The second World War and where it led Europe
Dan Stone has written the first serious history since Tony Judt of the continent after 1945
Supporters of the extreme-right Greek Golden Dawn party: right-wing populism rose at the end of a postwar consensus. Photograph: Grigoris Siamidis/Reuters
Goodbye to All That? The Story of Europe since 1945
The picture of Europe at the end of the second World War is pitiful almost beyond bearing. Some 40 million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945, and tens of millions more were uprooted or made homeless. In the immediate aftermath of Nazi Germany’s defeat the continent was scarred by violent retribution, purges and civil wars.
Dan Stone’s excellent new history of Europe since 1945, the first serious account since the publication of Tony Judt’s masterpiece Postwar , in 2005, deals with the question of how the continent emerged from the catastrophe of the war and how competing memories of that war have shaped, and continue to shape, political debates.
With admirable attention to both eastern and western Europe, Stone ably guides the reader through almost 70 years of history: from the violent postwar restructuring of Europe to the cold war, from the beginning of east-west detente to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its regimes in east-central Europe. Stone’s narrative analysis, which ends with challenging observations about the economic and political turmoil of the present, skilfully weaves together the different threads of national histories and navigates with remarkable ease between events in Moscow, East Berlin, Paris, Rome, London and Bonn.
Along the way the reader learns a great deal about the emergence and functioning of such entities as the Warsaw Pact, European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
What holds this panoramic book together is Stone’s argument about the rise and fall of what he calls the “anti-fascist consensus”, which he argues emerged in the years after 1945, weakened from the 1970s onwards and collapsed completely in the two decades after 1990.
At its most basic level the historical consensus between east and west Europe that Stone celebrates revolved around a firm rejection of fascism, defeated by the unlikely wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and western democracies. The world of the future was to learn from the past, a past characterised by economic uncertainty, radical nationalism and war. The lessons drawn from history in the west and the east were fundamentally different, as were the ways in which this consensus emerged.
In the east, where an anti-fascist stance became part of state doctrine enforced by communist regimes, the concepts of liberal democracy and free trade were rejected outright, and capitalism was held responsible for the emergence of fascism in the first place.
Stalin felt that the overwhelming contribution of the Red Army to Hitler’s defeat had added further legitimacy to the Soviet Union and the ideology on which it was based. Reversing his prewar doctrine of “socialism in one country”, communism was now to be spread across the former territories of tsarist Russia and farther afield. For Stalin the concept of “anti-fascism” became a useful tool in this process, as he branded any domestic or foreign adversary a “fascist”, thus legitimising his tight grip on all people living in the eastern bloc.
In the west the rejection of fascism was also fundamental to postwar politics, but the consensus was not strictly imposed from above. Although driven by the political necessities of rebuilding societies after 1945, there was also a grassroots desire to forget certain aspects of the war that were considered divisive. Collaboration with the Nazis was one of them. Hundreds of thousands of west Europeans had aided and often voluntarily fought for the Third Reich in its war against the Soviet Union. After 1945 such complexities were deliberately obscured and replaced by a master narrative in which popular resistance against German rule featured far more prominently than collaboration. Even in West Germany and Austria (which came to see itself as the “first victim” of Austrian-born Hitler), there existed a consensus of silence. Wartime atrocities were conveniently attributed to a minority of SS men and their leaders, many of whom were dead.