tony judt’s lessons for the iraq war; or what you might learn if you follow tyler cowen’s book recommendations


Last year, Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution recommended Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a massive tome that covers the history of Europe from 1945 to 1989. Since I know relatively little about European history, I decided to pick up a copy and educate myself. And it was well worth the price. It’s hard to find any other single volume history that covers East and West Europe and with such a depth of knowledge of politics and culture. It’s the kind of book that you could only write after a life time of thinking. It also makes you look smart if you put in on your desk.

There’s much to commend the book, but there’s one interesting theme that has an unexpected resonance with our current situation. Early in the book, Judt repeatedly makes the point that pre-WWII Europe was an extremely heterogenous society. A single city could have dozens of communities all speaking different languages. After the war, European cities and states were homogenous.

Of course, Nazi and Stalinist savagery both contributed to the ethnic cleansing, but Judt makes the point that when the armistice was signed in 1945, various cultures were still all mixed up. The homogenization of the European states happened after 1945 when entire populations were shifted around and relocated, chased from their homes, or killed off in a cycle of pay back. In many cases, the Allied armies or the exhausted European states simply looked the other way. Throughout Europe, people took advantage of the disorder to indulge in ethnic hatred. The result was the relative ethnic purity within mant post-1945 Europe states.

What has this got to do with Iraq 2006? Conservatives wanted to compare the current situation world war II. However, it’s my belief that what’s happening in Iraq post-2003 is essentially a replay of Europe 1945. Conservative hawks have looked to WWII as a guide for the current  situation because they see Saddam Hussein in the same light as Hitler. The hawks argue that both were running rogue states intent on challenging global stability. One can argue about the validity of that comparison, but conservative hawks missed a deeper, even more crucial, comparison. Hitler and Hussein put the lid on a lot of ethnic hatred when they imposed their authoritarian states. Both regimes engaged in ethnically targeted violence, but they did not permit civil society to devolve into fighting factions because it would challenge their own power. Without a committed effort to prevent factionalism, the removal of the Nazis and the Baathists permitted ethnic hatred to run wild.

Judt points out in his treatment that the Soviets, and often the Allies as well, did little to curb the situation. After fighting the war, the occupying forces were not prepared, or willing, to stop the violence. In fact, one might come to the regrettable conclusion that the ethnic violence was convenient for many states; if one group is chased off or murdered, then that’s one less fight to worry about.

Now the question I think about is this: the US gov’t seems less tolerant of ethnic violence, Americans are unwilling to be party to ethnic violence, and no one wants Sunni and Shia factions to keep on fighting, but what price are they willing to pay to prevent this situation? So far, the current administration is willing to stick it out, but it is not clear to the guy on the street  (me) what we can do to address this situation. Sure, hunting down al-Qaida operatives is laudable activity. But breaking up a criminal network (al-Qaida) and stopping the cycle of ethnic violence and retaliation (what many Iraqis experience everyday) seem to be two completely different tasks. And the second one seems much, much harder than the first.

This post doesn’t end with any brilliant policy advice, but I do have a cautionary note. When this intervention began, people pointed to WWII, Vietnam, and other prior conflicts as informative precedents. I think that comparison is useful, but most folks, on both sides got the message wrong. The left wanted us to obsess over Vietnam and say that the upcoming Iraq conflict was unlike WWII. The right wanted us to believe that a brutal dictator would be toppled and we could quickly bring democracy as we did in WWII.

Both left and right misunderstood the nature of the European post-war experience. It was no paradise of democracy; it was two years of deadly recrimination. And our ignorance of that fact may have encouraged us to overestimate our hand in the present and underestimate the problems we now face.

Written by fabiorojas

September 7, 2006 at 2:53 am

3 Responses

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  1. Fabio, I think you are absolutely right that both the left and the right “misunderstood the nature of the European post-war experience” but it was only the neo-cons who took it as a model to build their foreign policy on. So the comparison is not quite that symmetric, especially since it was the right who “overstimated our hand” and continues to “understimate the problems we now face.” In that sense the left’s continued obsession with Vietnam while technically inaccurate in this case, would have resulted in a more cautious approach which might have prevented all of the difficulties that we now face.



    September 7, 2006 at 11:58 am

  2. […] mentioned as a great philosopher who is worth reading by non-philosophers. I certainly enjoyed Tony Judt’s majesterial history of post war Europe. Who else is worth reading as the new big […]


  3. […] Here’s our previous discussion of Judt and postwar European history. […]


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