From the so-called golden age that preceded the guns of August 1914 to the early frost of the Cold War, a much-honored British historian takes on the 20th-century history of Europe.
In this first of two projected volumes, Kershaw (The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45, 2011, etc.) confines himself to the century’s war-torn first half, examining first the genesis of the ghastliness of World War I, where the European nations, in David Lloyd George’s phrase, unwittingly “slithered over the brink” into armed conflict. Then followed the even greater calamity of World War II, foreseen by many and considered “the unfinished business of the first.” Kershaw’s capacious theme, an examination of “the driving forces that shaped the continent as a whole,” permits no detailed coverage of any character, development, or event, no matter how momentous, but he certainly has not missed anything of significance. He tracks the shifting social, political, cultural, and economic trends and is especially sharp discussing the effects of the Great Depression; the post–WWI competition for dominance among the incompatible political systems of communism, fascism, and liberal democracy; the peculiar cultural moment between the world wars, particularly in Paris and Weimar Germany; the drift of politics decisively to the right during the Depression; the distinctions among the dictatorships of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler; the condition, by 1939, of three-fifths of Europeans living in 16 states under some form of authoritarian rule; and the second war’s “bottomless pit of inhumanity,” including the murder of the Jews. Kershaw concludes with a somewhat less successful appraisal of the vastly altered geopolitical landscape following WWII, the social and economic disruptions, the physical ruin of the continent, and the responses to the devastation offered by the Christian churches, leading intellectuals, and popular entertainments.
An ambitious, dense, sometimes-difficult treatment of a vast topic.