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.
The postwar process of “de-Nazification”, both in a legal sense and in terms of democratic re-education, was abandoned soon after the beginning of the cold war. Integrating the former Axis states into the western bloc became a priority, and former German and Austrian Nazis, as well as Italian fascists, were suddenly seen as useful “experts” on the Soviet Union with impeccable anti-communist credentials.
Beyond this culture of silence that continued well into the 1960s, policymakers in the west also agreed on what Stone describes and celebrates as a “social democratic” consensus, which aimed to create a better postfascist future and was characterised by “democracy, class collaboration, good labour-employee relations, nationalisation of essential services and utilities, [and] high taxation to fund the creation of all-embracing welfare states”.
1970s oil shocks
Stone argues persuasively that the western European consensus to rebuild the continent based on these values came under fire in the wake of the 1970s oil shocks. Unemployment and economic uncertainty prompted the reassertion of national identities and even the re-emergence of far-right parties that also benefitted from growing resentment against immigration. Almost simultaneously, the rise of neoliberalism, with its belief in unrestrained capitalism, denationalisation and cuts in the responsibilities of the state, undermined the “social democratic” postwar consensus, which completely collapsed after the end of the cold war.
Over the following two decades deregulation and the erosion of social-democratic welfare capitalism came to dominate the agenda in most countries, even those governed by “new” labour parties.
The collapse of communism in the east opened the path for similar developments there and went hand in hand with the re-emergence of nationalism. The demise of the “postwar consensus” was thus accompanied by a rise in right-wing populism and a widespread revision of the anti-fascist narrative on which this value system was based. The danger of this shift is now evident across Europe, including financial and social crisis, and the growing popularity of (sometimes openly violent) right-wing parties that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
Stone does not hide his concerns: “If this trend is not halted, then by the hundredth anniversary of outbreak of the second World War, a Europe of protectionist, nationalist micro-states led by populists . . . will once again march the continent into the abyss.”
Even those who do not agree with Stone’s pessimistic view of the future will find plenty of good ideas in this richly textured book that offers a fresh, provocative and well-argued narrative about Europe’s socioeconomic, political and intellectual history since 1945.
Robert Gerwarth is professor of modern history at University College Dublin. His most recent book is a biography of Reinhard Heydrich