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Biess_0607 - 1 Histories of the Aftermath The European...

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Histories of the Aftermath: The European “Postwar” in Comparative Perspective Proposal for an International Conference at the University of California-San Diego February 2006 Conveners: Frank Biess (UC-San Diego) and Robert Moeller (UC-Irvine) I. The Theme of the Conference Almost sixty years after the end of the Second World War in Europe, we continue to search for a framework of analysis that can adequately capture the abiding aftermath and legacy of this monumental event. Until 1989/91, narratives of the post-Second War period in Europe emphasized that 1945 marked a major rupture in European history. The end of the war marked a new beginning and in what followed, Europeans made their own history but not under circumstances of their choice. The Cold War and the division of the continent was believed to constitute the most important political consequence of the war. 1945 was understood as the beginning of a future that would head either in a liberal democratic or communist direction. The story of the post-Second World War period was the story of the world the Cold War made. The experiences of Europeans were eclipsed by the confrontation of the superpowers and the division of Europe between East and West. The end of the Cold War, however, has enabled us to study postwar European societies from a different perspective that centers on the concept of the “postwar,” emphasizing not only what divided but what united Europeans. From this perspective, European history after 1945 is not only exclusively or even primarily refracted through the prism of the Cold War. The purpose of this conference is probe the usefulness of this decidedly different, novel approach to the postwar European experience. We start from the working hypothesis that postwar European history should not be told as a story of the parallel processes of integration into competing models of liberal-democratic Americanized consumer society in the West and a Stalinist dictatorship in the East. Rather, the approach to the “postwar” we propose emphasizes that understanding the divergent wartime experiences of European societies is essential for understanding post-1945 developments. This approach disrupts the notion of 1945 as a complete hiatus that severed the two halves of the “Age of Extremes” (Eric Hobsbwam) and instead charts the various continuities from war to postwar. Most importantly, this perspective conceives of European history in the decade or so after 1945 as a period in which Europeans confronted the legacy of unprecedented experiences of violence. The war's destructive legacies included death tolls that approached thirty million, with far more civilian than military casualties, as well mass movements of populations, including not only Holocaust survivors and other “displaced persons” but also some fourteen million ethnic Germans, pushed out of Eastern Europe by the Red Army.
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