Ian Kershaw’s To Hell And Back

A recurring charge levelled at the growing populist movements of Europe is that they are undermining the fragile equilibrium that has produced more than a half-century of peace, and that their nationalist drumbeating can only lead to a third major European war. I find such accusations unconvincing but understandable, if only because the entire post-war political and economic order has been designed with one aim in mind: preventing another deadly conflagration. Who is to say which aspects of that arrangement – the trade deals, the European parliament, the freedom of movement – have played a vital role in staving off disaster? Nationalist ambitions were certainly major causal factors in both World Wars – perhaps the post-nationalism of the E.U. is the only viable alternative. My sympathies for this perspective were greatly enlarged reading historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw’s overview of European history from 1914 to the middle of the century, To Hell And Back, which catalogues every pogrom, uprising, revolt, suppression and coup, not to mention the various genocides, mass killings and illicit property seizures, that made all of Europe a hell on earth.

When Penguin Random House commissioned a series on “the history of Europe,” they turned to renowned German history scholar Ian Kershaw to cover the cataclysm of 1914-49: its causes, its horrible destruction, and the impact the conflicts had on the various countries of Europe. This is a survey work, rather than focused analysis, so the perspective is broad and the pacing rapid. The First World War, from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, takes scarcely 100 pages; the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest of the entire war, described by Kershaw as “the most catastrophic single day in British military history,” is relegated to a single paragraph. The disadvantages of such summary coverage are obvious, but there are benefits as well, particularly for those – such as myself – whose study of this time period was largely confined to the major powers, to the exclusion of the rest of the continent. With his broader focus, Kershaw can inform us about the Armenian genocide, for example, or the Russian Revolution, or Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign. The chronology of events provides the primary organizational model: Kershaw wants us to know what happened, where it happened, and in what order. But he offers us four themes, in particular, that he views as particularly causal, and which he returns to again and again: “(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; (4) a protracted crisis of capitalism.” No European country escaped every single one of these difficulties, but no country suffered all four of them to the same extent as Germany. Geopolitical ambitions, Kershaw argues, drove Germany to be the primary aggressor leading up to the First World War (“Germany combined its own ambitions to be the dominant power on the European continent with a mounting, almost paranoid, fear of Russian ascendancy, and eventual hegemony. To establish the former and prevent the latter, Germany was prepared to risk a general European conflagration.”), and a deadly mix of Kershaw’s other three factors – hyperinflation to obliterate the savings accounts of ordinary Germans, and drive desperate people to radical political parties, and a virulent anti-Semitism that provided a ready scapegoat for the nation’s troubles – mobilized Germany for another major war, less than three decades after the Armistice of 1918.

This is the story everyone is familiar with, but Kershaw nonetheless managed to supply me with new information. Take, for example, the infamous “stabbed in the back” myth, propagated by Hitler and his far-right cohorts, that held that Germany’s military had really won World War 1, and that only the conspiratorial work of certain subversive elements (primarily Jews and communists) had effected their defeat. I had long known about the role this myth had played in undermining respect for democracy in Weimar Germany, but I did not know about its original authors:

Hindenburg and Ludendorff recognized the writing on the wall. They were determined that peace should be negotiated before the German army collapsed and complete military defeat became obvious. The army’s (and their own) standing in the state was at stake. They began to manoeuvre to extricate themselves from blame for the impending defeat and shift the responsibility for negotiations onto those political forces – predominantly the socialist Left – that had long been demanding parliamentary democracy. On 1 October, informing his staff officers that the war could no longer be won, Ludendorff told them: ‘I have asked His Majesty [the Kaiser] now to incorporate those in government whom we have to thank for our situation. We will now see these gentleman entering office. They must conclude the necessary peace. They have to swallow the soup they’ve cooked up for us.’ It was the beginning of what would turn into the legend, with lasting baleful impact after the war, that the German army had been undefeated in the field, that the war effort had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by socialist forces fomenting unrest at home.

Ludendorff died of liver cancer in 1937, living just long enough to see Hindenburg appoint Hitler chancellor of Germany, thereby capping off the rise to power that Ludendorff himself had played a role in facilitating. Another development that I had failed to appreciate was the extent to which World War 1 actually strengthened democracies across Europe. The catastrophe of that conflict was so great, and the loss of life so widely shared, that the old guard across Europe felt compelled to give further concessions to democracy. “The British electorate rose, for instance, from 8 million to 22 million voters between 1884 and 1918, the German from 14.5 million to just short of 36 million between 1912 and 1919.” And this in spite of the massive losses in population suffered by these countries! But, as Kershaw points out, the increase in the size of the voter rolls meant that political movements, and the ideologies underpinning them, would be more consequential than ever before.

This is an engrossing book, despite its broad scope, and one that reinforced for me the absolute horror of this brief period in history. I knew beforehand, for example, that some 3 million Ukrainians perished under Stalin’s policy of “dekulakization,” but I did not know the specifics of their suffering: that they survived, for as long as they could, on cats, dogs, field mice and birds, even going so far as to strip the bark off of trees and chew that for nutrients – or that some 2,000 of them, fed up with this meagre fare, were charged with cannibalism. Of the plight of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary during this period, I knew little or nothing before reading this book, but the few pages dedicated to their stories brought their history to life in vivid and painful detail. It takes genuine moral courage to confront this period in history, but Kershaw proves to be a knowledgeable and humane guide.