To Hell and Back
By Ian Kershaw
The centenary of World War One has seen an avalanche of books revisiting the Great War. Seen in isolation it is a somewhat mysterious catastrophe. No one really needed it and its ostensible cause – the assassination of an unpopular crown prince in an obscure province of the Austro Hungarian Empire - hardly seemed to justify four years of industrialised carnage. But historians such as Eric Hobsbawm have long argued (his The Age of Extremes – the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 was published in 1994) that the “short” twentieth century – the period between 1914 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) needed to be considered as a coherent whole.
In To Hell and Back Ian Kershaw attempts a single volume history of the first half of this period -1914 to 1949. If the reason we read history is to understand and learn from the past then it is essential that the unit of analysis used– what historians call periodisation - be capable of yielding meaningful conclusions. In Kershaw’s analysis the reason Europe rebounded from what Hobsbawm calls the Age of Catastrophe and embarked on the Golden Age of Prosperity (up until about 1974) lies in the following: the end of Germany’s great power ambitions; the purging of war criminals; the formal division between the West (under American protection) and the Soviet bloc; economic growth; and the threat of nuclear war. Together these factors militated against a revival of the unchecked nationalism of the inter war period and ushered in a period of stability.
In To Hell and Back Kershaw gives what could be described as the liberal version of the first half of the short twentieth history. In contrast to Hobsbawm, (who was a Marxist) he downplays the contest between Capitalism and Soviet Communism and sees a much more contingent series of events driven ultimately by the interaction between Germany’s drive for European dominance and the various structural instabilities arising from the aftermath of the fall of multi–ethnic empires in Eastern Europe.
The book has the problems of any single volume overview of complex multiple subjects. Readers familiar with Richard Evans’ two volume history of the Third Reich for example will not be overly impressed by Kershaw’s necessarily abbreviated treatment of this subject. In particular, his treatment of the amazingly rapid consolidation of Nazi power following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933 (which, when one thinks about it, is at the root cause of a whole series of consequences which made the 20th century so uniquely terrible) begs more questions than it answers.
Nevertheless, Kershaw’s knowledge of the period is detailed (his two volume biography of Hitler puts that beyond doubt); his command of economic statistics is impressive; and his conclusions are all eminently defensible. Essential reading for those interested in Modern History but follow it up by revisiting Hobsbawm.