When the Facts Change
An Excerpt From
When the Facts Change



The only way for me to write this introduction is to separate the man from the ideas. Otherwise, I get pulled back into the man, who I loved and was married to from 1993 until his death in 2010, rather than forward into the ideas. As you read these essays, I hope that you, too, will focus on the ideas, because they are good ideas, and they were written in good faith. “In good faith” may have been Tony’s favorite phrase and highest standard, and he held himself to it in everything he wrote. What he meant by it, I think, was writing that is free of calculation and maneuver, intellectual or otherwise. A clean, clear, honest account.

This is a book about our age. The arc is down: from the heights of hope and possibility, with the revolutions of 1989, into the confusion, devastation, and loss of 9/11, the Iraq war, the deepening crisis in the Middle East, and—as Tony saw it—the self-defeating decline of the American republic. As the facts changed and events unfolded, Tony found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction. The story ends abruptly, with his untimely death.

This book is also, for me, a very personal book, since “our age” was also “my age” with Tony: the early essays date to the first years of our marriage and the birth of our son Daniel, and follow through our time together in Vienna, Paris, New York, the birth of Nicholas, and the growing up of our family. Our life together began, not coincidentally, with the fall of Communism in 1989: I was a graduate student at New York University, where Tony taught. In the summer of 1991, I traveled across Central Europe, and when I got back I wanted to know more. I was advised to take an independent study with Tony Judt.

I did, and our romance began, over books and conversations about European politics, war, revolution, justice, art. It wasn’t the usual dating arrangement: our second “course meeting” took place in a restaurant over dinner. Tony pushed the books aside, ordered wine, and told me of his time in Prague under Communism, and then in 1989, walking through silent snow-covered squares and streets deep into the night soon after the Velvet Revolution, clearly in awe at the turn of historical fate—and the feelings that were already apparent between us. We watched movies, went to art exhibitions, ate Chinese food, he even cooked (badly). Finally—the key to our courtship—he invited me on a trip to Europe: Paris, Vienna, Budapest, a hair-raising drive over the Simplon Pass in a storm (I drove—he had migraines). We took trains, and I watched him pouring over timetables, clocking departures and arrivals like a kid in a candy store: Zermatt, Brig, Florence, Venice.

It was a great romance, and it was a European romance, part of a larger romance with Europe that defined Tony’s life, and his life’s work. At times, I think he even thought of himself as European. But he wasn’t really. Sure, he spoke French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Czech, some Spanish, but he was never “at home” in any of these places. He was more Central European, but not exactly that either—he didn’t quite have that history, except by professional engagement and family roots (Russian, Polish, Romanian, and Lithuanian Jews). He was very English, too, by habit and upbringing (he could move effortlessly between his childhood cockney and confident Oxbridge prose), but he wasn’t really that either—too Jewish, too Central European. It’s not that he was alienated from any of these places, although in some cases he was; it was more that he was attached to bits of all of them, which is why he couldn’t let go of any of them.

So perhaps it is not surprising that although we settled in New York from the start, we spent much of our life together planning to live—or living—somewhere else. We were expert packers and often joked that we would write a book together called something like “At Home in Europe: Everything You Need to Know about Schools and Real Estate.” By far the best gift I ever gave to Tony was a subscription to Thomas Cooks Railway Timetable.

It was only after 2001 that he really settled. This was partly because of his health: that year he was diagnosed with a serious cancer and underwent major surgery, radiation, and other draining therapies. Partly, too, because of the WTC attack. It became increasingly difficult to travel, and the horror of the event itself, combined with his illness, had a homing effect; he wanted to be here with me and the boys. Whatever the reasons, in the years that followed he slowly became more and more, though never quite, American—ironically at the very moment when he found greatest reasons to be critical of its politics. He acquired citizenship: “Quiz me,” he would say to the kids in the weeks before the test, and they would gleefully take him through the paces, no matter that he had taught American politics for years at Oxford. Around 2003 I noticed a shift in his thinking, and in his writing, from “them” to “us”: “The Way We Live Now.”

These were also the years of the Remarque Institute, which Tony founded in 1995 and directed until his death. It was built along the same two axes that preoccupied him in his writing: bringing together Europe and America, history and contemporary politics. At the same time, he was writing Postwar (2005), a mammoth undertaking, which tested daily his physical and intellectual strength and discipline, especially as he recovered from cancer. I remember well his exhaustion and determination as he insisted on writing the essays in this volume, too, even as he was (as he put it) “in the coal mines” of a major book about Europe. I worried at how hard he pushed himself, but in retrospect I see that he couldn’t help it. As he immersed himself in Postwar, he was hearing canaries in the mines of our own time: these essays, which beg us—and especially “us” Americans—to look back on the twentieth century as we make our way in the twenty-first, were one result.

 • • • 

SO THIS IS A COLLECTION of essays, but it is also a collection of obsessions. Tony’s obsessions. They are all here: Europe and America, Israel and the Middle East, justice, the public sphere, the state, international relations, memory and forgetting, and above all history. His caution, which reappears across these essays, that we were witnessing an “economic age” collapse into an “era of fear”* and entering “a new age of insecurity”* was a sign of just how depressed and worried he was at the direction politics was taking. He expected a lot and was a keen observer. You will find in these essays, I think, both a clear-eyed realist—who believed in facts, events, data—and an idealist who aimed at nothing less than the well-lived life; not just for himself, but for society.

I have presented the essays chronologically as well as thematically because chronology was one of his greatest obsessions. He was, after all, a historian, and he had little patience for postmodern fashions of textual fragmentation or narrative disruption, especially in historical writing. He wasn’t really interested in the idea that there is no single truth (wasn’t that obvious?), or the deconstruction of this or that text. The real job, he believed, was not to say what wasn’t but what was—to tell a convincing and clearly written story from the available evidence, and to do it with an eye to what is right and just. Chronology was not merely a professional or literary convention, it was a prerequisite—even, when it came to history, a moral responsibility.

A word about facts: I have never met anyone as committed to facts as Tony, something his children learned from the start: it is to Daniel, now nineteen, that we owe the title of this volume, which comes from a (probably apocryphal) quote from Keynes that was one of Tony’s favorite mantras: “when the facts change, I change my mind—what do you do, sir?” I learned this early on about Tony, in one of those domestic situations that does so much to illuminate a man. When we were first married we bought a house in Princeton, New Jersey (his idea)—but it was more of a house in theory than in practice. In theory, Tony wanted to live there, but in practice we were living in New York, or traveling to Europe, or on our way somewhere else. Eventually, I wanted to sell the house—it was draining us financially and frankly I had a horror of ever living there. There ensued a long and difficult discussion about what to do with the house, which turned into a debate and finally a silent and angry standoff about the emotional, historical, geographical meaning of houses and home, and why this particular one was or wasn’t right for us.

Arguing with Tony was a real challenge because he was a master at the dialectical switchback and could turn any point you made against you. Finally I created a spreadsheet that laid out the facts—a desperate strategic move on my part: finances, commuter train schedules, fares, total hours spent at Penn Station, the works. He studied it carefully and agreed on the spot to sell the house. No regrets, no remorse, no recriminations, no further discussion necessary. He was already on to the next plan. To me, it was an astounding and admirable quality. It gave him a kind of clarity of thinking—he wasn’t wedded to his ideas or, as I later discovered, to his prose. When the facts changed—when a better, more convincing argument was made—he really did change his mind and move on.

He had great inner certainty. This was not an existential attribute, it was hard earned: he read, ingested, absorbed, memorized more facts, and knew more “real stuff,” as he liked to put it, than anyone I have ever met. For this reason, he didn’t like social events or parties: he was shy, in a way, and preferred to stay home and read—he could get more from books, he said, away from the distracting “blah blah” of the “chattering classes.” He was almost machinelike in his recall, and he arrived at his positions quickly and decisively, sifting a given problem through his extraordinary store of knowledge and sharply analytic mind. It is not that he trusted himself absolutely—like all of us, he had emotional gaps and moments when reason and good judgment deserted him, but these were mostly in his life, not in his writing. When it came to ideas, he was not a doubter; he had a kind of pure intellectual command and ability to summon ideas and arguments without complication.

He was a great writer because he was always fine-tuning his words, craftsmanlike, to this inner pitch. He had a system for writing, and the essays in this book were all written according to the same method, even those from 2008 to 2010 when he was ill and quadriplegic. First, he read everything he could on a subject, taking copious notes by hand, on lined yellow legal pads. Then came the outline, color-coded A, B, C, D, with detailed subcategories: A1 i, A1 ii, A2 iii, etc. (more legal pads). Then he sat for hours on end, monklike, at the dining room table assigning each line in his notes, each fact, date, point, or idea, to a place in the outline. Next—and this was the killer and the key—he retranscribed all of his original notes in the order of the outline. By the time he sat down to write the essay, he had copied, recopied, and memorized most of what he needed to know. Then, door closed, eight-hour days of writing back to back until the piece was done (small breaks for marmite sandwiches and strong espresso). Finally—“polishing.”

When he became ill, none of this changed, it just got harder. Someone else had to be the hands, turning the pages of books, assembling materials, searching the Web, and typing. As his body failed, he retaught himself how to think and write—the most private of events—with someone else, a tribute to the flexibility of his extraordinary mind. He worked with an assistant, but he had to do most of the work by memory, in his own mind, usually at night, composing, sorting, cataloguing, rewriting his mental notes according to his outline—A, B, C, D—to be typed in the morning by me, our boys, a nurse, or his assistant.

This was not just a method, I think, it was a map of his mind. The logic, the patience, the intense concentration and careful construction of the argument, the soldierly attention to fact and detail, the confidence of his convictions—unlike most writers, he rarely deviated from his original design. The difficulty came when he bumped into things inside himself that he didn’t fully see or know: not the “facts on the ground,” but the “facts inside”—the things that were just there, like furniture in his mind. The most obvious had to do with being Jewish.

For Tony, being Jewish was a given—the oldest piece of furniture in the place. It was the only identity that he possessed unequivocally. He was not religious, never went to synagogue, never practiced anything at home; he liked to quote Isaac Deutscher (whose books were given to him by his father, Joe, when he was a boy) on the “non-Jewish Jews.” If he talked about being Jewish, it was about the past: Friday night dinners as a child with his Yiddish-speaking grandparents in the East End of London; his father’s (very Jewish) secular humanism (“I don’t believe in race, I believe in humanity”) and his mother’s determined renunciation—she stood in her living room when the Queen of England appeared on TV and didn’t want her grandchildren circumcised lest “bad times” come again; or his grandfather Enoch, the proverbial wandering Jew, who always had his bags packed and spent as much of his life as he could on the road.

Another fact: the hat. Some years ago, we were on our way to the bat mitzvah of a close friend’s daughter at a synagogue on New York’s Upper East Side. We were late and almost there in a taxi traveling uptown, when Tony literally panicked: he had forgotten his hat. Did it really matter, I asked, we were late already and he would miss part of the service if he went back. Couldn’t he go without it? No, really he couldn’t, and I was taken aback at the heightened and inexplicable anxiety that seemed to overtake him. He went back for the hat, which was a well-appointed but old-fashioned thing I couldn’t remember having ever seen before. When he slipped into the synagogue to rejoin me, he was astonished to find that he was the only one: the other guests were all wearing black-tie. He was indignant and a bit offended, but mostly confused—and manifestly out of place. What kind of Jews were these?

Tony had had a bar mitzvah himself (“we did our duty,” his father later explained), and as a passionate (later disabused) Zionist in his youth, he spoke good Hebrew and had been a translator in Israel during the 1967 war. When our boys were young we agreed that we would like them to have at least some religious education. My background was Protestant but above all atheist, so we soon dismissed the idea of Sunday school and instead found Itay—a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who came to our apartment on Washington Square weekly to teach the boys Hebrew, biblical history, culture. There was—Tony’s decision—no bar mitzvah. To my mind, the message was clear: within the limits of their decidedly American upbringing, Tony wanted the boys to know the wheres and whys of the hat. After that, it was up to them. When they later both insisted that, in fact, they did not feel Jewish at all, the conversation quickly turned to the Holocaust. Nicholas didn’t miss a beat: I don’t have to be Jewish to understand how sad and tragic it was. Tony was surprised at their ambivalence, but not upset; they, after all, did not have his past.

What about the Holocaust? A friend who knew Tony well once commented to me that Tony had never written about the Holocaust, that he had focused his scholarship on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then jumped to the postwar era. This is true, but—and it is an overwhelming but—the war and its killing fields were central to Postwar, and to much of his other work, even if they were not his subject: the epilogue to Postwar is entitled “From the House of the Dead.”

Soon after the book was published, moreover, I thanked Tony for dedicating it to me but told him that I knew that deep down it was also dedicated to someone else: to Toni. He wept—and he was not a man who wept easily or often. Toni was his namesake and his father’s cousin, who had perished at Auschwitz. She was the ghost of the book, and a kind of dark presence in his mind all the time. Was it guilt, maybe? Not exactly survivor guilt—he was born in 1948—but a kind of black hole in his mind, I came to believe, weighty, incomprehensible, like evil or the devil, where this moment in history and this aspect of his Jewishness lay. It was murky and emotional, but what seemed clear to me was that Toni’s tragedy was a responsibility in Tony’s life, tied in some way to the idea of good faith.

Which brings us to Israel. In a series of articles beginning in 2002, Tony laid out his positions and reached for pragmatic solutions. The essays here give an idea, I hope, of how and why he ventured into these troubled waters. After “Israel: The Alternative” was published in 2003 there were ugly threats and a level of noxious and ad hominem vituperation in the press that sadly demonstrated the impossibility of an open discussion of the subject, at least in America. This and the essays that followed speak for themselves. I can only report that the rage his positions aroused, and the increasingly intractable and racist politics of Israel itself, disturbed him deeply.

After his June 2009 piece on the settlements in the New York Times, a colleague wrote to Tony: what is to be done? He wanted to answer, but he was by then ill and coping with the difficult physical complications of his rapidly progressing disease. Nonetheless, he took up the topic with a determined if grim resolve and wrote an energetic and ambitious response—with the help of an assistant, who typed tirelessly for long days, often without a moment to eat or drink, as Tony urgently dictated and revised the text. He called it “What Is to Be Done?” I worked on it with him more, and we discussed it at length; I did not feel it was up to his usual level and told him so. Frustrated by his physical disability, and unable to hone the argument to his satisfaction, he became discouraged and abruptly set it aside.

Reading it again now, the reasons for this are not entirely clear to me. The ideas, if flawed at moments—and only at moments—remain strong. Why did he back away, and am I wrong to publish it now? I can’t know what he would do, but I offer it here because I see in the essay—perhaps precisely because it is raw—a kind of true intellectual grit. It has Tony’s characteristic resistance to dogma, broken eggs, entrenched positions; his willingness to pick up the political thread wherever events wind it (note the return to a two-state solution) and try, with as much imagination as he can muster, to bring history, morality, pragmatism—the facts on the ground—to bear on seemingly unsolvable issues. In an impossible situation, both personal and political, he was aiming for an honest and clear account.

That same year, two of his greatest intellectual supports died: Amos Elon and Leszek Kołakowski. He wrote about each of them, even as he was planning and facing his own death, which he knew was imminent. “In the long run we are all dead,” he liked to quip, when he was up to it: Keynes again. Tony did not really have heroes, but he did have shades, dead people he had known or never known except in books who were all around all the time. I got to know them well. Keynes was one of them. Some of the others (there were many) were Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron, A.J.P. Taylor, Bernard Williams (a friend, but nonetheless), Alexander Pope, Philip Larkin, Jean Renoir, and Vittorio De Sica. There was also, of course, Karl Marx, and—double of course—the Marx Brothers, who appeared in ritual screenings, along with Orson Welles in The Third Man. The two he kept close by him and admired perhaps most of all were Albert Camus, whose photo sat on his desk, and George Orwell, who it always seemed to me anyway, was everywhere. These were some of the shoulders he stood on, and the men he tried to live up to, in good faith.

In his final month, he turned to another pressing subject and started an essay called “The Afterlife.” It begins “I have never believed in God,” an interesting formulation for a man of the Enlightenment, which is what he really was, since it leaves the question ever so slightly open. The facts, after all, might change when you are dead. In the meantime, he began to build an argument about legacy, memorials, and what we can leave behind, which was the only afterlife he knew anything about. What he could leave behind, of course, were memories, and his writings. He never finished the essay—it breaks off midway in notes and scattered thoughts. One of them says this:

You cannot write with a view to impact or response. That way you distort the latter and corrode the integrity of the writing itself. In that sense, it is like shooting at the moon—you have to allow that it won’t be in the same place by the time the rocket gets there. Better to know why you are sending it up in the first place and worry less about its safe landing. . . .

You cannot anticipate either the context of the motives of readers in unconstrained futures. So all you can do is write what you should, whatever that means. A very different sort of obligation.

Part One

1989: Our Age


Downhill All the Way

Among historians in the English-speaking world there is a discernible “Hobsbawm generation.” It consists of men and women who took up the study of the past at some point in the “long nineteen-sixties,” between, say, 1959 and 1975, and whose interest in the recent past was irrevocably shaped by Eric Hobsbawm’s writings, however much they now dissent from many of his conclusions. In those years he published a quite astonishing body of influential work: Primitive Rebels, which first appeared in 1959, introduced young urban students to a world of rural protest in Europe and overseas that has now become much more familiar to us, in large measure thanks to the work of scholars whose imaginations were first fired by Hobsbawm’s little book. Labouring Men, Industry and Empire, and Captain Swing (with George Rude) substantially recast the economic history of Britain and the story of the British labor movement; they brought back to scholarly attention a half-buried tradition of British radical historiography, reinvigorating research into the conditions and experiences of the artisans and workers themselves, but bringing to this engaged concern an unprecedented level of technical sophistication and a rare breadth of knowledge.

If the conclusions and interpretations of these books seem conventional today, that is only because it is difficult now to remember what their subject matter looked like before Hobsbawm made it his own. No amount of revisionist sniping or fashionable amendment can detract from the lasting impact of this body of work.

But Hobsbawm’s most enduring imprint on our historical consciousness has come through his great trilogy on the “long nineteenth century,” from 1789 to 1914, the first volume of which, The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848, appeared in 1962. It is hard to assess the influence of that book precisely because it has become so indelibly part of our sense of the period that all subsequent work either unconsciously incorporates it or else works against it. Its overall scheme, interpreting the era as one of social upheaval dominated by the emergence and rise to influence of the bourgeoisie of northwest Europe, eventually became the “conventional” interpretation, now exposed to steady criticism and revision. It was followed in 1975 by The Age of Capital, 1848–1875, a masterly survey of the middle years of the last century that drew on a remarkable range of material and depth of understanding. That book remains, in my view, Hobsbawm’s single greatest work, drawing together the many mid-Victorian transformations of the world and framing them in a unified and still forceful historical narrative. In The Age of Empire, 1875–1914, which appeared twelve years later, there was an unmistakable elegiac air, as though the leading historian of the last century were somehow sorry to see it come to a close at his hands. The overall impression is of an era of protean change, where a high price was paid for the rapid accumulation of wealth and knowledge; but an era, nonetheless, that was full of promise and of optimistic visions of radiant and improving futures. The nineteenth century, as Hobsbawm reminds us in his latest book, was “my period”; like Marx, he is at his best as a dissector of its hidden patterns, and he left little doubt of his admiration and respect for its astonishing achievements.

 • • • 

IT COMES, therefore, as a surprise that Eric Hobsbawm should have chosen to add a fourth volume dealing with the “short twentieth century.”* As he admits in the preface, “I avoided working on the era since 1914 for most of my career.” He offers conventional grounds for this aversion: we are too close to the events to be dispassionate (in Hobsbawm’s case, born in 1917, he has lived through most of them), a full body of interpretative material is not yet at hand, and it is too soon to tell what it all means.

But it is clear that there is another reason, and one which Hobsbawm himself would certainly not disavow: the twentieth century has ended with the apparent collapse of the political and social ideals and institutions to which he has been committed for most of his life. It is hard not to see in it a dark and gloomy tale of error and disaster. Like the other members of a remarkable generation of British Communist or ex-Communist historians (Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Edward Thompson) Hobsbawm directed his professional attention to the revolutionary and radical past, and not only because the Party line made it virtually impossible to write openly about the near present. For a lifelong Communist who is also a serious scholar, the history of our century presents a number of near insuperable obstacles to interpretation, as his latest work inadvertently demonstrates.

Nonetheless, Hobsbawm has written what is in many ways an extraordinary book. Its argument is explicit and directly reflected in its tripartite structure. The first section, “The Age of Catastrophe,” covers the period from the outbreak of World War I to the defeat of Hitler; the second, “The Golden Age,” is an account of the remarkable and unprecedented era of economic growth and social transformation that began around 1950 and ended in the midseventies, provoking “The Landslide,” as Hobsbawm calls the third and final section of his book, which deals with the history of the last two decades. Each section has a dominant theme, against which are set the details of its history. For the decades following the assassination at Sarajevo, the author depicts a world stumbling for forty years “from one calamity to another,” an era of misery and horrors, a time when millions of refugees wandered helplessly across the European subcontinent and when the laws of war, so painstakingly forged over the previous centuries, were abandoned wholesale. (Of 5.5 million Russian prisoners of war in World War II, approximately 3.3 million died, one statistic among many that would have been utterly inconceivable to an earlier generation.)

Of the “Golden Age” following World War II, Hobsbawm notes that it was the moment when, for 80 percent of humankind, the Middle Ages finally ended, a time of dramatic social change and dislocation in Europe no less than in the colonial world over which the European powers now relinquished their control. But the explosive success of postwar Western capitalism, generating economic growth at an unprecedented rate while distributing the benefits of that growth to an ever-increasing number of people, carried within it the seeds of its own corruption and dissolution. It is not for nothing that Eric Hobsbawm has acquired a reputation for sophisticated and subtle Marxist readings of his material.

The expectations and institutions set in motion by the experience of rapid expansion and innovation have bequeathed to us a world with few recognizable landmarks or inherited practices, lacking continuity and solidarity between generations or across occupations. To take but one example, the democratization of knowledge and resources (including weapons) and their concentration in uncontrolled private hands threaten to undermine the very institutions of the capitalist world which brought them about. Without shared practices, common cultures, collective aspirations, ours is a world “which [has] lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.”

 • • • 

IN SHORT, Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the twentieth century is the story of the decline of a civilization, the history of a world which has both brought to full flowering the material and cultural potential of the nineteenth century and betrayed its promise. In wartime certain states have reverted to the use of chemical weapons upon unarmed civilians (their own included, in the case of Iraq); the social and environmental inequities arising from uncontrolled market forces are on the rise, while any collective sense of shared interests and inheritances is shrinking fast. In politics, “the decline of the organized mass parties, class-based, ideological or both, [has] eliminated the major social engine for turning men and women into politically active citizens.” In cultural matters everything is now “post-” something:

postindustrial, postimperial, postmodern, poststructuralist, post-Marxist, post-Gutenberg, or whatever. Like funerals, these prefixes [take] official recognition of death without implying any consensus or indeed certainty about the nature of life after death.

There is a Jeremiah-like air of impending doom about much of Hobsbawm’s account.

However, this does not detract from its strengths. Like everything else Hobsbawm has written, “the age of extremes” is described and analyzed in simple, clean prose, utterly free of jargon, pomposity, and pretension. Important points are made in brief, striking, often witty phrases: the political impact of World War I is captured in the observation that “no old government was left standing between the borders of France and the Sea of Japan”; we are reminded of Hitler’s low estimation of democracies—“The only democracy he took seriously was the British, which he rightly regarded as not entirely democratic.” Hobsbawm’s own rather low opinion of the New Left of the sixties is made explicit:

At the very moment when hopeful young leftists were quoting Mao Tse-tung’s strategy for the triumph of revolution by mobilizing the countless rural millions against the encircled urban strongholds of the status quo, those millions were abandoning their villages and moving into the cities themselves.1

The reference to the peasant millions is a reminder that though unashamedly Eurocentric, Eric Hobsbawm has a unique range.2 His sympathetic and firsthand knowledge of Latin America in particular enriches his account of the worldwide impact of the Depression, just as his comparison of Poland’s Solidarity with the Brazilian Workers’ Party, both of them nationwide popular labor movements that developed during the eighties in opposition to the politics of a repressive regime, is suggestive and original. To be sure, his omnivorous reading is directed toward the South rather than the East, with unfortunate results to be discussed below; but he has apparently kept up his close acquaintance with the literature on Peruvian radicals and Neapolitan bandits (and with the men themselves), which he uses to telling effect in his discussion of social and economic transformations in backward societies. And he can with equal ease introduce evidence from the 1982 Food and Food Production Encyclopedia (an article on “Formed, Fabricated and Restructured Meat Products”) to make a point about consumerism.

 • • • 

THIS BOOK IS ALSO A reminder that Eric Hobsbawm is by training and inclination an economic historian, and an analytical one at that. He is at his best when discussing the Depression, or the nature and consequences of the postwar “boom,” and mostly avoids military or political narrative. His descriptions of the economic absurdities of the Soviet world (“an energy-producing colony of more advanced industrial economies—i.e., in practice largely its own Western satellites”) or of Socialist economics as a “rather archaic industrial system based on iron and smoke” are distinctly superior to his political surveys of those same societies.

In a similar way he is more at ease when treating Fascism as a product of the world economic crisis than in his rather brief discussion of its political sources. His account of the dramatic collapse of Communist regimes in 1989 verges on the economically determinist; this is not to deny that debt crises and economic mismanagement were important factors in the downfall of Communism—far from it; but in discussing them Hobsbawm is clearly on familiar territory, where he prefers to remain. However, this gives considerable strength to his account of Western developments since the turning point of 1974. He gives a clear and convincing analysis of the long-term dilemmas of the international economy. Equally lucid is his description of the crisis of national welfare economics that arose when national leaders sought to avert the political costs of economic downturn by taxing a shrinking working population to subsidize the victims of their policies.

 • • • 

DESPITE THIS EMPHASIS on long-term economic trends and broad secular patterns (a feature of all Hobsbawm’s writing), The Age of Extremes is also his most personal book; indeed the mood oscillates between a rather formal interpretative perspective and a close, almost private, commentary. He says that he has studied the twentieth century by “watching and listening,” and we believe him.3 The inflation after World War I is caught in the image of his Austrian grandfather cashing in his matured insurance policy and finding himself with just enough money for a drink at his favorite café, while Hobsbawm’s own aesthetic distaste at the urban blight of the sixties is contrasted with childhood memories of “the great architectural monuments of the liberal bourgeoisie” of Vienna. When he writes that he believes the fall of colonial empires did not seem imminent in 1939, this is based on personal recollection; he and others in a school for young Communists from Britain and the colonies did not expect it at the time.

For evidence of social change in Palermo, unemployment in São Paulo, or the risks of introducing capitalism in China he can draw on conversations with Sicilian bandits, Brazilian labor organizers, and Chinese Communist bureaucrats (it is not for nothing that in his entry in Who’s Who he gives as his recreation “travel”). As a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, he knew Alan Turing, the ill-fated inventor of the computer, while his Communist connections allow him to draw on the private testimony of the (Communist) mayor of Bologna concerning the favorable conditions for an emerging agro-industrial economy in the Emilia-Romagna region.4

There is also a disarming directness and honesty about Hobsbawm’s account of his personal experience of the century.5 He includes himself among the “attentive and unquestioning multitudes” who listened to Castro rambling for hours on end; he reminds us that the “left tradition” has preferred not to acknowledge the support that Fascism, once in power, could count on from formerly Socialist and Communist workers; and he recounts the innocent shock of a (London-based) British Communist organizer at discovering the comparative affluence of Coventry workers: “Do you realize that up there the comrades have cars?”

He himself was sometimes wrong and says so, and on more than one occasion he expresses his admiration for professional journalists who saw things that he, the Marxist scholar, missed. The prophecy forty years ago, by a China correspondent for the Times of London, that by the twenty-first century Communism would have disappeared everywhere except China, where it would have been transformed into the national ideology, shocked Hobsbawm at the time, as he admits; but today it sounds distinctly plausible. Toward the end of the book, musing on the dilemmas of our own time, he concedes that Marx, too, was wrong: mankind does not always “set itself only such problems as it can solve.”

 • • • 

IF THE VIRTUES OF THIS book derive from its engaged and personal quality, so do its defects—or rather its defect, for there is really only one, though it takes many forms. Because this is a story of Hobsbawm’s own lifetime—a lifetime devoted since youth, as he recently reminded us on BBC radio, to a single cause—he is understandably inclined to see the main outlines and conflicts of the era much as he saw them when they were unfolding. In particular, the categories right/left, Fascist/Communist, progressive and reactionary seem to be very firmly set, and pretty much as they first presented themselves to Hobsbawm in the thirties. Thus he readily acknowledges the tragic errors of Communist strategy, or the curiously similar public aesthetic preferences of Fascist and Communist leaders, and even the sheer awfulness of Communism as a system. But it does not for a moment occur to him to reconsider the conventional polarities of the time and treat Fascism and Communism as more than just occasional and paradoxical allies.

This seems to me a missed opportunity. For Hobsbawm, the Spanish Civil War and the alliances and allegiances it helped shape remain “the only political cause which, even in retrospect, appears as pure and appealing as it did in 1936.” But for just that reason the Spanish Civil War, and more generally the circumstantial divisions of the thirties, are now an obstacle to a radical rethinking of the illusions to which they gave rise.

Thus Hobsbawm not only does not discuss the use to which the Spanish conflict was put by Stalin, who settled local and international scores under the guise of supporting an anti-Fascist war; he also neglects to consider the way in which the whole experience of “anti-Fascist unity” helped forge a new image for international Communism following the military, economic, and strategic disasters of its first two decades. If we are to understand the twentieth century, this radical refashioning of Communism (which was repeated in a minor key after 1943) needs to be appreciated. Instead the pattern of Communist thought and practice is described here much as it was understood and presented at the time, even down to the language and categories used, so that the phenomenon of Bolshevism is accorded no critical analytical attention except on its own restricted terms.

 • • • 

HOBSBAWM IS THUS QUITE EXPLICIT in treating the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent Communist regime as “a programme for transforming backward countries into advanced ones,” a line of reasoning that was once widespread among “revisionists” and other sympathetic critics of the Left in their attempts to explain the way Lenin’s revolution had become Stalin’s autocracy. But he does not consider whether it was not also and above all the first and greatest of the “third world” coups d’état that he describes so well elsewhere, in which revolutionary modernizers capture the capital city and forcibly seize power in an archaic society. The distinction may seem minor, but it is crucial. By excluding the Bolshevik revolution from the category of mere “coups” and by insisting throughout that it was a revolution made possible by the “masses,” Hobsbawm preserves the sui generis quality of the Communist experience, and thereby cleaves to an interpretation of our century which seems increasingly inadequate now that that experience is behind us.

In a similar way, Hobsbawm’s treatment of Fascism misses the chance to consider the extent to which Hitler’s war amounted, de facto, to a major European revolution, transforming Central and Eastern Europe and preparing the way for the “Socialist” regimes of the postwar years which built upon the radical change Hitler had brought about—notably the destruction of the intelligentsia and urban middle class of the region, first through the murder of the Jews and then as a result of the postwar expulsion of Germans from the liberated Slav lands. Because he is concerned to play down any “revolutionary” qualities in Fascism, Hobsbawm’s treatment of World War II is thus uncharacteristically conventional, neglecting the irony inherent in the process whereby Hitler prepared the way for Stalin. This, too, seems to me a consequence of continuing to see the world the way it seemed at the time, when both ideologically and militarily Fascism and Communism were in total conflict, and Stalin represented the “left wing” of the victorious forces of the Enlightenment.

 • • • 

THE RESULTS OF THIS APPROACH are most obvious, however, in Hobsbawm’s treatment of Eastern Europe—or rather his nontreatment of it; “real Socialism” in the lands between Germany and Russia merits just six pages in a book nearly six hundred pages long, with the infamous show trials of the fifties accorded less than a paragraph. In his mildly revisionist account of the origins of the cold war Hobsbawm suggests that it was only after the Americans had pressured Communists out of office in France and Italy (in May 1947), and threatened intervention if the 1948 election in Italy went the “wrong” way, that “the USSR followed suit by eliminating the non-Communists from their multi-party ‘people’s democracies’ which were henceforth reclassified as ‘dictatorships of the proletariat.’” Until then, in his words, “where Moscow controlled its client regimes and communist movements, these were specifically committed to not building states on the model of the USSR, but mixed economies under multi-party parliamentary democracies . . .”

The precise allocation of responsibility for the cold war may be a subject for debate, but the timing and purpose of the Communist strategy within Eastern Europe is surely unambiguous. Whatever Stalin and his followers had in mind in 1945 for the “friendly” regimes of the region, it was certainly not “multi-party democracies” in any intelligible sense of the word. The construction of “geographically-contiguous replica regimes” (as the political scientist Kenneth Jowitt put it) was under way well before the Italian elections of April 1948. The most obvious instances are Romania (where Andrei Vyshinsky arrived in February 1945 to dictate who could and who could not join the “coalition” government) and Bulgaria (where Nikola Petkov, leader of the Agrarian Party, was arrested in June 1947 and executed three months later following a disgraceful show trial).

In Czechoslovakia and Hungary the situation was more confused, at least until 1947, although in the Hungarian case Communist intimidation of the popular Smallholder Party forced its representatives to withdraw from the Parliament in 1946. Even in Czechoslovakia, where the local Communists had strong popular support and had obtained 38 percent of the votes cast in the 1946 elections, their electoral backing was falling away sharply during 1947. In response the Communists used their influence in the police and in the interior ministry to slander and discredit their opponents (notably the Slovak Democratic and Czech National Socialist parties) and, in February 1948—two months before the Italian elections of that year—they took power in a political coup.6

In Poland there were no illusions about a “multi-party democracy.” In the postwar cabinet of 1945 fourteen of the twenty-two members had been in the Communists’ Committee of National Liberation (the “Lublin” Committee) designated in July 1944 by the Soviet forces to administer liberated Poland. The results of a referendum of July 1946, following a violent campaign in which the government harassed and intimidated non-Communist activists, were cynically rigged, as were the January 1947 general elections: Peasant Party spokesmen were kept off the radio and their supporters arrested by the thousands; their electoral lists were disqualified and accusations of espionage were made in Parliament and elsewhere to discredit their leadership. Even so, the ballot boxes had to be stuffed to prevent a Communist defeat. The result provoked international protest, to no avail. In October 1947 Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, the Peasant Party chief, fled abroad in fear for his life. Here as elsewhere these tactics had resulted by early 1949 in what was effectively a one-party state, with non-Communist parties licensed only as allies or obedient vassals, their leaders in exile, in prison, or dead. To suggest that this process was instituted only as a direct consequence of American intervention in the domestic affairs of its Western partners, and not until then, is simply wrong.

 • • • 

THAT SO METICULOUS A HISTORIAN as Eric Hobsbawm should make such an odd mistake cannot, as he might say, be an accident. The difficulty seems to be that, like Marx, he is not much interested in these little nations. To refer to the years 1950–1974 as a “Golden Age” cannot help but sound ironic to someone from, say, Prague. And it takes a degree of uncharacteristic insouciance to write thus: “What happened to Warsaw in 1944 was the penalty of premature city risings: they have only one shot in their magazine, though a big one.” As a proposition about urban revolt it is of course broadly true, but as an account of what happened in Poland when the Red Army waited for the Nazis to destroy the Polish Resistance before crossing the Vistula it is historically disingenuous, to say the least.

But like another famous British historian of the Left, Hobsbawm seems to find something mildly annoying about “the lands between.”7 How else shall we account for his justification of the Bolshevik model as the only alternative in 1917 to “the disintegration which was the fate of the other archaic and defeated empires, namely Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Unlike these, the Bolshevik Revolution preserved most of the multinational territorial unity of the old Tsarist state at least for another seventy-four years.” That this is no casual remark is made clear later in his book when he describes the disintegration of the USSR as leaving an “international void between Trieste and Vladivostok” for the first time since the mid-eighteenth century.

For residents of that “void,” the history of the twentieth century looks rather different. But then they are perforce “nationalists,” and nationalism (like religion) is a rather neglected subject in this book. Even from a purely analytical point of view this seems a mistake; whatever one thinks of national sentiment (and Hobsbawm accords it very little sympathy, here as in his other works), its place in the history of our time surely merits more than dismissive remarks about the “collective egoism” of Slovenes, Croats, Czechs, and their ilk. National self-determination may be a silly and “emotional” reaction to problems which it cannot address, as Hobsbawm puts it; but to say this is to risk missing something fundamental about our times. Without a fuller understanding of faiths of all sorts—secular and religious alike—the historian of the twentieth century is placed under a serious and self-imposed handicap.8

 • • • 

THE PROBLEM OF FAITH BRINGS us back to the thirties, and Hobsbawm’s own relationship to his material. While he labors under no illusions about the former Soviet Union, he is reluctant to concede that it had no redeeming features (including that of maintaining or imposing stability upon the map of Europe). He thus insists that it had at least the virtue of bequeathing the idea of economic planning to the West, thereby ironically saving capitalism by simultaneously threatening its existence and furnishing it with the means for its survival. But it was not Gosplan that lay behind the enthusiasm for planning among young radicals of the thirties and that culminated in the mixed economies of postwar Western Europe.9 What Hobsbawm neglects to note is that many of the postwar planners got their ideas not from Moscow but from Rome (or, in the French case, Vichy): it was often Fascist, not Communist planning which appealed to the technocrats who took over in the forties. Admiration for Soviet Five Year Plans, on the other hand, was most widespread among intellectuals—the Fabians, André Gide, and others, including left-wing students of Hobsbawm’s own generation. Here, too, the history of our times falls too easily victim to private memory.

The desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience seems, finally, to lie behind a rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror. In his summary of the case for breakneck industrialization he draws upon the analogy with a war economy:

As in a war economy . . . targets for production can, and indeed often must, be set without considering cost and cost-effectiveness, the test being whether they can be met and when. As in all such life-or-death efforts, the most effective method of fulfilling targets and meeting deadlines is giving urgent orders which produce all-out rushes.

To which one might reply that there wasn’t a war on and anyway the “life” at stake was that of the Bolshevik regime, while the “death” was that of millions of human beings. On the subject of these human losses Hobsbawm rightly says that there can be “no justification”; but one longs for a fuller and more historically and humanly sensitive description of the whole tragedy. Here, by contrast, is Hobsbawm’s own trenchant comment on optimistic and well-meaning nineteenth-century apologies for the New Poor Law of 1834:

I daresay the Poor Law reformers honestly believed that paupers were morally improved by the separation of wives and husbands in the workhouse; . . . So far as the victims of these views were concerned, the results were as bad as—perhaps worse than—if they had been achieved by deliberate cruelty: inhuman, impersonal, callous degradation of the spirit of men and women and the destruction of their dignity. Perhaps this was historically inevitable and even necessary. But the victim suffered—suffering is not a privilege of well-informed persons. And any historian who cannot appreciate this is not worth reading.10

The fact that the Soviet Union purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause, is what mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation. Others might say it just made them worse.11 In any case, the end of Communism was a source of much happiness for many millions of people, even if that happiness has been diluted by the difficulties that followed, and it rather calls into question Eric Hobsbawm’s conclusion that “the old century has not ended well.” One is tempted, after all, to ask, “For whom?” The somber, almost apocalyptic tone of the final section of the book obscures the fact that the eighties were also a decade of liberation for many, and not only in Eastern Europe. It is certainly true, as Hobsbawm says on more than one occasion, that no one any longer seems to have any solutions to offer to the world’s problems, that we are tapping our way through a global fog, that we live in a world where “the past . . . has lost its role, in which the old maps and charts which guided human beings . . . no longer represent the landscape through which we move.” But it is not self-evident that confident large-scale solutions of the sort we have lost were ever such a good thing—on balance they did a lot more harm than good.

 • • • 

IN 1968 I WAS A member of an attentive and admiring student audience whom Eric Hobsbawm was addressing on the theme, as I recall, of the limits of student radicalism. I remember very well his conclusion, since it ran so counter to the mood of the hour. Sometimes, he reminded us, the point is not to change the world but to interpret it. But in order to interpret the world one has also to have a certain empathy with the ways in which it has changed. His latest book is a challenging, often brilliant, and always cool and intelligent account of the world we have now inherited. If it is not up to his very best work it should be recalled just how demanding a standard he has set.

But there are one or two crucial changes that have taken place in the world—the death of Communism, for instance, or the related loss of faith in history and the therapeutic functions of the state about which the author is not always well pleased. That is a pity, since it shapes and sometimes misshapes his account in ways that may lessen its impact upon those who most need to read and learn from it. And I missed, in his version of the twentieth century, the ruthlessly questioning eye which has made him so indispensable a guide to the nineteenth. In a striking apologia pro vita sua, Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that historians are “the professional remembrancers of what their fellow-citizens wish to forget.” It is a demanding and unforgiving injunction.

This essay first appeared in The New York Review of Books in May 1995 as a review of The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 by Eric Hobsbawm.


1 For all that he was a hero to many radical students in the sixties, Eric Hobsbawm never conceded anything to the leftist fashions of the day. In his words, “Nobody with even minimal experience of the limitations of real life, i.e., no genuine adult, could have drafted the confident but patently absurd slogans of the Parisian May days of 1968 or the Italian ‘hot autumn’ of 1969.” In this he is mildly reminiscent of Albert Soboul, the great French (Communist) historian of the sansculottes. Many young French gauchistes, admirers of his work, assumed before encountering him that Professor Souboul must share the sartorial informality and egalitarian social style of his professional subjects. No one ever made that mistake twice.

2 Any history of the world in our century is of necessity a history in large measure of the things Europeans (and North Americans) did to themselves and to others, and of how non-Europeans reacted to them and were (usually adversely) affected. That, after all, is what is wrong with the twentieth century, seen from a “third world” perspective, and to criticize Hobsbawm, as some reviewers have done, for understanding this and writing accordingly, seems to me incoherent.

3 Given the advantages of such firsthand sources, and in view of the large body of available material, it does seem a pity that Hobsbawm has not drawn more on the recorded memories and experiences of other voyagers through the century.

4 Asked by one of Europe’s largest firms whether Bologna would like to be chosen as the site for a major factory, the mayor politely declined the opportunity. As he explained to Hobsbawm, the mixed economy of his region was doing nicely, and did not need to introduce into its midst the industrial problems of major cities like Milan or Turin.

5 Though with no reference to his own professional trajectory, where he paid a significant price for his political affiliation, at least in the early years.

6 In the memoirs of former Hungarian and Czech Communists as well as their opponents it is clear that from the moment the Germans were ousted the local Communists intended to defeat and discredit their domestic political enemies: by falsifying ballots, by political and legal intimidation, by the exploitation of their Soviet protection. That they could also count on a real, albeit rapidly diminishing, fund of popular support should not obscure this. See, e.g., Eugen Loebl, My Mind on Trial (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); Béla Szász, Volunteers for the Gallows: Anatomy of a Show-Trial (New York: Norton, 1971); Josephine Langer, Une Saison à Bratislava (Paris: Seuil, 1979); Stephen Kertesz, Between Russia and the West: Hungary and the Illusions of Peacemaking 1945–1947 (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986). The Czech National Socialists had no relation to the German variety, except to the extent that both could indirectly trace their origins to ethnic divisions within the labor movement in late-nineteenth-century Bohemia.

7 Writing in 1941, G. D. H. Cole thought that indefensible sovereign states in Eastern Europe had no future and that it would be better if a victorious postwar Soviet Union simply absorbed Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans. G. D. H. Cole, Europe, Russia and the Future, quoted in Serban Voinea, “Satéllisation et libération,” Revue socialiste (March 1957), p. 226.

8 Among secular faiths should be included the ideological myths that have moved intellectuals in our century, without which many of the worst features of the “descent into barbarism” cannot be properly explained. On these Hobsbawm has curiously little to say.

9 Nor were these as universally “planned” as Hobsbawm sometimes implies. There were many variations on the planning theme after 1945, ranging from nationalization without planning (in Great Britain) to selective planning with some nationalization (France) to coordinated economic strategy with neither formal planning nor nationalization (West Germany). Although he gives Maynard Keynes due credit for having undermined the plausibility of noninterventionary laissez-faire economic theory, the relationship between Keynesian economics, wartime social planning, and postwar economic practice is not much discussed in this book.

10 E. J. Hobsbawm, “History and the ‘Dark Satanic Mills,’” in Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (New York: Basic Books, 1964), p. 118. The same cool interpretive distance is maintained in Hobsbawm’s treatment of Fascist terror, too, and contrasts with his powerful image of our century as a time of crime and folly. What seems to be missing is more firsthand description, to offset the distancing impact of large-scale analyses.

11 Contrast the reflections of the Polish writer Alexander Wat: “The loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom, justice, the good of the people.” Alexander Wat, My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 173.


Europe: The Grand Illusion


The European community was founded nearly forty years ago, with the stated object of promoting the “ever-closer” union of its members. It is a remarkable accomplishment, albeit not quite so remarkable as its advocates suggest. There are few who oppose its objectives in principle, and the practical benefits it affords its members, such as unrestricted trade, are obvious. That, after all, is why nearly everyone wants to join it. It is now engaging in negotiations among its member states to construct a single European currency and mechanisms for common decision taking and collective action, while simultaneously holding out to the countries of former Communist Europe the promise of membership in years to come.

The likelihood that the European Union can fulfill its own promises of ever-closer union, while remaining open to new members on the same terms, is slim indeed. In the first place, the unique historical circumstances of the years between 1945 and 1989 cannot be reproduced. Indeed, the disruptive effect of the events of 1989 has been at least as great in the West as in the East. The essence of the Franco-German condominium around which postwar Western Europe was built lay in a mutually convenient arrangement: the Germans would have the economic means and the French would retain the political initiative. In the early postwar years, of course, the Germans had not yet acquired their present wealth and French predominance was real. But from the mid-fifties this was no longer true; thereafter France’s hegemony in West European affairs rested upon a nuclear weapon that the country could not use, an army that it could not deploy within the continent itself, and an international political standing derived largely from the self-interested magnanimity of the three victorious powers at the end of the war.

 • • • 

THIS CURIOUS INTERLUDE IS NOW at an end. One economic fact may illustrate the point. In 1990 a chart of French economic influence shows it to be limited to the “Europe of Nine”—that is to say, the original six (Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries)—plus Britain, Eire, and Denmark. With these countries, France was a major importer and exporter of goods and services. But Germany, in contrast, already encompassed within its range of economic influence not only the present “Europe of Fifteen” but also most of the rest of the continent to the south and east. The significance of this is clear. France has become a regional power, confined to Europe’s western edge. Germany, even before unification, was once again the great power of Europe.

The impact of 1989 has also posed new difficulties for the Germans. For just as weakness and declining international power arouse difficult memories for France, so in Germany does an apparent excess of power. German politicians from Adenauer to Helmut Kohl have made a point of playing down German strength, deferring to French political initiatives and emphasizing their own wish for nothing more than a stable Germany in a prosperous Europe; they have thus fallen victim to their own rhetoric, bequeathing to post-1989 Europe a muscle-bound state with no sense of national purpose.

As a consequence, Germany’s national agenda today is a little too full. In addition to the economic and political problem of absorbing the eastern Länder, Germans must deal with the paradox of pre-unification Ostpolitik: that many German politicians, especially on the Left, were well pleased with things the way they were and would have been quite content to see the Wall remain a little longer. Germans have also to reckon with embarrassments about their own capacities—now that they can and manifestly do lead Europe, where should they take it? And of what Europe are they the natural leaders—the West-leaning “Europe” forged by the French, or that traditional Europe of German interests, where Germany sits not on the eastern edge but squarely in the middle?

A Germany at the heart of Europe carries echoes and reminders that many people, Germans perhaps most of all, have sought since 1949 to set aside. But the image of a Germany resolutely turned away from troubling Eastern memories, clinging fervently to its postwar Western allies, as though they alone stood between the nation and its demons, is not very convincing.

 • • • 

EUROPE’S BASIC ECONOMIC CIRCUMSTANCES have also changed. For a generation following the announcement of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, Western Europe experienced an unprecedented combination of high growth and near-full employment. From this was born the belief, reflected in a series of optimistic economic forecasts from the OECD, that the cycle of crises that had marked the European economy for the previous half century had been broken for good. The great oil crisis of 1974 should have put an end to such illusions. In 1950 Western Europe depended upon oil for only 8.5 percent of its energy needs; most of the rest was still provided by coal, Europe’s indigenous and cheap fossil fuel. By 1970 oil accounted for 60 percent of European energy consumption. The quadruple increase in oil prices thus put an end to a quarter of a century of cheap energy, sharply and definitively raising the cost of manufacture, transport, and daily living. In the Federal Republic of Germany GNP actually fell by 0.5 percent in 1974 and again, by 1.6 percent, in 1975, unprecedented blips in the postwar Wirtschaftswunder that were confirmed in 1981 and 1982, when the West German economy declined again, by 0.2 percent and 1 percent, respectively. In Italy GNP fell (by 3.7 percent) in 1976, for the first time since the end of the war. Neither the German nor any other Western European economy has ever been the same again.

The effect of this on the European Community (later Union) itself was severe. An important feature of the community had been its capacity to serve with equal success the varied needs of its member countries, needs deriving from interwar experiences and memories that differed quite markedly. The Belgians (like the British) feared unemployment more than anything else; the French sought above all to avoid the Malthusian stagnation of earlier decades; Germans lived in terror of an unstable, inflated currency. After 1974 the stalled economy of Europe threatened them all with increasing unemployment, slow growth, and sharply rising prices. There has thus been an unanticipated return to earlier woes. Far from being able to offer the advantages of its economic miracle to an ever-expanding community of beneficiaries, “Europe” can no longer even be sure of being able to provide them to itself. The events of 1989 brought this problem into the open, but the source of the Union’s inability to address it can be found fifteen years earlier.

The memory of unemployment between the wars varies from country to country. It was never a great scourge in France, averaging just 3.3 percent per annum throughout the 1930s. But in Britain, where 7.5 percent of the labor force was already unemployed during the 1920s, the annual average of 11.5 percent in the thirties was something that politicians and economists of every stripe swore should never happen again. In Belgium and Germany, where the unemployment rate was nearly 9 percent, similar sentiments prevailed. It was thus one of the glories of the postwar West European economy that it maintained close to full employment through much of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s the annual average unemployment rate in Western Europe was just 1.6 percent. In the following decade it rose to an annual average of 4.2 percent. By the late 1980s it had doubled again, with annual average rates of unemployment in the EC at 9.2 percent; by 1993 the figure stood at 11 percent.

Within these depressing figures one could see patterns that were more truly disturbing. In 1993 registered unemployment among men and women under twenty-five exceeded 20 percent in six EU countries (Spain, Eire, France, Italy, Belgium, and Greece). The long-term unemployed accounted for more than one-third the total of those without work in those six nations as well as the UK, the Netherlands, and the former West Germany. The redistributive impact of the inflation of the 1980s worsens the effect of these figures, widening the gap between people in work and the unemployed. What is more, upturns in the economy no longer have the effect, as they did during the boom years after 1950, of absorbing surplus labor and pulling up the worse-off. Who now remembers the fantasies of the 1960s, when it was blithely believed that production problems had been solved, and all that remained was to redistribute the benefits?

The combination of rapid urban growth and subsequent economic stagnation has brought to Western Europe not only a renewed threat of economic insecurity, something unknown to most Europeans since the late 1940s, but also greater social disruption and physical risk than at any time since the early Industrial Revolution. In Western Europe today one can now see desolate satellite towns, rotting suburbs, and hopeless city ghettos. Even the great capital cities—London, Paris, Rome—are neither as clean, as safe, nor as hopeful as they were just thirty years ago. They and dozens of provincial cities from Lyon to Lübeck are developing an urban underclass. If this has not had more explosive social and political consequences, the credit lies with the systems of social welfare with which Western Europeans furnished themselves after 1945.

 • • • 

THE CRISIS OF the welfare state is thus the third reason why the European Union cannot expect to project its achievements and promise into the indefinite future. The Western European population is aging. Ever since the mid-sixties the general trend has been for fewer children per family, to the point that in some countries, notably Italy and Spain, the population is not even maintaining itself. In Spain the birth rate per thousand in 1993 was just 1.1, a historic low. Europeans must now support a large and growing population of older people on the backs of fewer and fewer younger people, many of whom are not employed. A generous system of social services designed for flourishing economies where a large number of employed young people supported the social needs of a relatively small population of the old and sick is now under serious pressure.

In Northern and Western Europe the population aged sixty-five and over has grown by between 12 percent and 17 percent (depending on the country) since the mid-1960s. Moreover, even those under sixty-five can no longer be counted automatically on the “productive” side of the national equation: in West Germany the percentage of men aged sixty to sixty-four who were in paid employment fell from 72 to 44 in the two decades after 1960; in the Netherlands the figures were 81 and 58, respectively. At the moment the underemployed elderly are merely an expensive burden. But once the baby boomers begin to retire (around 2010), the presence of a huge, frustrated, bored, unproductive, and ultimately unhealthy population of old people could become a major social crisis.

It is clear to most European politicians that the costs of maintaining the welfare state in its postwar form cannot be carried indefinitely. The difficulty lies in knowing whom to displease first—the shrinking number of contributors or the growing number of involuntary beneficiaries. Both parties can vote. So far a combination of habit and good intentions has favored retaining as many social benefits as possible. But during the past few years another factor in the “welfare” debate has threatened to distort national political judgment out of all proportion to its size. This is the so-called “immigrant question.”

 • • • 

AS A RESULT OF IMMIGRATION from former colonies and from its Mediterranean fringe, attracted by job prospects in an economy sucking in labor to fuel its rapid growth, Western Europe by the early 1960s had an excess of immigrants over emigrants for the first time this century. By 1973 the high point of the “foreign presence” in Western Europe, the EEC nations together with Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden had some 7.5 million foreign workers, of whom nearly 5 million were in France and Germany, comprising about 10 percent of the labor force in both countries. Despite a sharp fall-off in numbers since then, because governments have restricted immigration for both economic and political reasons, the “immigrant” presence has remained significant. According to data from 1990, about 6.1 percent of the German population, 6.4 percent of the French population, 4.3 percent of the Dutch population, and 3.3 percent of the British population are foreigners. These figures do not include naturalized immigrants, or locally born children of foreigners, though in some countries—notably Germany—these continue to be counted as foreigners and lack full citizens’ rights.

In recent years these immigrants and their children have become the target of resentment and fear on the part of the “native” population, sentiments fanned and exploited by extremist and mainstream politicians alike. Just how far this process has now gone may be seen in France. In May 1989, 28 percent of Jacques Chirac’s Gaullist supporters pronounced themselves “globally in agreement” with the ideas about immigrants expressed in the program of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. In 1991 the figure was 50 percent. And if the Communist and Socialist voters were less sympathetic, that was only because a significant number of them had already switched their allegiance to Le Pen: in the presidential elections of 1995, he won 30 percent of the votes of the employed working class, the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin obtaining just 21 percent.

Thus by the end of the 1980s a large minority of mainstream voters in France saw nothing disreputable about expressing agreement with policies that twenty years before would have been regarded as unacceptably close to Fascism (among the proposals in Le Pen’s November 1991 list of “Fifty measures to be taken on immigration” was one to withdraw previously granted naturalizations, an act of retroactive injustice last practiced in France under the government of Philippe Pétain). In Austria Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party got 22 percent of the vote in the December 1995 national elections. In Germany, too, increasing restrictions on “guest workers” and other would-be immigrants have been imposed “in their own interest.”

The politics of immigration will not soon subside, because cross-continental and intercontinental migrations are once again a feature of European society, and local fears and prejudices will ensure that they continue to be seen as disruptive and politically exploitable. Prejudice in earlier decades against Polish or Italian or Portuguese immigrants was eventually muted as their children, distinguished by neither religion nor language nor color, blended into the social landscape. These advantages of cultural and physical invisibility are not available to their successors from Turkey, Africa, India, or the Antilles. There is very little tradition in Europe of effective assimilation—or, alternatively, “multiculturalism”—when it comes to truly foreign communities. Immigrants and their children will join the ranks of the “losers” in the competition for Western Europe’s reduced resources.

Hitherto, the “losers” in Europe’s postwar history have been sustained by complicated, expensive systems of regional aid that the European Union put in place within and between countries. These amount to a form of institutionalized relief—constantly correcting for market deformations that have concentrated wealth and opportunity in the rich northwestern core without doing much to alter the causes of the disparity. Southern Europe, the peripheries (Eire, Portugal, Greece), the economic underclass, and the “immigrants” thus constitute a community of the disadvantaged for whom the EU is the only source of relief on the one hand—for without succor from Brussels much of Western Europe, from depressed mining communities to unprofitable peasant villages, would be in even worse trouble than it is—and envy and resentment on the other. For where there are losers there are also winners.

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When the Facts Change

When the Facts Change

Essays, 1995-2010

Introduction by: