In My Experience, Ian Kershaw [...]

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

In My Experience, Ian Kershaw [...]


Byline: LAURENCE REES HISTORY

To Hell And Back: Europe 1914-1949

Ian Kershaw Allen Lane PS30 *****

In my experience, Ian Kershaw is the historian that other academic historians most admire. His books on the Nazis aren't just compulsory reading for every student studying the Third Reich, but they also sell well among the general public. Knighted by the Queen in 2002, a fellow of the British Academy, winner of countless awards, Prof Kershaw sits at the very top of his profession. He is one of a tiny handful of historians whose books will still be read in 100 years.

So he takes a big risk by moving out of his area of expertise in order to write an all-encompassing history of Europe in the 20th century. His courage has paid off. To Hell And Back: Europe 1914-1949, the first of two volumes on the subject, is a triumph.

He's helped, of course, by the fact that the history of Germany dominates the first half of the 20th century in Europe. Germany not only, as Kershaw writes, played the 'most crucial' role in triggering World War I, but its subsequent defeat helped create the toxic mix of circumstances that led to the horrors of WWII. As the world expert on Adolf Hitler, Kershaw is well placed to explain just how this nightmare unfolded.

But one of the many strengths of this book is that he skilfully weaves the history of other European nations into the narrative. In the process he demonstrates that no one country during this period had a monopoly on atrocious actions or beliefs. For example, the idea of altering society by 'eugenics' had been 'attracting attention' not just in Germany, but in Scandinavia, Switzerland and Britain. DH Lawrence, for instance, wrote in a private letter in 1908 that if he had his way, he would build a 'lethal chamber' and 'gently' lead the 'sick' and the 'maimed' into it.

Nor were the Germans the only ones who would target Jews in the first half of the century. During WWI Jews were persecuted in Eastern Europe by the advancing Russian forces, albeit not on the same scale nor with the same level of ferocity the Nazis would later employ. …

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