I'm referring to the newish book by Tony Judt, which seeks to tell the tale of Europe since World War II from an entirely fresh perspective. I have only read the first chapter so I can't write a definitive book report. But I have read enough to say it's the first popular history book that has excited me in a decade, the best I can remember since Modern Times or the marvelous Citizens. I've gone far enough to believe that we should all be reading this book.
What makes a new history book particularly compelling? New ideas, new views of old stories which bring together disparate facts which were itching in the back of one's mind, forgotten, for a long time—and now suddenly they all fall into place.
Here's a fact. Kafka, one of the greatest German writers, lived in Prague. How or why did this great German writer come to live in Prague? Well, little groups of Germans lived all over Eastern Europe prior to the Second World War, mixed up here and there with little villages of Jews or Poles or Romanians or Magyars. Different ethnic groups speaking different languages had been all mixed together all over the place for hundreds of years, sheltered under the Holy Roman and later the Austrian empires. Such circumstances didn't fit well with the nation-state, the modern idea that everybody who speaks the same language should live under the same set of laws, and that everybody in a single country should speak the same language. During the war, the Nazi regime of Hitler sought to remove alien nations such as the Slavs from the lands of their control; Stalin's Communist regime sought to do the same to Germans and other nationalities within the confines of the Soviet Union. Hitler's grand plan, the reason he abandoned the Battle of Britain on the verge of victory, was to populate the vast plains to the east of Germany with new German colonies. Hitler had planned to do to Eastern Europe what Europe had been doing to the rest of the world for centuries—clear the natives and colonize. The Second World War was the first example of what we now call "ethnic cleansing" in Europe, but the Communists and the Nazis were equal partners in this new enterprise. The process was accelerated after the war, when the Western Allies helped to continue the process.
As early as 1942 the British had privately acceded to Czech requests for a post-war removal of the Sudeten German population, and the Russians and Americans fell into line the following year. On May 19th 1945, President Edouard Benes of Czechoslovakia decreed that 'we have decided to eliminate the German problem in our republic once and for all.' [Ed: does "final solution" ring a bell here?] Germans (as well as Hungarians and other 'traitors') were to have their property placed under state control. In June 1945 their land was expropriated and on Auguste 22nd of that year they lost their Czechoslovak citizenship." Nearly three million Germans, most of them from the Czech Sudetenland, were then expelled into Germany in the course of the following eighteen months. Approximately 267,000 died in the course of the expulsions.
So that's what became of Kafka's Germans in Prague. Kafka's family, being Jewish, didn't even manage to last that long in many cases, as Hitler was already cleansing all of Eastern Europe of Jews. The Jews, having no "homeland" to be pushed into prior to 1945, were simply exterminated directly. But the urge to ethnically purge, to purify by language and race, was not uniquely applied to the Jews nor by the Germans. Nor is it absent today. Ask the Iraqis.
That Hitler was at heart a socialist, and that he actually shared many fundamental views with the Communists of the Thirties (such as the concept that there are no fundamental bounds to the power of the state, that anything—any crime if need be—deemed necessary to the good of the state is allowable, even desirable) is one of Johnson's great themes in Modern Times. Postwar shares the same high intellect and nearly encyclopedic yet honest accuracy of detail as that tome, but compared to Johnson's book it is less partisan, less shrill, and far more effective for it.
That Hitler was colonizing Europe is another trenchant theme present in Judt's first chapter.
Wars of occupation were not unknown in Europe, of course. Far from it. Folk memories of the Thirty Years War in seventeenth-century Germany, during which foreign mercenary armies lived off the land and terrorized the local population, were still preserved three centuries later in local myths and in fairy tales....
But the peoples who fell under German rule after 1939 were either put to the service of the Reich or else were scheduled for destruction. For Europeans this was a new experience. Overseas, in their colonies, European states had habitually indentured or enslaved indigenous populations for their own benefit. They had not been above the use of torture, mutilation or mass murder to coerce their victims into obedience. But since the eighteenth century these practices were largely unknown among the Europeans themselves....
It was in the Second World War, then, that the full force of the modern European state was mobilized for the first time, for the primary purpose of conquering and exploiting other Europeans.
And it goes on, with interesting new thoughts on nearly every page. As they say, read the whole thing.