There aren’t many 800 page books that I want to read again as soon as I’ve finished, but Postwar is one. An amazingly comprehensive, readable and (eventually) broadly optimistic account of Europe’s countries, peoples, politics and culture since World War II. Highly recommended.
Below are some of the bits that jumped out at me most. I started noting down some of the amazing statistics but soon stopped because there are so many, particularly in the accounts of the aftermath of the war.
One general thing I hadn’t appreciated before: Broadly, the changes to the continent’s countries after World War I were a result of border changes, while most people stayed in the same place. But during and after Word War II large chunks of populations moved, usually as a result of force, while most of the borders stayed pretty stationary.
On with the notes…
6 Europe as a way to avoid problems of the past, rather than anything more optimistic:
…it was to head off a return of the old demons (unemployment, Fascism, German militarism, war, revolution) that western Europe took the new path with which we are now familiar. Post-national, welfare-state, cooperative, pacific Europe was not born of the optimistic, ambitious, forward-looking project imagined in fond retrospect by today’s Euro-idealises. It was the insecure child of anxiety. Shadowed by history, its leaders implemented social reforms and built new institutions as a prophylactic, to keep the past at bay.
By the end of [World War II], Great Britain was spending more than half its Gross National Product on the war effort.
87 After World War II ended, inflation was a huge problem for many European countries:
The inflation in neighbouring Hungary, the worst in recorded history and far exceeding that of 1923 Germany, peaked at 5 quintillion (530) pengos to the dollar — meaning that by the time the pengo was replaced by the forint in August 1946 the dollar value of all Hungarian banknotes in circulation was just one-thousandth of one cent.
225 Discussing the decade after 1945, and how Europeans on the left tended to sympathise with Russian ideas and policies, except:
Only in art and literature, where the absurdities of Stalinist cultural policy impinged directly upon the territory of painters and poets, did Western intellectuals consistently distance themselves from Moscow…
A footnote then reads:
“We were intolerant of idiocy in the domains we knew well,” wrote the French poet Claude Roy, who joined the PCF [French Communist Party] during the war after an earlier romance with the far Right Action Française, “but forgiving of crimes in matters of which we knew little.”
[People are, inevitably I guess, still much more accepting and unquestioning of ideas, news and policies concerning fields they know little of. For example, geeks only notice how inaccurate media might be inaccurate when newspapers, TV, Adam Curtis, etc. tackle things geeks are immersed in, and are more likely to accept statements as facts otherwise.]
300 Alison in Look Back in Anger (1956) to her father:
You’re hurt because everything’s changed. Jimmy’s hurt because everything’s the same. And neither of you can face it.
“Revolution is the act of an enormous majority of society directed against the rule of a minority. It is accompanied by a crisis of political power and by a weakening of the apparatus of coercion. That is why it does not have to be carried out by force of arms.” Jacek Kuroń and Karel Modzelewski, Open Letter to the Party (March 1965)
423 While describing how disastrous Khrushchev’s reforms of the Soviet Union’s farming was:
In a tragic-comic blend of centralised planning and local corruption, Communist bosses in Kyrgyzstan urged collective farmers to meet official farm delivery quotas by buying up supplies in local shops.
At the same time, the private micro-farms that Khrushchev had sporadically encouraged were almost embarrassingly successful: by the early sixties, the 3 percent of cultivated soil in private hands was yielding over a third of the Soviet Union’s agricultural output. By 1965, two thirds of the potatoes consumed in the USSR and three quarters of the eggs came from private farmers.
448 On the “revolutions” of 1968:
Indeed, that revolution had from the start been self-defeating. The same movements that purported to despise and abhor “consumer culture” were from the outset an object of cultural consumption, reflecting a widespread disjunction between rhetoric and practice. Those in Paris or Berlin who aggressively declared their intention to “change the world” were often the people most devoted to parochial and even bodily obsessions — anticipating the solipsistic “me” politics of the decade to follow — and absorbed in the contemplation of their own impact. “The Sixties” were a cult object even before the decade had passed.
449 This sentence, ending discussion of the 1960s, simply for the phrase “soared clear of any relationship to local reality”:
In the West, Marxist and para-Marxist theories soared clear of any relationship to local reality, disqualifying themselves from any future role in serious public debate.
510 I read this sentence in the summer of 2011 when Greece’s economy appeared to be barely standing:
On January 1st 1981, in what many in Brussels would come to regard as a regrettable triumph of hope over wisdom, Greece became a full member of the [European] Community.
547 Describing some of the ways in which Tony Blair was like Margaret Thatcher, such as how “he preferred to surround himself with private-sector businessmen”. This results in this unusually funny footnote:
With perhaps this difference: whereas Margaret Thatcher believed in privatisation as something akin to a moral good, Tony Blair just likes rich people.
“What is the explanation of this curious combination of the permanent unemployment of eleven percent of the population with a general sense of comparative prosperity on the part of the bulk of the population?” Beatrice Webb (1925)