Category Archives: history

History as written by emigrants

I’m reading Tony Judt’s “Postwar”, a history of Europe since 1945 until the 1990s. It’s an excellent book, impressive in its breadth of scope and attention to detail, encyclopaedic at times, yet still very readable. I’m finding it more than worth my time and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding Europe’s history and politics.

I’m also finding that Judt’s analysis of Western Europe is much better than that of the Eastern Bloc. “Postwar” is fascinating in its account of the larger political, social and economic processes that constrained the main actors in the West: why a remilitarized West Germany was inevitable, for example, or how the loss of overseas colonies affected the European balance of power. The Eastern European history is, by comparison, more superficial.

Given the sheer number of names, dates and facts in the volume, Judt can be forgiven for the occasional inaccuracies. (The Polish leader that Gomulka replaced in October 1956 was Ochab, not Bierut who had died in March 1956; Ilia Rips is a man, not a woman; and so on.) What matters more is that, while Judt tries to avoid the “few great men” version of Western European history, he succumbs to it somewhat in writing about the East. Eastern Europe is seen disproportionately through the prism of Western headlines and secondary sources (the show trials, the major uprisings), with less attention paid to social analysis and the reality of life on the ground.

Judt, of course, has very good excuses. It would take a large team of experts, not a single author, to access and interpret primary sources in all of the languages involved. Moreover, there’s only so much that can be done within the constraints of a single encyclopaedic volume of much wider scope, meant to be accessible to an audience with little prior familiarity with the subject. In a limited “teaching time”, it’s a perfectly valid strategy to focus on those parts that can be explained effectively with less effort. I’ve done it myself on occasion, both in my math teaching and here on this blog.

Still, there’s a lot missing. Take the economy, for starters. Judt speaks of the economic failure of socialism, but never really explains how a Soviet-style planned economy was organized, how it was different from Western European social and economic planning (the subject of many misconceptions in the West), or why it did not and could not work. This is important because, without that information, most readers will just assume that Eastern European central planning was much like in Western Europe, only more rigid and dysfunctional. It was not. Its origins, philosophy, mechanism and execution were all very different from anything known in the Western world. To give one example, all prices (including food and consumer articles) were dictated by the government, and I really mean dictated, not just regulated or subsidized. (Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty” is excellent on that, and I’d also recommend Anne Applebaum’s “The Iron Curtain” on the early postwar years in Eastern Europe.)

Judt’s Western chapters are so good in part because of how he writes on large and small scales simultaneously, humanizing politics and, at the same time, distilling general trends from a mass of individual events. To wit:

Street scenes in post-war Britain would have been familiar to citizens in the Soviet bloc – in the words of one British housewife, recalling these years, `It was queues for everything, you know, even if you didn’t know what you were queuing for… you joined it because you knew there was something at the end of it.’

No Eastern European housewives were similarly interviewed, at least in the part of the book I’ve read so far. If they had been, they could have talked about how queues formed first thing in the morning and waited for hours before anyone even knew whether anything would be delivered that day. This went on into the 1970s and 80s, not just the early post-war years. They could have talked of the power and water outages that could happen any time, the decrepit 1950s buildings with communal kitchens and bathrooms, or carrying a baby stroller up to the 5th floor of a walk-up apartment building while pregnant with their next child. Likewise, factory workers (both male and female) could have spoken of the long hours, insane schedules, ever-increasing norms, inhuman and unsafe work conditions. It would have explained the desperation behind the strikes, protests and riots.

I started writing this post in response to the chapter on the events of 1968 in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Continue reading

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