Saturday, July 10, 2021

Europe, 1953

Theodore H. White, Fire in the Ashes: Europe in Mid-Century (Sloane, 1953)

A few years ago I read a book by William L. Shirer - later of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but at the time best-known for his dispatches from Berlin in the 1930s - about postwar Europe. I did not think it was very good. It was mostly armchair punditry, and Shirer was more interested in revisiting the fecklessness of the pre-war years than in Europe of his day, about which in any case he was pessimistic, seeing the return of fascism everywhere.

Recently I found that Theodore H. White - later of the Making of the President series, but at the time best-known for his dispatches from China in the 1940s - had written a similar book at the same time. This is more like it. White is interested in what's going on now, 1953. He's up to date, discussing the diplomatic prospects in a post-Stalin world. (He's hopeful that the new Soviet leaders may be less paranoid and self-destructive. Well, ha ha, didn't quite work out that way.)

The book is framed by a detailed diplomatic history of the postwar years: close-up views of the beginnings of the Cold War, NATO, the Marshall Plan, and of the nascent European Union, about which he's very hopeful, and this time justifiably so, though it didn't proceed quite as fast as he expected. While much of this is framed as US v USSR, the Western Europeans are also major actors. The Russians keep alienating everybody by acting contrary to even their own interests, and Europe is eager to bloom.

The central part of the book is detailed portraits of the three countries which, as Shirer did, White considers the only ones that matter in Europe: France, West Germany, and what he calls England (and he means it too: Scotland and Wales are hardly mentioned, and Northern Ireland not at all). Each national chapter is followed by one forming a portrait of a figure of that country, a successful bureaucrat of proletarian origin, and his personal background is the book's only discussion of the pre-war and wartime years. I found Wikipedia entries on the French guy (better-known from later life as a literary scholar than as the policeman he was to White) and the German one.

White is very good on matters like how the Germans were able to rebuild a successful economy so quickly out of the ruins, of why the French couldn't form a stable government, and why the British voters turned against Labour in 1950-51. Also on why the British declined to involve themselves in the European project, and he's quite sure they won't be coming back.

Unlike Shirer, White makes no speculations about whether de Gaulle might be coming back to power, but he does devote a lot of attention to what he considers the greatest burden France has to carry, wasteful of both money and personnel: the Indochinese war. Ah, France soon realized White was right, but they managed to pass that tar-baby on. (Meanwhile, Algeria hadn't erupted yet, and goes unmentioned.)

Pretty good book, especially for its close-up view of the diplomatic events of 1946-53 when they were still vivid in recent memory.

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