'War and Welfare Went Hand in Hand'

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Children In London's East End Made Homeless By Nazi Air Raids. (New Times Paris Bureau Collection)

I'm still making my way through Postwar, slowly but surely. I told my Pops to get the audiobook (which is fantastic) and he's now gotten further ahead than me. But I booted up my own audiobook yesterday while doing some cooking for the week and made some progress.

The most striking thing about Judt's narrative is his essentially amoral view of history. That isn't to say Judt is amoral as a writer. He certainly is not. But he doesn't believe in history has a necessary trajectory, nor does he much care about narratives of inevitable progress. Europe was wrecked after the War. French opinion polls in 1946 list "food," "bread," and "meat" as the public's main concerns. In the East, bad harvests and droughts brought back reports of cannibalism. Here's Judt quoting Hamilton Fish's dispatch from Europe:

There is too little of everything—too few trains, trams, buses and automobiles to transport people to work on time, let alone to take them on holidays; too little flour to make bread without adulterants, and even so not enough bread to provide energies for hard labor; too little paper for newspapers to report more than a fraction of the world’s news; too little seed for planting and too little fertilizer to nourish it; too few houses to live in and not enough glass to supply them with window panes; too little leather for shoes, wool for sweaters, gas for cooking, cotton for diapers, sugar for jam, fats for frying, milk for babies, soap for washing.

I am coming at this as a total amateur and a total American whose exposure to the post-war narrative was something like—"The Germans learned their lesson and everyone (in the West, because no one talks about the East) resumed their status as upstanding white people." Somewhere in there I knew something about the Marshall Plan. But whereas the narratives which nations tell themselves so often have a moral component, Judt is giving us something less flattering and more atheistic. Even Europe's great achievement—a broad strong social safety net—seems inseparable from the barbarism from which it had just been plunged. A safety net (often means-tested) existed in Europe before the War, but there was not the same sense that a state should be a comprehensive guarantor of the health and happiness of its people:  

It was the war that changed all this. Just as World War One had precipitated legislation and social provisions in its wake—if only to deal with the widows, orphans, invalids and unemployed of the immediate post-war years—so the Second World War transformed both the role of the modern state and the expectations placed upon it.

The change was most marked in Britain, where Maynard Keynes correctly anticipated a post-war ‘craving for social and personal security’. But everywhere (in the words of the historian Michael Howard) ‘war and welfare went hand in hand’. In some countries nutrition and medical provision actually improved during the war: mobilizing men and women for total war meant finding out more about their condition and doing whatever was necessary to keep them productive...

Moreover, the War in some countries actually enhanced views of the State:

Obviously it would prove easier to achieve the ideals of the social state, ‘from cradle to grave’, in the small population of a wealthy, homogenous country like Sweden than in one like Italy. But faith in the state was at least as marked in poor lands as in rich ones—perhaps more so, since in such places only the state could offer hope or salvation to the mass of the population. And in the aftermath of depression, occupation and civil war, the state—as an agent of welfare, security and fairness—was a vital source of community and social cohesion.

Many commentators today are disposed to see state-ownership and state-dependency as the European problem, and salvation-from-above as the illusion of the age. But for the generation of 1945 some workable balance between political freedoms and the rational, equitable distributive function of the administrative state seemed the only sensible route out of the abyss.

To circle back to Judt's atheistic rendition of history, even this idea of the State as the ultimate salvation is not an unalloyed good:

the ‘welfare state’—social planning—was more than just a prophylactic against political upheaval. Our present discomfort with notions of race, eugenics, ‘degeneration’ and the like obscures the important part these played in European public thinking during the first half of the twentieth century: it wasn’t only the Nazis who took such matters seriously. By 1945 two generations of European doctors, anthropologists, public health officials and political commentators had contributed to widespread debates and polemics about ‘race health’. population growth, environmental and occupational well-being and the public policies through which these might be improved and secured. There was a broad consensus that the physical and moral condition of the citizenry was a matter of common interest and therefore part of the responsibility of the state.

You see a similar spate of reforms coming out of the Civil War—land grant colleges, the National Academy of Sciences, black male suffrage, etc. But the Civil War was so very different. Ultimately, Black Southerners paid the greatest toll. And most of the battles were fought near the homes of white Southerners. People talk of Sherman and "total war," but this doesn't belong in the same conversation as the kind of "total war" you see in World War II. In much the same way that World War II is a more radical war, its reconstruction seems more radical also.

When I was younger it was popular for my leftie friends to ask "Why can't we be like Western Europe?" We probably can. A good first step, it seems, would be fighting a genocidal war which results in massive relocations, more ethnic homogeneity, the near-extermination of one of our minorities (one guess at who that would be), and the reduction of our major cities to rubble.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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