'To Hell and Back' chronicles Europe on the brink of annihilation

Kershaw is particularly good at exploring 'fascism's message of national renewal, powerfully linking fear and hope,' and the book's sections on postwar deprivations England breathe with immediacy.

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 –1949 By Ian Kershaw Viking 624 pp.

The latest volume in the Penguin History of Europe series is To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by award-winning historian Ian Kershaw, and unlike some of its predecessor volumes (Chris Whickham's excellent "The Inheritance of Rome," for example), it covers only a single generation in the life of England and the Continent. But the narrow time-frame is of course deceptive: These 50 years saw civilization in Europe come closer to the brink of annihilation than it had since the Mongol invasion of the 13th century.

It's also a generation of European history that's been studied more thoroughly and chronicled more extensively than any other period in human history, which raises some immediate though perhaps impolitic questions about Kershaw's book, the first of a projected two-volume account of Europe from the eve of World War I until the present day. This first volume covers the war years: the carnage and confusion of World War I, followed by 20 years of increasingly uneasy peace, and then the vastly greater carnage and confusion of World War II.

Historically speaking, this is very well-trod ground. Indeed, 50 years ago Kershaw's fellow North of England Lancashireman A. J. P. Taylor wrote an extremely similar book, "English History 1914-1945," a bestselling volume in the Oxford History of England. Now, half a century later, Kershaw points out that the passage of time is itself both a justification and an advantage for writing another account. “For those who lived through this hell on earth, the immediacy of their experience ... shaped what the war meant to them,” he writes. “Later generations can see the lasting significance of the war somewhat more clearly, can see more plainly that it marked the decisive caesura in the history of the twentieth century in Europe.” 

Taking advantage of the greater perspective lent by time's passage, Kershaw contends that this hell on earth was brought about by the confluence of four “interlocking major elements of comprehensive crisis”: an “explosion” of nationalism, “bitter and irreconcilable” demands for re-drawing territorial maps, “acute” class confrontation (given a huge focal point and impetus by the Russian Revolution of 1917), and the “protracted crisis of capitalism” in the early decades of the century. It's an intriguingly sociological, almost abstract thesis, in which the territorial aggression and rabid anti-Semitism of Kaiser Wilhelm II or Adolf Hitler can be seen more as symptoms than diseases.

Kershaw, author of an immense two-volume biography of Hitler, knows this period as well as any living historian. His quick-step accounts in these pages of the vindictive peace terms meted out to Germany at the end of World War I, or the rise of the Nazi movement, or semi-delusional foreign policy of prewar England – all are first-rate.

And yet this volume, whose author claims it required more labor than any of his previous works, often has a curiously equivocating tone found in nothing else Kershaw has written. On the bombing of Britain, for example, we're told “Bombing, too, shook morale (contrary to much later legend), though it did not destroy it.” Then four sentences later we're told bombing “did not undermine the morale of the population in general.” On the German populace's knowledge of the atrocities being carried out in its name during WWII, we're told “People were broadly aware, even if they consciously or subconsciously suppressed the knowledge in a conspiracy of silence,” and then in the next sentence: “Although few knew the details, there are numerous indications of extensive awareness of the fate of the Jews.”

Partly this may reflect the book's curiously absent scholarly apparatus. There's a bibliography but no citations, and when Kershaw writes, “Only for a few aspects, mainly relating to Germany between 1918 and 1945, can I claim to have carried out primary research,” he becomes the only scholar in the history of the world to do “primary research” without saying what that research revealed. Certainly there's nothing in his chapters on wartime Germany that hasn't appeared in many previous books.

There are many compensating narrative strengths, naturally. Kershaw is particularly good on “fascism's message of national renewal, powerfully linking fear and hope,” and his book's closing sections on the postwar deprivations experienced in England breathe with a personal immediacy, as when a housewife in the north of England in 1946 comments: “I sometimes wonder who did win this war,” or when Kershaw relates the story of his “Auntie Gladys” who, having waited a long time in a line for tightly-rationed nylons, discovers the line is in fact for tripe and roundly declares, “Well, I'm not queuing so long for nothing. I'll have some tripe, then.”

"To Hell and Back" concentrates mostly on the “to Hell” part, with the remarkable story of “and back” – Europe's relatively fast and extremely robust rebound from near-total economic prostration – promised for the second part. That fantastic financial and social recovery is a lesser-known tale, but for that very reason, it may make for a stronger volume.

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