Out of the Ashes

A History of Europe Since 1945
Tony Judt
Penguin Press, $39.95, 896 pp.


In 1963, Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter (in English, The Deputy) opened in Berlin, unleashing a wave of controversy with its depiction of Pius XII as unwilling to aid Europe’s Jews during World War II. The tedium induced by rereading the play today—long soliloquies, an idealistic young Jesuit pitched against an impossibly callous pope—does not recommend a Broadway revival. But the play had an electrifying effect on a European and American intellectual culture habituated to a kid-gloves approach to the papacy. In the United States, New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman dutifully rushed to the late pope’s defense, while Alfred Kazin and Susan Sontag saluted Hochhuth’s daring. American Catholic activists wondered whether a future Deputy might be written about the sluggish response of their own bishops and coreligionists to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern civil-rights movement. (One of the play’s lonely defenders in the United States was a young professor, Gordon Zahn, a Commonweal contributor who had just published a pathbreaking book on the feeble German Catholic response to the Nazis, and who would soon become a leader in the Catholic anti-Vietnam War movement.) Along with the just-concluded trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hochhuth, as much as any other author, forced international attention on the question of moral responsibility for the Holocaust, a question that in one form or another has shadowed European history ever since. (More recently, in a bizarre twist, Hochhuth has drawn attention for his friendship with David Irving, the historian most associated with attempts to deny the existence of the Holocaust.)

Tony Judt does not mention The Deputy in his magnificent new history of Europe since 1945. But he could. The peaceful and (mostly) democratic Europe taken for granted by American college students tramping the continent on Eurail passes, Judt insists, rests on forgetfulness, not on memory.

Who wanted to remember? Judt’s survey of the damaged continent in 1945 is grim: 36 million Europeans, over half civilians, dead. Twenty-five million homeless in the Soviet Union, 20 million in Germany. The Jews of Europe virtually annihilated, other ethnic groups (including Germans living in Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, and Poland) forcibly repatriated in a frenzied burst of ethnic cleansing at war’s end. In Greece, a thousand villages simply obliterated by partisan warfare; in Poland, one farm in six out of commission; fifty-three thousand children wandering Berlin without parents.

That any Europe emerged from this inferno—let alone a peaceful, prosperous Europe, at least in the Western half of the continent—is an achievement. Judt credits a generation of postwar European leaders, including Konrad Adenauer in Germany, Alcide De Gasperi in Italy, Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, and then, crucially, Charles de Gaulle in France, with successfully navigating the shoals of economic despair, Communist popularity (in France and Italy especially), and the awkward fact (outside of Britain) that sympathy for fascism had been more noteworthy during the 1930s and early 1940s than resistance to tyranny. That the Nazis had been able to supervise 40 million French men and women during the occupation with fifteen hundred officers raised awkward questions about French culpability in Nazi rule, but this seemed irrelevant in the hectic days of postwar reconstruction. A kind of amnesia seemed a fair, if perhaps unconscious, price for unprecedented prosperity. Intellectuals ignored the horrors of the war as determinedly as the statesmen, with Jean-Paul Sartre and others preferring to speak disdainfully of an American culture of “Frigidaires.” Europe’s desperate masses, sick of slaughter and politics, wanted those Frigidaires. And by 1974, 82 percent of households in Belgium and the United Kingdom, 88 percent of households in France, and 93 percent of households in West Germany and the Netherlands, had refrigerators.

That Adenauer, Schuman, and De Gasperi—all born between 1876 and 1886—came to political maturity before the compromising years of the late 1930s and 1940s mattered. So too did their Catholicism, although in a volume brimming with political and social insights, Judt’s treatment of religion is perfunctory. He might emphasize more than he does that these leaders imagined “Europe” through preexisting political ties in Christian Democratic parties, and a shared Catholic intellectual culture. Jacques Maritain, perhaps the most important Catholic intellectual of the period, spent the war in exile in the United States, rallying support for de Gaulle’s Free French and privately fuming about the enthusiasm with which many French bishops welcomed Vichy. After the war, Maritain encouraged Catholic statesmen as they erected early versions of the Common Market and the European Union.

Judt praises American leaders such as Harry Truman and George Marshall, echoing the claim of British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, who termed Marshall’s speech announcing a massive American-funded development program for Europe “one of the greatest speeches in world history.” (Common sense, you might say, but Judt’s praise for these American leaders is at once old-fashioned and now revisionist, after a generation of scholarship that emphasized the importance of self-interest in U.S. foreign policy.) That Stalin refused Marshall Plan aid, and pressured Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary to do the same, marked a decisive rupture in Europe’s history, and one of Postwar’s accomplishments is to capture the differing trajectories of the Eastern and Western halves of the continent, as Stalin imposed his rule on a Central Europe that possessed tighter cultural links to Paris than to Moscow. (In the 1950s, students in Warsaw sullenly attended Russian language classes, yearning to study French.)

The 1960s mark a decisive break. Here began not only the moral reckoning with the Holocaust spurred by Hochhuth and others, but wider critiques of a more prosperous but seemingly self-satisfied continent, including a major student revolt in Paris and worker rebellions in Italy. Judt casts a jaundiced eye on the “sixties,” at least in Western Europe. He acknowledges the stifling conditions in universities and workplaces that prompted student and worker unrest, but deems the most important student activists and intellectuals “remarkably parochial.” He is especially withering on the romantic Marxism of the period, which ignored the reality of Prague for the imagined utopia of Hanoi.

Czech intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel, and, later, Polish workers and intellectuals such as Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik, seem to Judt altogether more serious, and among the pleasures of Postwar is Judt’s lucid history of the unraveling of Eastern-bloc communism. The prime actor in this drama is not Ronald Reagan, whose influence Judt persuasively minimizes, nor is it John Paul II, a major player certainly, but not decisive. Instead, Judt emphasizes the role of Mikhail Gorbachev, unable to stem the utter alienation produced among Eastern European intellectuals by the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and, ultimately, unwilling to use military force to reassert Soviet control in Poland.

Changes in the Western half of the continent during these years were less epochal but still profound. Judt misses the chance to weave religion more fully into this story, and his one-paragraph summary of the work of the Second Vatican Council is less satisfactory than no summary at all. (Karol Wojtyla, it should be noted, was not a priest at the Second Vatican Council but a young bishop, and implying that he did not welcome the changes made at the council, even at the time, is unfair.) More promising is Judt’s shrewd recognition that in the 1950s, notably in Britain and Scandinavia, the moral authority of the churches as censors, political chieftains, and moral guardians had already begun to collapse.

The same was true, if at a slower pace, in the large sections of Catholic Europe that remained devout. The sharp decline in Catholic practice and authority in Ireland over the past decade is perhaps the last act of this drama. The sense in the early 1960s that Catholic France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands needed renewal if Catholicism was to survive in the modern West spurred the architects of the Second Vatican Council, most obviously in Gaudium et spes (1965) with its call for Catholic engagement with the modern world, and in the more general conciliar recognition of the achievements of liberal democracy, mixed economies, and modern science. The rupture culturelle that marked much of Catholic Europe after the council, with sharply declining Mass attendance and vocations to the religious life, and a church less able (and willing) to impose its view of abortion, divorce, and other social questions on putatively Catholic societies, proved to liberals that the church had alleviated an even more catastrophic collapse through conciliar reforms, and to conservatives that the conciliar abandonment of various Catholic traditions verged on ecclesiastical suicide. This division helps explain the now conventional—and in my view mistaken—wisdom among Catholic conservatives that Gaudium et spes was a facile, even naive capitulation to secular modernity.

Even more significant than the changes in the continent’s religious tone was a European version of the economic crisis (record inflation, high unemployment, and high energy costs) that racked the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s. On both sides of the Atlantic, free-market economists attacked the assumption that increases in economic growth should lead to increases in the size and scope of the welfare state. (And, the European welfare state at its height, with month-long summer holidays, generous unemployment subsidies, and effective retirement when a worker hit age sixty remained incomparably more generous than its American counterpart.) Margaret Thatcher, elected prime minister of Britain in 1979, famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” François Mitterand began his presidency of France in 1981 with a flurry of socialist nationalizations, then reversed course, explaining that “it is business that creates wealth, determines our standard of living, and establishes our place in the global rankings.”

Judt rejects the standard view—at least in American business schools and on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal—that Europe must trim its social-welfare sails and adopt an American model focusing on economic growth and productivity. Europe’s economic growth and productivity, Judt reminds us, for all the horror stories about archaic work regulations and inflexible labor markets, has remained impressive up to the current moment. And the quality of Italian leather and German engineering—and other areas where by the 1970s American goods carried the connotation of second-rate—was indisputable. That the average worker in the United States produces more than the average worker in Switzerland in a given year stems only from the fact that European workers claim twice as much paid vacation time. And they tax themselves at higher rates to do it. To quote Judt: “The ‘European Social Model’...was without question very expensive. But for most Europeans its promise of job security, progressive tax rates, and large social transfer payments represented an implicit contract between government and citizens, as well as between one citizen and another.” By contrast, an American social system complacent about economic inequality simply cannot, in Judt’s view, provide a “serviceable model to propose for universal emulation.” Neither, in the view of most Europeans, can the American disregard for international institutions displayed in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

How to sustain the European model in a new context—with a birthrate below replacement levels, Muslim migration, the prospective entrance of Turkey into the European Union, and the pressures of a global economy—is the pressing question. Judt does not answer it, and no historian could, but the erudition and comprehensive sweep of Postwar does make the question comprehensible.

Catholics and socialists built the modern European social-welfare states. It is all the more striking then that two seventy-something German intellectuals, one a Catholic cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, and one a former socialist, Jürgen Habermas (who makes more appearances in Postwar than any other intellectual), met in Munich in 2004 for a courtly public discussion of the moral foundations of the liberal state. European commentators expressed surprise at the ready agreement found between the two men, from Ratzinger’s recognition of the need for dialogue between religious and secular intellectual traditions, to Habermas’s offhand assertion that Europe’s roots were Christian, other claims serving as nothing more than “postmodern chatter.” In a more recent essay, Benedict XVI makes the accurate—although striking for an American audience—claim that “democratic socialism” remains “close to Catholic social doctrine.”

Even more surprising was Habermas’s sympathetic assessment of the importance of religious identity in Europe, especially because it comes from such a stalwart champion of the Enlightenment and its values. The liberal state, Habermas insisted, must respect religion as one of the “cultural sources on which the normative consciousness and solidarity of citizens draws.” Whether Christianity can nurture solidarity in an increasingly secular continent is an open question. But with the continent no longer so immersed in the traumas of German history that marked the youth of both Benedict XVI and Habermas, how Europe nurtures the “solidarity of citizens” as the post-postwar era begins will determine if Judt is correct to predict that “the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe.”


Related: Peter Steinfels reviews Judt's Ill Fares the Land

Published in the 2006-03-24 issue: 

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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