The radical contingency of postwar Europe
This sort of thing is just common sense to professional historians, I know, and was taught by my esteemed 10th grade history teacher Dr. Johnson as a first principle. (I think the way he phrased it was “Everything changes everything.”) But the clearest lesson I’ve gotten from Tony Judt’s Postwar so far (100 pages in) is that many of the settled realities of the world into which I was born in 1965 very easily might have organized themselves very differently.
Culturally speaking I was born into a world with a black-and-white narrative about Western and Eastern Europe. But until 1940, there was an economic and cultural continuity between the two halves of Europe. And lots of what happened in the immediate postwar period seemed to happen more or less by accident, as the result of a critical mass of individual, local decisions, pressures, and opportunistic moves that turned out to have long-term consequences. This included events as significant as the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the DDR. Even as late as 1950, although the proto-NATO alliance didn’t trust Stalin, there was still plenty of potential for a different lineup of powers and interests.
If Stalin hadn’t rejected participation in the Marshall Plan (by no means a foregone conclusion before it happened), or if he hadn’t thrown his weight behind Kim Il Sung in 1950 — to name two pivotal moments that ended up having repercussions — the moralistic divide between East and West might well have resolved into a more tempered opposition. (Or not, because Stalin, but even if not, the path and structure of alliances would have been subtly different.)
We all intellectually understand that history is just the aftermath of a bunch of individual decisions. But that’s not just true of things that happened in the olden days.