How are we to explain the continent’s remarkable rebirth after the war?by Jonathan Derbyshire / December 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
Women celebrate celebrating the liberation of Denmark in Copenhagen, 5 May 1945 ©National Museum of Denmark The historian Ian Kershaw is the author of an acclaimed two-volume biography of Hitler. His latest book, “To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949”, is the first in a two-volume history of modern Europe (and is part of Penguin’s “History of Europe” series, edited by David Cannadine). This volume ends in 1949, just as the reconstruction of Europe after what Kershaw calls the continent’s “self-destruction” is beginning. Its successor will take him up to the present day. I spoke to Kershaw in London in the autumn and began by asking him why he decided to end this part of the story in 1949, rather than the more obvious punctuation point of 1945, when hostilities formally ended. IK: 1945 is the obvious place to stop. And I thought of stopping there. 1946-49 is a transitional era. In 1946, just after the war, Europe’s in terrible shape. It seems unthinkable that Europe would recover so rapidly from that catastrophe. I thought I would take the story on to see how the beginnings of a new era were possible. A German friend said to me: “Very nice, you’ve ended with the creation of two Germanys in 1949.” Ian Kershaw in 2012. ©Amrei-Marie, cropped by Beyond My Ken JD: But presumably, in the first instance, that period was concerned more with reckoning than with reconstruction? Yes, initially. The first phase was to do with the reckoning, and naturally enough, in all these [European] countries, the first stage after the liberation was, “Now we have to have a reckoning with the people who brought us to catastrophe.” That was done in different ways, as I try to outline [in the book]. But quite rapidly, as the Cold War begins to set in, they turn to questions of reconstruction. You can see this also in foreign policy, with the emergence of Nato. In economic terms, [western European countries] are asking if it makes sense to keep Germany on its knees—you need Germany for economic recovery. So the whole thing turns quite swiftly. You move from a period of recrimination and reckoning to one of rebuilding. You write that “denazification” was largely a failure. Why was that? And what were the consequences? The answer to the first question is that the logistics were totally impossible. In [countries other than Germany] you were dealing with a tiny number of collaborators and you could sort them out relatively quickly. In Germany, where millions of people were involved in one way or another with the Nazis, how could you have gone about the same process? They [the Allies] couldn’t do it. Whatever intentions they started out with, in a year or two it [was clear] that it was more important to get [Germany] stabilised in terms of building a bulwark against Soviet Communism. So the drive rapidly went out of the denazification process. What were the consequences? Well, an obvious consequence—and the same was true in Austria—was that large numbers of people who’d been involved in pretty shady things got away with it. They were reintegrated into society or had their crimes hushed up. Stabilising democracy was seen as more important than rooting out the Nazis in their midst. So you had this period of self-imposed collective amnesia, because the future, it was thought, was more important than the past. That unfinished business becomes particularly contentious in Germany in the mid-to-late Sixties doesn’t it? The student unrest in May ’68 in Germany was in part an attempt to begin an overdue reckoning with it. It had started a bit before with the Eichmann trial [in Israel in 1961-62] and the Auschwitz trials [in Germany in 1963-65]. So people’s eyes had been opened. Then you had a new generation coming along and the ’68 student demonstrations when attention is turned towards Nazism in a way that it hadn’t been before.