Europa, Europa | The Nation


Europa, Europa

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Judt's book is a triumph of narrative, and it will plunge all of us who recall these events into a feeling not of nostalgia but of experiencing them again. Yet there were times when I felt a certain weariness, having studied the history of Europe for many decades, with the closed intensity of the Continent, as if I had to break out of a large house filled with quarreling relatives and breathe the winds blowing from elsewhere. At times Judt's Europe seems less a house of the dead than a house of the deaf. But he dispels that sense of encroaching claustrophobia by restoring the universality and brilliance of the European experiments. He renews one's sense of sympathy with what Herzen wrote from Paris to his Russian friends in 1849 after the crushing of the European revolutions: "Why then do I stay here? I stay because that struggle is going on here. Here, in spite of the blood and tears, social problems are being worked out, and painful and burning as the suffering here is, it is articulate. The struggle is open and above-board. No one hides. Woe betide the vanquished, but at least they will have given battle. They are not gagged before they have had their say. The tyranny is great but the protest is thundering."

About the Author

Charles S. Maier
Charles S. Maier teaches European and international history at Harvard University. His book Among Empires: American...

Yet even brilliant histories have alternatives, and while it is wrong to tax an author for not writing the alternative, it is fair to suggest that a different history is possible. In Judt's view the postwar period, "once understood as the onset of a new era of permanent ideological mobilization," turned out in 1991 to have been "an extended epilogue to the European civil war that had begun in 1914, a forty-year interregnum between the defeat of Adolf Hitler and the final resolution of the unfinished business left behind by his war." The effect of this interpretation is to radically reduce the impact of the 1960s, upon which Judt writes with barely concealed disdain. The baby boomers "looked back with fondness upon 'their' decade and continued to harbor fond memories and an exaggerated sense of its significance."

But is there not another way to understand these decades, in which the 1960s undermined the political discipline imposed by the imperatives of postwar reconstruction and cold war confrontation? The late '60s, the '70s and the '80s witnessed a gradual unmooring of Europe, much like old certainties and relationships dissolve when Iberia floats free in Saramago's Stone Raft. In its place a new Europe began to emerge, disoriented by local terrorism, global inflation, immigration from former colonies and the revival of the cold war in Africa and Asia--all of which portended, despite the achievements of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, a seismic loosening of identity and the advent of an age that is still decades from completion: Europe slowly being re-created, that is, from the outside in.

Judt concludes with a set of interlocking meditations that might validate such an approach: on borders and languages, the importance of the European states together with the EU and on Europeans' relationship to an America they find in the grip of religious fervor and hegemonic aspirations. "Few would have predicted it sixty years before, but the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe" is his hopeful conclusion, or at least hopeful for Europeans. Still, at the end Judt asserts the grip of the past, and not the trends of the future. In his epilogue on memory and the importance of history, he focuses again on the twin tolls of Nazism and Stalinism, but above all on the Holocaust; and from the perspective of Postwar, perhaps that is fitting. For all the peoples who have flowed into Europe, one group was to be systematically weeded out no matter how complete their social and cultural integration, and weeded out not only by Germans but also by their adherents throughout occupied Europe. (Roma and Sinti would be liquidated, too, but without ideological fanfare.) So the parabola of Judt's history comes to rest where it began--with World War II, Fascism and the fate of Jews. Curiously enough, the attempted extermination of the Jews provides a memory that does not have to accommodate the intrusion of Americanization or the more recent claims of Muslims. In its perverse way the Holocaust restores the lost cozy boundaries of Europe: Judt doesn't quite say so, but the Jewish dead are the clamp that restores Europe's older identity.

Seeking a metaphoric site for European memory, Judt ends with a visit to the House of Terror, erected by a center-right government in Budapest to commemorate victims of both Nazism and Communism. He recognizes how tendentious such a program is. But if the Jews are to be made so central to European memory, I would visit Peter Eisenman's vast quarry commemorating the murdered Jews of Europe, next to the Reichstag and along what was for four decades the seam between the two halves of Europe. Eisenman's field of steles draws the walker into its overwhelming interior. It compels meditation but encourages children to play and adults to seek glimpses of the living among the stones. It is authentic because it acknowledges uncertain outcomes and even allows for hope and surprise. It acknowledges the past but no longer as a lecture, no longer as a neurotic replay. Contrary to the cliché, the past is not a foreign country, but it's always one we've left for good.

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