Cold War from start to finish

Monday Book Review

January 27, 1992|By Daniel Berger

5/8 TC

EUROPE IN OUR TIME: A HISTORY 1945-1992. By Walter Laqueur. Viking. 617 pages, $27.50. SINCE an era ended with the dissolution of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, we need a history of that era. We need to be able to see it whole, fit the parts together and trace the beginning to the midpoint to the end.

There will be more and probably better efforts, but this is the first, an ambitious book, requiring serious attention.

The prolific historian of Europe, communism and the Middle East in our century, Mr. Laqueur is not coming fresh into the field. He looked back at the formation of the Cold War in his 1969 book, "Europe Since Hitler."

This is a reworking of that one, adding another three decades-plus, watching that Cold War end.

The great strength Mr. Laqueur brings to the enterprise is that he was not a "revisionist" of the 1950s and '60s. That was the self-conferred label of historians who dismissed the orthodoxy that the Cold War was the free world's response to Soviet aggression. They substituted an orthodoxy that the Cold War was the invention of imperialists bent on world hegemony, using for provocation the reasonable security measures of the vulnerable Soviet leadership and deserving Third World freedom-seekers.

Although the revisionists insisted that their elders retool to survive, they in turn have been ill-served by the implosion of world communism in an orgy of self-loathing.

It would seem that the anti-communists were right all along. Or so the newly liberated seem to be saying.

So it is the revisionists who must go back to the drawing board. Their accounts cannot be extended to explain the last three years. Writers once dismissed as unfashionable cold warriors more easily take in recent events with their world view.

Mr. Laqueur attempts a massive history of European society. The collapse of communism, under the economic strain of the arms race and the economic dysfunction of the police state, follows naturally the descent of the Iron Curtain, 1945-1948, and the ensuing nuclear stand-off and ideological competition.

That is not to say this is a totally coherent book. The author starts with the postwar division of Europe into two camps, then goes into the "economic miracle" of Western revival.

Then comes the cultural despair leading to the student revolt of 1968 and the pessimism of the '70s -- even as the Soviet Union under Brezhnev was becoming an anachronism that could not save itself. Not every chapter anticipates the next.

What the communist threat brought, beyond the American defense connection and German rearmament, was the Western European unity movement that would emerge triumphant in the '90s. The original motive was political, to prevent another Franco-German war and then to withstand Soviet competition, but the means remain unglamorously economic.

Spain could recover from isolation and fascism in a peaceful revolution of growth and democracy. Eastern Europe could not. At last came the rise of Gorbachev, the triumph of Thatcherism in Britain and the revolt of Eastern Europe -- spreading finally into the Soviet bastion itself.

When this broad canvas is repainted with studied care in years to come, some developments will be accorded more importance than Mr. Laqueur grants. For example, Olof Palme, the neutralist Swedish prime minister who seemed so important in his time, is not mentioned until his assassination.

The American role in bolstering Europe is insufficiently acknowledged. I resent that. I gave two of the best years of my life as a draftee defending West Berlin in the 1950s. General Lucius Clay had said that if my predecessors, colleagues and I failed, Europe was gone. We succeeded.

As a personification of the Marshall Plan, the NATO presence, investment in plant and intellect, I deserve more credit than Mr. Laqueur concedes.

Which is all the more poignant when you see how far I -- this time taking me as a symbol of this nation's economy -- have fallen in comparison with some European counterparts today.

The siren song of Eurocommunism, which seemed so close to winning by stealth a decade ago, is hardly mentioned. And some of the writing on the final fall of communism was rushed into print without polish.

But until better books come along, this is the best attempt to make sense of the whole story. Considering the prolificacy of Walter Laqueur, it is reasonable to expect that the next best account will be a new edition of this one, revising the hasty last chapters.

Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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