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Shadow of war

With authority and a broad reach, a scholar surveys the devastating impact of World War II on Eastern and Western Europe

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
By Tony Judt
Penguin, 878 pp., illustrated, $39.95

Though it came from the mouth of Great Britain's ''Iron Lady," the idea that ''Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot" has become an enduring piece of an American mythology. No matter how many facts one flings at Margaret Thatcher's sound-bite, the notion stubbornly remains.

Tony Judt's magisterial new volume, ''Postwar," might be a more effective hammering tool at prying it loose. Aside from its sheer brickish heft, it is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive, authoritative, and, yes, readable postwar history. It also gently recasts the history of postwar Europe outside America's shadow without resorting to anti-Americanism (or belittling Reagan's achievements).

This should not be surprising, as Judt is remarkably situated to sit across the East-West divide and comment fairly. He was born in London in 1948, studied in Paris when an eastward-turning radicalism reached its peak, and has since moved to America, where he heads the Remarque Institute at New York University. The goal of this organization is to redress the vanishing expertise and knowledge about Europe within the United States, and ''Postwar" feels like the ideal textbook for such a project.

Judt starts where everyone can begin -- with the devastation of Europe in 1945. As he reminds us, World War II was perhaps the most lethal moment in human history; its body count far outstretches the heart's comprehension. More than 30 million people died as a result of the conflict, and scores of millions more were made homeless, including 20 million in Germany alone.

The United States was instrumental in preventing this devastation from turning any more apocalyptic. The newly re-created United Nations Relief Rehabilitation Administration, which was funded largely by America, cared for nearly 7 million liberated civilians at its peak in 1945.

In addition to the UN, America also turned to many former Nazis to re-create and administer what would become the West German state. Not only were there simply too many Nazis to try effectively, Judt reminds the reader, but former party members also had a monopoly on skills that were necessary for the state to function.

The result, Judt writes, is a culture in Germany -- and Europe as a whole -- with a Janus-faced attitude toward memory. Germans may have famously turned away when they were forced to watch documentaries of concentration camps being liberated, but the states that arose from the ashes of World War II, including Germany, were designed to prevent such destruction from ever happening again.

It is amazing that Europe ever recovered from this tragedy, but Judt points out that the war never quite ended. The cessation of hostilities in May 1945 simply made the division between East and West official. The upshot was a series of mass migrations within Europe in the '40s that, coupled with the effects of Hitler's genocide and Stalin's purges, created ''a Europe of nations more ethnically homogenous than ever before."

Ten years later, as trade within rapidly growing Western European states took off, another round of migrations began. Scores of workers left native countries for jobs elsewhere -- and not just in America. Taken in all, Judt writes, these population shifts ''amounted to some forty million people in transit, moving within countries, between countries and into Europe from overseas."

Of course, this story went a little differently for residents of the Eastern bloc countries, whose movements became, with the exception of Yugoslavia, gradually more restricted -- especially once the wall went up in Germany, cutting the tide of job seekers fleeing to their western neighbor. The death of Stalin, in 1953, gave Soviets hope of reform, which began inching forward at a pace that allowed party leaders to absolve themselves of their worst crimes.

The difference between these narratives -- of those in the East, and those in the West -- must have presented a tempting opportunity to ply a compare-and-contrast narrative, most likely to the West's benefit, but ''Postwar" is simply too diffuse, generous, and broad a book to fall into that pattern. Nothing, it seems, is too small for Judt's attention. He covers everything from the rise of Pan-Arabism to the fact that Italians became Europe's leading consumers, and producers, of refrigerators.

And he presents a rather dazzling array of cultural references to go with such facts. This might be the only book that features gross domestic product numbers for Western Europe a few pages before noting that the great paper mill strikes in Sweden of the '60s are ''memorably recalled by Swedish director Bo Widerberg in a 1969 film, 'Ådalen 31.' "

Sweden, it is worth pointing out, was a notable exception to the fact that Western Europe's recovery from the war had a lot to do with American financial might, not through direct investment, which didn't begin until the '50s, but through American funding of NATO forces. This freed Western states to focus on economic development, and they did.

But Judt argues it would be a mistake for Americans to conclude that Europe was designing itself in America's image. As he writes about 1989: ''For most people who had lived under Communism, liberation by no means implied a yearning for untrammeled economic competition, much less the loss of free social services, guaranteed employment, cheap rents or any of Communism's other attendant benefits. It was, after all, one of the attractions of 'Europe', as imagined from the East, that it held out the prospect of affluence and security."

This did not stop America from trying to mold Europe in its image. In fact, time and again, Judt shows how America's rising economic power gave the United States an enormous strategic advantage during this period -- a tool as important, or even more so, than our nuclear weapons in securing dominance after Communism.

For instance, during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 -- when England, France, and Israel conspired to invade Egypt -- a furious Dwight Eisenhower could threaten a heavily indebted England with a run on the pound. As a result, the crisis was diffused after a few days, Israel moved closer to the United States, and American governments have been the dominant postcolonial player in the region ever since.

It is details like this, which Judt rescues from time, that make ''Postwar" feel like a gigantic memory project on so many fronts. The book generously allows time its ravages, while also reminding us that heroic resistances during World War II were less important than we thought, that a great many Nazis played a part in rebuilding Germany, that America's influence over Europe was not as a ''way of life" but as a financial buttress, and that the rise of the welfare state in Europe can be explained by its leaders' and citizens' desire to never, ever, see such destitution and poverty and hunger again.

John Freeman lives in New York.

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