Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tony Judt Remembers

Randall Stephens

In its last several issues the
New York Review of Books has published excerpts from historian Tony Judt’s fascinating memoirs. Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at NYU, is a keen observer of the human condition and his sharp wit comes through clearly in these pieces. Three have appeared since Judt wrote a wrenching account of his ordeal with Lou Gehrig's disease. "By my present stage of decline, I am thus effectively quadriplegic," he wrote. "My solution has been to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories, and the like until I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased."

Readers of the memoir excerpts have been treated to stories of growing up Jewish in post-war London, experiments with ethnic cuisine, life on a 1960s kibbutz, and the trials and tribulations of grammar school. The latest installment, "Historian's Progress," ranges over Judt's early fascination with trains, the waning of the French public intellectual, and includes his account of an odd midlife crisis. In the grip of 40-something doldrums, some purchase flashy cars, others try to reclaim the glory of yesterday, 1 in 100 will go out and buy a stunning new toupee. Not Judt. He learned Czech:

Early in the 1980s I was teaching politics at Oxford. I had job security, professional responsibilities, and a nice home. Domestic bliss would have been too much to ask, but I was inured to its absence. I did, though, feel increasingly detached from my academic preoccupations. French history in those days had fallen among thieves: the so-called "cultural turn" and "post"-everything trends in social history had me reading interminable turgid screeds, promoted to academic prominence by newly founded "subdisciplines" whose acolytes were starting to colonize a little too close to home. I was bored. . . .

In a bizarre series of events Judt took Czech classes and learned to read the language well enough. He became an active supporter of dissidents and even taught unauthorized courses in Czechoslovakia.

Without my Czech obsession I would not have found myself in Prague in November 1989, watching Havel accept the presidency from a balcony in the town square. I would not have sat in the Gellert Hotel in Budapest listening to Janos Kis explain his plans for a post-Communist but social democratic Hungary-the best hope for the region but forlorn even then. . . .

Above all, I could never have written Postwar, my history of Europe since 1945. Whatever its shortcomings, that book is rare for the determination with which I set out to integrate Europe's two halves into a common story

Indeed, critics hailed Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 as the premier work in the field. "Aside from its sheer brickish heft," remarked one in the Boston Globe, "it is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive, authoritative, and, yes, readable postwar history."

In the January/February 2006 issue of Historically Speaking Donald Yerxa interviewed Judt on his recent work, Europe in the shadow of war, and more. I excerpt here a portion of that interview:

Donald A. Yerxa: I’d like to begin with the title of your book, Postwar. Why did you select that title and what does it imply about the period since 1945?

Tony Judt: The title originated with my eleven-year old son. He was getting frustrated with my inability to come up with a title and asked me what the book was about. I said that it
was about the way in which the Second World War lasted so long in Europe in terms of memory, impact, and consequences so that much of Europe since 1945 was in a postwar shadow. So he said, “Well, call it Postwar.” The title very much reflects the book’s emphasis on the place of the Second World War and everything that happened in that war in the second half of the 20th century.

Yerxa: How did Europeans handle the burden of the war’s shadow?

Judt: If you want a general answer, I would say that they handled the burden by a form of selective forgetting. Although it varied in subject matter from country to country, it had in common the notion that the only way to put back countries which had experienced what amounted to five or six years of civil war as well as the complete destruction of civic, political, and legal institutions was to create agreeable myths about what had happened and forget the rest.

Yerxa: Why did the shadows last so long?

Judt: There are two answers. In the case of Western Europe, ironically the shadows lasted precisely because they were not actually addressed. Issues of memory of collaboration, of the whole question of what was done to the Jews and who was responsible, and of remembering the extent to which many people were quite happy with fascism or affiliated with the local forms of it—all of these couldn’t be comfortably integrated into post-World
War II memory. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s—mainly because of a new generation as much as anything else—that it became possible to look back and ask different questions.

In Eastern Europe it was much more simply a consequence of the imposition of a new regime under the communists which not only made it impossible to look straight at what had happened before the communists, but imposed a whole new level of things for people to remember and feel bad about afterward. The war got conflated with the suffering of the postwar decades.

Yerxa: You maintain that the history of Europe in the second half of the 20th century must include both halves: East and West. What themes or patterns emerge when you include both in your narrative?

Judt: We are all aware that the East and West had very different experiences. But we are not accustomed to reflect on the commonalities. The most obvious one was that in the immediate postwar years, 1945-47, much of the policies pursued in the East were remarkably similar to those in the West: heavy emphasis on reconstruction, investment in infrastructure, economic planning, the direction of the economy, and so on. The Czechoslovak economic plan between 1945 and 1948 was remarkably similar to the first Monnet plan in France. Obviously, it changed once the communists came to power, but there was a common sense that the war taught that you had to plan the economy and control the society from above.

The second theme is the parallel disillusion on the part of the Left. We forget that many people—intellectuals and students, especially in Eastern Europe in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia—had great hopes for communism if only because they could not go back to the past and there was no alternative. They had great illusions that were in a way comparable to the illusions of Western European progressives and fellow travelers, although they were shattered much earlier. The postwar generation in Western Europe still had hopes for a reformed, improvable, revisionist communism. That dream was shattered in 1968.

I suppose the third thing—though I wouldn’t want to push it—is that the extremely rapid economic and social change in Western Europe has a low-level comparable cousin in Eastern Europe in the shift from country to town, which explains why the towns in Eastern Europe have these God-awful housing blocks to accommodate the huge numbers of ex-peasants. Also there was a degree of underground Americanization, modernization, and youthification in Eastern Europe that was not apparent to the West. This goes a long way to explain what happened in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Yerxa: Of all the things that have happened in Europe since 1945, which seemed the most predictable? Most unexpected?

Judt: No one anticipated the scale of economic recovery, demographic explosion, prosperity, stability, depoliticization—all of which we recognize as parts of the economic miracle in parts of Western Europe. Everyone expected more of the same, more of what had happened after the First World War: civil conflict, violence, depression, possibly a retreat once again into political extremes of left and right. This didn’t happen, and that was totally unexpected.

Among the most predictable things that occurred was the Cold War. We forget that the Cold War wasn’t coming out of nowhere in the 1940s. The suspicions that the Soviets, especially Stalin, had of the West and the Western doubts about the reliability and desirability of the Soviet Union as an ally go back to the 1920s and 1930s. The Second World War was the aberration, not what comes afterward. If we look—as we now can—at the archives of the Soviet Union, as well as those of the U.S. and UK, we know, for example, that the British Foreign Office was under no illusion that there was bound to be some sort of division of Europe after the war, and that division would take the form of a freezing of the Russian zone, on the one hand, and a desperate attempt to establish a Western zone, on the other. If anyone was a bit surprised by this, it was the Americans, but that’s because they had the least experience with European politics in the interwar years.

Yerxa: In terms of your own engagement with postwar Europe, did anything surprise you during the course of researching and writing the book?

Judt: Something that wasn’t a real surprise but which struck me powerfully was that you simply cannot write the story of the European Union the way it is conventionally written as though a bunch of well-intentioned men sat down and said: “Never again. We must build a happy, united Europe.” That is simply not the case. I am struck again and again by how often the processes that lead to some new stage in the integration or unity or coming together of Europe—whether it’s in the early 1950s, late 1950s, 1970s, or so on—are always a product of separate national interests. There was until very late in the day no great European project.

There is probably one other thing that did surprise me, although once I got over the surprise, I realized I had seen it coming, and that is just how much of postwar Europe was built unknowingly on the foundation of things that happened in the Second World War, indeed under the Nazis. Many of the economic policies, the idea that there should be a European-wide zone of policy making and so on, were largely the consequence of the experience of World War II itself. Particularly in Western Europe, many young administrators got their first experience of being able to construct economic policies and planning without the annoying interference of democratic politicians when they worked for Vichy or the occupying forces.

Yerxa: Was the Cold War as dangerous as those of us who were children in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s remember it?

Judt: That’s a very good question. It struck me while writing the book how very different the Cold War was when seen from Europe than when seen from America. The American memory of my contemporaries was of nuclear alert and of being warned about what to do if the Russians came. I grew up in London, and most of my friends grew up in Europe within a few hundred miles of the Red Army, and we weren’t aware of this most of the time. Until I was about ten years old, I think that most of my conscious sense of “goodies and baddies” was directed more toward the Germans. All British and most European films about the war were still heavily focused on fighting the Germans. There was something of a mixed view of the Red Army. I remember when the Red Army Choir and the Bolshoi Ballet came to London in the mid-1950s. They were welcomed with open arms, cheering, and unambiguous affection, even by people who politically were unquestionably right of center and anti-communist. So I think it was a different experience in Europe as felt and remembered. Now, whether it was objectively just as dangerous—in other words, whether the Europeans were living in an illusory sense of safety—is another matter. I think there was probably only one really dangerous moment in the Cold War, and that was of course Cuba. We now know that pressures particularly on Kennedy and to some extent on Khrushchev to play much harder ball than they wanted to were quite strong. But I do not know of any instance earlier or later when we were really close to nuclear or even non-nuclear war in Europe. The Cold War was extremely dangerous in East Asia, and there were times that it got risky in the Middle East. We know that Nixon came very close to mobilizing American strategic forces over the 1973 war. But I don’t know of any similar occasion in Europe. One of the reasons for this was that Stalin was extraordinarily cautious in Europe. He had no interest in pushing further than he had already got. He discouraged communists in Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, and France from making trouble because it didn’t suit his strategic purposes. So I think that we Europeans were not totally wrong to remember the Cold War as stabilizing, in an odd kind of way. It certainly was in Western Europe. The Eastern Europeans, of course, remember it not as particularly dangerous, but as horrible. Horrible because there really was a war going on, but it was a war between the state and society.

Yerxa: Who is on your short list of the most influential people in the history of Europe since 1945?

Judt: Charles de Gaulle, no question. Like it or not, Margaret Thatcher, and like it or not intellectually, I suppose Jean-Paul Sartre. His influence was considerable in a gloomy sort of way. Back to politics, I would include Mikhail Gorbachev. Absent Gorbachev it is hard to envisage the events of the 1980s. I would also have to rank the Polish pope, but below Gorbachev. And much though I deeply dislike the man, Konrad Adenauer was crucial in the stabilizing of West Germany. In a different way, I would include Willy Brandt, who was really a political failure, but who played a vital role in shifting the gears of internal European relations from the Cold War to détente. In terms of public figures, those would be the ones whom I would emphasize. I would be less inclined to include other major intellectuals or writers because so many of them went off to America. Tragically, many of the most important people that would otherwise be associated with “the European mind” were in fact living in New York or Chicago as a consequence of the Depression, Nazism, communism, and World War II. . . .

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