Modern history


‘Every epoch is a sphinx that plunges into the abyss as soon as its riddle has been solved’. Heinrich Heine

‘Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing!) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect’. Edmund Burke

‘Events, dear boy, events’.
Harold Macmillan

World history is not the soil in which happiness grows.
Periods of happiness are empty pages in it’.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I first decided to write this book while changing trains at the Westbahnhof, Vienna’s main railway terminus. It was December 1989, a propitious moment. I had just returned from Prague, where the playwrights and historians of Václav Havel’s Civic Forum were dislodging a Communist police state and tumbling forty years of ‘real existing Socialism’ into the dustbin of history. A few weeks earlier the Berlin Wall had been unexpectedly breached. In Hungary as in Poland, everyone was taken up with the challenges of post-Communist politics: the old regime—all-powerful just a few months before—was receding into irrelevance. The Communist Party of Lithuania had just declared itself for immediate independence from the Soviet Union. And in the taxi on the way to the railway station Austrian radio carried the first reports of an uprising against the nepotistic dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania. A political earthquake was shattering the frozen topography of post-World War II Europe.

An era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. The Cold-War confrontation; the schism separating East from West; the contest between ‘Communism’ and ‘capitalism’; the separate and non-communicating stories of prosperous western Europe and the Soviet bloc satellites to its east: all these could no longer be understood as the products of ideological necessity or the iron logic of politics. They were the accidental outcomes of history—and history was thrusting them aside.

Europe’s future would look very different—and so, too, would its past. In retrospect the years 1945-89 would now come to be seen not as the threshold of a new epoch but rather as an interim age: a post-war parenthesis, the unfinished business of a conflict that ended in 1945 but whose epilogue had lasted for another half century. Whatever shape Europe was to take in the years to come, the familiar, tidy story of what had gone before had changed for ever. It seemed obvious to me, in that icy central-European December, that the history of post-war Europe would need to be rewritten.

The time was propitious; so, too, was the place. Vienna in 1989 was a palimpsest of Europe’s complicated, overlapping pasts. In the early years of the twentieth century Vienna was Europe: the fertile, edgy, self-deluding hub of a culture and a civilization on the threshold of apocalypse. Between the wars, reduced from a glorious imperial metropole to the impoverished, shrunken capital of a tiny rump-state, Vienna slid steadily from grace: finishing up as the provincial outpost of a Nazi empire to which most of its citizens swore enthusiastic fealty.

After Germany was defeated Austria fell into the Western camp and was assigned the status of Hitler’s ‘first victim’. This stroke of doubly unmerited good fortune authorized Vienna to exorcise its past. Its Nazi allegiance conveniently forgotten, the Austrian capital—a ‘Western’ city surrounded by Soviet ‘eastern’ Europe—acquired a new identity as outrider and exemplar of the free world. To its former subjects now trapped in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia, Vienna stood for ‘central Europe’: an imagined community of cosmopolitan civility that Europeans had somehow mislaid in the course of the century. In Communism’s dying years the city was to become a sort of listening post of liberty, a rejuvenated site of encounters and departures for eastern Europeans escaping West and Westerners building bridges to the East.

Vienna in 1989 was thus a good place from which to ‘think’ Europe. Austria embodied all the slightly self-satisfied attributes of post-war western Europe: capitalist prosperity underpinned by a richly-endowed welfare state; social peace guaranteed thanks to jobs and perks liberally distributed through all the main social groups and political parties; external security assured by the implicit protection of the Western nuclear umbrella—while Austria itself remained smugly ‘neutral’. Meanwhile, across the Leitha and Danube rivers just a few kilometres to the east, there lay the ‘other’ Europe of bleak poverty and secret policemen. The distance separating the two was nicely encapsulated in the contrast between Vienna’s thrusting, energetic Westbahnhof, whence businessmen and vacationers boarded sleek modern expresses for Munich or Zurich or Paris; and the city’s grim, uninviting Südbahnhof: a shabby, dingy, faintly menacing hangout of penurious foreigners descending filthy old trains from Budapest or Belgrade.

Just as the city’s two principal railway stations involuntarily acknowledged the geographical schism of Europe—one facing optimistically, profitably west, the other negligently conceding Vienna’s eastern vocation—so the very streets of the Austrian capital bore witness to the chasm of silence separating Europe’s tranquil present from its discomforting past. The imposing, confident buildings lining the great Ringstrasse were a reminder of Vienna’s one-time imperial vocation—though the Ring itself seemed somehow too big and too grand to serve as a mere quotidian artery for commuters in a medium-sized European capital—and the city was justifiably proud of its public edifices and civic spaces. Indeed, Vienna was much given to invoking older glories. But concerning the more recent past it was decidedly reticent.

And of the Jews who had once occupied many of the inner city’s buildings and who contributed decisively to the art, music, theatre, literature, journalism and ideas that were Vienna in its heyday, the city was most reticent of all. The very violence with which the Jews of Vienna had been expelled from their homes, shipped east from the city and stamped out of its memory helped account for the guilty calm of Vienna’s present. Post-war Vienna—like post-war western Europe—was an imposing edifice resting atop an unspeakable past. Much of the worst of that past had taken place in the lands that fell under Soviet control, which was why it was so easily forgotten (in the West) or suppressed (in the East). With the return of eastern Europe the past would be no less unspeakable: but now it would, unavoidably, have to be spoken. After 1989 nothing—not the future, not the present and above all not the past—would ever be the same.

Although it was in December 1989 that I decided to undertake a history of postwar Europe, the book did not get written for many years to come. Circumstances intervened. In retrospect this was fortunate: many things which have become a little clearer today were still obscure back then. Archives have opened. The inevitable confusions attendant upon a revolutionary transformation have sorted themselves out and at least some of the longer-term consequences of the upheaval of 1989 are now intelligible. And the aftershocks of 1989 did not soon abate. The next time I was in Vienna the city was struggling to house tens of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia.

Three years after that Austria abandoned its carefully-cultivated post-war autonomy and joined the European Union, whose own emergence as a force in European affairs was a direct consequence of the east-European revolutions. Visiting Vienna in October 1999 I found the Westbahnhof covered in posters for the Freedom Party of Jörg Haider who, despite his open admiration for the ‘honourable men’ of the Nazi armies who ‘did their duty’ on the eastern front, won 27 percent of the vote that year by mobilizing his fellow Austrians’ anxiety and incomprehension at the changes that had taken place in their world over the past decade. After nearly half a century of quiescence Vienna—like the rest of Europe—had re-entered history.

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. But like everything else in the twentieth-century its story is back-shadowed by the thirty-year war that began in 1914, when the European continent embarked upon its descent into catastrophe. The First World War itself was a traumatic killing field for all the participants—half of Serbia’s male population between 18 and 55 died in the fighting—but it resolved nothing. Germany (contrary to widespread belief at the time) was not crushed in the war or the post-war settlement: in that case its rise to near-total domination of Europe a mere twenty-five years later would be hard to explain. Indeed, because Germany didn’t pay its First World War debts the cost of victory to the Allies exceeded the cost of defeat to Germany, which thus emerged relatively stronger than in 1913. The ‘German problem’ that had surfaced in Europe with the rise of Prussia a generation before remained unsolved.

The little countries that emerged from the collapse of the old land empires in 1918 were poor, unstable, insecure—and resentful of their neighbours. Between the wars Europe was full of ‘revisionist’ states: Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria had all been defeated in the Great War and awaited an occasion for territorial redress. After 1918 there was no restoration of international stability, no recovered equilibrium between the powers: merely an interlude born of exhaustion. The violence of war did not abate. It metamorphosed instead into domestic affairs—into nationalist polemics, racial prejudice, class confrontation and civil war. Europe in the Twenties and especially the Thirties entered a twilight zone between the afterlife of one war and the looming anticipation of another.

The internal conflicts and inter-state antagonisms of the years between the world wars were exacerbated—and in some measure provoked—by the accompanying collapse of the European economy. Indeed economic life in Europe was struck a triple blow in those years. The First World War distorted domestic employment, destroyed trade and devastated whole regions—as well as bankrupting states. Many countries—in central Europe above all—never recovered from its effects. Those that did were then brought low again in the Slump of the Thirties, when deflation, business failures and desperate efforts to erect protective tariffs against foreign competition resulted not only in unprecedented levels of unemployment and wasted industrial capacity but also the collapse of international trade (between 1929 and 1936 Franco-German commerce fell by 83 percent), accompanied by bitter inter-state competition and resentment. And then came the Second World War, whose unprecedented impact upon the civilian populations and domestic economies of the affected nations is discussed in Part One of this book.

The cumulative impact of these blows was to destroy a civilization. The scale of the disaster that Europe had brought upon itself was perfectly clear to contemporaries even as it was happening. Some, on the far Left and far Right alike, saw the self-immolation of bourgeois Europe as an opportunity to fight for something better. The Thirties were Auden’s ‘low, dishonest decade’; but they were also an age of commitment and political faith, culminating in the illusions and lives lost to the civil war in Spain. This was the Indian summer of nineteenth-century radical visions, now invested in the violent ideological engagements of a grimmer age: ‘What an enormous longing for a new human order there was in the era between the world wars, and what a miserable failure to live up to it.’(Arthur Koestler)

Despairing of Europe, some fled: first to the remaining liberal democracies of far-western Europe, thence—if they could get out in time—to the Americas. And some, like Stefan Zweig or Walter Benjamin, took their own lives. 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 light of what had gone before it is thus understandably tempting to narrate the story of Europe’s unexpected recovery after 1945 in a self-congratulatory, even lyrical key. And this, indeed, has been the dominant underlying theme of histories of post-war Europe, above all those written before 1989—just as it was the tone adopted by European statesmen when reflecting upon their own achievements in these decades. The mere survival and re-emergence of the separate states of continental Europe after the cataclysm of total war; the absence of inter-state disputes and the steady extension of institutionalized forms of intra-European cooperation; the sustained recovery from thirty years of economic meltdown and the ‘normalization’ of prosperity, optimism and peace: all these invited a hyperbolic response. Europe’s recovery was a ‘miracle’. ‘Post-national’ Europe had learned the bitter lessons of recent history. An irenic, pacific continent had risen, ‘Phoenix-like’, from the ashes of its murderous—suicidal—past.

Like many myths, this rather agreeable account of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century contains a kernel of truth. But it leaves out a lot. Eastern Europe—from the Austrian border to the Ural Mountains, from Tallinn to Tirana—doesn’t fit. Its post-war decades were certainly peaceful when contrasted with what went before, but only thanks to the uninvited presence of the Red Army: it was the peace of the prison-yard, enforced by the tank. And if the satellite countries of the Soviet bloc engaged in international cooperation superficially comparable to developments further west, this was only because Moscow imposed ‘fraternal’ institutions and exchanges upon them by force.

The history of the two halves of post-war Europe cannot be told in isolation from one another. The legacy of the Second World War—and the pre-war decades and the war before that—forced upon the governments and peoples of east and west Europe alike some hard choices about how best to order their affairs so as to avoid any return to the past. One option—to pursue the radical agenda of the popular front movements of the 1930s—was initially very popular in both parts of Europe (a reminder that 1945 was never quite the fresh start that it sometimes appears). In eastern Europe some sort of radical transformation was unavoidable. There could be no possibility of returning to the discredited past. What, then, would replace it? Communism may have been the wrong solution, but the dilemma to which it was responding was real enough.

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. And so, in the decades that followed, the uncertainties of the immediate post-war years were forgotten. But the possibility that things might take a different turn—indeed, the likelihood that they would take a different turn—had seemed very real in 1945; it was to head off a return of the old demons (unemployment, Fascism, German militarism, war, revolution) that western Europe took the new path with which we are now familiar. 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.

This becomes easier to grasp when we recall that authorities in the Soviet bloc were in essence engaged in the same project. They, too, were above all concerned to install a barrier against political backsliding—though in countries under Communist rule this was to be secured not so much by social progress as through the application of physical force. Recent history was re-written—and citizens were encouraged to forget it—in accordance with the assertion that a Communist-led social revolution had definitively erased not just the shortcomings of the past but also the conditions that had made them possible. As we shall see, this claim was also a myth; at best a half-truth.

But the Communist myth bears unintended witness to the importance (and the difficulty) in both halves of Europe of managing a burdensome inheritance. World War One destroyed old Europe; World War Two created the conditions for a new Europe. But the whole of Europe lived for many decades after 1945 in the long shadow cast by the dictators and wars in its immediate past. That is one of the experiences that Europeans of the post-war generation have in common with one another and which separates them from Americans, for whom the twentieth century taught rather different and altogether more optimistic lessons. And it is the necessary point of departure for anyone seeking to understand European history before 1989—and to appreciate how much it changed afterwards.

In his account of Tolstoy’s view of history, Isaiah Berlin drew an influential distinction between two styles of intellectual reasoning, citing a famous line from the Greek poet Archilochus: ‘The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ In Berlin’s terms this book is decidedly not a ‘hedgehog’. I have no big theory of contemporary European history to propose in these pages; no one overarching theme to expound; no single, all-embracing story to tell. It does not follow from this, however, that I think the post-World War Two history of Europe has no thematic shape. On the contrary: it has more than one. Fox-like, Europe knows many things.

In the first place, this is a history of Europe’s reduction. The constituent states of Europe could no longer aspire, after 1945, to international or imperial status. The two exceptions to this rule—the Soviet Union and, in part, Great Britain—were both only half-European in their own eyes and in any case, by the end of the period recounted here, they too were much reduced. Most of the rest of continental Europe had been humiliated by defeat and occupation. It had not been able to liberate itself from Fascism by its own efforts; nor was it able, unassisted, to keep Communism at bay. Post-war Europe was liberated—or immured—by outsiders. Only with considerable effort and across long decades did Europeans recover control of their own destiny. Shorn of their overseas territories Europe’s erstwhile sea-borne empires (Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal) were all shrunk back in the course of these years to their European nuclei, their attention re-directed to Europe itself.

Secondly, the later decades of the twentieth century saw the withering away of the ‘master narratives’ of European history: the great nineteenth-century theories of history, with their models of progress and change, of revolution and transformation, that had fuelled the political projects and social movements that tore Europe apart in the first half of the century. This too is a story that only makes sense on a pan-European canvas: the decline of political fervor in the West (except among a marginalized intellectual minority) was accompanied—for quite different reasons—by the loss of political faith and the discrediting of official Marxism in the East. For a brief moment in the 1980s, to be sure, it seemed as though the intellectual Right might stage a revival around the equally nineteenth-century project of dismantling ‘society’ and abandoning public affairs to the untrammelled market and the minimalist state; but the spasm passed. After 1989 there was no overarching ideological project of Left or Right on offer in Europe—except the prospect of liberty, which for most Europeans was a promise now fulfilled.

Thirdly, and as a modest substitute for the defunct ambitions of Europe’s ideological past, there emerged belatedly—and largely by accident—the ‘European model’. Born of an eclectic mix of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic legislation and the crab-like institutional extension of the European Community and its successor Union, this was a distinctively ‘European’ way of regulating social intercourse and inter-state relations. Embracing everything from child-care to inter-state legal norms, this European approach stood for more than just the bureaucratic practices of the European Union and its member states; by the beginning of the twenty-first century it had become a beacon and example for aspirant EU members and a global challenge to the United States and the competing appeal of the ‘American way of life’.

This decidedly unanticipated transformation of Europe from a geographical expression (and a rather troubled one at that) into a rôle-model and magnet for individuals and countries alike was a slow, cumulative process. Europe was not, in Alexander Wat’s ironic paraphrase of the delusions of inter-war Polish statesmen, ‘doomed to greatness’. Its emergence in this capacity could certainly not have been predicted from the circumstances of 1945, or even 1975. This new Europe was not a preconceived common project: no-one set out to bring it about. But once it became clear, after 1992, that Europe did occupy this novel place in the international scheme of things, its relations with the US in particular took on a different aspect—for Europeans and Americans alike.

This is the fourth theme interwoven into this account of post-war Europe: its complicated and frequently misunderstood relationship to the United States of America. Western Europeans wanted the US to involve itself in European affairs after 1945—but they also resented that involvement and what it implied about Europe’s decline. Moreover, despite the US presence in Europe, especially in the years after 1949, the two sides of the ‘West’ remained very different places. The Cold War was perceived quite differently in western Europe from the rather alarmist response it aroused in the US, and the subsequent ‘Americanisation’ of Europe in the Fifties and Sixties is often exaggerated, as we shall see.

Eastern Europe, of course, saw America and its attributes rather differently. But there, too, it would be misleading to overstate the exemplary influence of the US upon eastern Europeans both before and after 1989. Dissident critics in both halves of Europe—Raymond Aron in France, for example, or Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia—were careful to emphasize that they did not regard America as any sort of model or example for their own societies. And although a younger generation of post-’89 eastern Europeans did aspire for a while to liberalize their countries on the American model, with limited public services, low taxes and a free market, the fashion has not caught on. Europe’s ‘American moment’ lay in the past. The future of eastern Europe’s ‘little Americas’ lay squarely in Europe.

Finally, Europe’s post-war history is a story shadowed by silences; by absence. The continent of Europe was once an intricate, interwoven tapestry of overlapping languages, religions, communities and nations. Many of its cities—particularly the smaller ones at the intersection of old and new imperial boundaries, such as Trieste, Sarajevo, Salonika, Cernovitz, Odessa or Vilna—were truly multicultural societies avant le mot, where Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Jews and others lived in familiar juxtaposition. We should not idealise this old Europe. What the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski called ‘the incredible, almost comical melting-pot of peoples and nationalities sizzling dangerously in the very heart of Europe’ was periodically rent with riots, massacres and pogroms—but it was real, and it survived into living memory.

Between 1914 and 1945, however, that Europe was smashed into the dust. The tidier Europe that emerged, blinking, into the second half of the twentieth century had fewer loose ends. Thanks to war, occupation, boundary adjustments, expulsions and genocide, almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people. For forty years after World War Two Europeans in both halves of Europe lived in hermetic national enclaves where surviving religious or ethnic minorities—the Jews in France, for example—represented a tiny percentage of the population at large and were thoroughly integrated into its cultural and political mainstream. Only Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union—an empire, not a country and anyway only part-European, as already noted—stood aside from this new, serially homogenous Europe.

But since the 1980s, and above all since the fall of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the EU, Europe is facing a multicultural future. Between them refugees; guest-workers; the denizens of Europe’s former colonies drawn back to the imperial metropole by the prospect of jobs and freedom; and the voluntary and involuntary migrants from failed or repressive states at Europe’s expanded margins have turned London, Paris, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan and a dozen other places into cosmopolitan world cities whether they like it or not.

This new presence of Europe’s living ‘others’—perhaps fifteen million Muslims in the EU as currently constituted, for example, with a further eighty million awaiting admission in Bulgaria and Turkey—has thrown into relief not just Europe’s current discomfort at the prospect of ever greater variety, but also the ease with which the dead ‘others’ of Europe’s past were cast far out of mind. Since 1989 it has become clearer than it was before just how much the stability of post-war Europe rested upon the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Between them, and assisted by wartime collaborators, the dictators blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid.

This disconcerting kink in the smooth narrative of Europe’s progress towards Winston Churchill’s ‘broad sunlit uplands’ was left largely unmentioned in both halves of postwar Europe—at least until the Sixties, after which it was usually invoked uniquely in reference to the extermination of Jews by Germans. With only the occasional controversial exception, the record of other perpetrators—and other victims—was kept closed. The history and memory of the Second World War were typically confined to a familiar set of moral conventions: Good versus Evil, Anti-Fascists against Fascists, Resisters against Collaborators and so forth.

Since 1989—with the overcoming of long-established inhibitions—it has proven possible to acknowledge (sometimes in the teeth of virulent opposition and denial) the moral price that was paid for Europe’s rebirth. Poles, French, Swiss, Italians, Romanians and others are now better placed to know—if they wish to know—what really happened in their country just a few short decades ago. Even Germans, too, are revisiting the received history of their country—with paradoxical consequences. Now—for the first time in many decades—it is German suffering and German victimhood, whether at the hands of British bombers, Russian soldiers or Czech expellers—that are receiving attention. The Jews, it is once again being tentatively suggested in certain respectable quarters, were not the only victims . . .

Whether these discussions are a good or a bad thing is a matter for debate. Is all this public remembering a sign of political health? Or is it sometimes more prudent, as De Gaulle among others understood all too well, to forget? This question will be taken up in the Epilogue. Here I would simply note that these latest hiccups of disruptive recall need not be understood—as they sometimes are understood (notably in the United States), when juxtaposed to contemporary outbreaks of ethnic or racial prejudice—as baleful evidence of Europe’s Original Sin: its inability to learn from past crimes, its amnesiac nostalgia, its ever-imminent propensity to return to 1938. This is not, in the words of Yogi Berra, ‘déjà vu all over again’.

Europe is not re-entering its troubled wartime past—on the contrary, it is leaving it. Germany today, like the rest of Europe, is more conscious of its twentieth-century history than at any time in the past fifty years. But this does not mean that it is being drawnback into it. For that history never went away. As this book tries to show, the long shadow of World War Two lay heavy across postwar Europe. It could not, however, be acknowledged in full. Silence over Europe’s recent past was the necessary condition for the construction of a European future. Today—in the wake of painful public debates in almost every other European country—it seems somehow fitting (and in any case unavoidable) that Germans, too, should at last feel able openly to question the canons of well-intentioned official memory. We may not be very comfortable with this; it may not even be a good portent. But it is a kind of closure. Sixty years after Hitler’s death, his war and its consequences are entering history. Postwar in Europe lasted a very long time, but it is finally coming to a close.

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