History of Europe since World War II finds the future promising -- perhaps

January 26, 1992|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,Mr. Pietila, a former foreign correspondent, writes editorials for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

EUROPE IN OUR TIME: A HISTORY 1945-1992.

Walter Laqueur.

Viking.

618 pages. $27.50.

The pace of change in Europe has been so head-spinning during the past year that almost anything written is in danger of being out of date before it is published.

Not intimidated by that prospect, Walter Laqueur, a veteran commentator on world affairs, has come out with a timely one-volume history of Europe since World War II. It is a measure of his prudent scholarship that the text fares far better than the orientation map on the inside cover: It contains two countries -- the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia -- that disappeared while the book was being printed!

But, then, Walter Laqueur is no stranger to changes.

He was born in 1921 in Breslau. At the time, it was in eastern Germany, but now it is in western Poland and is known as Wroclaw.

In the 1930s, he left for Palestine, studied at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, joined a kibbutz, and then gravitated into journalism.

He now chairs a research council at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, and also is director of the Institute of Contemporary History in London. A prolific writer, he is the author of more than 25 books. They range from the history of Zionism and a biography of Stalin to novels and works on terrorism.

"Europe in Our Time" continues an analysis Mr. Laqueur began in his 1969 book, "Europe Since Hitler."

In that book, he expressed an optimism more than two decades ago about greater Western European cooperation and improved relations between the East and the West. Yet a few years later, he seemed crushed. "Europe seemed in stupor, almost all the promise had vanished, and a political decline had set in, the end of which was not in sight," he observed.

This pessimism was not surprising. Political and economic changes that proved to be mere aberrations may have warranted it at the time.

But deep pessimism about European (and Western) civilization also has been a professional hazard of thinkers from the days of Schopenhauer and Spengler. Fanned by West Germany's ecological-political radicals, such final-days hysteria caught on again in the 1980s, when articles and speeches predicted the world was sliding into a catastrophe triggered by the adventurism of President Reagan. (Mr. Laqueur never became a victim of that hysteria, but the noisy arguments around him clearly distracted him.)

Mr. Reagan may have nearly bankrupted the United States in the process, but his military build-up certainly hastened the day of the Soviet Union's collapse. Mr. Laqueur's 21-page chapter on the Soviet Union under Brezhnev and Gorbachev is a particularly good summarization of complex transformations and their causes.

America's huge investments in the "star wars" technology also prompted a European response, which manifested itself in intenseeconomic and political cooperation. What ultimately happens to European integration now that communism no longer rules or threatens is not clear.

But Mr. Laqueur is certain a turning point has been reached: "Those who saw the Berlin wall coming down in November 1989 could truly say [and perhaps with even greater justification] what Goethe had noted on the occasion of the battle of Valmy (1792): 'From this place and this time forth commences a new era in world history and you can all say that you were present at its birth.' "

Roughly half of Mr. Laqueur's book is devoted to examination of the post-war scene and the division of Europe into two ideologically and militarily hostile blocs. This is old ground, necessary for understanding later events, but ground that has been well and thoroughly covered. Some readers may opt to glance through it or skip it altogether.

"Europe in Our Time" is divided into six parts, each dealing with a specific time period or phenomenon. Those parts, in turn, examine developments country by country. Considering the number of countries in Europe, this approach could have been a ticket to disaster.

But Mr. Laqueur is skilled enough to make it work, finding enough common themes to assure continuity.

He catalogs facts from places as disparate as Iceland and Greece, Portugal and Poland. He analyzes, but offers few predictions. "It is easy to see what political, social and economic systems have failed," he notes. "It is impossible as yet to say what will succeed them."

He sees many things that offer unprecedented promise, including the newly acquired freedom of the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. But he is alarmed by the difficulties ahead, particularly because so many nations are experiencing ethnic violence and disintegration.

He writes: "The history of postwar Europe, unlike many other periods in the history of the continent, reads almost like a Hollywood movie of the old-fashioned kind, with all kinds of tensions and conflict but a strikingly happy ending. But history has no end and the historian knows that there is an almost unlimited number of possibilities that things may take a wrong turn."

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