As Tony Judt shows in Postwar, this sense of self-satisfaction was at least partly based on false consciousness. The Second World War left Europe divided. The half of it that ended up under Soviet control suffered over 40 years of totalitarian repression and had to wait until the last decade of the 20th century before it could enjoy anything like normal life. In western Europe reconstruction was deeply shaped by the legacy of the interwar years, and in some countries it was accompanied by a highly selective memory of the recent past. Nazism was a thoroughly European phenomenon, and in committing the unique crime of the Holocaust it posed questions that have still not been answered.
There is plenty of glib talk about " European values"- but do they include the racist and anti-Semitic values that helped Hitler to power? If - as one hopes - they do not, how are " true" European values to be identified? These questions were evaded at the end of the Second World War and they remain unresolved today. The end of the Cold War reunified the continent, but it did not confirm Europe in a new identity. Five years into the 21st century the meaning of Europe is as unsettled as it has ever been.
Judt writes that he first thought of writing Postwar while changing trains in Vienna's main railway station in December 1989. It was an extremely apt time and place to conceive such a project, but (as he notes) it may be fortunate that circumstances prevented him working on it for many years. With the opening of archives in Russia and elsewhere, much that was hidden has become visible, and as the euphoria that accompanied the Soviet collapse has faded, the outlines of the new European landscape have become clearer. Judt tells us that before it is anything else, his book is a history of Europe's reduction - the loss of imperial and international status that followed from the Second World War. It is certainly that, but it is much more. A masterpiece of historical scholarship, Postwar gives us a view of Europe over the past 60 years in which east and west, culture and geopolitics are seamlessly interwoven - as in reality they always have been.
Judt's subject is a continent that in 1940 looked like the site of a failed civilisation, but which during the 50 years that followed enjoyed unbroken peace and freedom (in most of its western halff,at any rate). The past few years have seen an acrimonious tone in transatlantic relations, with American neo-conservatives excoriating Europe for its supposed weakness in dealing with terrorism and Europeans responding by asserting a superior wisdom extracted from their disastrous recent history.
Writing as a British historian working in an American university, Judt stands aloof from this quarrel and presents an admirably fair-minded assessment of Europe's achievements and failures. In the end, despite all of its disfiguring and sometimes hideous blemishes, he concludes his magisterial survey with a declaration of faith in Europe's future.
As of 2005, he writes "neither Europe nor China had a serviceable model to propose for universal emulation. In spite of the horrors of their recent past - and in large part because of them - it was Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes. Few would have predicted it 60 years before, but the 21st century might yet belong to Europe."
This is a judicious conclusion, and no doubt one that will be widely welcomed. Yet it is reasonable to ask whether in making this assessment Judt has sacrificed realism for the sake of uplift. The reduction of Europe that is one of the book's recurring themes did not end in the years immediately following 1945.
Ironically, it continued as the European Union expanded in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Eastward expansion reduced the EU's capacity to act as a coherent force in global affairs - a capacity that has never been notably strong - to practically nothing. As it has grown larger, the EU has lost whatever coherence it may once have had, and the question of what Europe actually means has come to a head in the uncertainties surrounding Turkey's accession. Whatever European elites may tell Turkey's political class, it is almost inconceivable that Turkey will ever gain entry into the EU when Holland - one of its founding members - is currently seriously considering banning women wearing Islamic dress in public. Is Europe the regional embodiment of a universal ideal, or are its defining values somehow distinctive? How can the EU claim to be a Christian club when Christianity has become a minority tradition in most of its current member countries? On the other hand, how can it be multicultural when several of its constituent nation-states are rejecting multiculturalism out of hand?
The fact is that Europe has no conception of what it is or wants to be. During the Cold War the issue was settled by default. The EU occupied a niche carved out by the superpowers and, within that space, it prospered. With the fall of Communism, it was compelled to devise a future for itself, and an influential view was that it should develop into a global force independent of America. But Europe is a long-settled region of nations with distinct histories and cultures. It will never be America - even if such a makeover were desirable. The result of trying to reshape the continent as some sort of federal state has been a condition of semi-paralysis in European institutions and an almost unbridgeable gap between Europe's population and its elites. The question now is not where Europe goes next but how long it can hold together in its present form.
In present circumstances the idea that the EU embodies a universal model - which Judt apparently endorses - is as unreal as the neo-conservative notion that an American version of democracy can be installed in Iraq. Given a degree of wisdom it has not always shown in the past, Europe may continue to be a region of peace. But the time when Europe - or any western power - could present itself as a model for the world is over.
John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the LSE and author of 'Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern' (Faber)Reuse content