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Joseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors
Randall J. Stephens, Associate Editor
Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

January/February 2006

Volume VII, Number 3

Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa

Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin, 2005) offers a sweeping narrative of Europe from the fall of Berlin to the present. The Second World War cast a long and deep shadow on Europe, and Judt explains how both Eastern and Western Europe emerged from that shadow decades later. Throughout his monumental work, Judt emphasizes the themes of collective amnesia, remembering, and putting aside and demonstrates that the important civic task of the historian is to make sense of the past for the general public. Judt is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, where he also serves as the founding director of the Remarque Institute. Donald Yerxa, editor of Historically Speaking, interviewed Judt on November 14, 2005.

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.

Yerxa: To list such people as these is to suggest human agency is a major factor in your narrative. To what extent was agency tempered by forces unleashed by the war?

Judt: I hate to sound like Marx: people “make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.” There is no question that the circumstances of postwar Europe are remarkably constraining. The European states—even the major ones like Britain, France, or Germany—have little freedom of maneuver, either because they have been shattered or impoverished or because the world became divided between two great powers, one of which is not European and the other only half-European. The interesting developments, therefore, tend to be within the nation-states rather than what they manage to do on a world scale. But the things they do seem to be a function of agency, and I wanted to emphasize that because so many people in the historical profession today may talk a big line about agency, but they really are not all that interested in what men and women do, especially what people in charge manage to achieve as a result of being in charge. So I do emphasize agency. De Gaulle, for example, played an absolutely crucial role in reinventing France twice in the postwar period (in 1944-45 and again in 1958). Without de Gaulle it is hard to imagine France recovering even to the extent that it did as a major international power. I certainly emphasize agency in the case of someone like Margaret Thatcher, because although the mood at the time was moving toward reduction in the role of the state, increase in the role of private sector economy, etc., it took someone like Thatcher, an absolutely ruthless ideologue coming at just the right moment in just the right country, to shift the whole burden of proof, so to speak, from what it was before when the default position was in favor of the state to the default position being against the state. That is agency indeed. 

I emphasize agency in the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. It was not written in the stars that the Czechs and the Slovaks were doomed to breakup or that as the result of age-old squabbles the Yugoslavs could not remain united in one state. I narrated the history of the breakups of these countries at some length in Postwar, and I took pains to indicate how often individuals took advantage of particular combinations of circumstances to effect change in places where change might not otherwise have happened. I emphasize people like Slobodan Miloševic in Serbia, Vladimír Meciar in Slovakia,  and Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, not because they are very interesting or important men in their own right, but because at a crucial moment they were the agents of things that otherwise would not have happened. So while I never would deny the scale of the limitations and structures within which people have to work, especially in postwar Europe, I do emphasize agency and believe in it quite strongly. I don’t see how one could write interesting history without it.
Yerxa: You mention how America was often viewed negatively in Western Europe: it was “economically carnivorous;” its culture was crass; it was seen to harbor imperialist ambitions. Do you believe America, not the Soviet Union, presented a more insidious long-term challenge to Europe?

Judt: The Soviet Union was a real and present danger. If the Red Army had been able to get to Paris and Rome, freedom, political prosperity, economic prosperity, and much else would have been destroyed, postponed, or threatened. So there is no question that the Soviet Union was the real, actual, material threat to Western Europe. Having said that, I have no doubt that America has served—and continues to serve—as something of a problematic future, the future that Europe both wants and doesn’t want at the same time; an alternative model different enough to be undesirable, yet familiar enough to look as though it might be where Europe is going. Going back to the 1880s, America has had an ambivalent place in the European imagination. The feeling that America represented a threat to European values was strong in the European far Right during the 1920s and 1930s. It migrated to the far Left in the 1940s and 1950s. It is probably true that the United States poses a cultural challenge to Europe. Mass modern culture played a much more important role in the U.S. than it did in Europe, and so Europeans saw America as a threat to their own high culture. The emergence of a European popular culture, in particular a European youth culture, in the 1950s and 1960s was therefore perceived—and I think rightly—as an unwelcome American import, the so-called Americanization of Europe. That feeling has not endured, however. The sense that Europe was under siege by the American way of life—there was that famous wartime joke in England: What’s wrong with America? Americans. Overpaid, oversexed, and over here!—changed after the 1970s.
Yerxa: And today, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, what poses the most significant long-term challenge to Europe: internal cohesion? American culture or foreign policy? Muslim immigration?

Judt: The insidious threat to Europe for the past ten or fifteen years doesn’t come from America—if it ever did—it comes from a lack of any clear sense of what European culture and identity is. What does it mean now to be Dutch? Or British? It’s not that the Americans are doing anything to them; it is the rapid transformation that is going on within their own societies that matters, whether it is a function of immigration, generational issues, or in the British case, the virtual collapse of most social norms and norms of collective behavior. This has triggered all sorts of self-doubt and worries, but you can’t blame America for this.

The choice now is not between the American way of life (minimal state, maximizing market forces, reducing the social welfare state) or the European social model. There is no realistic way politically to move much closer to the American model. What is the challenge—and it is one the Europeans haven’t really thought about collectively and very carefully—is the scale of internal changes as a result of immigration and the great difficulty in balancing the loosening national forms consequent upon globalization (more globalization than Europeanization, I think) and the need for some kind of national identity to function as an integrator of all these rapid demographic transformations. The Europeans could continue to believe that they can modernize and remain prosperous on the 1950s-1960s model with all its many virtues, but which excludes black and brown people, people living in God-forsaken suburbs, and so on, and which also doesn’t address the problem of immigration generally, the need for younger people to find work, and so forth. Or, they could go in a different direction. These problems are European-generated.
Yerxa: How should Europeans deal with their horrific past? In particular, what are the roles of memory (in particular the memory of Europe’s dead Jews), forgetting, and history in providing meaning and moral purpose for the new Europe?

Judt: Memory, forgetting, and history are all important. When I write as a historian, I see that forgetting, for example, worked wonders in stabilizing postwar Europe. If people had been forced to remember in the years from 1945 to 1960 everything that had gone on between 1939 and 1945, many countries would have had trouble functioning as united polities: France, Italy, the Netherlands, not to mention points further east. But at the same time, you have to be careful because you might as well say one of the reasons postwar Europe was so stable was that Hitler and Stalin between them solved the problem of minorities by killing everyone. Obviously, you cannot go around recommending that as a solution for problems. So I have to jump back and forth: as a historian, I say this is why forgetting worked, but as an engaged citizen I must say this is also unacceptable.
No society, however, can live indefinitely with the weight of impossibly painful memories constantly being dragged into the public sphere. No society can move past those memories until it has addressed them. It is quite striking that from the late 1960s until the mid-1990s France was obsessed with the problem of Vichy: apologetics of Vichy, attacks on it, how to make sense of it, etc. And then in 1995 Jacques Chirac, in the one unambiguously heroic act of his presidency, went to the memorial for the dead Parisian Jews and acknowledged for the first time France’s role in the extermination of European Jews. That sort of ended it. There was no longer the sense on the part of the Jews that this had not been acknowledged, on the part of the French that this was a painful thing that you didn’t want to talk about, and on the part of the political class that maybe you should talk about it a bit, but not be too honest because it would be disruptive. All this ended and is no longer a painful issue. It is an issue for historians. So I do recommend this combination of remembering and then setting aside. The publication of Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001) had the effect of detonating a small nuclear weapon in the heart of Polish public debate. But it brought out, and to some extent resolved, Poland’s inability to see what Poles did to Jews during the war and that this recognition did not mean that the Poles didn’t suffer terribly during the war as well. It just meant you had to tell all the truth.

On the history question, I am adamantly convinced that what is going dangerously wrong in many European countries, beginning in Britain, my own country, is the collapse of serious history teaching. We have replaced real history with the use of history to teach moral lessons. In Britain and in the U.S. very often students are no longer taught modern European history in junior and senior high schools. But they do get one course in either Germany 1933-1945, World War II, or the destruction of the Jews in the Holocaust. This has the distorting consequence of building the whole of students’ inadequate understanding of the past around one horrendous and therefore misunderstood event without a larger context. Memories, memorials, monuments are always partial in two senses. They only deal with part of the past, and they have a bias toward one particular group’s suffering or achievement. History has to go beyond that. I press the case for teaching the history of Europe as the necessary condition for keeping Europeans aware of why they are now doing what they do and where they came from.

Yerxa: Some of the most intriguing lines of the book, for me at least, appear on the penultimate page: “Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive . . . .” Should historians see themselves as sources of disenchantment and disruption?

Judt: The historian’s first responsibility is to get it right—to find out what happened in the past, think of some way to convey it which is both effective and true, and do it. But if you are a historian of, say, medieval social life, then you don’t necessarily have a civic obligation to get out there in the public square and give speeches about what is wrong with wife dunking. It happened a long time ago; it’s no longer an issue; and the historian can deal with it professionally and not have to feel moral responsibility in his other capacity as a member of the community. But I don’t think that historians of the 20th century, particularly of Europe’s 20th century, have that option. The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly. A well organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves. Historians have a special role in this, probably a more important role than moralists. The latter start from some sort of universal set of propositions that may in fact not be shared by many of their audience, whereas the historian is simply saying, “Look, this is something you all share, because it is part of your common past. You have this in common, and you have to recognize it.” So, yes, we have a disruptive duty. This is one of the reasons why I get so annoyed with those of my colleagues who only write for each other. We have a duty to the larger community. We can only perform that duty by writing good professional history, but we do have that duty. I’ll give you a practical example. When the Papon trial happened in France in 1997—the only major trial of a Vichy war criminal—the prosecution asked historians of Vichy to testify in the French courts as expert witnesses to set the context for the accused’s behavior. Most of them refused, not wanting to get involved in a tricky public arena, but also on the grounds that it was not the historian’s duty to enter a court of law. The historian writes books, and that’s it. But Robert Paxton of Columbia University, who wrote the first book on Vichy France that blew open the whole debate in 1952, agreed to serve as an expert witness and played a crucial role informing the trial not only of the real world of France in 1942, but also of what was morally and politically possible in terms of personal choices and courage for a bureaucrat in that time and place. That seems to be the role of the historian as it should be: it is truthful but inevitably therefore disruptive.

Yerxa: What would you hope the reader would take away from your book?

Judt: I would hope that any reader close enough to have some direct experience of the period would say: “Yes, that is what it was like, and now it makes sense to me.” I would want the younger reader to feel how complicated the past was—that there were no simple stories that got you from A to B and to the present—and how the past is always with us. We cannot make any sense of where we are unless we know it. I want somehow to show that the European present is so deeply imbedded in the past that you cannot be an educated citizen without at least a good general knowledge about that past. I also wanted to write the kind of history book that people would want to read, even though it may be too long, so that they would feel that the past is accessible.

Yerxa: Who has influenced your work the most?
Judt: Four people come to mind. One of them is someone that I do not agree with much, certainly not politically: Eric Hobsbawm. He writes brilliant, large-scale, narrative-analytical history. He takes on huge subjects and writes about them in a clear way which is accessible to a general audience. A second person is the French philosopher Raymond Aron, who I knew a little bit in Paris when I was a student. I was always in awe of his capacity to move unselfconsciously between disciplines for the purpose of understanding things. A historian also has to be an anthropologist, also has to be a philosopher, also has to be a moralist, also has to understand the economics of the period he is writing about. Though they are often arbitrary, disciplinary boundaries certainly exist. Nevertheless, the historian has to learn to transcend them in order to write intelligently. The third person was George Lichtheim, who was a central European Jewish refugee to England. He provided a major influence on my understanding of intellectuals and ideas. He wrote brilliantly on Marxism, left-wing intellectuals, and the history of socialism. More than anyone, he helped me understand the 20th century as a history of modern thinkers, for good and ill. I suppose the fourth is Albert Camus, though he was neither a historian nor a scholar. There is a quote from Camus that particularly captures my sense of what the historian has to do in order to be honest with himself. If I can remember the quote, at one point Camus said: “If there were a party of those who are not sure whether they are right, that would be the party I would be a member of.” I admit to being an opinionated stylist, but I try to cultivate the sense that I’m not quite sure that I am right. The historian must have a measure of intellectual humility.

Yerxa: What are you working on now? How do you follow up a massive work like Postwar?

Judt: The first thing you do is go out and play baseball. [Chuckling] You relax and absolutely refuse to answer questions like “What are you working on now?” But I do have two ideas in mind, which will take a long time to germinate. One is a book on the contemporary Mediterranean world. I don’t mean to pretend to be a modern Braudel, but it seems to me that the Mediterranean space is a sort of edge where languages, cultures, memories, religions, economies are all now going to meet in very uncomfortable ways. So I’d like to write a contemporary historical anthropology of the Mediterranean. And I would like to write a historical essay on the 20th-century intellectual condition—the ideas and intellectual exchanges, for good and ill, that shaped the 20th century.

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