with the proposition that "Jews are responsible for their past persecution".) He knows there is a Europe that "knows" and a Europe that "waits to be known" (Voltaire). Like all the best historians, Judt is a great scavenger - his appropriations from other authorities and other eras, and his reflections on them, are beautifully turned. "As in the 18th century so in the 21st: Russia was both in Europe and outside it, Montesquieu's 'nation d'Europe' and Gibbon's 'Scythian wilderness'." "When Mozart headed west from Vienna en route for Prague in 1787, he described himself as crossing an oriental border. East and West, Asia and Europe, were always walls in the mind at least as much as lines on the earth."

He is a high-octane film fan, and a proponent of the cinema as a mirror of the age. His favourites are from the French New Wave. "French film had become the preferred vehicle for international moral debate", he writes, apropos of Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). This is exciting. Judt is steeped in French culture. Does he get a little carried away? "The uniquely French ability to invest small human exchanges with awe-inspiring cultural significance" may or may not be tongue in cheek, but the non-French sometimes seem to struggle to catch up, culturally speaking, in these pages. (There is a rather impoverished account of Edgar Reitz's epic Heimat , for example, another imagining of postwar.) Nevertheless, he is able to embrace the likes of Andrzej Wajda in late Communist Poland and Pedro Almodóvar in post-Franco Spain, and he is not above discerning a (continental) "European style" - "a variable balance of artistic self-confidence, intellectual pretension and cultivated wit" - under-specified, perhaps, but arguable.

The unbridled enthusiasm for French film by no means carries over to French intellectuals. It is only to be expected that this author would treat "the life of the mind", as he calls it, with due respect. The respect extends to its putative effect in the public sphere - he sees the first Western publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago , in 1973, as "the hinge on which postwar Europe's self-understanding turned" - but not always to those who live it. He is immune to certain forms of intellectual inquiry and to their tribal gods. Le grand fromage is to Judt as a red rag to a bull. His patience exhausted, he is apt to turn thuggish. In this mood, no reputation is safe. Some are savaged, some are slighted, some are simply ignored. Michel Foucault is little more than warmed-over Nietzsche. Jacques Derrida is derided as derivative. Bernard-Henri Lévy finds a place, but not Emmanuel Levinas. There are film directors galore, a few great writers (Heinrich Heine, scalpel-like, throughout), but no artists, not even Gerhard Richter, to speak of the paintable and the unpaintable in the tortuous past.

Gaps and blind spots are meat and drink to the carrion reviewer, but the two most obvious shortcomings in Postwar do not bear directly on the text. For a major work such as this, the index is wholly inadequate. Worse, much worse, there are no references and no bibliography. In fact, there is nothing at all, except a single parodic note in the preface: "To avoid adding to what is already a very long book addressed to a general readership, a full apparatus of references is not provided here. Instead, the sources for Postwar , together with a full bibliography, will in due course be available for consultation on the Remarque Institute website, ." In short, the entire apparatus has been outsourced. From sourcing to outsourcing in one generation - and they are not there yet.

The existing text is a triumph. Judt is master of all he surveys. "He has the syrup," Gertrude Stein said of one unfortunate, "but it will not pour." Judt has the syrup, and it pours a treat. His models, he tells us, are Francois Furet, Hobsbawm, George Lichtheim and A.J.P. Taylor, for their intellectual self-confidence and their clarity of style.

As so often in the writing and the rewriting of modern history, Taylor in particular is a huge influence; the debt more profound, possibly, than the author himself is aware. It is there in the epigrammatic tendency and synoptic cast of the narrative. "The opposite of communism was not 'capitalism' but 'Europe'. 'Europe' stood for normalcy and the modern way of life. Communism was now no longer the future - its insistent trump card for six decades - but the past." It is there in the love of paradox and the spoiling of conventional wisdom. "Gorbachev cannot take direct credit for what happened in 1989 - he did not plan it and only hazily grasped its long-term import. But he was the permissive and precipitating cause. It was Mr Gorbachev's revolution." It is there in the table-turning conclusion of the book. English History 1914-1945 ends with a typically Taylorian flourish: "Few now sang 'England Arise', but England had risen all the same." It is echoed in Postwar : "Few would have predicted it 60 years before, but the 21st century might yet belong to Europe."

This in no way diminishes Judt, who has done something quite rare. He has not exactly rewritten history, but he has written it afresh, as Taylor did, and made it his own. "A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual," reflects Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain , "but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries." So it is with Judt. Postwar is his epoch. From now on it is unavoidable.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945

Author - Tony Judt
Publisher - William Heinemann
Pages - 878
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 434 00749 8

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