Ian Kershaw: To Hell and Back

Historians like to be revisionists but it is hard to see how anyone could conceive a revisionist overview of the first half of the 20th century. Causes may be debated, consequences disputed, but from the perspective of the second decade of the next century, the years 1914-1949 in European history appear overwhelmingly as they did at the time: a period of unimaginable destruction and cruelty, of war and genocide, degradation and famine. Thus Ian Kershaw remarks at the start of his superb account: “The continent, which for nearly one hundred years after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 had prided itself on being the apogee of civilisation, fell between 1914 and 1945 into the pit of barbarism.”

Why did this happen? The traditional answer, endorsed and meticulously explained by Kershaw, is that the war that broke out unnecessarily but not unpredictably in August 1914 led to such destruction – of life, economies, values, systems, borders and dynasties – that the years of “peace” which followed were ones of near constant instability and, in retrospect, only a brief pause before an even worse conflagration broke out in September 1939. Beneath this, Kershaw locates the causes of catastrophe in four interlocking elements unique to these decades: “(1) an explosion of ethnic-racist nationalism; (2) bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism; (3) acute class conflict – now given concrete focus through the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; and (4) a protracted crisis of capitalism (which many observers thought was terminal).”

These toxic elements – promoted and exploited by history’s most notorious demagogues – led to the hell-on-earth experience of so many Europeans and a body count of incomprehensible proportions. More than 60 million people died during the second world war; more were civilians than soldiers and around 6 million were Jews, many systematically murdered in purpose-built death factories. Yet, Kershaw argues, the horrors of the first half of the 20th century were not inevitable. Had the great powers stepped back from the brink in the summer of 1914 there is no telling which path Europe might have taken. Had the American stock market not crashed, presaging the Great Depression, democracy in Germany might have survived. And had Britain and France stood up to Hitler at the start of his drive to achieve German hegemony, the second world war may well have been avoided.

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