4 Great Books About Modern European History

Postwar If you’re looking for a good book on European history (and who isn’t?), I have four to recommend. They also happen to fit together very well, and I found my understanding of each enhanced by reading the others.

Postwar, by Tony Judt, tells the story of how Eastern Europe and Western Europe went their separate ways after World War II, and how they are starting to come back together after the fall of the USSR. Judt argues that the Iron Curtain was a historical anomaly; from 1945-1989 Europe was split by a disastrous experiment with Communism. This did not just affect Eastern Europe–the course of Western European history was also fundamentally altered by the threat of the USSR and the lost connections with Europe’s eastern half. The book is full of important historic episodes of which I was completely unaware, and Judt’s writing style is compelling and often quite funny (especially the footnotes). But read the book with Wikipedia handy, since Judt often makes references to people and events he seems to assume his reader will understand, but which I frequently needed to look up.

Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain fills in details on how Eastern Europe came to be dominated by Communist dictators loyal to, and essentially agents of, the Soviet Union. While it may seem obvious in hindsight that Eastern Europe would be dominated by the USSR, that was not a foregone conclusion at the time, least of all to the people living there. Many of these people tried to chart a better course for their countries, but the Soviet Union crushed those voices and installed Communist leaders who were generally brought to those countries by the Red Army at the end of World War II. It’s a good companion to Postwar, which generally has more of a Western European perspective even when discussing Eastern Europe.

The prologue for both those books is Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, which tells the terrible story of the countries in Eastern Europe that were caught between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. Tens of millions of people were murdered as a policy choice of both regimes during the period from the end of World War I through World War II. These policy choices included, but were not limited to, the Ukrainian famine, the Katyn massacre, and the Holocaust. One of the themes in Postwar is the turn away from extremist ideologies in Western Europe, and eventually Eastern Europe. Bloodlands shows just how terrible those radical movements were.

Finally, Thomas Piketty’s famous Capital in the 21st Century is at its core an economic history of modern Europe from the 1800s to the present. Just as Judt argues that 1945-1989 was a historical anomaly for political reasons, Piketty argues that the “Thirty Glorious Years” after World War II were an economic anomaly. Two world wars and the Great Depression destroyed wealth holdings, while labor was in high demand and short supply. Piketty’s argument is that as capitalist economies return to a more normal state, inequality will grow steadily worse as wealthy people are able to invest and grow their savings at a faster rate than the overall economy grows (r > g). This raises the question of whether the moderate European consensus will survive if inequality grows steadily worse in the 21st Century, or whether extremist movements will be able to take advantage of economic discontent.

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