What an amazing accomplishment it is to produce a book like Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Encyclopedic in scope yet not thereby frustratingly superficial in its particulars, it is over 800 pages long in a smallish font that would make it easily 1,000 pages and probably more like 1,200 were it printed using a conventional size font. It’s sufficiently readable to be accessible to intelligent non-academic readers and history buffs, yet sufficiently meticulously researched and referenced (with additional notes and bibliography online) so as to be valuable to scholars.
Its ideal audience might be somewhere in between lay readers and experts in the field—maybe college students researching papers related to one of the many topics it covers. As impressed as I am by it, I feel like I won’t benefit from it as much as some will. I’m a casual reader at this stage of my life, reading mainly for pleasure. I learn things from a book like this, but because I’m not reading super closely, rereading, following up on references and doing other side reading, taking detailed notes, writing about it (except here), etc., I know that most of the specifics will fade from my memory fairly quickly. This is a book that rewards non-casual reading.
To clarify, I’m not at all saying I wouldn’t recommend the book to non-academics who have an interest in recent European history. To the contrary, I think it’s great for readers like that. But I think those with the time and background to dig deeper into it will find additional value in it.
As one could guess from its title and subtitle, the book is about the history of Europe since 1945, and how profoundly that history was shaped by World War II.
I’m not going to pretend I can summarize the contents of this book. To do so adequately would make this piece as long as some whole books. Plus even five minutes after finishing it it’s not as if I could remember a hundred percent of such a massive book well enough to be able to summarize it. So what I’ll do instead is mention a few points from the book that happened to stand out to me, because they seemed particularly surprising, interesting, or important.
Wars typically don’t have clear and precise starting and ending points. We’re misled to believe otherwise by the commencement of bombing or of troops crossing a border, formal declarations of war, the signing of treaties to end hostilities, etc.
Take World War II. One would think that the fighting, at least in the European theater, ended with Germany’s unconditional surrender (signed May 7, 1945, ratified in Berlin on May 8, 1945). But long after that date Germans and their allies were randomly slaughtered in revenge, countries such as Greece descended into civil war, and over a thousand Jews were murdered in pogroms in Poland.
It may be semantically fine to say that those things happened after the war rather than constituting a continuation of the war, but the point is people in Europe were still killing each other in massive numbers after the war supposedly ended.
I assume most people realize that Europe was laid waste by World War II, but the extent of it is still eye-opening. In Germany, 40% of the housing had been destroyed, in France 20%, and in Great Britain (which remember, was bombed but didn’t experience a land war) 30%. Eastern Europe was more thoroughly wiped out. In Warsaw, 90% of the housing was destroyed.
Except in neutral Sweden and Switzerland, food was scarce immediately after the war, to the point of starvation in some areas. 90% of the railways in Germany were not functioning. As if the worldwide depression hadn’t done enough damage, the war dropped most of Europe to Third World status.
Think about how hard it is to recover from something like that. And how much harder it is when the destruction is even greater, like Vietnam and Cambodia after the Americans got done with them, or Rwanda after the genocide. Yet they did recover. Within a year of the war’s end, instead of 90% of Germany’s railways being down it was 10%.
When we consider history it’s easy to perceive it as having all been inevitable, as if people should have been able to predict how things would play out. But if you really put yourself back in the mindset of the time, their future was every bit as unpredictable as our future is now.
For example, the fact that there was no World War III in Europe shortly after World War II seems like an “of course, what else would you expect?” now, but it certainly wasn’t then. People predicted war, dreaded it, planned for it, strategized for it, and so on, and it made perfect sense that they would. Europeans had been slaughtering each other with regularity for centuries, at a horrific scale twice already in the present century that wasn’t even half over. The fact that now some of those countries were democracies rather than monarchies or dictatorships didn’t guarantee anything; democracies can collapse, and coming out of the war many in Europe were far from stable.
That the battered and traumatized continent didn’t soon erupt into another full-fledged war was a result of many factors. A large chunk of it had order imposed on it by the Soviets. If the Crips and Bloods are engaged in a shooting war, and you arrest them all and throw them in supermax prisons, it’s a lot harder for them to continue their conflict there. But also, United States aid (the Marshall Plan) and social democratic, welfare state reforms in many countries greatly reduced the number of desperate people who would have otherwise had nothing to lose. People had a stake in stability.
As much as the Soviets imposed their will on Eastern Europe, it’s not as if all those countries were clones of each other, all under the same type and degree of control. The most obvious example is that Yugoslavia remained largely independent, but the other countries also each had their own histories and each jostled internally and with the Soviets over just what shape they would take. Some were more puppets than others.
Furthermore, the specifics of that changed from time to time, as one of the more independent countries might cross some line and get yanked into place, while a different one that had been more firmly controlled might start to take a few liberties here and there. And it’s not like those lines were precisely knowable in advance or were unchanging. All of this was being constantly implicitly renegotiated.
Still, internally at least some of these societies were arguably more totalitarian than Nazi Germany itself had ever been. For example, the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police) had five times as many agents active in East Germany alone than the Gestapo had had at its peak in all of Germany. Combine the greater personnel with the advances in technology and the chance to learn from the experience of their predecessors, and you’re talking about a significantly more 1984-ish society.
Countries and individuals that had sided with the Nazis of course tried to downplay and hide that any way they could after the war. Kurt Waldheim was no anomaly; by most measures Austria had been a lot more Nazi than even Germany, but they certainly don’t want to be remembered that way.
A consequence of the war, or really of the period from the start of World War I to the end of World War II, was a decrease in multiculturalism. Not only did Jews largely cease to exist within some countries, but with all the displacement, voluntary and involuntary migrations, and redrawing of borders and such, people were a lot more likely to end up with their own “kind.” It was sort of like when independent India and Pakistan came into being, and the populations shifted to where each became far more religiously homogenous than pre-independence India had been.
I think one of the most remarkable things about recent history is how the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t far, far worse. If a state like that ended at all, I think most people would have predicted it would end in a bloodbath, possibly World War III, possibly a nuclear holocaust. What were the chances such a regime could pass out of existence without putting up a fight, so to speak?
That’s why I’ve always thought of Gorbachev as mostly a positive—maybe even heroic—figure for pulling that off. The author, though, depicts him as in a lot of ways a bumbler who didn’t understand the situation he was in and consistently failed to anticipate more or less predictable consequences.
So what might have happened with someone less clueless in his position? Could that country have gone through that period even more smoothly, and ended up with something better than its current kleptocratic dictatorship/pseudo-democracy with a lot of people at the bottom worse off than they’d been in Soviet times?
Read a few pages at random from anywhere in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and you’ll find a lot to learn and reflect on. Given its length and serious subject matter, I don’t want to misrepresent it as an easy read, but it’s certainly less dry and intimidating than one would expect. I strongly recommend it to those who can handle a serious, hefty book on this subject matter.