Writing in the early days of the cold war, Raymond Aron declared: “In our times for individuals as for nations the choice that determines all else is a global one, in effect a geographical choice. One is in the universe of free countries or else in that of lands placed under harsh Soviet rule.” Tony Judt cites this with approval but also includes Aron’s warning that politics compelled realism: “It is never a struggle between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.” There is a breed of European liberal intellectual that admires Aron for his lucid tough-mindedness–a supercool Isaiah Berlin, closer in spirit to Clausewitz than to Herzen or Herder. Aron’s most consistent subtext was always: no kid stuff, no utopias, no illusions and, above all, no acting out. But let’s face it: The history of Europe has included massive spells of acting out, from the springtime of the peoples in 1848 to May ’68, from the French Revolution to the Velvet Revolution.
Postwar, Judt’s learned, massive and often quite wonderful summary of European public life since World War II, is a vast effort to square periodic acting out with Aron’s injunction to cast a cold eye–more precisely, to applaud Eastern Europe’s acting out in Budapest, Prague and finally in 1989, and to dismiss Parisian acting out in 1968. Judt’s book is a retrospective battle with the forces of Stalinist despotism and its useful idiots on the left (Judt certainly has no truck with the murderous bullies on the right, but they were largely defeated in 1945 and really reappear only in the Balkans after 1989). Postwar follows the struggle to re-establish a politics of decency after Nazism and Communism, and it recognizes that this battle was won in Western Europe less by grand gestures of purge and absolution than through the politics of stabilization, institution building, continual compromise with some unattractive holdovers from Hitler’s Europe and the willingness to reweave Germany into civic life, to adjourn the quest for socialism and to accept the welfare state instead. This was also a struggle to overcome the great descent into totalitarianism, World War II and the ensuing poverty, demoralization and exhaustion.
What makes Postwar particularly laudable, aside from a narrative stamina sustained over sixty crowded years and nearly 900 pages, is that it explicitly sets out to treat the two halves of Europe as a single continent. Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland belong to Judt’s Europe as integrally as France and Germany. He tells the story of Eastern Europe’s subjugation by the Soviets with detail and clarity, from the purges just after the war (notably in Hungary, where one-tenth of the population faced arrest, interrogation or far worse), to the thaw under Khrushchev, to the disintegration of state socialism in the 1980s. Yet despite his preoccupation with the ghosts of Stalinism, Judt is also attentive to the ways in which Europe’s economic and social revival from the mid-’50s to the late ’80s–the subject of the book’s splendid middle sections–transcended, and often defied, any neat division between the capitalist West and the Communist East.
Readers of Judt’s work, particularly his incisive essays in The New York Review of Books, may be familiar with his trajectory. Trained originally as a historian of modern France, Judt felt it urgent to recover the suppressed aspirations of Eastern Europeans–the travail, above all, of the Czechs after 1968–when he examined the pro-Soviet apologias of French leftist intellectuals in his 1992 book Past Imperfect. His judgmental tone can exact a price, flattening the complexities of intellectual debates or leading to a readier acceptance of the defects of Western positions. In Postwar, for instance, Judt briefly cites the CIA’s secret funding of the non-Communist left. Some of those who received support were, as Judt rightly says, admirable intellectuals badly in need of support in the postwar struggle for liberalism and social democracy. But the issue raised by CIA funding, which I believe is revealingly understated here, was not just the war against Stalinism but the impact of secrecy on public intellectuals. After all, as Judt clearly understands with respect to the post-Stalinist deformation of Eastern European life, secret collaboration–the fabric of privilege exchanged for private betrayal–constituted the basis of Communist rule once the sanguinary and disgusting show trials were abandoned. Václav Havel is Judt’s hero precisely for his clearsighted exposé of the shabby compromises that stabilized the regimes of the 1970s and ’80s.