Message of hope: Historian Ian Kershaw on Europe today

I have long been an admirer of Ian Kershaw, a scholar who has become – in many ways – one of Britain’s leading historians. His new book To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949, which was published by Allen Lane on 24th September, has reinforced my appreciation of the sheer ambition and breadth of his work.

Professor Kershaw’s new volume is already being called ‘magisterial’ by reviewers, and I can certainly see why. This very impressive study covers two world wars, and takes Kershaw’s career in a slightly new but exciting direction after a large part of it (some 40 years of scholarship, in fact) has been spent studying the nature of Nazism.

KershawKershaw, who comes from Manchester, has won wide acclaim in the recent past for his best-selling writings on Hitler and National Socialism, many of them (in my humble opinion) ground-breaking and very accessible. This was exemplified in 1998 and 2000 with a two-part biography of Adolf Hitler, which is seen by many other historians of the subject as arguably the definitive biography of the German dictator.

In 2011, Kershaw also published a final book on Nazism called The End, an excellent study of the last days of the regime, which raised fascinating questions about why many Germans continued to be so loyal to Nazism, even though the war had turned decisively against Hitler and his cronies.

Importantly, Kershaw put forward a compelling idea which he termed ‘working towards the Fuhrer‘ – this suggested that Hitler did not necessarily direct all Nazi activity but, rather, set a ‘tone’ that other Nazis eagerly sought to follow. Nazi officials in the lower ranks of the party often suggested or implemented policies which they believed would ‘please’ the Fuhrer and demonstrate their complete loyalty, and often competed with one another to do so. Anybody with a knowledge of modern-day business studies will perhaps be very familiar with such concepts!

As part of his promotion of To Hell and Back, Kershaw gave an interesting interview to the Sunday Times newspaper (27th September), where he explained some of his thinking behind his new book and offered some reflections not just on the past but also on the present. After spending a considerable number of years focusing on Nazism, his new book is the first half of a long-delayed commission: a broad history of twentieth-century Europe.

Kershaw To Hell and BackAs the newspaper noted, Europe today often feels like a continent and an idea under threat. The European Union and its currency has been under tremendous pressure from a sustained debt crisis, movements on the left and right of politics have been calling for the end of the EU ‘experiment’, religion and national identity have very much re-emerged as big issues, and there has undoubtedly been a new wave of rightwing ‘populism’, which seeks to blame everything on the ‘corrupt’ mainstream establishment.

Kershaw explained to the Sunday Times that, having just written in detail on the interwar years, he is acutely aware of how our current problems have possible similarities to Europe’s darkest hours in the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time, however, he also emphasised that it is the differences between the past and present that have given him cause for qualified optimism.

Kershaw said he is ‘shocked’ by some of the recent xenophobia expressed by politicians, a worrying development that he believes has clear parallels with the chauvinism of the interwar years. On the other hand, he also said that he thinks the institutional and intellectual frameworks of today put us in a much stronger position.

He told the Sunday Times: ‘I think the EU, imperfect as it is, has actually done a lot to counter these things. Take the financial crisis. The response was controversial naturally, and you could argue countries would have been better off looking after their own economies. But nonetheless, Europe has had the organisational capacity to intervene, to rescue failing economies. Whereas in the 1930s, they went to the wall with dire consequences’.

Professor Kershaw also gave his views on the current migrant crisis, which he believes is probably the most serious problem Europe has faced since 1945. Kershaw believes that the response has been flawed but significant: ‘Not all the actions taken have been successful, but many of them have been accommodating and humane. You look at Germany, which was the epicentre of the horror of the 1940s, and the contrast with what they are doing now is stark. It’s a contrast which has grown out of history. They have reacted that way because of the legacy of their own past’.

Kershaw pointed out that, inadequate as they are, Europe has done things that in the 1930s it would have been incapable of doing. Moreover, he said, ‘the barbarism that was common in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s is now looked on with horror’. He suggested that the anti-racist mentalities developed in Europe as a response to the ‘hellish’ first half of the twentieth century will triumph: ‘Maybe it’s the optimist coming out in me again, but I think we’ll cope’.

That’s real food for thought.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

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