The Wheels Come Off
The Europe of 1914, at least for its bourgeoisie, represented the height of civilization, the “Belle Époque” if you will. And of a sudden the wheels fell off the track and the continent plunged into the darkness The Great War. British historian Ian Kershaw certainly proves George Kennan’s maxim that World War I was “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th Century.” The war arose in the milieu of ethnic nationalism, territorial revisionism and increasing class conflict growing out of mass industrialization. These three factors would remain long after the war ended and into this pot would be thrown the crisis in capitalism induced by the Great Depression.
Also arising out of the war was the successful Bolshevik Revolution that sent chills down the spines of the conservative elite. To Kershaw this was the most important event of the 20th Century because the very real fear of communism made opposition to the rise of fascism far more difficult in the West. It hardened the right and split the left.
As a result the crisis in capitalism forced politics to the right rather than the left which is not too much different from what happened post-2008. Thus the West’s response to the rise of fascism was timid, to say the least with respect to Germany’s re-occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the Spanish Civil War and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938. All the while the great purge trials were going on in Moscow.
Kershaw’s view of this history seems more deterministic than say that of Zara Steiner’s. To him there is more or less a straight-line between the Versailles settlements to the start of World War II. To be sure he gives credit to “the spirit of Locarno,” but not enough in my opinion. He also leaves out two chance events that may have altered history. The first is outside his topic and that was the premature death of New York Federal Reserve President in 1928. Had he lived, in the minds of more than a few economists the worst effects of the Great Depression might have been avoided. Within his bailiwick was again the premature death of German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in October 1929. If there ever were a German politician who could have stopped Hitler, it was Stresemann.
Kershaw brings the holocaust to the forefront in Hitler’s war of annihilation in the East in his coverage of World War II. Simply put Hitler wanted to conquer the West, but he wanted to destroy the East. He almost succeeded.
Kershaw finishes his book with the beginnings of the postwar recovery, the role of the Marshall plan and the start of the Cold War. By 1949 Europe is central to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but its power is but a shadow of its former self. Kershaw has done an excellent job in portraying this epochal period that this review hardly does justice to.
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