- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Richard Vinen
Da Capo, $35, 628 pages, illus.

The end of the 20th century brought with it a number of books which surveyed the history of the past 100 years. Most of these are arranged in strict chronology and cover each successive event year by year. They are helpful as reference guides or for the reader who has little organized knowledge of the events described. "A History of Fragments" by Richard Vinen is not that kind of book.
Mr. Vinen does not simply tell the story of major sequential events in Europe. It is not a reference book and for it to be read profitably it requires that the reader have a pretty good knowledge of the two world wars, the Depression, the rise and fall of fascism and communism and the Cold War with its abrupt end. Armed with this background a reader will find Mr. Vinen's book a real treat.
Loosely organized by "parts" (not chapters) into broad historical periods the book roams through the sociology, politics, technology and economics of those times. Saying this makes it sound excessively scholarly, but it isn't. The author believes that history is not just a series of unrelated events, and in making his point Mr. Vinen shows himself to be a marvelous narrator and anecdotist. The book is filled with fascinating details and quotes which sweep the century along. Certainly, the author proves his point that history is not just a series of unrelated accidents.
One of the segments of the book is titled, "Who Won the Cold War?" Mr. Vinen offers some interesting variations on the obvious answer to this question. The Cold War story really begins in 1948, only three years after the end of World War II, by which time the Soviets controlled every nation in eastern and central Europe, save Greece where the civil war outcome was still in question. By subterfuge, terror, phony elections or the bayonets of the Red Army, whatever it took, Soviet Communism then controlled a large part of the European continent.
With a jolt the western European democratic governments realized that they were in terrible danger, magnified by the presence of large domestic communist parties, particularly in France and Italy. Frantically, the western European states cobbled together social programs designed to ingratiate their people and blunt communist appeal. Unemployment insurance, free medical care, government old age pensions, shorter work weeks, paid vacations, minimum wage laws, free education everything which created the "welfare state." The United States contributed the Marshall Plan, the NATO concept and military muscle. In the end Europe was saved from communism, although just barely in the early postwar years.
But what of the Soviet Union? Mr. Vinen tells how an endless and accumulating succession of challenges, relieved by only a scattering of successes, commenced to wear down the regime which, almost to the end, appeared from the outside to be ascendant and firmly in the saddle. But the system simply did not permit the development of a satisfactory consumer focused economy. The only way the ordinary worker could bypass the system's defects was through the black market and moonlighting. For the ruling Soviet class, the nomenklatura, life was much easier and perpetuated within families by a clever system of nepotism.
Only with heavy industry, steel production being an example, could the Soviets claim success. Even then it was at a price of horrifying environmental pollution. Alcoholism, with absenteeism and indifference its companions, pervaded every aspect of Soviet life. In the case of computers, as with many other technologies, the Soviets could not manage a satisfactory performance. By 1989 they were 10 years behind the United States, an eon in computers, and dropping further back with every year.
The once docile satellite nations gradually became a source of danger rather than strength as they developed conspicuous national variations in their communist personas. Hungary had apparently learned nothing from the Soviet invasion in 1956 and had become extremely liberal, tolerant of the development of what was practically a free enterprise economy. In contrast, Albania and Rumania had become personal dictatorships operating on a primitive subsistence level. Yugoslavia, become almost an enemy to the Soviets, had disengaged herself from Moscow and was not even a member of the Warsaw Pact. Almost all of the satellites had taken to borrowing large sums from western banks in an attempt to jump start their economies. This had failed and now they were struggling desperately to repay the loans.
In Poland the Solidarity movement had blossomed into a positive threat to the government. A tempting Soviet response was to send in the Red Army to suppress this deviationism. But that had been tried before in Budapest and in Prague in 1968. The Poles had the biggest and toughest army among the satellites, noted for a ferocious and historic hatred of Russia. It was decided to let the Polish government work its own way out of trouble.
But in the end, the communist parties of western Europe developed accommodations with their national governments and were no longer revolutionary advocates. The Italian Communists rejected Moscow's leadership and announced their own form of "Eurocommunism" having a "polycentrist" approach. The French Communists actually renounced the hallowed theorem of the dictatorship of the proletariat. When fascist dictatorships ended in Spain and Portugal those nations spurned communism and became democracies. The Red Army sent into Afghanistan simply to prop up a friendly government found itself involved in a full-scale war which it lost. By the late 1980s the Soviet Communist leadership had lost will and desire. They were mostly old men now. Mikhail Gorbachev had been brought in too late.
The final section of the book is breezily entitled "A Sort of Conclusion." Looking back upon the century the author says that Europe is richer and more democratic than it has ever been. Although there is still violence in Europe (Chechnya, Kosovo, Macedonia he was writing before the start of the war in Afghanistan) Mr. Vinen thinks that it is generally more peaceful than in the past. But today's Europeans have had little to do with these developments. They are the result of the exertions and the suffering of predecessors and, the author says, the present generations should have the good grace to be thankful and to enjoy what has been given them.
Richard Vinen is a 38-year-old lecturer in history at Kings College, London. He has used mostly secondary sources in researching this book and apparently his only other language is French. There are some good, helpful statistical tables and some maps showing Europe's national boundaries at various times. These will not tell most readers anything they didn't already know. There are also some strangely selected photographs in a pictorial section puzzlingly titled "Cliches." Judging from its makeup and organization, the book is probably a written expansion of Mr. Vinen's lecture notes for a course he teaches. If so, his students are fortunate. The author is a superb narrator of the 20th-century European story. He's also an insightful analyst of events in the period. I wish that I could take that course.

Richard M. Watt is the author of three books on modern European history including works on Germany in the immediate post-World War I period, the French army during the war and the history of interwar Poland

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