Review: Postwar, by Tony Judt

I’m writing my Master’s thesis on post-reunification Germany, specifically whether or not diminishing historical guilt is correlated with increased antipathy towards the EU. (I’m wagering that it is, but we’ll see.) About three months ago, sitting at my kitchen table in my childhood home in Brooklyn, NY, my thesis topic ephemeral at best, my mom mentioned that Tony Judt had succumbed to Lou Gherig’s disease (she reads the New York Times obituaries like most people read the wedding section). I’d heard his name before; I certainly hadn’t known he’d had Lou Gherig’s disease, nor that he’d written what is arguably the most comprehensive book on postwar Europe ever published. (Though a Pulitzer Prize finalist, the committee declined to award it the ultimate distinction, for reasons that still elude me.) I mentioned something about how I had to bone up on postwar Germany, and she mentioned something about how his book might be one I’d want to check out. I read his obituary in The Economist that week and filed Postwar onto that ever-running mental list of “big books” to tackle—your War and Peace, your presidential memoirs, your 800-plus-page histories of post-World War II, pre-currency-crisis Europe.  

Fast-forward to the end of October; I’d returned to Paris and a few friends and I had escaped to Prague for our five-day fall break. We wandered into an English-language bookstore near the Kafka Museum and there was Postwar, proudly displayed, possibly because, judiciously and brilliantly, it gives the Czech Republic more due than even typical history textbooks do. Not that I’ve read a full-on history textbook recently, but you know what I mean. I picked it up, paid the 18 Euros (it would’ve been cheaper in America, but way more expensive in France) and ignored the fact that I ‘d have to lug the thing with me to Warsaw before I got it safely back to Paris. I started reading it that night, and kept going until I finished (to be honest, it took me about three weeks to read, to which I attribute my unholy piles of work, my affinity for back episodes of Entourage and my Mobius strip of a love life).

It’s a brilliant book, and it reads like a novel. As most graduate and doctoral students can likely attest, to find an academic who is both highly credentialed and has an actual, you know, “writing style” is a rare feat indeed—and, of course, this one had to have died in August. I miss the man, and I’ve never met him—until now, I’d never even “read him.” But as odd as it may sound, I found Postwar to be deeply personal—for one, the level of research that went into it is astounding; you can feel the sweat and tears on every page. I’ve always loved history, and I love it still; I love that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling when you read about something you remember your parents talking about having lived through, something you’ve even read about yourself so many times that you know what’s going to happen next, like returning to a familiar movie or reminiscing with an old friend. Reading history makes you feel keen, prescient, “with it,” no matter how many times you may berate yourself during daily life for being the exact opposite. You can see why the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Velvet Revolution, the Maastricht Treaty, and the Balkans wars are inevitable—history is validation for people who have never mastered speculating about the future :-). Postwar‘s epilogue, fittingly enough, is its most poignant part—Judt talks about how postwar Europe was defined primarily by the legacy of the Holocaust (not Communism, interestingly) and its struggles to climb out of the shadow of its darkest hour—and the last line resonates long after the covers have been closed: “The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past. If Europeans are to maintain this vital link—if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose—then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. ‘European Union’ may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.” I don’t think I’ll ever feel like a European, no matter how long I end up living here, but I find myself oddly vested nonetheless to its future—and I want it to thrive. I don’t make apologies for its imperial past, nor for its present racism, anti-Semitism and run-of-the-mill small-mindedness (though of course these traits are by no means ubiquitous), but I’m duly fascinated by how a continent was able to pick itself out of the rubble of two World Wars, (eventually) shake off totalitarianism and create governments (national and supranational) and societies that are liberal, free, dynamic and (yes) effective. I hope it all continues to pay off.

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