Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tony Judt

It's a little bit upsetting when a person who is very important to you dies and you only find out about it when someone refers to him as "the late" Tony Judt. But such is, apparently, my morning over here.

Tony Judt wrote the definitive book of history, Postwar: A History Of Europe Since 1945. It is up there with Hundred Years of Solitude on the list of biggest and most rewarding books I have ever read. It is not a history of Europe: it is a history of every European nation as well as the history of Europe.

This is a key distinction; it walks you through every single nations' local histories and politics from the days leading up to the Potsdam Conference up until the end of the Balkan Crises, to the level of detail where you really truly get an understanding for why each nation acted the way it did. You realize where domestic policy and foreign policy in each country interacts.

I cannot recommend the book strongly enough.

The greatest insight the book gave me (beyond a wealth of facts I had not been privileged to know) was the insight that the Holocaust was only the largest in a series of displacements and ethnic cleansings that took place both before and after World War II. This is not to minimize the Holocaust: it is head and shoulders beyond anything else in Europe in the Century except Stalin's purges, famines, and mass disappearances.

But the story it tells of the wake of World War II is a mad scramble for people to run to where their countries now reside -- Poles trying to follow Poland, which had moved to the West as a whole; Germans trying to flee to Germany from wherever they had wound up, etc. -- so that by 1950, most European nations were ethnically monolithic to a degree that had never been seen before (look at Switzerland for an example of a more pre-War nation -- if the Swiss hadn't been famously neutral, the Germans might have fled it in large numbers).

To find out that Tony Judt passed away four days ago is sad, but even if he had only published this one book of history he would have left our knowledge history immeasurably better.