The Struggle for Europe

Article excerpt

MISCELLANEOUS

The history of a divided continent 1945-2002

William I. Hitchcock

London: Profile Books 2003, xv, 513pp, [Symbol Not Transcribed]25.00, ISBN 1-86197233-4

There are many ways to write the history of Europe since 1945. The once-great continent caught between the two superpowers and their cold war; the more cheerful view of a Europe moving gradually but inevitably towards the supranational triumph of the European Union. Alternatively there is Europe as a collection of national histories: the German miracle, the gentle British recession from power; the not sogentle French attempt to hang on to Great Power status, and of course the misery of the east European countries caught in the meshes of the iron curtain. Still another way is what historians like Mark Mazower have done and that is to see Europe - east and west - as a whole, with similar social transformations.

All historians, though, have to deal with the same awkward issues: Russia - part of Europe or not? the United Kingdom - the same question; the Balkans and their recent horrors - an aberration or a symptom of the old unregenerate ethnic hatreds still lying everywhere under the surface of the continent? And what about the United States? saviour of Western Europe from the communist threat or a threat in its own right to Europe's independence.

William Hitchcock, an American historian, has tried to strike a balance among these different approaches and different issues. The result is a good, clear history of Europe since the end of World War II. It doesn't do everything. It doesn't have much to say about the Soviet Union. Its treatment of social change, in attitudes to women for example, is cursory. Its great strength is to remind us of just how far Europe has come and to explain why. In 1945, with its cities and towns in ruins, many of its people starving, Europe appeared finished. Who could have imagined then that 60 years later, Europe, as Hitchcock puts it, is 'richer, freer, and more stable than at any time in its history'? The European Union's economy is bigger than that of the United States. And it is a new Europe, more egalitarian and democratic than in the past. And more peaceful; Europeans seem to have lost their taste for war and for foreign adventures, something the Americans find hard to understand, especially at the moment.

Hitchcock argues, rightly in my view, that this outcome was not inevitable. There were plenty of moments along the way when Europe could have gone down other paths. The European Union might never have got going if the Americans hadn't pushed so hard for economic co-operation in the late 1940s. The French might have fought each other over Algeria in the late 1950s; Charles de Gaulle, whatever his failings as a statesman, saved them from that. …