How Europe was saved -

How Europe was saved

WELLS: The work of historian Tony Judt, who lost all but his ability to speak, pays heed to the power of words


Wally McNamee/Corbis

Tony Judt died on Aug. 6. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It settled into his body late in 2008 and, remorselessly over two years, shut it down.

He was a professor in European history at New York University. He wrote a big book about that subject, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and assorted essays. The essays got him into a lot of arguments. His tone was always calm, but his topic, the pursuit of justice in a horribly flawed world, did not permit him to shy from fights. “The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it,” he told an interviewer in 2006, “but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly.”

His stoicism in the face of certain death—in the end, paralyzed, he wrote by dictating to assistants—brought him notice and admiration he hadn’t enjoyed earlier. But he had built a formidable reputation in some circles long before. British-born, educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and in Paris, he specialized in the history of the political left in France. He became increasingly critical of his subject, a path he followed later with regard to Israel. That’s what got him into most of his fights. You’ll have to read elsewhere for that story. It’s a debate I’m not well equipped to engage.

Instead, here are two glimpses from his masterwork, Postwar. It is a book about how the world was saved after the Second World War: how democracy and peace were consolidated on the site of centuries of slaughter, first in the West, then in the East, always with American help, never cleanly or triumphantly. Judt, who was less attracted to the reassuring simplicities of ideology as his life progressed, tells the story of a continent that traded murderous ideology for halting pragmatism.

How was the world saved? Three ways. The Americans engaged with the continent, a middle path between withdrawal and nuclear confrontation. Western Europe took baby steps to entrench democracy and co-operation. Eastern Europe waited out the Stalinist cancer.

Judt recounts the European Community’s early days with a keen eye for the misfits in a room. In 1949, Germany was down but would rise again. For centuries it had risen to conquer. Dean Acheson, the U.S. Secretary of State, appealed to Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, to integrate West Germany into the continent’s business. A French official, Jean Monnet, proposed the solution: pool French and German coal and steel production under common authority. Invite other European countries to join. Steel and coal are what you use to build tanks and fuel armies. Now they would build trust and fuel progress. “Das ist unser Durchbruch,” West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer told his staff. This is our breakthrough. The coal treaty would form the basis of the European Union.

Here is where Judt spots his misfits. Adenauer, Schuman and the European Union’s third architect, Italian prime minister Alcide de Gasperi, “were all from the margins of their countries.” De Gasperi’s Trentino region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for much of his life. Schuman’s Lorraine was forever either French or German depending on the latest war. “When they met, the three men conversed in German, their common language.” Nationalism meant less to them than it might to most.
They had never been sure what their nation was. Their project was a triumph of ambiguity over blood-drenched certainties.

The other glimpse from Judt’s tale comes from a quarter-century later. By the 1970s the Soviet Union wanted recognition that its sphere of influence included half of Europe and much of the developing world. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger wanted détente, which meant almost literally they hoped to relax a little. The result, after Nixon resigned, was the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The signatories, three dozen countries West and East, pledged to “respect each other’s sovereign equality” and foreswore “any intervention,” armed or otherwise, in each other’s affairs. In other words, hands off Moscow’s sphere of influence. Writes Judt: “Brezhnev and his colleagues could not have wished for more.”

But the accords were a Trojan horse. They listed the rights of people, not just states, “including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” Neither Brezhnev nor Kissinger thought much of it. But the Soviet bloc’s own people read the words and took them seriously. “Within a year,” Judt writes, “Soviet leaders were faced with a growing and ultimately uncontrollable flowering of circles, clubs, networks, charters and individuals, all demanding ‘merely’ that their governments stick to the letter of that same agreement.” Charter 77, Vaclav Havel’s group in Prague, drew strength from the Helsinki Accords. Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik in Poland appealed to their principles as they dogged the authorities. “Brezhnev and his colleagues had inadvertently opened a breach in their own defenses. Against all expectations, it was to prove mortal.”

Simply calling these freedoms by their name made them impossible to stop. I know of few comparable illustrations of the power of words. I thought about all this again this week, reading about how Tony Judt was left in the end with nothing but his ability to make more words. Two months ago he wrote: “If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.”


How Europe was saved

  1. Thanks for this, Paul. Few public intellectuals of late have managed to be so smart, brave, and civil all at the same time.

  2. Yeah. That was great. The New York Review of Books has a bunch of his essays up. The one on France is excellent.

    I'm not even going to make a joke about hating the troops.

  3. Judt's name has been clanking around in my mental attic since university; this is a sad way to have it happen, but I'm glad to be reminded to properly read some of his work now.

  4. I'm somewhat skeptical that Helsinki was the magic bullet. Certainly, the Soviets and Americans didn't give much attention to the language on individual rights (which were forced into the agreement by congress). Similar sentiments helped drive the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and Prague summer in 1968. When mass protests rocked Poland in 1976, they were suppressed.

    The key event in the demise of the Soviet Union was glasnost. The Soviets opened up, and myriad latent forces of rebellion were unleashed. Those forces would likely have existed with or without the Helsinki agreement. It is also unlikely that Helsinki brought about lasting reductions in US-Soviet tensions either. Not four years after being signed, the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan. Nuclear brinkmanship over the KAL007 crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any period since the Cuban missile crisis.

    The USSR died by its own hand. Its institutions were insufficient to support a transition to the post-Fordist era without significant reform. Reform, in turn, risked revolution. Eventually the costs of zero-growth caught up to the Soviet Union. Terminal decline encouraged the politburo to appoint Gorbachev, and the Soviet situation encouraged a risky policy move. Unlike China, which is far less economically advanced than the USSR of the 1980's, political reforms were also necessary. It is difficult to participate fully in a global information economy without giving one's citizens some modicum of autonomy.

    • I can think of no more fitting way to honour the memory of Tony Judt than to urge you to go read "Postwar" as soon as possible.
      Far from saying the Helsinki Accord was a "magic bullet", Judt actually discusses in depth everything you mention in his analysis of the Soviet Union's downfall. He also mentions quite a few things you probably never thought of.

  5. Okay (yes it's Friday night and I'm still about to go out on the town) but I've paused at the end of the 5th paragraph to say kudos Wells, on the phrase "Stalinist cancer." Young'uns and far far lefties seem to forget this threat so good for you for summarizing it. Now back to our regularly scheduled partisan bickering…

  6. Among what's interesting is that the Soviets, signing Helsinki, apparently didn't pay attention to the rights-confirming words of the accords (or neither the Americans, really). A wee bit of a Trojan horse, but as Hoser says (sic) "so what." But what's further interesting is that since China has fully become integral to the world economic fold, any and every agreement they sign (at least as reported in the press) never mentions by a single word anything that could be construed as committing to freedom of conscience/belief/ religion.
    In regards to China– which has abandoned communism in all but name– will we see the rise of a new great power without any of these reforms? It's baffling. How long can economic progress continue without real unrest from those who are the "new borgeious" among them?

    • I am skeptical that the creation of a bourgeoisie in China will lay the grounds for democratization. Empirical analysis of modernization theory (wealthy countries are more likely to transition to democracy) has generally not found a lot of support. Rather they find that when wealthy countries do transition to democracy, it is more likely to stick. Economic growth may actually reinforce the present regime by legitimizing its policies.

      I think China needs to hit a serious snag in its development for demands for reform to start mounting.

      • Well sadly I think you're right. Here's to more and deeper recessions in the name of democracy! (Uh, kidding, sort of…)

  7. A succint tribute that makes me want to dive deeper into the details — thank you, Paul.

    Their project was a triumph of ambiguity over blood-drenched certainties.

    Actually, that is a pretty fitting one-sentence description of the present-day European Union. I am not sure how long ambiguity will remain triumphant, however. Economic certainties are about to slam into people and whole countries (we've only seen the meekest of previews, I think), and there seems to be no shortage of ethnic hatreds bubbling around the fringes of this EU experiment. From what you offer here, Tony Judt's efforts might become even more relevant for study in the coming decade or two.

  8. OK, you've just convinced me I need to read Postwar.

  9. Ideas, expressed in words, are very, very powerful weapons. Ideas have been, are, and will be used for good and evil ends. They can be used to liberate people and to enslave people. Ideas can be used to construct a more just and equitable society for the entire human species. Or, they can be used and abused to destroy rather rapidly all the various elements of a truly civilized society for the benefit of the few who hold power and want to enslave citizens to serve their interests.
    Ideas are the engine of human agency and they are essential in assisting the human species overcome the powerful material forces — demographic, geographic, geological, climatic, economic, etc etc — that form the broad context in which the human species has to live and thrive or simply pass into oblivion.
    Historians like Judt are worth their weight in gold!
    Thanks Paul for reminding us of his immense contribution to our understanding of contemporary Europe.