To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw (Allen Lane, £30) On 3rd September 1939, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stood in the House of Commons and admitted that “Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for… has crashed into ruins.” Two days earlier, German troops had crossed into Poland. Adolf Hitler did not respond to an ultimatum to withdraw and Britain and France were at war. The conflict rapidly became global. By 1945, not only the hopes but also the lives of 40m people (including more than 25m in the Soviet Union alone) had been crushed.
This horror is at the heart of Ian Kershaw’s new history of Europe between 1914 and 1949. In 1914, David Lloyd George could claim that the nations of Europe simply “slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay.” In September 1939, the terror of what lay ahead was palpable.
Kershaw follows in the footsteps of other distinguished historians such as Mark Mazower, Richard Vinen, Harold James, and Bernard Wasserstein, in seeking to provide a political, economic and military history of the entire continent of Europe. There are no easy explanations for the disasters that overwhelmed individuals who were caught—usually through accidents of birth and geography—in the living hells fuelled by militarism, ethnic-racist politics, class conflict and economic crises. Kershaw leads his readers through this complex history in a clear and compelling manner.