4. 1989-2008: a European Post-War Period in Perspective

John Horne, Trinity College Dublin

The Cold War was an anomaly. It produced an arms race but military conflict was episodic and never took place in Europe. It was haunted by the spectre of mutual annihilation – the culmination of an escalation in military violence that led from trench warfare to nuclear end-game in a mere 35 years. But since no-one could afford such an outcome, the warfare remained virtual in the main zones of contention, including Europe, where politics took its place. Politics were important in another way. Like the two world wars, the Cold War entailed mobilization for an ideological conflict of which it represented the third and final act. This resulted in ‘war cultures’ that bear comparison with those identified by historians of the First World War. [1]

If the Cold War was indeed a war, we should expect it to result in a post-war transition after 1989, but one that reflected its anomalies. All I wish to do here is to sketch out some ideas as to how the period after 1989 might be thought of as post-war, and how it might compare with the equivalent periods after the two world wars.

A lot depends on how we define ‘post-war.’ One way is to consider it an entire period, as does Tony Judt in his book with that title on Europe since 1945. [2] But more important are the processes that enable the transition from war to peace to take place, and these may have varying time-frames. Traditionally, the discussion has centred on the peace settlement and on military and economic demobilization. For peace treaties define the victors and vanquished and deliver a verdict on the war, while demobilization makes it possible to restart family life and the peacetime economy. Historians (especially of the First World War) have begun to develop other concepts, such as ‘exiting war’ (sorties de guerre) or cultural and political demobilization, in order to propose more complex views of what happens when societies make the transition from war to peace. [3] Indeed dismantling the mental frameworks of wartime (which is what is meant by cultural demobilization) may not happen at all for some, as in the case of the nationalist right in Weimar Germany. [4]

Focusing on process does not deprive chronology of its significance. It could certainly be argued that a distinctive, short transition period occurred after 1989 as in the earlier cases. A peace-settlement took place. In formal terms, it dealt with the unfinished business of 1945, as temporary Cold War arrangements were unfrozen, the special status of Berlin was ended and the occupying powers endorsed German reunification - indicating already that one post-war process may be implicated in another. But the real verdict of 1989-90 was Soviet defeat, just as it had been German defeat in 1945. Owing to the virtual nature of the war, however, this could not be expressed diplomatically. It was registered in semantic and cultural terms and of course in the political reality of the break-up of the USSR.

The ‘peace settlement’ of 1989-90 recalls the earlier periods in one other regard. The ‘velvet revolutions’ amounted to a pacific version of the national liberation that took place in 1944-45 (and to a lesser extent in 1918-19) following German military collapse. The difference lay in the civil rather than miltary nature of the resistance, the virtual rather than actual presence of western military strength, and the absence of violence. But in all three cases the exit from war meant the reassumption by occupied states of their national sovereignty – though this was cut short in eastern Europe after 1945 by the onset of the Cold War and Soviet control.

Albeit on a smaller scale, the military demobilization in the 1990s was also comparable to the massive reversion to civilian status and peacetime activities after the two world wars. The Warsaw Pact was dismantled and Soviet soldiers left their Eastern European bases while NATO dramatically scaled back its front line strength in Germany. Conscript armies gave way to professional forces, defence spending declined, and the ‘peace dividend’ was invested in other sectors.

Yet this relatively speedy exit from the Cold War barely touched on the deeper legacies of the conflict. The further question, therefore, is whether we can identify longer-term processes after 1989-90 that addressed the wartime past or that tried to resolve it in the interests of a more permanent and stable peace.

One contrast with the earlier wars is the relative lack of retrospective reaction against the violence of war. This may seem surprising, given how important a role the spectre of nuclear annihilation played during the Cold War. But it reflects the central anomaly of the war to which I have already referred – the fact that military confrontation remained virtual. Europeans in 1989 did not have to grapple with the consequences of mass death, social disruption and physical destruction as they had done after 1918 and 1945. A central feature of cultural and political demobilization in those earlier post-war periods was the dismantling of the image of the enemy and a process of reconciliation based on a common moral revulsion against war as such, considered to be the fundamental evil. This was what defined the ‘spirit of Locarno’ and Franco-German reconciliation in the later 1920s, including the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which renounced the use of war as a political instrument. [5] It was also central to Franco-German reconciliation after 1945 and the founding of the European Economic Community, which was a form of internationalization designed to make war between its members impossible.

Pacifism, in other words, was a strong impulse in both the earlier periods. But the condemnation of the nuclear threat was a property of the Cold War itself rather than the post-war period. This was shown by the Campaigns for Nuclear Disarmament in western European countries and also by the political use that the USSR was able to make of the international Communist peace movement in the 1950s. Since the Cold War never became ‘hot’ and its end seemed to remove the threat of a nuclear holocaust, pacifism played little role in post-war readjustment. Of course, the goal of making future European wars impossible was embedded in the nature and ethos of the European Union, which became the main economic and political basis for turning former enemy states into partners, while NATO was expanded to provide a common security framework. But the horror of nuclear war, which had inherited the earlier renunciation of the warfare of mass destruction by pacifists after 1918, seemed to dissolve in the wake of the Cold War rather than to provide a theme of cultural and political demobilization.

Consequently, the process of dismantling the Cold War turned on politics and ideology, which were the main dimensions in which it had been waged. This was also an important aspect of the earlier post-war periods. A form of utopian democracy underwrote the Locarno spirit and the League of Nations in the later 1920s. It was premissed on the defeat of what was perceived as German ‘militarism’ during the First World War, but it failed to survive the conflict with Fascism and Communism in the 1930s. Likewise, the post-war order in both eastern and western Europe after 1945 was grounded in the repudiation of Fascism, and especially Nazism, though in two different versions – democratic and Communist. [6] How Communism was judged, and how lives lived under the Communist regime were come to terms with, is the clearest, but most complex, of the processes that might be investigated comparatively with the two earlier post-war periods.

At first sight, it appears that Communism has been judged less severely than Fascism was after 1945. There were no international trials for war crimes or crimes against humanity on the model of Nuremberg. Nor were there domestic legal proceedings on anything like the scale of the 1945-8 period. [7] The quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) absorption of the former elite into the new system stands in contrast to what happened immediately after 1945, although the 1950s saw a reversal of the process in western Europe as many former Fascists and collaborators were allowed to resume their lives in a context defined by remobilization against Communism in the Cold War. But the nostalgia for a lost past and above all for the utopian hopes it contained seems much more powerful in both former western and eastern Europe regarding Communism than it did after 1945 regarding Fasicsm. As an ideology with perceived foundations in European humanism, and also as an international movement with an important following in western European countries during the Cold War, Communism in the broadest sense has retained a degree of attractiveness that Fascism did not – despite claims that its violence and criminality equalled or surpassed those of Nazi Germany. [8]

Yet the contrast should not be pushed too far. Since the Cold War provided the context for the process of cultural and political demobilization after the Second World War, de-Nazification was cut short in both East and West Germany in the manner already suggested and the complexities of occupation and collaboration were quietly ignored until the generational revolt of the 1960s in western Europe and the end of the Cold War in eastern Europe. Arguably, rejection of Fascism could only become a political absolute once anti-Communism (or in the eastern European case, anti-capitalism) had ceased to relativise it. This (along with other factors) may help explain why the Holocaust only emerged into popular perception as the supreme evil of the Second World War once the Berlin wall had fallen. Only as cultural demobilization after the Cold War began could the full moral evaluation of the Second World War be completed.

This suggests an important set of comparative of questions about the two post-war periods, after 1945 and 1989. Henry Rousso and Pieter Lagrou have shown us how simplified myth-histories in western European countries that had been occupied during the Second World War were important in settling scores, seeking reconciliation and avoiding troubling memories. [9] Often they turned on the ‘heroization’ of the Resistance. Yet the tension between these myth-histories and the compromizes of wartime survival ultimately proved unsustainable, giving way to the more complex second-generation views of the past already mentioned.

Have there been similar myth-histories in eastern European countries that endured Soviet occupation with the support of local regimes? The resumption of national sovereignty and the view of the velvet revolutions (and Solidarnosc in the Polish case) as processes of ‘national liberation’ might have generated just such myth histories. Or has the more complex view prevailed from the start? For since 1989, there has not been the same pressure to square memory with the requirements of a new ideological mobilization as after 1948. And the Cold War lasted half a lifetime. It is harder to dismiss it as an ‘aberration’, which is how the twelve years of National Socialism were seen in West Germany in the 1950s. But how much work has been done on how individuals and groups relate their own memory to the public histories of the Cold War?

In all this, Russia clearly constitutes a distinct case. The Communist experiment and therefore the cultural mobilization for the Cold War is unavoidably Russia’s own past, and cannot be dismissed as a foreign imposition. The view of Russian liberals in the Yeltsin years that 75 years of Soviet history was indeed an aberration was difficult to square with the sacrifice of 27 million war dead in the ‘Great Patriotic’ war and the victory of 1945, which were the two great legacies of the earlier post-war period. Arguably this led to a ‘culture of defeat’ in the Russia of the Yeltsin years which, albeit with a very different outcome, bears some comparison with that of Weimar Germany. This has only recently begun to be dispelled with by the raw materials boom and a more aggressive foreign policy, suggesting a closure to Russia’s post-war period. [10]

There are many more questions that can be asked about the ending of the Cold War in comparison with earlier periods. These include the role of legal proceedings, since post-war periods have to deal with the moral and legal transgressions in wartime, including genocide, and are typically periods of juridical creativity. They also include continuing violence. Each of the three post-war periods was characterized by conflict, notably in former Yugoslavia in the case of the 1990s.

Let me simply conclude by suggesting that all three post-war periods had a double agenda – the European balance of power and a three-way conflict between profoundly different and antagonistic secular ideologies – Communism, Fascism, Liberla Democracy. The end of the Cold War resolved both. But it did so by reducing one power, Russia, to its 17th century frontiers. What could have been a violent and troubled succession in many eastern European countries besides former Yugoslavia was facilitated by their inclusion in a double framework that had emerged from the previous post-war period - NATO and the European Union. Indeed, in the case of the latter the idea of a pan-European organization to prevent future war was the central idea of democratic demobilization in the 1920s. Recast in economic form, it provided the basis for reconciling former enemies in western Europe after World War Two before serving the same function in relation to Cold War Europe after 1989. The connections as well as the comparisons between the post-war periods seem inescapable, with the third appearing in many ways to be the culmination of a series of three.


[1] See Antoine Prost and Jay Winter, Penser la Grande Guerre (Paris: Seuil, 2004), pp. 217-23.

[2] Tony Judt, Postwar. A History of Europe since 1945 (London: Penguin, 2004).

[3] Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Christophe Prochasson, eds., Sortir de la Grande Guerre. Le monde et l’après 1918 (Paris: Tallandier, 2008); Annette Becker and Henry Rousso, eds., Violences de guerre et guerres mondiales (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 2002).

[4] John Horne, ed., Démobilisations culturelles après la Grande Guerre, 14-18 Aujourd’hui-Heute-Today, 5 (Paris: Noêsis, 2002).

[5] Zara Steiner, The Lights that Failed. European International History 1919-1933 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005)

[6] Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory The Nazi Past in the Two Germanies (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997)

[7] Peter Novick, The Resistance versus Vichy. The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France (London: Chatto and Windus, 1968); Benjamin Frommer, National Cleansing. Retribution against Nazi Collaborators in Postwar Czechoslovakia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

[8] E.g. Stéphane Courtois et al, The Black Book of Communism. Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999)

[9] Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (1987; translation from the French, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991); Pieter Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotism, Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe 1945-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

[10] For ‘cultures of defeat’, see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: on National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery (London: Granta, 2004)