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What drove Europe into two world wars?

Fear and nationalism, along with Nazism and fascism, are the predictable villains of Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back — while communism gets off curiously lightly

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949 Ian Kershaw

Allen Lane, pp.569, £30

Sir Ian Kershaw won his knight’s spurs as a historian with his much acclaimed two-volume biography of Hitler, Hubris and Nemesis. He is now attempting to repeat the feat with a two-volume history of modern Europe, of which this is the opening shot.Inevitably, the figure of the Führer once again marches across Kershaw’s pages as they chronicle the years dominated by Germany’s malign master. First the Great War that gave Hitler his chance to escape obscurity, and then the greater one he launched himself.

Opening with the continent’s catastrophic slide into generalised conflict in 1914, Kershaw apportions blame or the disaster more or less equally to all the combatant nations. Fear, he claims, was the chief factor behind the belligerence that gripped every major European capital.

Germany feared encirclement by Russia and its ally France. Russia feared German control over the Slav Balkans with her ally Turkey. France — with recent memories of its defeat by Prussia in 1870–71 still raw — feared a re-run German conquest. Austria feared that its multi-ethnic quilt of an empire would be torn apart by rising nationalism; and Britain feared that being overtaken by German industry would mean Teutonic domination of Europe and strangulation of her imperial trade.


Nor did four years of grinding bloodletting and 17 million dead quell the continent’s nationalist fires — rather the reverse. Nationalism, in fact, is Kershaw’s chief bugbear in this book. He sees the plethora of small, ethnically pure nations that arose in central and eastern Europe from the ashes of the Austrian and Russian empires as a calamitous unintended consequence of the high-minded peacemakers in Paris in 1919, since they made easy meat, first for local nationalistic fascist dictatorships, and finally for Hitler, whose own brand of lethal nationalism drove Europe into doom.

If Nazism and fascism are the predictable villains of Kershaw’s narrative, their mirror image ideology of communism —though mildly scolded for such horrors as the Ukrainian famine and the great purges — does not come off half so badly. Like many historians still under the spell of that apologist for Stalin’s crimes Eric Hobsbawm, Kershaw has something of a soft spot for Uncle Joe’s socialism in one country. There is frequently a plangent note of regret whenever the extreme left suffers ‘setbacks’, as when the post-1945 Marshall Plan saved ‘capitalism’ (a word Kershaw prefers to ‘democracy’) and stymied Stalinist plans to sweep to power across western Europe.

Although Hitler looms large as the chief jockey as Europe gallops into the abyss, Kershaw has little time for the ‘Great Man’ theory of history. He sees the convulsions of the two world wars, and the slough of economic malaise that separated them, as symptoms of vast social change in which the individual seems to count for little, and is viewed as a powerless pawn — a plaything of catastrophic forces beyond human control.

The disadvantage of down-playing or ignoring individuals is a certain dryness of tone and lack of colourful anecdotes to spice and speed the narrative. Nevertheless, Kershaw manages to cover a vast canvas of events with judicious skill and immense learning, never getting bogged down in detail or devoting excessive space to his special area of German expertise. We move at a fair clip, and always feel that we are in the hands of a master historian with a firm grasp of his mountainous material.

If the book has a core theme, it is the central role that massive violence — often state-directed — played across Europe in the 20th century. The façade of 19th-century civilisation was cracked open by the shots at Sarajevo, and the chasm into which millions fell — the world wars, the political clashes, the bloody purges, the concentration camps, the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing that followed the second world war — yawned ever wider. The book ends in 1949 with a groggy, shell-shocked continent staggering like a stricken boxer from the ring with both eyes blacked, and blindly reaching for a return to normality and unity. The second volume of Kershaw’s vast work should tell us how well that quest is going.

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