What is truth? What is history? What really happened? How did we wind up where we are now? This is the book that will go a long way to explaining it. You might not like the explanation, but when you want truth, confronting it can be painful.
Reading Postwar was a project, an immersion experience in modern European history during which I unlearned, then relearned modern history. It was a long book, but more than worth the effort.
At 960 pages, the book is crammed with information, much of it contrary to everything we’ve previously learned. I had to read it twice before I felt I had a grip on the material. The third time was to pick up some more details that I might have missed.
Dr. Tony Judt was an historian with controversial opinions. He made no pretense of being a neutral observer. Not that any historian is genuinely neutral. Historians have agendas. They have a point of view and usually strong beliefs backed by considerable research. There is no such thing as historical neutrality. When a historian writes about an era, he or she has an opinion about it. All history changed by the historians who write it. You can read a variety of histories on the same subject that differ greatly. It’s up to you to determine where the truth lies. It’s also why, if you are interested in history, you don’t read one book. You read many books. Eventually, you will also have a unique point of view.
In Postwar, Dr. Judt undertakes the debunking and de-mythologizing of post-World War II European history. He lays bare lies that comprise the myth of French resistance, the “neutral” Swiss, the open-minded anti-Nazi Dutch and exposed an ugly legacy of entrenched anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and ethnocentricity. It should be no surprise that all of this is coming back to bite all of us.
A war can stop an invasion. Kill off an entire ethnic group. Redraw national lines. Yet, when wars end, little has really changed except the population. Wars ravage continents, putrefy the earth, and leave peoples dead, defiled, homeless, and helpless. Victory is awarded to whoever is left standing when the war is officially declared over.
Although Dr. Judt follows a chronological path from World War II to this century, he doesn’t do it as a traditional “timeline.” It’s more than a lineal progression of political events and wars. Has anyone other than me noticed that “history” these days isn’t history? It’s all about wars. Who was fighting. How they began. How or if they ended. How the next one started and the one after that.
We’re trying to extract ourselves from an endless war right now. To all those who object, does anyone think we should fight forever? We’ve been fighting for twenty years and have gained nothing. Learned nothing. We can fight until the end of time and my guess is we will still have gained nothing and learned less.
Postwar altered my view of the world and how it became the way it is. It is not only about what happened, but what is happening and will happen. If Dr. Judt had lived longer, I doubt he’d have been surprised at the calamitous mess we’re in today. He saw it, expected it, understood why it would happen.
Tony Judt and I were born in 1947. We grew up during the same years, but his Old World roots gave him a different perspective. He forced me to question my fundamental beliefs. What really happened? Was the history I had learned actually true?
Maybe not or maybe only parts of it. It was hard to swallow, but by the time I was done, I believed it. And I recognized that we had not seen the worst of it. Not yet. I think now we are about to really see the worst of it.
If you are Jewish (I am and so was Judt), and lost family during the Holocaust, this will stir up painful memories. The intensity of European anti-Semitism and collusion in the destruction of European Jewry is stomach-churning. The lies are easier to deal with than the ugly reality. It’s not hard to understand why so much of what we know is wrong but I think it’s important to recognize that it is wrong. Sometimes completely wrong. Trump is not the only president who created an alternate reality to avoid dealing with the truth. He was far from alone.
Even though I knew a lot of history, I didn’t grasp the impact of these years until Postwar brought all the pieces together and made it real. I assumed, having lived these decades and followed the news, I knew what happened. But the news reported by American media barely scratches the surface of “truth.” The transformation of Europe from the wreckage of the war to modern Europe is far more complex and far-reaching than I grasped. These changes affect all of us directly and personally.
I read Postwar on paper, then listened to the audio version twice more. Available from Audible.com, I recommend it to anyone with easily-tired eyes. It has excellent narration and is a fine showcase for the author’s conversational (and controversial) writing style.
Postwar is analysis and criticism, not just “what happened.” The book is an eye-opener, worth your time and effort. It’s an investment in understanding and historical perspective. It’s never dull. After reading it, you won’t see Europe or World War II the same way.
Moreover, this is a book which provides context for our century. Postwar has breadth, depth and makes sense of many puzzling historical omissions. It will change the way you look at the past and how it connects to the present.