What drove Europe into two world wars?

Fear and nationalism, along with Nazism and fascism, are the predictable villains of Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back — while communism gets off curiously lightly

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949 Ian Kershaw

Allen Lane, pp.569, £30, ISBN: 9780713990898

Sir Ian Kershaw won his knight’s spurs as a historian with his much acclaimed two-volume biography of Hitler, Hubris and Nemesis. He is now attempting to repeat the feat with a two-volume history of modern Europe, of which this is the opening shot.Inevitably, the figure of the Führer once again marches across Kershaw’s pages as they chronicle the years dominated by Germany’s malign master. First the Great War that gave Hitler his chance to escape obscurity, and then the greater one he launched himself.

Opening with the continent’s catastrophic slide into generalised conflict in 1914, Kershaw apportions blame or the disaster more or less equally to all the combatant nations. Fear, he claims, was the chief factor behind the belligerence that gripped every major European capital.

Germany feared encirclement by Russia and its ally France. Russia feared German control over the Slav Balkans with her ally Turkey. France — with recent memories of its defeat by Prussia in 1870–71 still raw — feared a re-run German conquest. Austria feared that its multi-ethnic quilt of an empire would be torn apart by rising nationalism; and Britain feared that being overtaken by German industry would mean Teutonic domination of Europe and strangulation of her imperial trade.

Nor did four years of grinding bloodletting and 17 million dead quell the continent’s nationalist fires — rather the reverse. Nationalism, in fact, is Kershaw’s chief bugbear in this book. He sees the plethora of small, ethnically pure nations that arose in central and eastern Europe from the ashes of the Austrian and Russian empires as a calamitous unintended consequence of the high-minded peacemakers in Paris in 1919, since they made easy meat, first for local nationalistic fascist dictatorships, and finally for Hitler, whose own brand of lethal nationalism drove Europe into doom.

If Nazism and fascism are the predictable villains of Kershaw’s narrative, their mirror image ideology of communism —though mildly scolded for such horrors as the Ukrainian famine and the great purges — does not come off half so badly. Like many historians still under the spell of that apologist for Stalin’s crimes Eric Hobsbawm, Kershaw has something of a soft spot for Uncle Joe’s socialism in one country. There is frequently a plangent note of regret whenever the extreme left suffers ‘setbacks’, as when the post-1945 Marshall Plan saved ‘capitalism’ (a word Kershaw prefers to ‘democracy’) and stymied Stalinist plans to sweep to power across western Europe.

Although Hitler looms large as the chief jockey as Europe gallops into the abyss, Kershaw has little time for the ‘Great Man’ theory of history. He sees the convulsions of the two world wars, and the slough of economic malaise that separated them, as symptoms of vast social change in which the individual seems to count for little, and is viewed as a powerless pawn — a plaything of catastrophic forces beyond human control.

The disadvantage of down-playing or ignoring individuals is a certain dryness of tone and lack of colourful anecdotes to spice and speed the narrative. Nevertheless, Kershaw manages to cover a vast canvas of events with judicious skill and immense learning, never getting bogged down in detail or devoting excessive space to his special area of German expertise. We move at a fair clip, and always feel that we are in the hands of a master historian with a firm grasp of his mountainous material.

If the book has a core theme, it is the central role that massive violence — often state-directed — played across Europe in the 20th century. The façade of 19th-century civilisation was cracked open by the shots at Sarajevo, and the chasm into which millions fell — the world wars, the political clashes, the bloody purges, the concentration camps, the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing that followed the second world war — yawned ever wider. The book ends in 1949 with a groggy, shell-shocked continent staggering like a stricken boxer from the ring with both eyes blacked, and blindly reaching for a return to normality and unity. The second volume of Kershaw’s vast work should tell us how well that quest is going.

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  • WTF

    It is human nature to be nationalistic to a lesser or greater extent but is that such a bad thing. Isn’t the culture of individual countries a reflection of that nationalism. Just look across Europe at all the different nations and its very easy to stereotype most countries with their cultural characteristics. Brits being called “les rosbifs” by the French, us calling them “frogs” has been standard fare for decades but unless you’re a lib**tard its no issue and no offence is taken. Then we have “krauts” & “Englanders” or “eyeties” and not forgetting “Spanish practices” etc, etc, but is it a big deal unless your dogma is political correctness.

    The biggest danger now facing us in not nationalism but inverse nationalism instigated by fascists in the EU ruling class in a mistaken and flawed belief that enforcing people to toe their diversity line brings greater harmony. The opposite is true as a naturally evolving melting pot always works successfully as we’ve seen in the past but with the current migration debacle where Merkel & Juncker are trying to force mass immigration on every state, it has back fired in a big way.

    For any country to succeed today, it has to be proud of its culture and work together but as we’ve seen in the UK under Blairs enforced immigration programs its divisive rather than cohesive. Even worse, allowing in an alien religion & culture is even more problematic when they don’t integrate and stand out even more than Jewish communities did in Germany in the 1930’s. Jews were unfortunately the whipping ‘boy’ for Germany’s fiscal troubles prior to WWII but we’re now seeing the 21st electorates fighting back against having their culture and lifestyle being destroyed by edicts from Brussels and the left. The so called equality between different ethnic groups has even been destroyed by the judiciary in the UK when a Judge openly stated this week that sentencing against sexual abusers should be less when the victim is white rather than Asian.

    Is that the way we’re supposed to build a cohesive community or destroy it and will that inspire the negative side of nationalism ?

    • The Hoxton Hockler

      Before about 1800 there was very little Nationalism. Even the French revolutionaries had to create France from the disparate dialects and language groups residing there.
      WW1 was caused by greedy industrisalists and the flames fanned by national prejudice. WW2 was caused by blatant national self interest and perpetuated by idiot dogma.

      • WTF

        The ancient Greeks, Romans were both nationalistic and tried to preserve their culture and all other successful groups since them right up till now have done the same thing. It fact the most nationalistic of cultures today is Islam as it preaches that all other cultures are inferior.

        • The Hoxton Hockler

          Oh dear. Where do we start?

          • WTF

            Since the birth of mankind I guess.

          • The Hoxton Hockler

            You are confusing nationalism, which is loyalty to a nation state ,with cultural patriotism towards a shared cultural identity. As nation states arose in the 19th C aided by railways and trade, I think we do not need to go back very far.
            Nationhood has had its day . The Connected global World has moved on.

          • WTF

            Are you suggesting that Rome wasn’t a nation state or that Greece didn’t have a similar statehood. Bear in mind, many statehood fundamentals that are in place in Europe today originated from that time. The senate in America and other EU states being one.

            Just as you can’t separate religion from culture from governance in Islamic states, neither can you separate culture and governance from modern western states. They are closely intertwined and just looking at the fragmentation taking place in the EU, it supports this. The EU master plan to remove nation states has had a major set back since Austria, Hungary and Croatia have stuck 2 fingers at Brussels and decided they need to protect their culture & state rather than be diluted and assimilated by the EU.

            I think its wishful thinking on your part just like Juncker and his crowd of liberal fascists to try and convince us nation states are no longer around. The migrant debacle has proved otherwise.

          • The Hoxton Hockler

            I am indeed suggesting Rome was not a nation state. Nor was ancient Greece. A disparate culture from Sicily to Turkey an Cyprus.

          • WTF

            Just as I disagree with that statement, others have as well –

            “After the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century ce, Europe suffered from frequent warring for nearly 500 years. Eventually, a group of nation-states emerged, and a number of supranational sets of rules were developed to govern interstate relations, including canon law, the law merchant (which governed trade), and various codes of maritime law” –

            In other words Rome was a nation state which I am told included free born Syrians and subsequently 500 years later Europe re-surfaced again into Nation states.

            I think wikipedia puts it succinctly when it defines nation state as a geographical area that can be identified as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign nation. A state is a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one. The term “nation state” implies that the two coincide”.

            Rather than separating nation from state (nationalism from cultural-ism) most people think of them as one and the same when using the term ‘nation state’ just as I did at the beginning when referring to Rome as having nationalism and cultural-ism or more simply, a nation state.

          • E.I.Cronin

            Forgive an intellectual lightweight from busting in (thanks for a very interesting exchange btw) but I agree wholeheartedly. The Mayor of Trumpton is mistaken in comparing the multiple city states of Ancient Greece and Rome which functioned as tiny nation-states with their current geo-political borders. In the Periclean age it seems that Athenian elites conceived their city as a nation state. Perhaps including the surrounding farmland of the Attic peninsula where free citizens, farmers and slaves worked, but the city itself was obviously the focus point.

            There are some elegaic speeches for fallen warriors from that era (have now returned the book on Periclean Athens so unfortunately can’t provide quotes) that idealise the city in very emotional, almost religious terms. Perhaps Athens as an entity wasn’t so much the creator of a patriotic tradition as a product of it. How much that ‘shared dream’ was felt by the ordinary citizens who knows, but it certainly inspired extraordinary art, architecture, politics and personal sacrifice from it’s citizens. I feel the patriotic impulse is innate and any attempt to replace it with a synthetic alternative is disastrous.

            I’ve been reading a lot of Multicultural propaganda (a dismal task but I want to be able to help destroy it as an ideology) and it seems to operate in 2 modes. In ‘soft’ mode it cajoles and tries to re-create the natural, organic social cohesion it consciously destroyed with immigration with ‘harmony’ initiatives and diversity ‘training’. In ‘hard’ Marxist mode it dispenses with the kitsch and admits it’s goal is the destruction of a core culture and national standards and that having achieved that the new focus of civic life will be the Bureacracy as a ‘broker of difference’. *vomits*. What a bleak, dismal vision.

            If we all get through this alive and intact let’s re-shape a new patriotism, one that clearly sees the evils and failures of the past without permanently fixating upon it; aims to clearly see the current dangers but above all nurtures a shared dream and experience of culture that’s inspiring and life-sustaining.

          • WTF

            You’re very welcome for jumping in here and adding meat to the bones of my point about nation states. I started off trying to justify moderate nationalism as a political system that uses a common culture to create a cohesive society that helps the people flourish, expand science & medical knowledge that got us to where we are today.

            I accept its not been perfect but without it, we’d still be living in caves trying to light fires from flint stones. That’s the point that the lib**tards don’t get, they never look at the progress it has brought mankind but just concentrate on the occasional mistakes. Even more pertinent, they never offer any alternative to what generally works for the better.

            For example, if their twisted ideology were to be adopted in medicine like vaccination programs, thousands of kids would die each year from measles, mumps and rubella just because of potential side effects that could affect 0.1% of kids from being vaccinated. In essence, they don’t look at the big picture but cherry pick their own narrow agenda.

          • E.I.Cronin

            Good example WTF. It’s a relentlessly negative campaign that they’re waging.

            Which could be a clue to keep putting the numberless instances of how patriotism works to create truly cohesive societies forward in debate. I recently moved countries and my new home is such a marvellous place for many reasons, but largely because it is still a genuine nation. There’s an irreplaceable sense of camaraderie and belonging that Australia has sadly destroyed. It’s a beautiful thing. I now live somewhere where I belong, where I feel like I am home.

            And civic life seems much stronger here than back in Oz where we now have disparate groups, with very little in common, all competing for funding that would normally be spent on services to benefit the entire public.

          • PaD

            you and Peter Sutherland may think so..others disagree

          • Bertie

            I’d suggest you do some reading as you’re clearly looking through rose tinted lefty speccies.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            Mr Bean with chopstix up his nose. You know history I suppose.

          • Bertie

            Well you clearly have noticeable gaps! Funny that. Hence my rose tinted comment.

      • Dogsnob

        While there is nothing sacred about Nationalism, neither does recognition of its man-made origins do anything to belittle its validity in the eyes of its adherents.
        It came to prominence because it provided a tangible structure of ‘ownership’ for the peoples who had lost their former identities. It worked and it works.
        Until such time as people are offered an alternative framework, to which they can feel they belong, then Nations will continue to be that all-important articulation of home. Repeated attempts to erase it, merely by trashing nations and their basis – only particular ones of a certain kind it is to be noted – do nothing constructive and will provoke alienation.

        • WTF

          Thanks for that as you rightly said, no alternative has surfaced that inherently tries to protect and retain social order & cultural values than what we have at the present time. It isn’t perfect but it sure beats the results of EU interference in nation states of the sort we’ve seen recently.

          Most people accept that Europe had nation states with ancient Greece & Rome and from around 500 AD, Europe saw nation states develop and become entities. Lots of wars of course due to disagreements and land disputes within them, between them and one major war between most of them and Islam both from and in the middle east & the Iberian peninsular.

          Looking at the debacle in eastern Europe right now its occurs to me that the EU totally misunderstood the Nation State feelings of very recent democratic countries when trying to dictate to them over the immigration crisis. Had the EU achieved its flawed ultimate stated objective of one super Nation State with a single political & fiscal system and military to go with it, perhaps the current mess wouldn’t have happened. In their eager to pursue this path, they forgot that nation states like the UK & France took centuries to evolve where economic & political governance is the same whether in Newcastle or Penzance.

          The EU does not rule very new democracies like Hungary, Austria or Croatia (or any member nation state) when it comes to their own security and never should do. They like to think they do, but they don’t in actuality.

          • PaD

            Peter Sutherland…homogeneity

          • WTF

            An excellent link, thanks !

        • PaD

          See Peter Sutherland…homogeneity

          • Dogsnob

            Thanks. I’ve heard him speak on the subject and I find him to be most sinister.

    • PaD

      Check out Peter Sutherland Eurocrat(global migration something or other org..)what he says about homogeneity.
      And while youre at it check out his CV

  • Frank

    Umm, is the fellow-traveller Ian Kershaw right?
    Let us just close our eyes and wonder what the history of Europe would have been between 1869 and 1946 if Germany had not existed (ie had Germany remained in a state on non-unification). In that context, it is fairly difficult to see the Franco-Prussian war happening, or the first world war, or the second world war.
    Further, since there would have been no reason for Germany to send that Lenin to ferment revolution in Russia, and since Russia would not have been brought to its knees by the first world war and then revolution, the world would probably have been spared Stalin.
    Lastly any book review that contains the phrase “in the hands of a master historian” does make one wonder at the objectivity of the reviewer!

    • davidshort10

      Love it that use ‘ferment’ instead of ‘foment’ in the same way as the Shadow Chancellor does.

      • Frank

        Don’t know about him, but I believe that “ferment” means to bring about (chemical) structural changes; whilst “foment” means to agitate or increase the growth of something. Given what imperial Germany wanted out of Lenin, I thought that “ferment” seemed appropriate!!

  • Perun`s Axe

    “communism —though mildly scolded for such horrors as the Ukrainian
    famine and the great purges — does not come off half so badly.” 12.5Million Ukrainians were killed in the Holodomor and the dekulakization that preceded it and all he does is “mildly scold” Stalin? Congratulations Kershaw, your now my bellend of the month, hope you get debased because you certainly shouldn’t be a Knight of the Realm.

    • red2black

      What you describe is truly horrific, but did it play any part in driving Europe into two world wars?

  • WTF

    When Nigel Farage claimed that many millions of migrants could try to get into the UK prior to the last general election, the left crawled out from under their rocks and accused him of being a racist as well as being wrong. Well, he was partially wrong in where they were coming from and he grossly UNDERESTIMATED the number of migrants that would try to get into the UK, Germany or Sweden that now stands at 20 million.

    Where are all those liberal luvvie fascists on the left from the Green party, Plaid Cymru, SNP or Labour today ? There seems to be a complete silence from these lib**tards race baiters who were determined to destroy our culture and way of life now the EU is imploding.

    Despite Nigels conservative numbers his predictions have come home to roost in Brussels and its not a pretty sight. At least Cameron seems swayed by his arguments and is the ONLY leader in the EU who has shown compassion with practical common sense in insisting we will take refugees but only after vetting from the camps they are staying in.

    Thatcher famously said of the left, “They always spend other peoples money”, but if we’d let those on the left have their way, we could add “They always destroy what they seek to protect”.

  • uk legislation

    A united Germany seems to be a major problem for Europe in the past and present. We can see the third tyrant – Merkel – emerge in less than 100 years. The break up of Germany into mini-states might be the best option to permanently neuter this recurrence. And perhaps the West should look to the Poles for strong military leadership with NATO for future security in Europe.

  • red2black

    Communism didn’t drive Europe into two world wars.