It is a measure of the worth of this book that I begin writing the review before I have even finished it. It is also a measure of the length. It is over 850 pages of small print. When I first picked it up from the library I balked, not because of the length but because the print was so small I didn’t want to strain my already very weak eyes. However, I persisted, and I’m glad I did. Tony Judt, the author, is a hell of a writer. He makes the very complex history of Europe both East and West after the Second World War read like a novel. He is erudite and his material is well-organized and he has an amazing vocabulary besides. He begins right after the war when Europe was divided; he chronicles the West’s dependence on American aid and its struggle to rebuild shattered societies and cities, and the East’s takeover by the dark shadow of the Communist USSR. He describes the amazingly rapid growth of the West, and the equally amazing stagnation and decay of the East.
But one very striking part is the section on the decay of the Communist regimes of the East, their downfall, and the opening up of the East to freedom of travel and expression. It almost brought tears to my eyes. He leads up to it masterfully, so that when it happens its inevitability is clear. I empathize with those people, so long oppressed and then suddenly free. It is truly one of the great eras of modern history.
To anyone who can handle the length I highly recommend this book. It is one of the best history books I have ever read, right up there with “The Best and the Brightest”, and “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” and the trilogy on Martin Luther King and his times by Taylor Branch. Of course part of its relevance to me stems from the fact that I have been living in Europe for the past twenty years or so, but that aside I think I would have enjoyed it just as much anyway, for the brilliant piece of work that it is.
The book carries the story up until 2005, and I realize that it has clarified for me many things I have noticed while living here – things I saw and sensed but didn’t fully understand.
Something that affects me personally is the ubiquitous study of the English language by the younger generation. I didn’t grasp what a continental phenomenon it was; it is one of the forces that binds the European Union. Here in Greece, for example, students are required to learn English all through primary school and high school; however, due to the mediocre level of teaching in the public schools private language schools are everywhere, in every village and on every street corner of every major city. An English language certificate is a prerequisite for many jobs, and students study for many years and often make multiple attempts to pass the tests necessary to acquire these certificates. That’s where I come in: I teach English as a second language as my day job.
Another phenomenon that is widespread across Europe is its anti-American sentiment. This, too, I have seen firsthand, in the bullying and persecution my kids have sometimes received at school. Don’t get me wrong; it is not as if it is unsafe to walk down the street if you are from the USA. Most people are polite to me as an individual, but will nevertheless have no qualms about railing against the American government. One of the main events that brought this about was Bush’s post 9/11 invasion of Iraq, which many Europeans balked at, though they reluctantly, after being strong-armed, offered their assistance. It isn’t my intention to get into a political discussion here, but merely to recount what Judt expresses is one of the triggers that has exacerbated an already prevalent mood.
In closing, I want to reiterate that I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in understanding modern Europe and how it has become the way it is. Whether you live here or not, it’s good to experience, at least vicariously, a culture other than your own. That’s one thing that drove me out of the States in the first place: despite all the material comforts, despite all the high technology, despite all the military might, I felt that the viewpoint of most of its people was overwhelmingly provincial, introverted, self-absorbed. Break out of the rut: read this book.
And then come for a visit.
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