Europe's Second Thirty Years War: Ian Kershaw Sees 1945 as a Real Watershed in Europe's History of the Last Century

By Kershaw, Ian | History Today, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Europe's Second Thirty Years War: Ian Kershaw Sees 1945 as a Real Watershed in Europe's History of the Last Century


Kershaw, Ian, History Today


EVERY FOOTBALL fan knows the cliche: 'it was a game of two halves'. But what about 'a century of two halves'? Perhaps this might apply to Europe in the seventeenth century, when the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 brought an end to the Thirty Years' War. It certainly can be applied to Europe in the twentieth century, when the unprecedented death and destruction that occurred after 1914, in what had been, in many respects, Europe's second Thirty Years' War, ended with the defeat of Germany in 1945, heralding a lasting era of peace and prosperity.

About 10 million died or were maimed in the fighting of the First World War. More Englishmen died in military action in little over four years than in the previous thousand years of English history, not to mention the Scots, Welsh, and Irish. If we include those who died in its immediate aftermath in Eastern Europe, where the :t only nominally ended in 1918, the civilian dead numbered a further five million. Another five million fled or were driven from their homes.

Even these figures are dwarfed by the human calamity of the Second World War. Conservative estimates put the number of dead at over 50 million, nearly 40 million of them in Europe. And, unlike any earlier war, perhaps as many as two-thirds were civilians. Poland alone, where the actual fighting lasted only about a month, lost a fifth of its population, almost all of them civilians, during the war. And when the war finally ended, it left more than 20 million 'displaced persons', expelled, deported, or having fled from persecution and genocide. Major bloodletting continued in some parts until about 1950.

We are all aware of the repression, persecution, and suffering that took place in the Soviet-controlled eastern half of Europe after 1945. Here 'peace' was, as Tony Judt in his brilliant book, Postwar, dubs it, 'the peace of the tomb, enforced by a tank'. And, of course, the terrible ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s is part of very recent memory. Nobody would want to paint a picture of undiluted Continental peace, tranquillity and happiness since 1945, yet the last fifty years of the twentieth century were qualitatively different from the first. Like 1648, 1945 was a watershed--perhaps the most important turning-point in European history.

Like the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48 and Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1793-1815, the period 1914-45 can be seen as a single entity. It saw a crisis in international affairs, acute general crisis of the capitalist economy, immensely bitter ideological conflict, and unprecedented violence and human loss that spawned political upheavals amounting to revolutionary change. And if we want to personalize the unity of the two wars, we need look no further than Adolf Hitler, who fought a second war to undo the consequences of the first.

The notion of the 'Thirty Years' War' of the twentieth century, is far from a new one. It was coined more than twenty years ago by the American historian Arno Mayer. Mayer used the concept of 'general crisis' familiar to every historian of the seventeenth century--even if it is much disputed--and applied it to the twentieth century. He highlighted great destabilizing tensions in state and society in both periods. He pointed out that epochs of general crisis are also times of general war, with links between domestic dislocations and international conflict. He saw the seventeenth-century's politicized clash between Protestantism and Catholicism as both a cause and an effect of what he called 'Europe's great unsettlement'. And he used the ferocity of religious passions as an analogy to the ideological passions that fuelled the Second World War. Crucial to both epochs, for him, was the sense of 'holy war'. This brought him to his central comparison. 'Europe's second epoch of general crisis and war became so uniquely violent', he argued, 'by reason of the conjunction of total war and ideological crusade in the Third Reich's eastern campaign against the Soviet Union'. …

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