THE GLOBAL AGE
Viking; $40; 670 pages
The Munich Security Conference was a depressing gathering this February. Throughout the Cold War and for decades thereafter, Wehrkunde (as the conference was known when it started in 1963) was the premier event for Europeans and Americans committed to NATO, trans-Atlantic ties and the West.
This year’s meeting had little of that. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a Trump-like speech that shocked a quiet hall. He bullied allies rather than celebrating them, most audaciously by urging European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join instead what one former European prime minister feared might be a call to war against Tehran.
The discussion among Europeans at Wehrkunde was equally disheartening. I spent a few meals listening to Britons and their Continental colleagues debate different Brexit options. In parallel, nervous European liberals dissected the causes of various right-wing populists spiking in popularity throughout the Continent. Few had the bandwidth to contemplate the rise of China and Russia. The darkest discussions swirled around the possible collapse of the eurozone and the European Union more generally.
Both sets of challenges — the future of trans-Atlantic relations and the fate of the European Union — are real. However, the history of Europe over the last 70 years — as traced and explained brilliantly in Ian Kershaw’s magisterial The Global Age: Europe, 1950-2017 — should give at least some credence to the argument that things are not as bad as they seem. In synthesising this period in European history in a long but very readable volume (part of the Penguin History of Europe series), Kershaw reminds us that the Continent has faced other large challenges in the postwar era and survived; that some long-term trends of peace, prosperity and democracy are both robust and remarkable; and that individuals have agency, and can alter the course of events — they are not mere expressions of those events.
On earlier challenges, Kershaw points out that postwar Europeans tackled difficult issues that make some of today’s troubles seem more manageable. During most of “The Global Age,” Communist regimes loyal to the Soviet Union subjugated millions of Europeans, sometimes through brutal force, as with Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981. Tensions between East and West escalated precariously close to armed conflict, including once in October 1961 when American and Soviet tanks faced off against each other in Berlin. A year later, all of European security was threatened again because of a standoff between Moscow and Washington in faraway Cuba. Today’s Europe, thankfully, is not haunted by the spectre of nuclear war. The probability of a Russian invasion of a NATO member is low.
During this “golden age” for Europe, imperial powers had to navigate decolonisation. The French wars in Indochina and Algeria and the Portuguese wars in Angola and Mozambique were difficult, regime-threatening challenges that make the French and Portuguese problems of the present day look comparatively minor. And Europe endured domestic violence during this golden age, be it from the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Group in West Germany, nationalists in Northern Ireland or separatists in the Basque region. Economic setbacks — especially in 1973 and 2008 — disrupted long periods of growth. Even war, sometimes in the form of ethnic cleansing, erupted in the Balkans in the 1990s. Brexit, immigration, populism and even Jihadist-inspired terrorism seem like much smaller challenges than genocide.
Flowing next to and around these security and economic crises, Kershaw traces several positive, long-term trends in European history from 1950 to 2017 that are downright miraculous. Most important, most of the Continent lived in peace during the Global Age, a sharp contrast to the horrific atrocities chronicled in Kershaw’s previous volume in this series, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949. Second, partly as a consequence of this first achievement, Europeans on average became richer than at any time before. In Kershaw’s estimation, the period between 1950 and 1973 was especially prosperous — a “golden age” or an “economic miracle” for the western part of the Continent, and even a “silver age” for the Communist bloc.
Europe’s future is especially hard to predict, as Kershaw emphasises, because “it is easy to underestimate the role of contingency in historical change.” Refreshingly, and against the grain of some current intellectual fads, Kershaw allows for the possibility that individuals — not just innate structural forces — can shape history. For instance, Kershaw assigns a pivotal role to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in transforming Germany from a Continental menace to an anchor of stability and prosperity. Khrushchev gets a big role in Kershaw’s narrative, too, for reducing repression in the Communist world. And Kershaw reminds us that Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Brexit underscores how the tactical decisions of individual leaders can have strategic consequences. Kershaw ascribes the greatest agency of all to the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “The magnitude of Gorbachev’s personal contributions to the dramatic change, not just in the Soviet Union itself but throughout Eastern Europe, can scarcely be exaggerated.” This is not to say that Kershaw highlights only the role of political leaders — for good and for ill — in his narrative. He also brings in the masses, recounting how mobilised citizens destroyed Communism; an entire chapter is devoted to “Power of the People.”
Kershaw’s theory of agency in the making of history allows for a range of possibilities about the Continent’s future. European leaders should read The Global Age to be reminded of the incredible progress of the last 70 years — and told that such progress is something they have the power to sustain through their individual actions.
©2019 The New York TimesNews Service