New Austerity Incites a Bitterness the Postwar Generation Did Without

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LONDON — Before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, the historian Tony Judt recalled childhood days just after World War II in a debilitated Britain that was slowly ceding its empire and its pre-eminence.

“Clothes were rationed until 1949, cheap and simple ‘utility furniture’ until 1952, food until 1954,” he wrote in a memoir, concluding that austerity in “that bare-bones age” was “not just an economic condition: it aspired to a public ethic.”

It was not just in Britain.

A continent was reeling, its cities and industries ruined. As Soviet Communism threatened to encroach and the cold war loomed, Western Europe awaited the salvation of America’s Marshall Plan. Cars were few and small, vacations modest, belts tight.

As it confronts its massive debt problem, though, and a new austerity threatens to become its default setting, Europe seems to have lost sight of the fact that it has been there before; that the baby boom generation found its roots in postwar hardship; that, as Mr. Judt suggested, the huge affluence of more recent years could barely have been imagined as people struggled to shake off the gloom of war....

[But] In Mr. Judt’s day, austerity guaranteed a minimum level of access to basic supplies, the harbinger of better days; now, austerity is about the removal or diminution of jobs, pensions, comforts and benefits that have accrued since then — the herald, thus, of much darker times.

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