July 21, 2017

More from Postwar

A few excerpts from the first 20% of this great book, with some pictures supplied by me:


This book tells the story of Europe since the Second World War and so it begins in 1945: Stunde nul, as the Germans called it—Zero hour.

On the eve of the continent’s final descent into the abyss the prospect for Europe appeared hopeless. Whatever it was that had been lost in the course of the implosion of European civilization—a loss whose implications had long since been intuited by Karl Kraus and Franz Kafka in Zweig’s own Vienna—would never be recaptured. In Jean Renoir’s eponymous film classic of 1937, the Grand Illusion of the age was the resort to war and its accompanying myths of honour, caste and class. But by 1940, to observant Europeans, the grandest of all Europe’s illusions—now discredited beyond recovery—was ‘European civilisation’ itself.

In the circumstances of 1945, in a continent covered with rubble, there was much to be gained by behaving as though the past was indeed dead and buried and a new age about to begin. The price paid was a certain amount of selective, collective forgetting, notably in Germany. But then, in Germany above all, there was much to forget.


Cologne, 1945

Whatever their party ‘label’, the elder statesmen of Europe were all, by 1945, skeptical, pragmatic practitioners of the art of the possible.


Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) as Prime Minister in 1953

US GNP had doubled in the course of the war, and by the spring of 1945 America accounted for half the world’s manufacturing capacity, most of its food surpluses and virtually all international financial reserves. The United States had put 12 million men under arms to fight Germany and its allies, and by the time Japan surrendered the American fleet was larger than all other fleets in the world combined.




But there was more to American policy than innocence. The United States in 1945 and for some time to come seriously expected to extricate itself from Europe as soon as possible, and was thus understandably keen to put in place a workable settlement that would not require American presence or supervision. This aspect of American post-war thinking is not well remembered or understood today, but it was uppermost in American calculations at the time—as Roosevelt had explained at Yalta, the US did not expect to remain in occupation of Germany (and thus in Europe) more than two years at most.

The American defense budget was reduced by five-sixths between 1945 and 1947.

France’s initial position on the German problem was very clear, and drew directly upon the lessons of 1918–24: so much so, indeed, that to outsiders it appeared an attempt to re-run the script of the post-World War One years, only this time with someone else’s army.

The solution, as it emerged in French thinking in the course of the ensuing months, lay in ‘Europeanising’ the German Problem: as Bidault, once again, expressed it in January 1948: ‘On the economic plane, but also on the political plane one must . . . propose as an objective to the Allies and to the Germans themselves, the integration of Germany into Europe .

If the idea had not occurred to French leaders before 1948 this was not through a shortage of imagination, but because it was clearly perceived as a pis aller, a second-best outcome. A ‘European’ solution to France’s German problem could only be adopted once a properly ‘French’ solution had been abandoned, and it took French leaders three years to accept this. In those three years France had, in effect, to come to terms with the abrupt negation of three hundred years of history. In the circumstances this was no small achievement.

It had become clear—first to the British, then to the Americans, belatedly to the French and finally to the Soviets—that the only way to keep Germany from being the problem was to change the terms of the debate and declare it the solution. This was uncomfortable, but it worked.


Adenauer and Degaulle at signing of Élysée Treaty, 1964

Stalin knew better than most that World War Two had been a close run thing: if the Germans had invaded a month earlier in 1941 (as Hitler’s original schedule required) the Soviet Union might very well have folded. Like the USA after Pearl Harbor, but with rather better cause, the Soviet leadership was obsessed to the point of paranoia with ‘surprise attacks’ and challenges to its new-won standing.


Soviet prisoners of war, 1941

Molotov is surely telling the truth when he suggests in his memoirs that the Soviet Union preferred to take advantage of propitious situations but was not going to take risks in order to bring them about: ‘Our ideology stands for offensive operations when possible, and if not, we wait.’
In the West the prospect of radical change was smoothed away, not least thanks to American aid (and pressure). The appeal of the popular-front agenda—and of Communism—faded: both were prescriptions for hard times and in the West, at least after 1952, the times were no longer so hard.

Post-national, welfare-state, cooperative, pacific Europe was not born of the optimistic, ambitious, forward-looking project imagined in fond retrospect by today’s Euro-idealists. It was the insecure child of anxiety. Shadowed by history, its leaders implemented social reforms and built new institutions as a prophylactic, to keep the past at bay.




[B]asic food rationing in Britain only ended in 1954—long after the rest of western Europe...[but] as Sam Watson, the veteran leader of the Durham miners union, reminded the Labour Party’s annual conference in 1950: ‘Poverty has been abolished. Hunger is unknown. The sick are tended. The old folks are cherished, our children are growing up in a land of opportunity.’


(Get this fine book here.)

3 Comments:

Blogger VMM said...

I was blown away when I read that rationing in Britain lasted that long.

July 21, 2017 at 8:25 PM  
Blogger VMM said...

Reading Post War inspired me to watch some Italian neo-realist films made just after WW2, the most depressing of which was Germany, Year Zero (Spoiler: all Italian neo-realist films have unhappy endings.)

July 21, 2017 at 8:31 PM  
Blogger The Other Front said...

Judt probably has a book about that, too. When not writing the history of Europe he was apparently an expert on Primo Levi as well.

July 21, 2017 at 8:36 PM  

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