“To Hell and Back” is a suitably hefty history of Europe from just before World War I to 1949. The era, as we are all aware, was marked by calamities of an order that could scarcely be imagined a little over 100 years ago. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austria Hungarian Empire in the summer of 1914 set off a chain reaction that ultimately led to conflagration.
The dominoes of history were just beginning to fall: In clicketyclack fashion they would continue to tumble through the death of several monarchies, through the advent of the world’s first Soviet regime in Russia, the fall of Germany, the failures of a number of fledgling democracies, the rise of fascism in Italy, the rise of Hitler in Germany, failed treaties, the Great Depression, dictators assuming power in European nations from Spain to the Black Sea.
Finally, coming back inexorably to the re-emergence of a powerful Germany, another trip of its armies across Belgium, a second world war, this time accompanied by the horrors of Shoah.
British historian Ian Kershaw has all the chops necessary to tell this massive story. A much honored writer and professor of European history — he was knighted in 2002 and is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society — Kershaw is perhaps best known as a scholar of Hitler and Germany between the wars. The two volumes of his biography of the Führer have won wide praise, as have his studies of the power structures and internal functioning of Germany under Hitler’s command.
In “To Hell and Back,” Kershaw’s scholarly concentration on Germany is evident, but he is also faithful to the wider scope of his subject — sometimes too faithful. There are moments in this large history when its devotion to descriptions of the political, economic and social conditions of all the states of Europe, large and small, seems like an obligation to someone other than the reader.
And, too, the extensive research on the functions and failures of the many governments of Europe detailed in the book could have used more anecdotal and less technical support in the telling. Too often missing in this history is a sense of the human cost of these catastrophic years.
“To Hell and Back” is the first of a two-volume history of Europe in the 20th century from Kershaw. It is part of the Penguin History of Europe series. Kershaw’s second book will commence where this one leaves off — with the beginnings of the Cold War. It will proceed to the end of the century.
Tim Brady is a writer in St. Paul. His most recent book was “A Death in San Pietro.”