I’ve started Thinking the Twentieth Century, the final book by Tony Judt, a conversation with historian Timothy Snyder. The first of Judt’s books I read was the supreme Postwar, followed by Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet. So I’ve been looking forward to getting the paperback of this last one.
Thinking the Twentieth Century
One comment in what I’ve read so far brought me to a halt, though, in a passage about the wide and lasting damage inflicted by two wars on European culture but also the economy, due to the retreat from early 20th century globalization. “It took until the mid-1970s for even the core economies of western Europe to get back to where they had been in 1914. … In short, the industrial economies of the west (with the exception of the United States) experienced a 60 year decline, marked by two world wars and an unprecedented economic depression.” Reading this on the Tube, I was sure it was an overstatement – what about Les Trentes Glorieuses, the post-world war 2 golden years of growth?
And so it proves. Turning to the invaluable (xls spreadsheet) Angus Madison database of world GDP over the centuries, per capita GDP (in 1990 Geary-Khamis dollars) in western Europe grew by about half a percent a year between 1914 and 1945, and substantially faster after that. Still, the figures don’t undermine the underlying point about the economic price paid for political upheaval and war in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Nor do GDP figures capture the destruction of assets – and lives – or the psychological effects of that terrible half century.