Thursday, February 7, 2008


I finally made it through Postwar (2005), Tony Judt's massive history of Europe since 1945, a reading experience that was worthwhile if only as an antidote to the US-centric reading I've been doing, more or less since graduate school, with the occasional foray into British authors of the early 20th century or of the former British Commonwealth countries. And Judt differs from something like Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes, A History of the World 1914-1991 (1996) in his focus only on Europe and in chronicling the world bequeathed to us by a) the agreements and disagreements at the close of World War II, b) the fall of the Soviet Union, c) the increasingly inclusive and economically significant European Union.

The latter tale is rather boring -- a story of markets more than politics or culture -- but gives to the later chapters of the book something that could almost be called a thesis. Namely, that "Europe" as you learned of it in school, if you were in school at any point during the Cold War, is not that Europe any more. The reason being that, for the years from 1945 to 1989, Europe was a territory uneasily situated between the opposing powers of the United Soviet states and the United States, with their plucky sidekick Britain, and that a new consciousness of what Europe is will become clearer the further we move from that period which comprised the impressionable years of the baby boomers and their first wave of children. Judt does give us ground for saying "après ils, le déluge" -- where "le déluge" is conceived as a certain coarsening of the sensibilities of an older European culture, a certain homogenization caused by "everyone" desiring a certain kind of living standard with access to the most desired features of contemporary life, a certain loss of historical specificity as an entire generation ignores history in favor of "EuroCult for Eurotrash."

Judt pulls back from this thesis of EuroCult über alles in his Epilogue, "The House of the Dead," which argues (and it's one of the few parts of the book where one is met with something that feels argued rather than simply stated or asserted) that what binds Europe is its guilt over the fate of the Jews of World War II. It's a claim that seems already anachronistic once one has read of the trends of contemporary Europe -- trends which could be said to make the kind of history that Judt's book perpetuates, and argues for in the epilogue, irrelevant. So the question is brought before us, in part by the juxtaposition itself: is history ever irrelevant? Is there a necessity in the 21st century that the crimes and horrors and displacements and spying and betrayals and purges and suppressions and executions and mass deaths of the 20th century be remembered, be acknowledged, be assumed as a mantel of the past that can never be forgotten or forgiven?

The answer to this would be a easily voiced and resounding "yes" were it not for a certain restless skepticism intruded through the logic of an historical account that finds no meaning in history, that has no thesis for what events mean. Judt mourns not at all the passing of the Marxist-Soviet claims for historical necessity, and rightly so, but with the "end of ideology" that he seems more or less to embrace, there is also a loss of any opposition to "the West." With the loss of Soviet socialism, the West has no purpose whatsoever, no ideology other than making things to give some people something to do and other people something to buy and others something to put money into.

The story of the fall of the Soviet Union and the almost comical repetition of the stages each of its satellites went through as it acquired autonomy is interesting, as history, and part of the fascination of the tale is how an idea whose time had come became an idea whose time was up. But during the decades it took to move from one to the other, the "idea" was a critique of the West and also a cautionary tale. In other words, with the fall of the Socialist state went all the abstract accounts of history, and all we are left with is countries -- territories housing various populations -- that were managed either better or worse, that were more oppressive or less, that were more or less easily "converted" to capitalism and its noble cousin democracy. Thus another interesting tale that Judt tells -- the wars among the different political, ethnic and religious populations and fledgling states of the former Yugoslavia -- makes sense as the vexed tale of our own Civil War makes sense, as violence undertaken to refuse control by a power seen as inimical, but what's also clear is that, except among the participants, the historical meaning of the bloodshed is lost, becomes rather -- in the case of the Serbian wars -- a cause for intervention because war itself is out of step, out of keeping with the current state of the post-Soviet world.

But without a compelling argument for what history means -- other than things that happened in a certain place at a certain time to certain people -- or for what the world should be -- other than people living in different places at the same time getting along with one another -- what Germany did to its Jews or what the Soviets did to their dissidents can make no claim to be definitive, to be "an identity," to be anything other than a fact about the '40s -- a period that I doubt anyone reading these words had any direct experience of. That world is gone and to uphold it as meaningful is to make an argument -- the way one could once say the October Revolution is meaningful, the way the US likes to claim the Revolutionary War and the Civil War are meaningful as the groundwork of this most perfect union which continues to endure. But the Third Reich did not endure, neither did the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and why then should anyone claim the long delusions they espoused as formative, as, in this uncanny "House of the Dead" way, necessary?

Oh, but every time I look at you
I feel so low I don't know what to do
Well, every day just seems to bring bad news
Leaves me here with the post-World War II blues.
--Al Stewart, "The Post-World War II Blues" (1974)


Andrew Shields said...

To close with Al Stewart: perfect. I need to get a copy of that on CD!

Donald Brown said...

so do I, actually. One of my favorite albums of the time, when it came out. A time when a 9 minute epic like "Roads to Moscow" actually got airplay on FM radio!

Andrew Shields said...

It's available from Amazon both as a single CD and as a two-CD set with two other AS releases. His first three albums from the 60s are also available in that two-CD form.

"Songs and Poems Were All We Needed" was the title of my poetry-songwriting course last summer. :-)

Donald Brown said...

PPF is his only really good album, the follow-up, Modern Times, is mostly good and I liked it a lot at the time, then came Year of the Cat, his biggest hit to date, but he was beginning to cloy as far as I was concerned (though the kickoff song, 'Lord Grenville' is still a fave of mine). Eventually I heard what I think is the album before PPF, Zero She Flies; it's heavily under the influence of mid-'60s Dylan but I liked a few of the songs, not sure how I'd take to them now (as more than curios of the period). But all those albums featured Tim Renwick whose lead guitar playing is always stately and tasteful.

By the time Al got to "Time Passages" (which got a fair amount of airplay) his songs were more insipid and I was no longer listening.

Andrew Shields said...

Lord Grenville is fabulous, but I also like some of the other Year of the Cat stuff quite a bit, including the title song. But PP&F is simply brilliant, definitely his peak.