As an A-level candidate once wrote, very reasonably, “the Thirty Years War is confusing, because a lot of things happened in a fairly short time”. This is, of course, true of most of the more interesting periods of history: a good historian must, on the basis of detailed knowledge and sound judgement, define and present the important issues, leaving “a lot of things” aside. The past six decades of Europe’s history, full of complexities and transformations, imperatively need this sort of treatment, and they get it in Dan Stone’s illuminating and stimulating book.
He takes us, informatively but concisely, through the contrasting phases of Europe’s recent experience: the utterly chaotic aftermath of the Second World War, then the long deadlock of the Cold War, the uneasy emergence of East-West détente, the turbulent arrival of “neoliberalism” as the West’s dominant creed by about 1980, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, and finally the economic calamities and political dilemmas of the present.
One of the book’s admirable features is Stone’s ability to devote serious attention, decade by decade, to both Eastern and Western Europe. Unlike many writers on this subject, he is as much at home with the domestic politics of Moscow, Budapest or East Berlin as with those of Paris, Rome or Bonn; he explains the functioning of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact as well as that of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; and when the two blocs clash over Berlin, Suez or Cuba, he presents the issues involved with clarity and precision.
Stone’s approach gives a vivid sense of the radically different atmosphere and expectations of each successive stage
Above all, Stone’s approach gives a vivid sense of the radically different atmosphere and expectations of each successive stage of the period under consideration, and this turns out to be critical for the overall thesis of the book. His heading for the first decade after 1945 is “The rise of the postwar consensus” (a complex term with different connotations in East and West); then, writing on the two decades of economic growth from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, he flags up “Golden years?” for Western Europe, and “Catching up?” for the East; and so on until the final quarter-century, from the end of the Cold War to the present day, which he portrays with reference to one of his central concepts, “The fall of the postwar consensus”.
What was the essence of this consensus, whose creation after 1945 Stone celebrates and whose dissolution by the 21st century he laments? We should not forget that the Second World War was a period of intense reflection and passionate debate about how the post-war world should be made immeasurably better than the world of the 1920s and 1930s, the world of slump, unemployment and war. The arguments of William Beveridge on social policy, of John Maynard Keynes on macroeconomics and of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his left-wing vice-president Henry Wallace were part of an overwhelming consensus in favour of what Stone describes with the general term “social democracy”, including “democracy, class collaboration, good labour-employee relations, nationalization of essential services and utilities, high taxation to fund the creation of all-embracing welfare states”. These innovations naturally took different forms in different countries – state-led economic planning in France, emphasis on a “socially-conscious market economy” (soziale Marktwirtschaft) in Germany – but they belonged to a recognisable consensus directed at the creation of a new and better society.
To the East, the Stalinist version of this post-war consensus had to take a different form. The concepts of liberal democracy, a mixed economy and free collective bargaining were anathema to the one-party state based on Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism (as it was sometimes known at the time), a state that had justified its claim to represent the consensus of the future by its massive contribution to the defeat of the Third Reich. “The future” potentially meant that of all Europe. Stalin could hardly argue that the forced installation of pro-Soviet regimes in the entire area occupied by the Red Army in 1945 was based on old-fashioned power-politics motives of security against attack (although it was): he had to argue that the thick cordon of People’s Democracies resulted from the revolutionary stage of socio-economic development of the countries concerned, and this – reversing Stalin’s pre-war doctrine of “socialism in one country” – suggested that a similar evolution might be expected in Europe’s Western part, too.
As well as the elements that the Eastern and Western versions of the post-war consensus might have in common (and to which proponents of “convergence” repeatedly drew attention), there was the all-important question of what the consensus did not cover, and what it profoundly opposed. As Stone emphasises in one of his central arguments, the origins of the consensus in the mighty war against fascism meant that it was essentially a consensus of the extreme opposite, a consensus of anti-fascism. For the Soviet Union, of course, the concept of “anti-fascism” had tended to mean the branding of any adversary as “fascist” (the Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic had been denounced as “social-fascists” and the Berlin Wall was officially an “anti-fascist protective barrier”) as well as the firm concentration of all power in the hands of the Soviet leadership. This suggestion that all opposition to the leadership was factually or potentially fascist was to play some part, after the later collapse of the Soviet system, in legitimating extreme right-wing groups in some of the former People’s Democracies and ex-Soviet republics.
In Western Europe, the concern to make the new post-war consensus a specifically anti-fascist construction was marked by more nuances, and there have been a number of reasons why anti-fascism has been increasingly challenged by neo-fascist or neo-Nazi groups as the decades have gone by. In the first place, the post-war process of “denazification” – the opening-up of the full horrors of the Third Reich and the bringing to justice of those responsible – was carried out very incompletely. Overtaken by the conflicting priorities of the Cold War, those in charge settled for regarding German and Austrian Nazis and Italian Fascists as useful allies against communism, allowing some of them – for instance Kurt Waldheim, who would become president of Austria – to reach positions of great prominence and influence. Then the growth of far-right forces was stimulated by the dips in Europe’s economic fortunes from the 1970s onwards, by resentment at the scale of immigration and (as the tension of the Cold War abated) by a reassertion of national identities and national historical memories against the collective orthodoxies of the Eastern and Western blocs. Most interestingly and persuasively, Stone attributes a major causal responsibility to the creed and practice of neoliberalism – unbridled capitalism, deregulation and cuts in the responsibilities of the state – which swept from West to East by the end of the 20th century, undermining the progressive post-war consensus and its anti-fascist underpinning and thus helping to legitimate far-right movements of various kinds.
Deplorably, the publishers have seen fit to produce this important book without providing a bibliography, that valuable and indeed irreplaceable instrument for serious readers. However, Stone’s original and provocative work analyses two contemporary trends that worry him greatly – ultra-liberal capitalism and right-wing extremism – and thoughtfully explores the links between them.
Dan Stone is professor of modern history, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is co-editor of the Journal of Genocide Research and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History (2012).
Stone was born in Lincoln and raised in Birmingham, and now lives in London with his wife and children. He took his undergraduate degree and doctorate at the University of Oxford, and went on to hold a junior research fellowship at New College, Oxford, before gaining a lectureship at Royal Holloway.
A key influence on his scholarship, says Stone, is the work of eminent Holocaust scholar Saul Friedländer, particularly a 1992 volume edited by Friedländer, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution”.
He also cites works such as “Gitta Sereny’s book Into that Darkness, Jean Amery’s memoir At the Mind’s Limits, the so-called Scrolls of Auschwitz, the amazing texts written by men forced to work in the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau and discovered buried in the ground after the war, and the semi-fictional works of Tadeusz Borowski and Ida Fink”.
Stone adds: “I’m writing a book now on the liberation of the Nazi camps; some of the sources are distressing but it is a compelling topic and there’s surprisingly little written on it.”
Goodbye to All That? The Story of Europe since 1945
By Dan Stone
Oxford University Press, 416pp, £25.00
Published 14 January 2014