Hell on Earth in Europe

Review: Ian Kershaw, ‘To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949’

Adolf Hitler at Nuremberg in 1933 / AP


How did World War I lead to World War II? That is the central question historian Ian Kershaw asks in To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949, the first of an ambitious two-volume work covering the history of Europe in the twentieth century. Why did "the war to end war" instead bring about a far more devastating conflagration that took the continent into what Kershaw calls "an assault on humanity unprecedented in history … a descent into the abyss never previously encountered, a veritable hell on earth in which Europe came close to destroying itself."

Ironically, Kershaw locates the intellectual foundation of this "bottomless pit of inhumanity" in the turn of the century "Golden Age" of civilization and progress referred to as La Belle Époque by the French and, fondly, as the Wilhelmine era by the Germans. Here were the origins of eugenics and racial anti-Semitism. Moreover, this was an era when national, religious, class, and ethnic hatreds simmered. Everyone is familiar with the massacre of Armenians during World War I, but few are aware that 80,000 Armenians were massacred in 1894-1896 under Sultan Abdul-Hamid II and an additional 15,000 to 20,000 by the Ottomans in 1909.

Kershaw, author of the two-volume definitive biography of Hitler, is no revisionist historian. He tells the well-established story, with his chief contribution lying in the balance he strikes between its elements, a major feat given the scope of his subject. The broad outlines are familiar enough. The Treaty of Versailles punished a Germany that did not feel defeated. The Allies stripped Germany of 13 percent of its land, 10 percent of its population, shrank its military, and banned its air force. In addition, Germany was required to pay $442 billion in today’s dollars in war reparations. Economically, Germany could recover, Kershaw writes, "but the real damage was political and psychological"—a blow to the country’s "pride and prestige."

But if Germany was down, it was not out. Writes Kershaw: "The Paris peacemakers had contained, but not eliminated, Germany’s capacity to cause further problems. The militarism, aggressive nationalism and power ambitions that they had concluded to be the cause of the war were left dormant rather than eradicated."

In Kershaw’s analysis, four main factors, unique to Europe in the interwar years, would be responsible for the ferocity of the conflict when it came: 1) An explosion of ethnic-racist nationalism; 2) bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism; 3) acute class conflict, now given concrete focus through the Bolshevik Revolution; and 4) a protracted crisis of capitalism, which many observers thought was terminal. Kershaw writes: "The architects of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, however good their intentions, faced insuperable problems in attempting to satisfy the territorial demands of the new countries formed out of the wreckage of the old empires." President Woodrow Wilson wanted self-determination but there was no way to square this with the ethnic mix in the newly created states—in Poland, for example, nearly a third of the population were ethnic minorities. There were bitter disputes over contested borders. Add in the poisonous hatred due to the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia, and the result was "a boiling cauldron of violent animosity."

Kershaw is especially good at tracking the key role played by anti-Semitism. For all the centrality of Jew-hatred in Hitler’s worldview, Kershaw makes clear that anti-Semitism was pervasive without him. Long before Hitler, thousands of Jews were killed in pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. During World War I, as conditions deteriorated, Jews found themselves scapegoated more and more. Kershaw writes, "The multifaceted image of the Jews as the war approached its end defied parody: enemy of Christianity, capitalist exploiter, shirker of military duty, fomenter of internal unrest, driving-force of Bolshevism." And in the post-war period, as economic conditions worsened, Jews suffered especially harsh discrimination in Poland. Although Kershaw does not mention this, the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, famous for pleading with the Jews of eastern Europe in the late 1930s to leave while there was still time, did not anticipate the outbreak of World War II. Even so, he saw Poland’s anti-Semitism as potentially lethal to its three million Jews.

For Hitler, Kershaw writes, eliminating the Jews was essential to the realization of his utopian vision of a renewed nation built on racial purity. Says Kershaw: "Above all, the collapse of civilization was denoted by the German attempt to destroy physically the Jews of Europe on grounds of race alone. That this vast war had a racial project—one of genocidal destruction—at its very heart would come over time to be seen as its defining feature." Kershaw calls the fires of the death camp crematoria "almost literally the physical manifestation of hell on earth."

Kershaw has an excellent, if depressing, section on the failure of the churches, Protestant and Catholic, to speak up. In Germany, the churches remained silent about Jewish deportations, as did those in Germany’s satellite states. There were some bright spots. The Russian Orthodox Church opposed the deportation of Jews in Bulgaria. In Poland, there were Catholic priests who helped Jews. And in the Netherlands, the Catholic and Protestant clergy protested the deportations (despite this, more Jews, proportionally, were killed in Holland than in any other Western European country). While Kershaw defends Pius XII from the charge of being ‘Hitler’s Pope,’ saying he worked behind the scenes to help Jews and the Allies, he nonetheless concludes that the Pope missed an opportunity to speak out in his Christmas message of 1942, a silence which "irredeemably harmed his reputation."

For all the territorial conflicts, ethnic hatreds, ideological schisms, and economic disasters of the interwar period, would World War II have happened without Hitler? Surprisingly, it’s a question Kershaw never asks, this despite the fact that he is fond of raising questions. The German public did not want war. Part of Hitler’s propaganda skill, Kershaw asserts, was in persuading the public he sought peace (in fact, Hitler worried about his own success on this score). Even Hitler’s generals were opposed to aggression, at least until his successes exposed the weakness of the Western democracies. Perhaps Kershaw felt that if he said "No Hitler, no war," it would have detracted from his multi-faceted portrait of the factors that set the stage.

Given how strong Kershaw is overall in covering the Jewish issue, it is also surprising that he never mentions that Britain shut the gates of Palestine when the Jewish need for a refuge was most desperate (even though under terms of the League of Nations Mandate that assigned Palestine to Britain, it was supposed to create a Jewish National Home). Kershaw also describes Clement Attlee’s appointment of Ernest Bevin as foreign minister in the postwar Labour government as one of his "masterstrokes." Yet Bevin was unhinged on the topic of Palestine and did all he could to prevent Holocaust survivors from reaching its shores. His stubbornness was a major factor in Britain’s departure from Palestine in disgrace.

Kershaw’s last chapter "Out of the Ashes" is optimistic. After the war, Europe came back from the hell that almost destroyed it. In Eastern Europe, massive ethnic cleansing, vastly cruel in the immediate impact, improved the political climate; the heavy hand of the Soviet Union did the rest in subduing ethnic tensions. Western Europe, Kershaw argues, had learned its lesson and substituted institutions for economic, military, and political cooperation for the nationalism that had torn it apart.

Nonetheless, the downside of suppressing nationalism is increasingly apparent. Citizens feel they have lost control of crucial decisions to Brussels’ bureaucrats. The common currency causes strains between north and south. Mass Muslim immigration threatens to tear the EU apart, as elites, Germany’s Angela Merkel a leader among them, ride roughshod over sentiments regarding national identity and culture. Political revolts brew.

Margaret Thatcher came to believe the European project, in overreaching, would end badly. She may yet be proven right.

David Isaac   Email David | Full Bio | RSS
David Isaac is the founder of a Zionist history site, ZionismU.com.

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