Crossroads Vienna

TONY JUDT’S MAGISTERIAL Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is one of my favorite books. I regard it much like the Bible, but better; it tells not one but two of the greatest stories ever told about humankind–one, that states seemingly addicted to war and battered by centuries of it can be re-organized to achieve lasting peace, and, two, that liberal politics can be blended with economic development to achieve a fair and just distribution of wealth, the crowning glory of social democracy. Although Europeans since the 1990s have not had enough babies to keep this second achievement going much longer–there simply aren’t enough young workers to finance the benefits most Europeans regard as basic government services–they have demostrated the feasibility of forming governments whose first priority is to safeguard their citizens’ welfare.

I also admire the audacity of Judt’s overarching thesis in Postwar. Contrary to established opinion, Judt argues, World War Two in Europe lasted not six years, but 51, taking into consideration its 45-year long denouement. If you accept Clausewitz’s principle that war is the continuation of politics by other means, Judt’s claim is robustly plausible. The main political conflicts behind the war were not fully resolved–and the provisional resolutions certainly lacked popular legitimacy–until the Iron Curtain came down, 45 years after the fighting stopped.

Judt says this insight came to him in a rush as he was waiting in Vienna’s main train station in 1989, witnessing the sudden, massive flux of people across Europe’s Cold War borders. East Germans, not yet permitted to travel directly to West Germany, were taking

crossroads vienna2
Vienna, at the boundary of the Soviet and U.S. occupation zones

advantage of a looophole that allowed them to travel through Czechoslovakia and Austria to reach the West. Curious, and sensing an historic opportunity, Poles, Czechs and Austrians joined the rush to see the other side of the Iron Curtain. On the surface what was happening was the erosion of communist eastern Europe’s bureaucratic authority, no small thing in itself. But at a deeper level something truly revolutionary was happening. Thousands, eventually millions of easterners were voting with their feet to abandon the old political order, and there appeared to be no will or way to turn back. No wonder Judt thrilled at the spectacle. That moment in Vienna was, he says, when he decided to write Postwar. Europe’s people, for once, were choosing their destiny.

You can imagine my delight, then, when I read this passage from I.F. Stone’s Underground to Palestine, a firsthand account of the massive illegal migration of European Jews to the British Protectorate in Palestine in 1946. Stone had been traveling by train with a group of Jewish refugees, when they reached Vienna. He observed:

This Vienna, which begins to seem more a relic than a living city despite the trams and hurrying people in the streets, is the great crossroads of the Jewish exodus from Central and Eastern Europe, an exodus that is greater in magnitude, misery, and drama than those from Egypt and Spain.

Stone also felt the Earth move beneth his feet in Vienna and sensed political change of historic proportions. Another people was choosing its own destiny. The Jews’ determination to leave the old continent once and for all and to inhabit a land they deemed sufficiently empty to accommodate their grand liberation project was a world-changing force. Never again would the region’s politics be the same, for better or worse.

Today, with so many people on the move in Europe again, this time flowing from the Middle East, one wonders what kind of history is being made right in front of our noses. For better or worse, Europe is decidely unlikely to be the same after the dust settles and the wretched of the Earth have finished voting with their feet for a new life.




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