Ian Kershaw enters a crowded field with To Hell and Back, the first instalment of a two-volume history of Europe’s horrendous 20th century. Anyone interested in the period already has a formidable canon of historical works from which to choose, including Eric Hobsbawm’s monumental Age of Extremes, Mark Mazower’s brilliant Dark Continent and Niall Ferguson’s provocative The War of the World. The bloody first half of the century – the subject of To Hell and Back – has captured especial attention. This awful period was stamped by the shattering of a long peace by the two vicious world wars, totalitarian dictatorships’ perversion of the modern state to realise radical ideological visions and the lasting moral stain of genocide. It’s hardly surprising that it holds such fascination, for these decades displayed human nature at both its most evil and its most altruistic, and they laid the foundations of a new international order, much of which still persists today.
The general thrust of Kershaw’s history (the second volume is yet to be written) is more optimistic than most: he seeks to understand how Europe picked itself up from the vast self-inflicted catastrophe of the first half of the century, to enjoy, in its western part at least, an era of ‘previously unimaginable stability and prosperity’. However, optimism is in short supply in this first volume, which deals with Europe’s self-evisceration, detailing just how completely the continent destroyed itself and plumbed new depths of hatred, prejudice and violence. Kershaw argues that four interlocking factors were responsible. First, there was ‘an explosion of ethno-racist nationalism’, exacerbated by (the second factor) ‘bitter and