The Struggle for Europe, Part I

Despite some rough weather last week in the Pacific Northwest, our Spring semester is finally underway, and for me, that means teaching European Politics and rereading William I. Hitchcock’s The Struggle for Europe.  While this book has been out since 2003, I only picked up a few years ago.  I needed a history reading that would be tolerable for my European Politics undergrads, and I did what most first time professors do – I “borrowed” my reading list from the professor who taught Euro Pol at my grad school (evidence, I argue, that academia is a collaborative enterprise…).

While I’ve changed a lot of readings from my first course to what I teach now, this book remains a main reading for the history section of the course.  It’s a good comparative history (handy for teaching comparative politics…), and I enjoy Hitchcock’s writing style.  Overall, he presents a very clear and concise narrative of Europe in the late 20th century.  In particular, as a social scientist, I appreciate his ability to establish clear causal relationships between events and his ability to connect these events into a broader framework of what is happening across Europe at each point in time.

That being said, the readings we are doing for tomorrow’s class (Part One: Aftermath) raise some interesting questions, and I am not always in agreement with Hitchcock’s telling of the history.  This section of the book, I think, is more thorough in describing the UK than the other countries, in part because the UK had its own chapter while countries like France or Poland are subsections in other chapters.

I’ll be going over my initial thoughts on each section, then posing some questions for people to discuss.  Mostly, though, I want to hear your reactions to each chapter, and whether you have any questions that remain unanswered.

You might notice I’ve left out Chapter 2 (“Building Jerusalem”); I’ll be doing a separate post on that later.

The first chapter, “German Midnight,” was more about Europe as a whole following World War II, with Germany acting as a model for what the rest of Europe was going through.  This seems, to me, a logical place to start; in the post-WWII era, the German experience really is a microcosm for the rest of Europe.  In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, most historians A focus on the “Big Three” and their negotiations at Yalta and Potsdam, but Hitchcock spends equal time on the refugee issue and mistreatment of civilians in post-war Europe.

A more lighthearted portrayal of Germany’s refugee issue

Questions for “German Midnight”:

  • What do you think of Hitchcock’s description of life in Europe after World War II?  What stands out for you?
  • Does Hitchcock do a thorough job of explaining why Germany was divided, or does he leave anything out?

“Democracy Embattled” was probably my least favorite chapter in the opening.  I think it is still well-researched and well-written, but the information seemed pretty basic and familiar for the most part.  Continental politics were highly polarized following World War II (or pretty much anytime in European history…), so the main challenge, as Hitchcock describes in this chapter, is how to create a stable and democratic government in this region.

Check out this political cartoon on post-war French politics

Questions for “Democracy Embattled”:

  • Based on Hitchcock’s description, do you think the countries of Western Europe during the 1940s did a better job at creating a stable government or a democratic one?  Did any succeed at both?
  • What do you think was the major challenge to democracy in this region?  Do you agree or disagree with Hitchcock?

Finally, “Behind the Iron Curtain” focused on Eastern Europe.  Mostly, it described Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, but Hitchcock did manage to fit in the whole Tito/Stalin communist soap opera.  Given my own research interest in this region, I’ll present the discussion questions then conclude by sharing some thoughts of my own.

Questions for “Behind the Iron Curtain”:

  • At the beginning, he poses the question of whether Eastern Europe falling to communism was a murder (imposed by the Soviets) or a suicide (created by domestic communists) – where do you stand on this question?
  • Do you think the political trials and terror campaign Stalin initiated in Eastern Europe was a rational calculation or was it largely the result of Stalin’s own paranoid delusions?

Final thoughts: On the murder-suicide question, Hitchcock seems to have come down more on the “murder” side.  He spends more time on Stalin’s politics (and paranoia) than on the communist leaders in each country.  I would have liked to see more discussion of domestic politics in each country; this brief coverage never allowed the “suicide” option to fully develop.

As for the section on the terror campaigns, I found the discussion interesting, especially in light of some of my recent readings on political terror in the Soviet Union (I’ve recently picked up Kolyma Tales).  Hitchcock may place too much emphasis on how the Tito fallout triggered these events, leading the reader to initially assume that these show trials were a manifestation of Stalin’s personal demons.  By the end of the chapter, however, Hitchcock notes that these trials effectively allowed Stalin to select those most loyal to him (and/or fearful of him) to lead each country.  Ultimately, I see Stalin as more rational in this decision than Hitchcock seems to portray.  Stalin may have been a paranoid egoist, but he was a master of power politics, and this fear campaign allowed him to consolidate the Soviet sphere of influence and prevent any pro-West challengers.

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