A grim half-century
A fine addition to the Penguin “History of Europe”
Nov 14th 2015 | From the print edition
To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949. By Ian Kershaw. Viking; 624 pages; $35. Allen Lane; ￡30.
《地狱重生：欧洲 1914-1949》作者：伊恩·科修 ； 624页； 美国版 维京出版社 售价 $35 ；英国版 奥利雷恩出版社 售价￡30
FOR Europe, as Ian Kershaw notes in this magisterial history, which came out in Britain in September and is just being published in America, the 20th century was a game of two halves. The first saw a cataclysm that brought down empires, plunged the continent into a deep slump and culminated in the horrors of the second world war. At least for Western Europe, the second was, in contrast, a triumph of peace and prosperity. That distinction may explain why Mr Kershaw has sensibly divided his original assignment to write the 20th-century volume in the Penguin “History of Europe” series into two books, of which this is the first.
His broad picture of what went wrong in Europe in the 20th century is built around four related points. First was the rise of ethnic nationalism, something that helped to doom the multinational empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans. Next were demands for territorial revision, between France and Germany, in central and eastern Europe and all over the Balkans. Third was class conflict, as workers and a nascent socialist movement flexed their muscles against bosses and the traditional aristocratic ruling class. And fourth was the crisis of capitalism, which struck home in the early 1930s and contributed hugely to the rise of Nazism.
Mr Kershaw, an acknowledged expert on Germany and author of the best biography of Adolf Hitler, naturally places the two world wars at the heart of his narrative, with Germany standing condemned as the main cause of both. That is a more controversial position to take for the first than the second, but on the whole Mr Kershaw justifies his claim. He also delineates cogently and chillingly the way in which the collapse of the tsarist empire, brought about to a large extent by Russia's military and political setbacks during the first world war, led to the Bolshevik triumph and the creation of the Soviet Union, which in almost all respects was worse than what went before.
The author shows how the failings of that first war's victors—the reparations fiasco, the Versailles treaty, America's withdrawal into isolationism—laid the ground for a path that led inexorably to the second. But he also insists that the path was not inevitable. The Locarno treaty of 1925 between Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and Italy, and the entry of Weimar Germany into the League of Nations, could, just about, have led to something rather like the rehabilitation of West Germany in the 1950s. What really took Europe back to the horrors that culminated in another war was economic collapse after 1929. Just as after the recent financial crisis of 2007-08, it was the political right, not the left, that benefited most from this collapse. In Europe that ultimately meant a snuffing out of democracy and the rise of the extreme right in Spain, much of central Europe and, above all, in Germany.
Mr Kershaw's focus on Germany inevitably means a few weaknesses elsewhere. His strictures against the other great European tyrant of the period, Josef Stalin, are softer than those against Hitler. Indeed, he somewhat underplays the horrific history of the Soviet Union from the late 1920s up to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. He has little to say on Turkey: no mention of Field-Marshal Allenby nor T.E. Lawrence, little on Kemal Ataturk. His treatment of the military story of the two world wars is succinct almost to the point of cursoriness, but this ground is well-tilled in other books. It is also obvious from his narrative that he is more interested in politics and war than in social, demographic and cultural changes, though he dutifully covers these too.
As in previous volumes in the series, the editors have decided to dispense with footnotes and sources (though there is a useful bibliography). That may be understandable in a history aimed more at the general public than at fellow academics, but it is still annoying. Yet this is a worthy, impressive and well-written addition to a series that has become the definitive history of Europe for our times—and one that whets the appetite for his next volume.
From the print edition: Books and arts
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