A place among the great powers: 'Europe in our Time' - Walter Laqueur: Viking, 23.99 pounds: In 1945 few could have foreseen the great changes that would sweep through a ruined continent, writes Godfrey Hodgson

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The Independent Culture
WALTER LAQUEUR'S great reputation rests on many pillars, most securely perhaps on his Europe since Hitler: the Rebirth of Europe. But that was published more than 20 years ago. Ten years later, in 1979, he published A Continent Astray, in which, like so many experts in the United States, he saw in Europe little but cynicism, anomie and sclerosis.

Now Professor Laqueur has tackled a task that covers almost twice as many years as his 1969 book, and a story with a twist in the tail that neither he nor anyone else foresaw in 1979.

It is after all a great story. Physically, the Europe of 1945 was in ruins. Economically, it was close to starvation. Politically it was divided, not only between the twin imperia of Washington and Moscow, but also by half a dozen competing ideologies. Half a century later the economic success of Europe is taken for granted. One preoccupying question in 1945 was how these puny countries with no natural resources could feed themselves, let alone offer to their citizens the plenty associated with the United States.

Professor Laqueur publishes no more telling information than a simple table of per capita gross national product, measured in US dollars, 1990. How many Americans, and even more to the point, how many Europeans, would have dreamed at the end of the war that 45 years later the inhabitants of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, whose kinsfolk had flocked to the Middle West to escape poverty, were now better off than their uncles in America? That West Germans would earn more than Americans, or that the French, the Italians and even the British, far from falling further behind, were catching the Americans in average income?

Politically, who would have guessed in 1945 that the Germans and French, and even a majority of Britons, would be committed to creating a European Union, let alone that such a union would be contemplating embracing in its membership Czechs and Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians, Lithuanians and Estonians, and could not be denied a place among the three great powers of the 21st century? That the Soviet imperium would implode, and Communism vanish?

There is, of course, another way of looking at the story. The great European boom ended more than 20 years ago. Population is static, the economies stagnant, and as soon as the murky waters of Communism receded ancient suspicions and hatreds crawled out of the slime, threatening a revival of chauvinism and ethnic bitterness elsewhere, and actual war in the Balkans. In fact, we have seen everything in Europe, since it became fashionable for Americans to talk about Eurosclerosis, except sclerosis itself.

Professor Laqueur has written a reasonably fair-minded and painstaking account of the surface of events in Europe since 1945, but he has not risen to the height this great story demands.

For one thing, for a scholar with an international reputation, he makes a lot of elementary mistakes. It is tempting to attribute some of them, such as 'Parisbas' for Paribas, or 'Dennis' Healey instead of Denis, to proof-reading or editing. But it does not make much sense to say, as he does, that Paris has fewer inhabitants than Pusan. The population of the ville de Paris remains well below three million; but that is because growing prosperity and excellent transport have swollen the region parisienne to around 10 million.

John F Kennedy did not say 'We are all Berliners now', he said, 'Ich bin ein Berliner' ('I am a Berliner'). Nor has anyone in Britain, ever, to my knowledge, called the Labour Party 'the Labourites'.

This tin ear for the music of modern Europe goes beyond the errors, embarrassingly frequent as these are. There is little here about the build-up of dissidence in Eastern Europe before the explosion of 1989, and less about the ideals and the achievements of the European institutions.

Laqueur uses strange phrases such as 'Englanditis', which appears to be a term used about Britain under the Labour government by American conservatives, and which suggests a lack of curiosity by American conservatives and a lack of curiosity about the dour struggle between management, government and unions which dominated British politics for decades. He is under the impression that British unions are all craft unions, in the US sense, which is simply wrong. When he writes that European airframe manufacturers 'could no longer compete with US manufacturers', he appears unaware of the inroads in the market achieved by Airbus.

There are far too many things here that are just factually inaccurate. And there are accounts of important matters that are too simplistic. Laqueur offers a description of intellectual life in the 1960s that is so superficial as to be literally meaningless.

He falls into the elementary mistake of supposing that because there were many different governments in Italy, Italy lacked continuity in government; in fact, whatever you think of the Christian Democrats, they ruled for almost 50 years of massive social and economic transformation. When Laqueur writes of Britain in the 1960s, for example, that 'the world success of the Beatles, the exploits of Sir Francis Chichester sailing the oceans in his Gipsy Moth, and stories in American news magazines about swinging London were not sufficient to dispel the mood of dejection'. I cringed. What 'mood of dejection'? This is not history. At best, it would make a suitably challenging introduction for a visiting British consul-general at a Rotary luncheon in Des Moines.

Worse, this trite little sentence hints at the real intellectual limitations of this book. It is not intended to dig out what really happened in Europe, or why it happened, so much as to tell Americans what they are to think of a faraway continent of which it is assumed they know little. Professor Laqueur is a man of vast learning and considerable analytical powers, not to mention strong ideological commitments. It has to be said that he has taken on a theme that is, on this showing, beyond his powers, a bridge too far.