Europe’s Original Sin

After a bloody twentieth century, the continent may now be ready to come to terms with its dark history

This flag, designed by Rem Koolhaas, is made up of forty-five vertical lines grouped by the colours of European nations. / Courtesy of AMO/REM Koolhaus

Books discussed in this essay:

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
by Tony Judt
Penguin, 2005
933 pp., $25

The Cold War: A New History
by John Lewis Gaddis
Penguin Press, 2005
333 pp., $39

Europe Central
by William T. Vollmann
Penguin, 2005
811 pp., $25

by Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 2006
333 pp., $33

Reading Nietzsche on Europeans’ relationship to their past occasions a shudder of historical irony in 2007. In “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” the German philosopher questioned the value “to the present individual . . . of the monumental view of the past, the concern with the classical and the rare of earlier times” and then he answered, positively, “It is the knowledge that the great which once existed was at least possible once and may well again be possible.” After decades of warfare and mass slaughter, followed by decades of political and ideological division, the renewed possibility of a return to a divided, brutal past explains in large part why Europe is so focused on its post-World War II identities and challenges. Throughout this massive effort, however, Europe has remained a place still struggling with its bloody twentieth century, and this may be why the continent, anxious about immigration and plagued by deepening racial and social unrest, often seems mired in an outdated idea of itself.

This is, to be sure, a struggle of immense and far-reaching difficulty. Postwar Europe was deeply impoverished — economically, culturally, and, quite literally, demographically — and its tragic past produced a kind of necessary but perilous amnesia. But perhaps enough time has now passed to allow for a more demanding reckoning with this history, to prevent its terrible events from remaining in collective forgetfulness or being absorbed into offi- cial commemorations. Recent novels by Gary Shteyngart and William T. Vollmann and histories by John Lewis Gaddis and Tony Judt suggest and attempt as much.

Judt’s magnificent Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 reveals the nature, extent, and consequences of “Europe’s Original Sin: its inability to learn from past crimes, its amnesiac nostalgia.” This latter state, Judt continues, was in fact something of a necessity: “the long shadow of World War Two lay heavy across postwar Europe. It could not, however, be acknowledged in full. Silence over Europe’s past was the necessary condition for the construction of a European future.” Judt establishes the validity of this contention by examining the various local manifestations of the postwar European recovery and by evaluating their ambiguous outcomes. For some 800 pages, he moves patiently and diligently from nation to nation, decade to decade, subject to subject — ranging from international diplomacy and warfare to economics, domestic politics, and developments in both low and high culture, and from the various legacies of Europe’s experiences with Naziism and Communism to its more recent efforts to create a coherent union, politically viable enough to prevent the repetition of past wrongs and economically robust enough to increase gdps.

Judt organizes this history into four broad periods: the uncertain years between the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War; the mostly stable and prosperous 1950s and the chaotic, revolutionary 1960s; the lame 1970s and the even lamer 1980s; and the embryonic New Europe that has been evolving since 1989, which has still not been able to avoid bleak stumbles into the dark ways of the past, such as the atrocities perpetrated during the Bosnian conflict and then again in Kosovo. He is severe in his appraisals of assorted would-be revolutionaries, self-important public intellectuals, and uncritical European Union enthusiasts. These groups receive harsh treatment for neglecting the messiness of surrounding realities in favour of the self-serving pursuit of implausibly better futures. “Those in Paris or Berlin who aggressively declared their intention to ‘change the world’ were often the people,” he observes of the 1968 generation, “most devoted to parochial and even bodily obsessions . . . and absorbed in the contemplation of their own impact.” Judt displays a similar impatience for the pride of once-great nations. In an unforgiving section on de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, he contends that the general’s efforts to bring about “the restoration of French grandeur” after the shame of Vichy and the disgrace of Algeria weren’t nearly enough to overcome the long-standing fact of the nation’s diminishment. “France,” Judt declares, “has been in steady decline since at least 1871, a grim trajectory marked by military defeat, diplomatic humiliation, colonial retreat, economic deterioration and domestic instability.”

The micro-history that surrounds Judt’s major claims can be overwhelming, as with his analysis of the rapidly rising production rates of the Italian refrigerator industry in the early 1950s. One has, at best, a dutiful interest in this indicator of broader economic developments and related changes in European lifestyles, though attention blurs amongst countless other such details: Swedish population statistics, Moldovan monthly wage figures, Jacques Derrida’s political writings. This comprehensiveness is impressive if imposing, and one’s own exhaustion with the book at times reflects the challenge it presents as an all-encompassing account of sixty-odd years of European life.

But this type of exhaustion might also signal a vice among readers of history, a vice that John Lewis Gaddis’s latest book enthusiastically feeds. Gaddis, a renowned American chronicler of the Cold War, conceives of history in more delectable terms: high-stakes diplomacy and political moxie constitute its main business, the personality traits of great and terrible leaders are history’s primary currency, and open enthusiasm for one’s side in a given conflict is a self-evident good.

While The Cold War: A New History makes for infectious reading, the unfortunate consequence is that the book encourages a pulp-novel-and-portraitgallery notion of history — and a patriotic one at that. Gaddis is unabashed on this latter score. “I’ve not hesitated to write from a perspective that takes fully into account how the Cold War came out: I know no other way,” he declares in the book’s preface. And while he judiciously notes that understanding the history of the Cold War “exclusively [through] the role of great forces, great powers, or great leaders would fail to do it justice,” he seems to know no other way here either. In Gaddis’s fastpaced handling of the Cold War story, a succession of ideal-driven American presidents, diplomats, and generals bested a series of failing Soviet leaders and their apparatchiks in a grand political theatre that reached its climax when ballsy Ronald Reagan met open-minded Mikhail Gorbachev. Perhaps sensing the retrograde spin of this approach, Gaddis strives for the unexpected in his arguments: for instance, he celebrates the virtues of the nuclear arms race and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, “because the fear of such a war turned out to be greater than all the differences that separated the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, [so that] there was now reason for hope that it would never take place.”

Gaddis’s statements come off as comforting parables beside Judt’s more demanding formulations. Indeed, after a far more textured analysis of Communism’s fall, focused on a series of Soviet- European encounters and Moscow internal disputes, Judt refuses to grant post-Communist Europe free passage in light of its prior divisions and repressions. In recent years, he argues, “the threat to history in Europe” no longer rests in “the deliberate distortion of the past for mendacious ends,” as happened in certain quarters where the outcome of World War II made this politically expedient, and happened again under and after various Communist regimes. Rather, it rests in the confused, colliding claims for reprisal and recognition among former victims and victimizers from the Communist era, and also in the European public’s current conception of the past itself, particularly with regard to the Holocaust, “as a detached artifact, encapsulating not recent memories but lost memories” that are convertible into the stuff of documentaries, theme parks, memorial projects, and museums.

In order to combat the neutralization of the past and the dangerous malleability of collective memory, Judt insists on the uncompromising mission of serious history, which “contributes to the disenchantment of the world” by being “discomforting, even disruptive” in what it brings to light. This is a difficult position to quarrel with, and indeed one would be hardpressed to find a more complete presentation of postwar Europe than the one presented by Judt. And yet, something is wanting here. The practice of history is responsible for clarifying and ordering the outer world of human doings from their chaotic multiplicity and, equally, for disabusing us of self-interested pretensions about the significance of our private encounters with larger events. But those very purposes, in turn, explain why we turn to literature — for imagining how individuals experience history from the inside.

William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central matches Judt’s Postwar in scope, ambition, and sheer size. As its narrator announces in the prologue: “I apply myself now, on this dark winter night, preparing to invade the meaning of Europe.” Vollmann spends 800 pages ranging across the continent’s many battlefields, bunkers, salons, and secretpolice stations, immersing the novel’s voice in the self-destructive choices, private terror, and wilful bad faith of assorted military men, leaders, artists, spies, and collaborators. For Vollmann, the “meaning of Europe” lies between the competing brutalities of Nazi and Soviet life, which he explores from a series of colliding perspectives. Sprawling and obsessive, Europe Central is itself a reflection of the totalitarian cultures that it is imagining, from when “the mechanized hordes go rushing east and west across Europe” in 1939, to the division of 1945 Berlin into “a quartered heart,” to the genealogy of the Soviet Union’s official optimism, which Vollmann conveys through a propaganda phrase that recurs, with intensifying mania, as the decades of the Cold War accumulate: “life has become better, comrades; life has become more joyful.”

Vollmann’s cast includes a series of fictional characters who stand for the many anonymous people caught up in Europe’s grinding machinery, as well as assorted historical figures such as Hitler and Stalin, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and the German lieutenant-general Friedrich Paulus. An extended section on this last figure, as he tries to hold onto Stalingrad, is a chilling tale of grim compliance. Vollmann details the military movements that bring Stalingrad under German control and then the Soviets’ ruthless siege of the city; the effects are suspenseful, baleful, and horrific, but outdone by his rendering of Paulus’s interior conflicts along the way. The general is bitter at his colleagues’ advancements and anxious about his wife’s estimation of his professional stature; he’s also quietly frantic about the diminishing odds of success on the battlefield but pinioned there by his obedience to Hitler’s command that Stalingrad must be held, no matter the cost. It’s painful to dwell in Paulus’s deteriorating psyche as he receives report after report of German losses and Soviet advances and still resists entreaties from his officers to retreat. Indeed, Paulus maintains an outward show of fascist conviction, even when receiving escalating bad news from subordinates:

Herr Lieutenant-General, Sixty-fifth Soviet Army has sliced open our flank!
He opened his silver cigarette-case and told them: Keep calm, please.
But, Herr Lieutenant-General, we’re being pushed back over here!
Said Paulus: Against all your objections I speak two words: Adolf Hitler.

By describing the desperation and hysteria of Paulus’s interior state before and after he rigidly speaks those all-conquering “two words” within the context of a failing military campaign, Vollmann exposes the absurdly single-minded logic of German totalitarianism, its staggering destructiveness, and the private ruin it brings to its devotees.

Vollmann adapts this method to the novel’s representation of Soviet life, particularly through the experiences of Dmitri Shostakovich. We first meet Shostakovich as a brash young composer, maddening to his wiser companions in his lack of concern for what fickle Stalin and his many stooges will make of his music and then of him and his family. When Shostakovich begins to grasp the consequences of official approval and disapproval, however, he grows frantic to curry favour by writing music to party taste but remains ambivalent about having to compromise his art. Matching an unpredictable system to an unstable man, Vollmann reveals the impossibility of individual fidelity to the Soviet cause. The accompanying uncertainty prevents him from resolving his predicament through the straightforward if difficult sacrifice of his art for his private life, or his private life for his art, and in time the composer becomes a paranoid drunk, “who’d forgotten nearly everything except how to be most vigilantly afraid.”

Until, that is, Stalin decides to send him to New York, as a showpiece of Soviet civilization (“all his works had been un-banned four days before”). After a hollow performance to an adoring crowd, Shostakovich puts on a oneman show trial, “[reading] out denunciations upon command . . . [attacking] among others a certain D. D. Shostakovich, who’d committed various errors. His mouth grew dry, and he could not finish the speech. A pleasant male voice completed it for him.” Vollmann makes Shostakovich into an everyman of the Soviet experiment; enduring its voracious control of both life and art, he is divided against himself, his work reduced to self-preserving calculations and his days fraught with the knowledge that someone is always watching to make sure that he agrees that life has become better, comrades; life is more joyful.

Europe Central explores the human cost exacted when power endures for so long under false pretenses, but it stops short of reflecting the latter-day consequences of Communism’s decline, as summed up by the Polish dissident Adam Michnik: “The worst thing about Communism is what comes after.” This bitter observation would be an appropriate epigraph for Absurdistan, the latest effort from the critically lauded Russian-American writer Gary Shteyngart. The novel concerns the misadventures of Misha Vainberg, a shockingly obese, rapping Russian émigré trapped in the nether regions of the former Soviet Union after his late father’s criminal activities bar him from returning to the United States. While trying to overcome this bureaucratic barrier to his lush New York lifestyle and ghetto-fine girlfriend, he becomes immersed in the craven world of Russian gangster life, breakaway-republic politics, and the American militaryindustrial complex. These elements bang together in the volatile, religiously divided, oil-soaked nation of Absurdistan, and Shteyngart’s protagonist and his rendering of contemporary life in the outer regions of Eurasia are of a piece: scatological, excessive, coarse, and free-spending.

As such, the material is certainly wry, but cheaply so, like an extended riff on recent-history-as-farce. One chapter describes local prostitutes beguiling American defence contractors in broken English at a luxurious Hyatt that rises amid the rubble and hellfire of some unfathomably complex and gruesome civil strife; the underlying assumption of crass injustice is too assured to be lively beyond the immediate tragicomedy of the scene. Complete with Dick Cheney jokes and clever Halliburton wordplay, not to mention lists of the American corporate logos that festoon a place permanently stuck between the First and Third Worlds, the novel in fact provides a grinning confirmation of our armchair dissenters’ worries about the decadence of twentyfirst- century living. Of course, we’re supposed to regard things like a “Holocaust for Kidz” theme-park proposal as the depressing reduction of history to amoral commodity, but Shteyngart’s refusal to pull back from Misha’s own casual indifference toward this situation means that the novel’s hyperactive irony dulls its critiques. We’re left with a large-scale caricature that provides easy laughter about Western life advancing along the brink: “The particular world of the Park Hyatt Svanï City floated around me — buffalo wings drumming against whiskey bottles, floral duvet covers suffused in cnn’s lunar glow, and in the distance the people, threadbare and heat-stricken, playing out their imponderable dramas.”

The dark stories and histories of the prior century, crashing into more recent folly and tragedy, tempt us to avoid fully recognizing burdens both old and new, whether through concerted sarcasm, as in Shteyngart, or pacifying nostalgia, as in Gaddis. But that’s why Judt’s and Vollmann’s books, with their willingness to reflect and engage these burdens to the fullest possible extent, are so crucial. Whether through the fever dream of a rumbling historical novel or through the comprehensive education of an encyclopedic history, Europe Central and Postwar give us the opportunity to fix our imaginations and critical faculties on the twentieth century’s core event — European civilization’s irreparable ruin. Encountering history from both within and without provides a painful reminder of the present’s abusing and disabusing relationship to the past — because what once was can always be again.

Randy Boyagoda
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto. His next book, Little Sanctuary, his first for young readers, began as a short story in The Walrus and will be published later this year. He has been contributing to the magazine since 2005.