Friday, May 06, 2016

Four decades of European barbarism

The title of Ian Kershaw's history, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949, got my attention by getting the periodization right. We've achieved enough distance on World War I and World War II to see them as just a single, awful, very long, war -- a convulsion emanating from one continent that engulfed the globe.

When I read a sweeping history written for a popular audience that covers material in which I'm moderately well read, what fascinates me is the historiography, how the author has chosen to structure his story. This British historian of Hitler's Germany is wonderfully clear about the frame in which he is writing: his subject is

four interlocking major elements of comprehensive crisis, 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).

Most European history currently being written in English is bent on correcting an overemphasis on western and northern Europe prevailing during the Cold War when Russia's trauma's and the dramas and horrors of central Europe were ignored "behind the Iron Curtain". If this volume did nothing else, its insistence that Russia, and the Baltic States, and the Balkans and all the other countries of the continent matter along with Britain, France, Germany and the Scandinavians makes a necessary correction to many previous narratives.

Often Kershaw emphasizes continuity as well as change. This is particularly true in reference to violent anti-Semitism whose potency he documents in the societies of Eastern and Central Europe throughout the period, from well before the first "Great War" and into the aftermath of Nazism's unspeakable culmination.

In seeking to understand the Europe that emerged from war's barbarism, Kershaw again identifies four themes that pointed into the next era:

... beneath the surface of Europe's dark age people's lives did continue to be shaped or reshaped in quiet transitions, unbroken if not untouched by the trauma... [These included] economic and social change[s], the role of the Christian Churches, the reaction of intellectuals and the 'culture industry'.

I would not have thought of the churches, since I would have assumed the carnage ended their widespread influence, even hegemony, over social life. Kershaw showed me I was generalizing too much from northern European experience.

This is a very good survey of some awful times and places. My chief complaint is that its broad European focus obscures the role of world wide empire in the war(s). Kershaw's sharp attention to all parts of Europe leaves little room for anything beyond cursory mention of the impacts of that continent's rivalries elsewhere. Sykes/Picot is more mentioned than explicated, as are the seething Indian subcontinent and Indochina. There was a lot of world and a great deal of war that gets short shrift here, as does the agency of non-European peoples.

This volume is the eighth part of a Penguin History of Europe series. Kershaw is to be the author of a subsequent volume bringing European history up the present. It will be interesting to read how he writes of a time when Europe became, though still rich and influential, so much less central to global developments. That's a big shift. And Kershaw is writing it in a moment when the configurations of European stability seem more precarious than in several decades. I look forward to whatever he writes; he's an insightful narrator.

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