Max Frankel

New York

Buck up, Europe. Though lacking a coherent ideology, a genuine political unity and a significant military, you have stumbled upon a way of life that is preferable even to America's. Indeed, if you continue to let your sinful past retain its "admonitory meaning" - and learn to share your blessings with impoverished immigrants - you will have found not only moral purpose but also a way to teach the 21st century how to avoid the horrors of the 20th.

So says Tony Judt in describing his massive new work, "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945." When asked at a forum at the Open Society Institute in New York on Monday to encapsulate his densely packed 831-page story (voluminous notes and bibliography still to come on the Internet and eventual paperback), he acknowledged his high but hesitant hopes for Europe and a festering, subtle disillusionment with America. His tale points to a Europe that has learned the value of trying to provide for the common welfare, health and happiness of most of its citizens - a Europe that, with him, sees an America overburdened by military missions and shamed by doctrinal individualism, unfair social policies and often violent tendencies.

Such a crude summary of Judt's unusually comprehensive and highly readable scholarship and opinions is itself an unfair, even violent act. But he lent himself to the effort, perhaps because he knows that this, his 11th book, could be his most influential even if not widely read. His account of Western Europe's remarkable recovery after World War II, of its fitful lurches toward European union and of the distinctive evolution of European societies, East and West, is bound to become a major resource for other students. But its mass and mission are unlikely to make it easy beach or airplane reading. So the chance to hear him digest his own thoughts was most welcome.

Educated in Britain and France, Judt has lived in the United States for 16 years, teaching at New York University, directing his own Remarque Institute and looming as America's most prominent scholar of all-Europe affairs. He spoke to an invited audience of scholars and answered the questions, to two admiring academic colleagues, Ian Buruma of Bard College and Jan Gross of Princeton University.

Judt's main message, however, is unmistakably for European ears. For while he credits the United States with a large and vital role in the early postwar years in nursing a sick and devastated Western Europe to health, he believes that Americans have misunderstood and greatly exaggerated their country's political and intellectual influence since the 1950s. For one thing, he argues that Europeans experienced the Cold War much less "emotionally" (I suspect he means "hysterically") than Americans, thus drifting toward their own path even before the Soviet collapse. For another, he thinks Europeans rightly understood the demise of communism as a suicidal implosion, and not primarily the fruit of U.S. policy.

His themes, the most important of which is that Europe's welfare states were not constructed for ideological, socialistic reasons, but rather as a "prophylactic" against the disasters that had befallen the Continent throughout the 20th century. This is not widely understood in the United States and perhaps not even in Europe.

The corollary message therefore is that Europe should not lightly dismantle those systems and may better serve the world as a model than the United States or China with their stress on rugged capitalism and military strength.

Europe's recovery and postwar collaboration, Judt concludes, were surely propelled by the U.S. Marshall Plan "(costing Americans the modern-day equivalent of $200 billion, or less than Iraq so far) and by the shared concern about Soviet intentions. But the NATO military alliance served Europeans more to restrain any lingering ambitions Germany might have had rather than curbing those of Russia.

The world too easily forgets, Judt observed, that the "default" position of Europe as World War II ended was a return to tyranny, misery and poverty - the chaos that bred fascism, communism and wars. The welfare states of the present era, even if in need of prudent cutbacks, he insists, still serve that protective purpose. Therefore glib opposition to them, as can be heard in America, is an important "failure of memory" which he feels obligated to correct.

Judt acknowledged that American society has done a markedly better job of assisting and integrating immigrants. Much of Europe's future, and appeal as a model, now depends on its willingness to spread its welfare tents to the newcomers from the east and south. But he quickly added the observation that the European Union, for all its political frailty, is serving not only immigrants but also "attracting whole nations." By setting a political price of admission, it has been able to promote humane conduct and democratic institutions in the nations beating at the door. He cautioned that opposition to the admission of Turkey - he specifically cited German resistance - therefore threatens not only to injure the Turkish economy but also to undermine an important source of pressure on all applicants.

There is nothing deterministic in Judt's view of how things turned out. They might have been very different if Stalin had not made crucial misjudgments in the late 1940s by rejecting Marshall Plan aid, staging a crude communist coup in Czechoslovakia and encouraging the invasion of South Korea. The Soviet aim of a neutral and disarmed Germany might well have been achieved. The European Union might have turned out much different and less cohesive if Britain had come along and brought Scandinavia in its wake. And, clearly, events turned mightily on the actions of individual leaders. Judt gives extraordinary weight to Mikhail Gorbachev's refusal to use force to hold Eastern Europe and his loss of control over Russian reform.

So there was nothing inevitable about the course of European events. Nor did the tensions between Europe and America have to run so deep as now. But if his scholarship bears any messages, Judt concluded, they are these: Americans need to stop seeing Europe as weak and decadent - even in uncertain form the Continent has progressed far beyond its past and beyond what might have been. Europe, in turn, needs to actively study its inglorious history and not just memorialize its victims in stone; otherwise the tendency to forget and to deny can corrode what as been a brilliant redemption.

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