In This Review

Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II
Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II
By Paul Betts
Basic Books, 2020, 544 pp

For Europeans, the end of World War II—“zero hour” (Stunde Null), the Germans called it—was a new beginning. Many historians have told the story of how European countries, ravaged by war, depression, and tyranny, were transformed after 1945 into models of tolerance and concern for their citizens’ welfare. Most such histories, notably the works of the late historian Tony Judt, stress the consolidation of democracy, the rebuilding of economic production, the construction of the welfare state, and the integration of Europe. Betts argues instead that what Europe really did was reconstruct a civilization: a set of basic secular and religious values that Europeans share. In this account, the postwar period marked the moment when Europeans discovered—or perhaps rediscovered—humanitarianism, universal human rights, ecumenical Christianity, the appreciation of diverse cultures, a respect for science, and a broadly accessible consumer culture. At times, one wishes for more depth and subtlety, as well as more attention to the often dark ways in which colonialism, anticommunism, and simple wealth accumulation actually drove the process. Yet this book succeeds in casting new light on a critical European legacy of liberal and moderate values, one that may again be in danger today.