Just Finished Reading: To Hell and Back – Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw (FP: 2015)
In many areas of knowledge the thing you really want is context – how things fit together, how they interact or conflict, how one things lead to another. It’s all too easy to see things as somehow disconnected, separate and lost without the overall context to put everything together. This is what the author of this mind boggling work pulls off somehow (apparently) effortlessly. Of course what we don’t see is the shear amount of data he had to sift through to make something this coherent. Covering 35 years of history in 522 pages is difficult enough, covering 35 years of European history within that constraint is very impressive, but covering 35 years of this complexity with two world wars, a revolution with an impact that travelled around the world, the rise (and fall) of Fascism, the Holocaust and the beginnings of the Cold War (to mention just the highlights) is an unenviable task even to such an accomplished historian as this.
There is no way he could cover such things in detail and, as he freely admits, no reason to do so. There are libraries full of books detailing the battles, personalities and weapons used in both World Wars. The author had no intention, rightly, of trying to add to this in a single volume. The origins and aftermaths of both calamities are discussed in detail and I was impressed in particular of his analysis of the origins of the First World War which has, among other things, given me some extra incentive to read my triple set of books on that fateful shooting in Sarajevo. Equally his discussion on the origins and rise of Fascism in all its many variants was gripping and I was impressed by his arguments of why it prospered in both Germany and Italy but struggled elsewhere. My knowledge of the ‘between the wars’ period before I read this was scant – no more. I had thought that, after the turmoil of the First World War, Europe would be relatively quiet from sheer exhaustion if nothing else. Nothing could be further from the truth. The period 1919-1939 boiled with conflict across practically the whole Continent. The peace, or at least the end of state organised conflict signed in 1918 was, in the prescient words of Marshal Foch ‘an armistice for 20 years’ and so it turned out as German resentment built, democracy failed and armaments became more important than butter. What failed to be resolved by World War One was, it seemed, finally and bloodily resolved by the hyper-destructive World War Two. Not only was the world of 1945 vastly different from 1918 but the Europeans seemed to have finally learnt their lesson. It is only by understand this stark fact that the (almost) miraculous recovery – aided in great part by the American financed Marshall Plan – of Western Europe can be understood. After WW1 there were decades of hardship followed by an even greater and more destructive catastrophe. After WW2 there was recovery, growth and both economic and political stability – both of which were only dreamt of luxuries between the wars.
Now the warning: It is a given that a book covering such a tumultuous and tormented period cannot be an easy read and this book certainly wasn’t that! Whilst not dwelling on the many calamities of those decades the author neither shies away from them nor does he sugar-coat the reality of ethnic cleansing (in all its forms) as well as the many other horrors visited on the peoples of Europe. I quickly realised just how lucky Britain was to be on the edge of Europe and separated by a mere 26 miles of water. With an envied political and (by and large) economic stability through these most dangerous of times we managed to weather many of the things which crashed over and more often than not sank European states both mighty and already vulnerable.
If you want to know about modern European history or understand the modern western world then you could do much, much worse than start here – or, if you had been reading more focused histories before this, broaden your outlook and start linking things together. As you might imagine it has given me much food for thought. Food that I’m still chewing on and considering. There will be much more of this thing to come – broad analysis and synthesis that grounds more detailed explorations into the past in the all-important context. Doubtless there will be more from this most excellent author too. Highly recommended with the warning caveat above.