It is difficult to write the history of Europe in an age of globalisation. Sometimes the topic seems too small; most things that happen in Europe are connected with what goes on elsewhere, and you need a global view to explain them. And at other times it seems too large, since European history is so complex just because of the diverse effects that globalisation has had on different parts of the continent.
Dan Stone, one of the finest historians of Europe working in Britain today, balances nicely between these two challenges in his new book. By taking Europeans’ own views of their immediate history as his organising principle, he avoids becoming too preoccupied with particular aspects of the period that he covers. He also avoids too close a competition with other accomplished surveys published within the past decade, first and foremost Tony Judt’s masterful Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (William Heinemann, 2005).
In 1945, Stone tells us, the second war in a generation had rendered Europe prostrate. Rebuilding had to happen under the most difficult of circumstances: a global Cold War that split the continent in half. One of the main reasons that this reconstruction was successful and – at least in the core part of Europe – led to the setting up of the most complete welfare state the world has ever seen, was the anti-fascist consensus that came out of the Second World War. Justice for past crimes – such as the murder of six million European Jewish people – was often avoided or obscured. The vast majority of Europeans believed that fascism had led to war and destruction, and that, in order to avoid back-sliding into the conditions of the past, a new society and state had to be built – one that was better organised and more socially inclusive than in the past.
To Stone, the amnesia over guilt matters less than the gains that were won. Within three decades, a Europe – east and west – had been built that would have been totally unrecognisable to most people in 1945. Pluralism and democracy were lacking in an eastern Europe under increasingly stale Soviet control, but even there the conditions that produced fascism were gone, and societies that were more equal and more cohesive had come into being. Europe may not have learned all the lessons of social dislocation and war and there was certainly much deliberate forgetfulness about the past, not least at a family and personal level. But overall, by the 1970s, conditions for almost all people in Europe were infinitely better than they had been in the 1930s.
Then it all started to come apart. Social-democratic (and for that matter Christian-democratic) concepts of social inclusion, public services and welfare began to disintegrate under the pressure of market ideologies and private greed. By the mid 2000s the European Union, this great integrationist project, had stalled because it was increasingly difficult to find common values to build it on. It had gone from an anti-authoritarian union of mutual economic benefit to some strange form of regulatory agency, which almost nobody fully comprehended and most people believed in simply out of habit. And, in the midst of this shift – characterised, in part, by increasing atomisation and widening social differences – the anti-fascist consensus was thrown out the window, raising some frightening prospects for Europe’s future.
To those who will be sceptical towards this as a schematic view of Europe’s past: have no fear. Dan Stone is far too fine a historian to see the past as unilinear and neatly packaged. The Cold War was not good for Europe overall, but it happened to provide a shelter under which the continent could move away from fascism.
As a historian of ideas, Stone is careful not to mix up material transformations with changes in attitudes. The death f the anti-fascist consensus happened not because of economic progress and the end of the division of Europe, but because people decided to move away from the values that had underpinned it. Even his pointers towards the future are not half as bleak as they seem: there is enough resistance left against the threats to Europe’s future, if only people knew how to mobilise it. And mobilise it they must, because Europe’s immediate past is not a pretty picture to return to.
Odd Arne Westad teaches history at the London School of Economics. His most recent book is the sixth edition of The Penguin History of the World (Allen Lane, 2013)