Newspaper article International New York Times

A New History of Modern Europe, from War to War

Newspaper article International New York Times

A New History of Modern Europe, from War to War

Article excerpt

The first volume of a new history of modern Europe covers two world wars and the troubled years between them.

To Hell and Back. Europe, 1914-1949. By Ian Kershaw. Illustrated. 593 pages. Viking. $35.

Ian Kershaw's chilling history produces aftershocks connected to our current news headlines. Polish soldiers close border. ... Rise of Austrian right. ... Grim jobs report. ... Shocking British vote. ... Germans want sanctions against Russia. ... Europe migrant crisis boils over. ... They are all so reminiscent of the drum rolls that preceded Europe's descent into "the pit of barbarism" during a century of two world wars that almost destroyed its civilization, followed by 40 years of Cold War. Seventy years after the democracies, together with the Red Army, triumphed in World War II, and 25 years after the reunification of Germany, the new Europe has made what Mr. Kershaw deems an "astonishing recovery."

Mr. Kershaw will devote a second volume to Europe's rise from the ashes, but the continent today is hardly immune to recurrent economic and political crises with traces of the xenophobia, mass media incitements and the kind of pathological delusions that led Europe in the 20th century to hell and back after nearly 100 years of prosperity and stability following the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. "To Hell and Back" should be required reading in every chancellery, every editorial cockpit and every place where peevish Euroskeptics do their thinking.

Why did Europe go mad? The four horsemen of the apocalypse Mr. Kershaw identifies in his nightmare history are a dramatic rise of ethnic-racist nationalism; angry, conflicting demands for territorial revisionism; acute class conflict that took on sharper focus by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; and a prolonged crisis of capitalism that many thought terminal. The turmoil of the interwar years would have tested a Bismarck, a Charlemagne. It troubles Mr. Kershaw, as it should all of us, that the seminal catastrophe of World War I could have been avoided, and the second war it bequeathed was as much the result of moral cowardice and political miscalculation in the West as in the rampant new imperialisms of Germany, Italy and Japan. Might we not blunder again?

Mr. Kershaw argues that World War I could have been forestalled if Vienna had acted with speed to punish Serbia for its complicity in the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it had the Kaiser's reckless blank check for punishment, but as Mr. Kershaw puts it, the Austrian Empire "knew only two speeds, slow and dead stop." By the time Vienna sent its ultimatum to Belgrade, three weeks after the assassination, Russia, with France in tow, had encouraged the Serbs to be more bloody-minded.More bloody-minded, in my own judgment, than justified.

Mr. Kershaw identifies a second missed opportunity to avert mass slaughter. He writes that even as Russia started to mobilize in the summer of 1914 -- much before Germany -- "a firm British declaration of neutrality ... might even at a late hour have prevented general war. But Grey's disastrous hesitation meant that the room for diplomatic initiatives vanished." Pretty well every history nods to the poetic prescience of Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, in the foreboding he expressed on Aug. 3. Standing by his big window overlooking Horse Guards Parade, he watched the gas lights being lit in the street below and said: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." They were, though Grey lived to see Europe, with the lights on, begin to fumble its irresolute way to World War II.

Grey, who died in 1933, is an appealing figure, spared much criticism for his diplomacy in World War I, but David Owen, who stood at the same window as foreign secretary from 1977 to 1979, buttresses Mr. Kershaw's judgment with an explanation of Grey's fatal ambivalence, which forfeited a role for Britain as a referee. …

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