Twentieth Century European History in One Dense Book

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If you need to know what happened in Europe during the Twentieth Century, Konrad H. Jarausch’s Out of Ashes is a great resource.  It is no quick read at 788 pages, but it is lucid and informative and does an excellent job of summarizing an astonishing array of events.  The plain descriptions of military strategy during the world wars and the origins and aftermath of the break up of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain are particularly good.  The overlying theme of the book is modernity and what it has meant to Europe.  Some of the book’s economic history was less exciting, but nonetheless informative.  Even if you are very familiar with European history, this book is really useful because it  provides clear descriptions of personalities and events in a useful and coherent narrative.

Mr. Jarausch was born in Germany during World War II.  He grew up in Germany and then came to the United States for college and his academic career.  He acknowledges that much of his book has a German perspective, which is most evident during his summing up of where things stand today.   It was helpful to be reminded of that when I reread his Preface after I finished the book, because it explained some gaps that I found troubling in this comprehensive work.  For example, relatively little was said about many countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece in recent years, and discussion of women and minorities was pretty sparse.  To a large extent, the emphasis was frequently on Germany and Britain and their relationships with the United States and  Russia.

The book’s conclusion focused on a purported  comparison between Europe and the United States, as well as a discussion about how these two entities should regard each other.  This often came across as a stilted comparison between the Tea Party United States and the disciplined, sensible Europe that perhaps Germany would like to see.   Even if one disagrees with some of the generalizations, it is useful to hear that perspective.

That said, there seemed to be some pretty big elephants in the room that were often ignored.  Recent surges of terrorism, anti-semitism and xenophobia received little or no mention.   Recognizing that this is a book about Europe, in this global era, it seemed a little anachronistic to focus so much on a less than convincing discussion of Europe vis-a-vis the United States.

There is inevitable difficulty about ending the book at the end of the Twentieth Century, just 15 years ago, and yet trying to form a conclusion that is more timely.  So much has happened in the last 15 years that it is difficult to sum up and analyze it in a few pages at the end of a tremendous book.  The author persuasively lets us know how a major German-American scholar views Europe and its history.

Out of Ashes  is a really good book.  Even if one does not always agree with the author’s take on events and personalities, he tells a good story with a consistent theme.  You learn a lot, and it is always valuable to get the  perspective of someone who has studied a period so carefully and has a different viewpoint.

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