Byline: MARK MAZOWER
NOT very long ago, the history of Europe ended in 1945. After that came politics and perhaps the welfare state. Or at least that was what we were told when we asked our teachers why the history books they gave us all ended, or petered out, with Hitler's death. The Cold War was too close to pass judgments on, they said, forgetting that earlier generations of historians had not been so fussy and had begun writing about the First World War more or less as soon as it ended.
Another excuse was that the Old Continent, partitioned and subordinated to the dictates of Moscow and Washington, had ceased to enjoy an independent existence of its own.
William Hitchcock rightly has no time for this kind of nonsense and in this stimulating and readable book he offers his own historical interpretation of the past half century.
Much to his credit, he gives the superpowers their due, showing what a troublesome place they had to deal with. The view from Washington and, to a lesser extent, Moscow very much forms part of his account.
He is also good at reminding us of the extent to which European states retained an international role and were forced to sort out their own global entanglements, as their empires unravelled with startling speed and colonial liberation movements challenged old imperialist assumptions.
But the core of his story is internal to the Continent itself, as it moved from the chaos left behind in the aftermath of the Nazi New Order to the prosperity and relative peace of the post-war years and ultimately the emergence of a new kind of political entity in the European Union.
Hitchcock is alive to the dilemmas of European policy makers and statesmen; these are the heroes and villains of his piece as they try to restore order and rebuild democracy. What he brings out very sharply is the degree of autonomy, if not independence, they enjoyed even during the Cold War.
European tails were wagging Superpower dogs on both sides of the Iron Curtain, whether it was crafty Italian Christian Democrats bringing the American dollars in by crying communism, or hard-nosed East European communist apparatchiks taking advantage of Moscow's paranoia to wipe the floor with their rivals.
He synthesises a lot of recent scholarly research in this vein, the cumulative effect of which is to make it quite clear that 1945 did not, as we were once told, mark the "end of the European era".
In general, he enjoys a good political drama - the origins of the Marshall Plan, say, or withdrawal from India and Algeria, but he has less to say about society, demography and the environment, and almost nothing about culture and matters of taste. …