In a footnote on page 361 of this ambitious work, Ian Kershaw confesses that he ‘entirely missed the world-historical events’ of 9 November 1989, though he was living in West Berlin at the time. A dedicated professor, he spent that evening in a pub with an American PhD student, discussing his thesis, ‘oblivious to what was taking place a mile away’. Only a phone call from his wife in Manchester, who had seen the Wall come down on the nine o’clock news, alerted him to the situation. Professors, of course, are not there to make history, or even to witness it, but to interpret it afterwards.
Kershaw rises admirably to the challenge of making analytical and narrative sense of the decades between the period of postwar recovery and the crisis-ridden present, taking up where To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914–1949 finished. Whereas, he says, the earlier volume ended on an upbeat note, the tone at the close of this study is more ambivalent (one might even say pessimistic). It is very different from accounts of European history published at the turn of the millennium, written during the so-called ‘holiday from history’ between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent (1998) ends with globalisation, the collapse of communism and the victory of democracy and the free market; Richard Vinen’s A History in Fragments (2000) also concludes with the end of communism, to which are added the triumph of a European elite and the recognition of gay rights.