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.

Another consequence flows from Judt’s concern with the battles of the cold war and his abiding interest in political ideas. Postwar is not a title without implication. Judt says that his young son suggested it, since it covered the period after the war. But the title describes more than a period. It expresses the author’s conviction that so much of Europe’s history remains in the grip of contested memories. (The title of Judt’s epilogue, borrowed from either Dostoyevsky or Janacek, is “From the House of the Dead.”) European history has been a grappling with ghosts–sometimes productively, sometimes obsessively and distortedly.

Precisely Judt’s preoccupation with the role of historical memory, however, leads to the major ambiguity in his achievement. The story he tells continually bursts out of the framework imposed by “postwar” collective memory. As an analyst of the so-called historians’ controversy in Germany, I know how captivating a perspective such a preoccupation can provide. The history of what we now call collective memory has obviously responded to a powerful need finally to take stock of the moral legacy covered up by a generation of shame and opportunism. But the question arises whether this emphasis fails to capture how decisively Fascism and Communism have been left behind. And it threatens to obscure an equally powerful European development, which has been not the repression but the outgrowing of memory. Whoever passes through a European airport and looks at the young or even middle-aged professionals boarding a flight from London to Frankfurt, or Paris to Rome, must come away with the sense that the struggles of the postwar period are irretrievably past. Judt knows this, and he devotes appropriate attention to such current issues as migration and the admission of Turkey to the European Union–both of which threaten to mobilize impulses that, seventy-five years ago, led to Fascism.

Indeed, despite its title, Judt’s history covers far more than the postwar period: It is also the story of breaking away from the postwar. In a revealing passage Judt cites the collective decision of Europeans in the 1960s to wager on the future and raise a fertility rate that had contracted since the 1930s. The anthropologist Laurence Wylie reported a similar phenomenon half a century ago: When he lived in the Vaucluse in 1950, French farmers gave up replenishing their olive groves because they had no confidence in the long-term future, but by the 1960s they were replanting the trees that took so long to bear fruit. Today, of course, birthrates in Europe are lower than they have ever been, but they will probably rise again: Demography dances to a different rhythm from politics.

In the political and economic spheres, too, the reader will find interval after crucial interval crowded with decisive watersheds, from postwar ruins and initial reconstruction dominated by American and Soviet models for intervention; then the broad plateaus of development and normalization of the 1950s and ’60s; the discontents of the ’70s; thereafter the ’80s, teeming again with the collapse of Communism and the forging of the European Union; and finally a Europe disoriented by the challenges of globalization, unemployment and new sources of conflict and violence, whether in the breakup of Yugoslavia, the outbreaks of Islamist terrorism or the insurrections arising from mass immigration and the bleak segregation it has produced, as seen recently in France. These current clashes do not derive from the ideological rifts that brought Europeans to dictatorship and war and still hung over their politics in the 1940s and ’50s. The concept of postwar will not prepare us to understand them, but Judt’s narrative fortunately transcends this framework.

Still, the grand ideological themes grip Judt more than the social transformations. This is pre-eminently an East-West and not a North-South story, but it may be the last time an East-West story can remain so dominant. Those of us who have reached late middle age will find this book the repository of our public lives writ large. Moreover, Judt renders justice where justice should be done–especially to Mikhail Gorbachev, too often treated with condescension by complacent Western commentators. To be sure, the courageous Gorbachev of 1989-90, who let the Soviet Union’s satellites regain their independence without intervention, looked confused and cowed two years later, apparently still believing that reform would preserve Russian socialism until he was undone by conspirators and then his rescuer, Boris Yeltsin. Yet as Judt underscores, Gorbachev’s audacity was real and of historic significance, even if he was operating on the basis of a strategic miscalculation. More important, Postwar reminds us that Washington’s role in the dismantling of Communism was secondary. The system collapsed clamorously under the weight of bureaucratic inertia and economic stagnation–its administrators no longer believing Communism had a future–while its long-standing critics reorganized a civil society. Though the American right was quick to claim credit for the overthrow of Communism, it was as astonished as everyone else by the Eastern European revolutions, having accepted Soviet totalitarianism as a regrettable but permanent fact of life. What the revolutions of 1989-1991 demonstrated, pace Aron, was that sometimes in history the romantic is the real, and what has passed for realism is revealed as mere husk.

Judt covers the sequel well: The velvet divorce in the Czech and Slovak lands, the cruel and partially needless civil wars in the Balkans. He is not afraid to render moral judgments–French foreign policy in fissioning Yugoslavia under François Mitterrand and his generals is criticized for abetting Serbian violence; Clinton’s Balkans policy comes off better but none too gloriously. For anyone who wants to follow history with a score card, this book is ideal–at the end of each episode responsibilities are neatly allocated, even when the author divides the blame for disaster. In a virtuoso performance Judt traverses the Continent from east to west and north to south, examining the resurgence of regionalism in Spain and in Northern Italy, where resentments against the persistently lagging Mezzogiorno fueled a movement less ethnically separatist than those in the Balkans or Spain and more squalidly middle class: what he terms the separatism of the prosperous.

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.”

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.