The superbly gifted historian Ian Kershaw isn’t exaggerating by much when he prefaces To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949 with a disclaimer to the effect that “almost every sentence” of his text not only deserves a book of its own but has generated several impressive ones. The last days of the Belle Époque, World War I, Europe’s jittery interwar decades, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War’s advent — each of these has produced libraries sizable enough to build a fairly respectable skyscraper, from good old Barbara Tuchman to Max Hastings and Kershaw’s only peer as a Third Reich specialist, Richard J. Evans. Even the sampling on my bookshelves represents the makings of a more or less inhabitable igloo.
That’s exactly what makes Kershaw’s achievement remarkable. Viewed simply as a feat of compression and synthesis, To Hell and Back is terrifically well done. Nothing important has been left out or skimped on, and the relatively short shrift given purely military history is educational in itself. Though the key battles, campaigns, and shifting fortunes of both world conflicts are expertly summarized, they’re hardly his main subjects. Instead, what everybody’s armies did in 1914–18 — and then did even more savagely in 1939–45 — is just the relatively organized part of a disaster for civilization so paroxysmic at every level as to recall Conrad’s “In the destructive element immerse.”
Typifying Kershaw’s evident mistrust of anything that romanticizes the horror of it all, T. E. Lawrence — a glamorous but ultimately trivial figure — doesn’t rate so much as a cameo. On the other hand, D. H. Lawrence does, thanks to a 1908 letter fantasizing about a vast “lethal chamber” (with soothing music playing) to dispose of undesirables, over thirty years before Auschwitz made his vision a reality. The unpleasant reminder that any number of the Nazis’ pet ideas — in this case, eugenics — were hardly taboo elsewhere in Europe as the twentieth century clanked to life is vital to his scheme in a way that Lawrence of Arabia isn’t.
As daunting as his material is, Kershaw never settles for mere textbook-style recitals of events. Understanding them is his goal, and his dogged analysis of the forces at work in the continent’s twice-over descent into the maelstrom of what he arrestingly terms “hyperbolic wars” is bracing. But so is the firm sense of values that keeps him drawing our attention to all the helpless folk caught up in the melee: not only the millions who died but the millions more who precariously endured years of almost unfathomable misery, deprivation, and violence.
Up to now, Kershaw has been best known for his acclaimed two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler. But To Hell and Back is an effort of very different magnitude, steeping readers in the political systems, economic tribulations, intellectual currents, major personalities, and social tensions of not only Germany, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union — the era’s main players, with Italy playing caboose — but the Balkan nations, whose ordeals other historians often treat as a sideshow. In Croatia alone, the Nazis abetted a reign of terror by the homegrown Ustasa fascists, whose viciousness almost makes Nazism itself seem temperate.
Retracing Europe’s 1914 lunge into war after Serbian nationalists shot Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Kershaw’s curtain-raising chapter, “On the Brink,” is a marvel of succinctness combined with an effect of teeming profusion. Parting company with the school that parcels out blame equally among a half-dozen nations, Kershaw makes no bones about identifying Kaiser Wilhelm’s bellicose, ambitious Germany as the leading culprit in inflaming what might have been a containable crisis into a continent-spanning conflagration.
But far from being oblivious to the likely consequences, he writes, “Europe’s leaders approached the prospect of war with their eyes wide open.” That included an awareness of the unprecedented killing power of machine guns, poison gas, and aircraft (though it would take time for the latter to become the deadliest of the three). What they weren’t expecting was four years of futile trench warfare. When Kershaw reminds us that the belt of northern France ravaged by the war was only 30–60 kilometers deep, that seeming reprieve from more widespread devastation evokes the Western Front’s insanity in a nutshell.
German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was also prescient in predicting a European war would “topple many a throne.” However, he presumably didn’t guess his own monarch’s would be one of them. By 1919, the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, and Romanovs had all been booted from theirs, soon to be joined by Mehmed IV, last sultan of the Ottoman Empire. For Kershaw, the concept explaining the ability of other regimes to remain stable in the ensuing upheaval is “legitimacy,” meaning parliamentary systems that were established enough — as in Britain and, more shakily, France — to guarantee even a discontented public’s adhesion to their norms. The flimsy new republics of the interwar years didn’t induce a similar loyalty — most fatefully, of course, in Germany itself. But by 1939, more Europeans lived under authoritarian regimes of greater or lesser malignity than did in democracies. Among the dictatorships, Spain’s was to last until Francisco Franco’s death almost forty years later.
“Trying to define ‘fascism’ is like trying to nail jelly to the wall,” Kershaw says, only to provide a brilliant dissection of its fundamentals: rabid nationalism, the “complete discrediting” of the existing political order, a perniciously appealing dynamism, and a welding of ” ‘traditional’ cultural values — in practice much distorted — to the vision of an alternative, utopian future.” Plus, of course, convenient scapegoats, with Europe’s Jews made to incarnate at once Bolshevism’s menace and guileful international capitalism. Yet Kershaw is also at pains to remind us that few fascist regimes prospered without the complicity, if not active support, of their country’s industrial tycoons. In Italy, Mussolini’s “brand of radicalism . . . was not only compatible with the interests of the conservative ruling class, but directly served them.”
To many readers, both European and American, a lot of this is likely to sound less dated than we could wish. If there’s a claim here that smacks of undue optimism — not exactly Kershaw’s specialty — it’s his unqualified declaration that one consequence of World War II was “the definitive ending of fascism as a major political force.” One suspects Marine Le Pen might disagree, and she’s not the only one. Reading To Hell and Back in today’s political climate makes it hard to avoid wondering what Europe — or, for that matter, the United States — will look like by the time Kershaw’s projected sequel, Fractured Continent: Europe, 1950–The Present, appears.
In the meantime, the book we have is as compelling and authoritative as anyone could ask. Among its other virtues, Kershaw’s eye for the telling detail is acute and sometimes withering; not much sums up the League of Nations’ fecklessness more vividly than learning that their idea of stern sanctions against Italy after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 was to ban exports of foie gras. All the same, To Hell and Back is most eloquent simply as a chronicle of human suffering on an unprecedented scale, culminating in World War II’s grotesque claim to fame as the first war to kill more civilians than soldiers. Going on half a century ago, the verdict in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was, “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Kershaw brings not only extraordinary erudition but considerable moral staunchness to the job of proving Vonnegut wrong.