My Sisyphean labour

When Bernard Wasserstein began his history of modern Europe, he was a fresh faced young lecturer. Twenty-five years on - and seriously behind schedule - he finally delivered on his contract

August 24, 2007

Is it possible to write a history of Europe in our time? I am - or aspire to be - a contemporary historian. Yet for most of my adult life I thought I could never complete such a work. I am aghast to think of it now, but it is more than 25 years since, as a recently appointed lecturer, I was invited to write a history of Europe in the 20th century for Oxford University Press.

Over the intervening years, as I contemplated all the languages I hadn’t learnt, all the countries I hadn’t visited, all the books I hadn’t read, all the archives I hadn’t scoured and, most intimidatingly, all the words I hadn’t written, the certainty grew in my mind that I had taken on a task that was worse than impossible - a crazy imposture. To say that I was discouraged doesn’t begin to describe it. I felt like the benighted, deluded Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch , who devotes his entire career to the fruitless search for the “key to all mythologies”, at the expense of everything else - his life, his wife, his sanity.

My book was originally supposed to be 160,000 words long and a volume in the Oxford History of the Modern World series. I promised to deliver it in 1987 - by which date I had not written more than a few pages. Over the next 15 years I read prodigiously, but as for the writing, although I plugged away conscientiously, I never seemed to advance very far. Only in 2004-05, when I went off for a year’s blessed leave at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, did I lock myself in my study and immerse myself wholly in the past. Eventually I found, with a kind of wonderment, that the story suddenly began to tell itself and by the end of the year I had finished the manuscript. In the interim, the series editor, John Roberts, died, and I lament that the confidence he showed in an untried, juvenile scholar was not repaid in his lifetime. Meanwhile, the fledgling publisher’s editor, Ivon Asquith, who with great foolhardiness had commissioned the book, rose to be head of OUP’s academic arm and then took early retirement. The series in which the book was due to appear has long since closed. It will appear instead as a standalone trade book of about 360,000 words on 928 pages - a blockbuster or a doorstop clunker, depending on how you weigh it.

Of course, I had many excuses for tardiness, well honed and eloquently recited over a succession of lengthy publishers’ lunches. Many of them will be familiar to members of our miserably procrastinatory profession: the impossible load of administrative duties, the inordinate demands of students, certain pressing obligations of a personal character that out of consideration for others could not be fully disclosed, my health, the weather. Then there was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and of the Soviet Union in 1991, both allegedly requiring wholesale reconsideration of my treatment of Eastern Europe. After that came my move from the US to Britain in 1996 and then my return to the US in 2002, each of which afforded rich grounds for further appeals for extension.

At one point, some time in the late 1990s, I despaired utterly of ever finishing. I pleaded with Asquith to let me off the hook and undertook to reimburse the small advance that the OUP had unwisely paid me. Asquith did not hesitate. The answer was “no” - not so much, he hastened to explain, because the press by then retained much faith in me as a productive scholar but rather because it would certainly be impossible to find any other historian worth his or her salt who would not be heavily over- committed with other projects and who would be able to finish the book any quicker than me - especially since (as I swore) I had already written substantial chunks of it.

So I returned to my typewriter. Soon, however, I was distracted from base camp at Everest to climb some smaller peaks. I wrote several other books, mostly archival monographs, that seemed to satisfy the demands of my employers and of the research assessment exercise but did not persuade OUP to unlock the ball and chain that it had affixed to the wrist of my typing hand.

Why did it take me so long to write this book? Of course, there were some legitimate reasons. The stockpile of secondary literature (never mind the archives) for the past century is larger than for the whole of the rest of history put together. Some of the early chapters that I wrote near the beginning, for example the one dealing with the Russian Revolution, had to be extensively rewritten to take account of archival revelations after 1989. I can’t pretend that I wholly solved that problem. When I showed an early draft of the chapter to Israel Getzler, the eminent historian of Russia, he said to me: “That’s fine so far as it goes but you’re stuck in the 1960s.” Later, I submitted a much-reworked version to Sheila Fitzpatrick, my colleague at the University of Chicago and a leading figure of the revisionist school that has transformed the study of Soviet history over the past three decades. She returned it with helpful corrections, commenting: “But it reads as if it’s stuck in the 1970s.” I rejoiced that, in the course of 20 years, I had been able to advance historiographically by one decade.

At the outset I thought I might be able to speed things up by reducing the scope of my assignment. Roberts had originally wanted me to get away from conventional periodisation and start in 1900. I nevertheless colluded with the author of the preceding volume in the series, Robert Gildea, in an arrangement whereby he would carry his narrative forward to 1914. Incidentally, he finished Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914 on schedule: it appeared in 1987 and over the past two decades has run through several editions and become a standard work.

To my consternation, however, I found that hardly had I bitten off the serpent’s head than it grew an even longer tail. Instead of finishing my narrative in 1987, the contractual delivery date, I had to take it up to the present, a moving target with which I could never quite catch up.

I considered stopping in 1989, at the end of what historian John Lukacs dubbed the “short 20th century”, but quickly decided that I must jettison that idea. The contemporary historian cannot dig a ditch between the present and the past. His primary task, after all, is precisely to demystify “the twilight zone… between living memory and written history”, which the historian of the American South C. Vann Woodward called “one of the favourite breeding places of mythology”.

The central myths in this case are the great warrior ideologies that tortured, disfigured and for a time dismembered Europe in the past century - nationalism, fascism and communism. I have not discovered any common “key” to those mythologies. The very concept of such a unifying theory is something that I, in any case, discarded long ago.

But my book does have what might be called a fil conducteur that is reflected in the title. What runs through the narrative is a sense that civilisation and barbarism walked hand in hand in Europe in the course of the past century. I really wanted to call the book not Barbarism & Civilization but Barbarism in Civilization because in our time they were not polar opposites but, as Walter Benjamin maintained, locked together in a dialectical relationship. “There is no document of civilisation,” Benjamin wrote, “that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.”

Benjamin’s aphorism turned out to be truer than he could have imagined - at any rate until his own tragic death, in flight from the barbarians, on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940. In considering how European society could have degenerated into such depths in the middle of the 20th century, I drew on Freud’s insight in Civilization and its Discontents (1930). “Civilisation,” he maintained, was “built up on renunciation of instinctual gratifications”. Sexual repression, indeed, had reached a high watermark in contemporary Western civilisation. As a result, the sexual life of civilised man was “seriously disabled”. As if to compensate, the repression of the aggressive urge was relaxed and, by means of what he termed a “narcissism in respect of minor differences”, channelled into hostility against other collectivities, such as Jews or neighbouring states.

Given the sacrifices of both sexuality and aggressiveness that civilisation demanded, it was hardly to be wondered at that civilised man should be unhappy. The aggravated anxiety that seemed to afflict his contemporaries, “their dejection, their mood of apprehension”, he attributed to the fact that “men have brought their powers of subduing the forces of nature to such pitch that by using them they could now very easily exterminate one another to the last man”.

One need not accept every part of this interpretation to appreciate its prophetic force. Changes in sexual attitudes in the course of the 20th century were merely part of a much broader revolution in European values. On the one hand, we have seen a growth of ruthlessness, manifested in wartime atrocities, criminality and heightened racial hatreds; on the other, a growth of tenderness, exemplified in changed attitudes to the treatment of the mentally ill, the disabled, prisoners, children and animals. Europe in our time was the scene of some of the most savage episodes of collective violence in the recorded history of the human species. Yet the same period also saw incontestable improvements in many aspects of the life of most inhabitants of the Continent: human life was extended, on average, by more than half; standards of living increased dramatically; illiteracy was all but eliminated; women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals advanced closer to equality.

Undoubtedly the most significant change in European values in the course of the past century has been the disappearance of God as a living presence in the lives of most Europeans. This is the first post-Christian generation in the history of the Continent and the results are to be seen all around us, not merely in the withering-away of the churches as institutions but in the decline of belief in the supernatural. At the same time, we witness also the failure of any alternative value system. Some readers have already objected that my stress on secularisation is too sweeping, though it is borne out by sociological data that I cite. They point, for example, to the alleged revival of religion in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. The argument is doubtful since the supposed new religiosity, while often superficially evident in gleamingly refurbished churches, is very limited in its social sweep and ideological sway. And in some former citadels of religiosity, notably Poland, the Catholic Church has been in wholesale retreat since 1989.

But the objection raises an important question: is it possible to conceive of a collective European consciousness? Must the contemporary European historian be a crude lumper or should he surrender to the splitters who insist on the priority of differentiations of class, gender, generational cohort, nation, region, occupation and religion? I am a splitter, but there is a lumper inside me struggling to get out. My book provides evidence to suggest that, even as we celebrate individualism and ditch the enforced uniformity of fascism, communism and the first-generation welfare state, Europeans are nevertheless becoming more like than unlike. One area where this is palpable is clothing: we all dress more individualistically than our forebears a century ago; yet it is much harder these days to detect our social status or national origin from what we wear. Another sphere of decreasing heterogeneity is language: the decline of small languages and regional dialects and the growing hegemony of English. And a third is popular culture that is less and less bound to folk memory or place of origin and more often acquired through new technology shared among different countries, ethnic groups and classes. Perhaps (but this is more speculative) we can see a further sign of continental convergence in recent political events in Britain, France and Germany, with the apparent breakdown in all three cases of left-right paradigms and the emergence of a new politics of ouverture .

A quarter of a century almost to the day after he first asked me to write my book, I met Asquith on the bus to London. I told him that I had finally delivered my manuscript. He told me not to worry. Delays were quite normal for history books. He cited the case of the late E. F. Jacob, a distinguished medieval historian. Jacob took nearly 30 years to produce his volume on the 15th century in the Oxford History of England. When it appeared, it received generally favourable reviews, except, said Asquith, that one critic complained that it showed “haste in writing”.

Having been trained to verify my references, I looked up the reviews when I got home. Through the miracle of the journal database Jstor, I found that Asquith had been too kind. Jacob’s book received savage criticism. One reviewer called it “ponderous, turgid… history without ideas, without insights, without wit, without charm, and even without usefulness”. Another, after listing a long catalogue of mistakes, noted that there was an error even on the errata slip. Yet, no doubt because it forms part of what was, until recently, a standard series, Jacob’s book is still in print.

My own book, having no such external support, must stand or fall on its merits and will now meet its fate. At the conclusion of my Sisyphean labour, I can only say, as Dr Johnson notoriously did of women preaching and dogs that walk on their hind legs: it may not be done well but I am surprised to find that it is done at all. Whatever the book’s reception, the story it tells of Europe’s agony, self-immolation and resurrection in our time inspires in me a sense of awe at the infernal dynamism and sempiternal capacity for self-renewal of our kind.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments