The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath

The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath

The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath

The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath


A collection of essays by internationally renowned scholars that reassesses the origins of postwar European states & unravels the moral & political choices facing European governments in the war's aftermath.


Tony Judt

It used to be easy to write contemporary European history. World War II came to an end in 1945, and with it ended a thirty-year crisis. Between 1913 and 1945 relations between European states, relations within most European states, economic and other forms of commerce between European states, all suffered traumatic changes. Revolutions— radical and reactionary—shifted power away from the old ruling elites. Massive upheaval and collapse within the capitalist economy brought an end to the stability of nineteenth-century life and introduced radical changes in social relations. Violence in every sphere—war, civil war, domestic instability, state violence against opponents—became endemic. All of this, so the story ran, came to a head in the appalling experience of World War II, itself symbolized by the policies and practices of a genocidal state at the heart of Europe.

In the conventional story as thus told, everything changed after 1945. the rapid shift of allegiance, from the anti-Nazi alliance to the divisions of the Cold War, institutionalized the military division of Europe to the point where, forty years after the death of Hitler, the division of the continent seemed part of the natural order of things. in Eastern Europe, Soviet hegemony seemed to be the logical product of the upheavals of the first half of the century, while in Western Europe progressive moves toward economic and political union—and the two decades of postwar prosperity—appeared to have resolved definitively the problems that had seemed so insoluble before 1939. European history, in short, had come to an end and this was all to the good.

In order for history to have resolved itself in this convenient way, it was necessary for memory to conform. From 1945 through the mid-1960s at least, the experience of the first half of the European twentieth century in general and the war years in particular was blurred: it suited almost everyone to forget what they or their parents did, to forget what was done to them, to forget what they saw and to forget what they knew. This psychologically and politically convenient convergence of historic renewal and collective amnesia was well reflected in the conventional histories of Europe after World War II and as recently as the 1980s. Most histories of post–World War II Europe treated either Eastern Europe or Western Europe but only very rarely the two together.

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