A Cataclysmic War: Review of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt

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Tony Judt’s monumental history of the (post) WWII era ranks up there with Robert Conquest’s study of the Soviet Union, Alan Bullock’s biographical history of Hitler and Richard Pipes’ account of the Russian Revolution. Rare in its depth, breadth and scope, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) examines the devastating ripple effects of a cataclysmic war—WWII—throughout Europe during the entirety of the twentieth century. Publishers Weekly rightly hails the book as “the best history we have of Europe in the postwar period and not likely to be surpassed for many years…. One of its great virtues is that it covers the small countries as well as the large and powerful ones.” Postwar covers the history of the entire Cold War, dwelling on the spread and dismantlement of Communism. However, the book’s most staggering information—replete with statistics—focuses on the devastation of WWII and its immediate aftermath.

Although Judt covers the material damage done to European cities, he observes that this damage “was insignificant when set against the human losses. It is estimated that about thirty-six and a half million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945 from war-related causes(…)—a number that does not include deaths from natural causes in those years, nor any estimate of the numbers of children not conceived or born then or later because of the war” (Postwar, 17-18).

This is what I’d like to focus upon in this review, since one of the book’s main strengths is to quantify and explain the ravages of totalitarianism and war. Tens of millions of civilians and soldiers died from mass extermination, disease, malnutrition, forced marches, deportations, labor and concentration camps. We’ve already seen that the Holocaust alone claimed ten million victims, about 6 million of whom were Jewish.

Military losses assumed staggering proportions. Judt documents that the Soviet Union alone lost 8.6 million fighters, Germany 4 million, Romania about 300,000. Countless Soviet soldiers died as prisoners of war, as the Germans captured 5.5 million Soviet soldiers. Many of those that managed to survive against all odds the Nazi imprisonment were deported by Stalin to Siberia once they arrived home. (18-19)

Women suffered from the ravages of war both as human beings and specifically as women. Many were raped and tortured as part of the atrocities of war and, later, the spoils of victory. Germany paid a heavy price for having succumbed to Nazi rule. As the German saying went, “Better enjoy the war—the peace will be terrible.” According to Judt, “87,000 women in Vienna were reported by clinics and doctors to have been raped by Soviet soldiers in the three weeks following the Red Army’s arrival in the city” (20).

With the farmland, electrical plants, infrastructure and even industry of so many European countries nearly destroyed, people continued to suffer from hunger, polluted water supplies and diseases, of which typhoid and diphtheria were widespread. Hospitals had insufficient supplies, staff and resources to take care of the ill and dying. As Judt describes the situation in Poland, “for the 90,000 children of liberated Warsaw there was just one hospital, with fifty beds” (22).

One of the biggest Diasporas in history, WWII led to the expulsion, deportation and migration of 30 million people between 1939-1942. (23) Germany, who ignited the war, lay in ruins by its end. Judt cites William Byford-Jones, a British officer in Germany, who observed the country’s dire situation in 1945:

“Flotsam and Jetsam! Women who had lost husbands and children, men who had lost their wives; men and women who had lost their homes and children; families who had lost vast farms and estates, shops, distilleries, factories, flour-mills, mansions. There were also little children who were alone, carrying some small bundle, with a pathetic label attached to them” (23).

The Jews of Europe suffered the worst. Targeted for slave labor and extermination just for being born Jewish, over 6 million Jews lost their lives during the war. Even among the fortunate few who got to see the day of liberation from the Nazis, 4 out of 6 died within a few weeks afterwards. Their condition, Judt explains, “was beyond the experience of Western medicine” (24).

After describing the chaos and suffering of war, as the title suggests, Postwar depicts the rebirth of parts of Europe. Indeed, part of the book’s message is one of hope. Given the human devastation and the material destruction caused by WWII, it is a miracle that Western Europe managed to rebound and emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of war to flourish in first part of the twentieth century. Still under the grips of totalitarianism (Communism), it would take Eastern Europe another half a century to recover from WWII and the dangerous ideologies that led to the near destruction of an entire continent and its people.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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