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Sixty years of malaise, decline

POSTWAR: A HISTORY OF EUROPE SINCE 1945

By Tony Judt

Penguin, $39.95, 878 pages

REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN

As the history books tell us, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was a conflict usually fought by mercenary armies principally on the territory of today's Germany, but also involving most of the major continental powers. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, motivated in part to preserve the Habsburg dynasty.

New York University Professor Tony Judt has written a fascinating history about the aftermath of the 20th century's own Thirty Years' War (1914-1945). It was a war which began as a conflict between democracy and fascism in Western Europe and ended in a marriage of convenience between democracy and bolshevism against fascism. And then came the inevitable confrontation between Us and Them which is Mr. Judt's great story.

Mr. Judt's luminous reputation as an historian arises from these three great virtues: He is eminently readable, learned and topical. As for topicality, on a day when David Irving, the Holocaust denier, was convicted in an Austrian court, it is interesting to read Mr. Judt's judgment about such con-men:

"To deny or belittle the Shoah -- the Holocaust -- is to place oneself beyond the pale of civilized public discourse . . . . The Holocaust today is much more than just another undeniable fact about a past that Europeans can no longer choose to ignore. As Europe prepares to leave World War Two behind . . . the recovered memory of Europe's dead Jews has become the very definition and guarantee of the continent's restored humanity. It wasn't always so."

Perhaps this book, a tour de force, ought to be retitled as "Judt's Moral Judgments" since he himself concedes that his history "offers an avowedly personal interpretation of the recent European past." Out of his researches he has produced terrifying evidence for verdicts which reverse long held popular beliefs of Nazi-occupied Europe's conspiracy of goodness.

Mr. Judt describes what happened when the few surviving Jews returned to what were once their former ways of life and homes:

"The returning remnant was not much welcomed. After years of anti-Semitic propaganda, local populations everywhere were not only to blame 'Jews' in the abstract for their own suffering but were distinctively sorry to see the return of men and women whose jobs, possessions and apartments they had purloined."

Mr. Judt turns his blazing searchlight on Switzerland, which, he writes, "secured a free pass for its wartime record." Switzerland not only trafficked in looted gold and made a substantial practical contribution to the German war effort, he writes, "but Swiss banks and insurance companies had knowingly pocketed indecently large sums of money belonging to Jewish account holders or to the claimants of insurance policies on murdered relatives."

Perhaps worst of all, the Swiss government in October 1938 asked that the letter "J" be stamped on the passports of all German Jews, the better to identify their migr status.

As for wartime France, there has been a longtime cover-up in France of the collaborationist Vichy regime under Marshal Petain who did everything he could to legitimize the Nazi occupation. That policy, says Mr. Judt, was "an immense convenience [for the Nazis] since it saved them the trouble of installing a costly occupation regime of their own in so large a country as France, while furnishing them with everything they needed from such a regime: acquiescence in defeat, 'war reparations', raw materials, cheap labor . . . and much else besides."

The accommodationist Vichy regime, Mr. Judt points out, did more than run the country for Hitler's benefit. Vichy initiated its own collaborative projects such as anti-Jewish laws. Without any prodding by the Germans to meet deportee quotas required by Germany's genocidal "Final Solution" policy, Vichy rounded up Jewish citizens and shipped them off to Hitler's concentration camps.

Mr. Judt writes:

"It is not that France behaved the worst. It is that France mattered most. Until 1989, Paris . . was still the intellectual and cultural capital of Europe . . . . And it was France -- French statesmen, French institutions, and French interests -- that drove forward on French terms, the project for a united continent. Until France could look its past in the face, a shadow would hang over the new Europe -- the shadow of a lie."

The shadow of a lie still hangs over France as it confronts the militant Islamization of Paris, once the capital of Western civilization. Mr. Judt reminds us of the erstwhile French Minister of Culture Jack Lang's warning that the popular "Dallas" TV show represented a threat to French and European identity.

What now, Jack Lang, wherever you are? Again Mr. Judt reminds us that when EuroDisney was launched another leading anti-American Parisian warned that the amusement park would prove to be a "cultural Chernobyl."

We will look back one day to the second half of the last century and marvel not at the downfall of bolshevism without a shot, not at our survival in a world of nuclear weapons and September 11s. We will marvel at the sickness which overtook Western Europe.

Mr. Judt's book, brilliantly written and peerlessly researched, is a major work of modern intellectual history.

Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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