So Tony Judt’s Postwar is a history of Europe from the end of WW2 to… well, basically right up to 2005, when it was written.
And so of course you can’t really write a history of the present moment, right. Which you see as you go through the book—the parts about the late 1940s feel genuinely historical, whereas by the time you get even a few decades further in, there’s a kind of memoir-ish feel to things, where you can sort of feel the author’s personal experiences coming through on the page (Judt’s palpable disdain for the intellectual and political movements of “The Sixties” is almost puzzling in its intensity to someone who didn’t live through the period).
But to some extent, that’s one of the running themes of the book: The construction of “history” and its social purpose; how so much of postwar Europe was devoted to actively suppressing, forgetting, or rewriting its history; and the degree to which more true histories were not able to emerge until well after any of the various horrible events that happened in twentieth-century Europe.
But it’s not just historiography, it’s also a straight-up history. Probably the strongest part is about the early postwar period, where Cold War Europe is being constructed—both because it’s the part that most benefits from historical perspective, and because that’s one of those things that I never really knew. I knew that WW2 ended, sure, and then Europe divided and the Cold War, but I never had any idea how it got from one to the other, and there’s something fascinating about reading how it happened, and being able to see how it would have seemed less obvious and inevitable to people of the time.
And from a personal perspective, the history of the end of the Cold War—the revolutions of 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union—was equally fascinating, both because it is an obviously huge historical transition, and because… okay, I was just barely a teenager when this stuff was happening, right? So I remember seeing these events on network news, and hearing jokes about them on Letterman (when he was still on after Carson), and it’s something that I lived through in a way that I can still remember… but at the same time, holy cow, I had basically no comprehension at all of what was happening beyond the most superficial and obvious. So tying those old memories together with all this deeper knowledge is an experience I don’t often get in reading history, due to the part where I wasn’t alive during e.g. the Middle Ages or WW1 or whatever.
So anyway, great book, and if you want to know at least the latest bit of how Europe got to be where it is, absolutely worth a read.