Notes on To Hell and Back. Europe 1914-1949 (2015) Ian Kershaw (3)

Chapter 3

The aftermath of the First World War revealed what the conflict was all about: an exhaustion of old ways of war-making. By consequence politics was also deeply affected. For Kershaw what was at stake in the period after the war, beyond the reparations and amendments, was “how, instead, did Europe lay the foundation of a dangerous ideological triad of utterly incompatible political systems competing for dominance: communism, fascism and for liberal democracy” (93). Kershaw, in a way, is trying to depict the bigger picture. The end of the first world war was the beginning of the second. Most of the pre-war conflicts were still present after the armed struggle officially ended. Class tension was still high in England. And things were worst, as the returning heroes found lack of opportunities, and very high inflation rates. While it could be argued that the period the period in-between wars was merely a deferral, this pause was significant. 

The general state of peace was but a promise written and signed in Paris with the Peace Conference. Germany was facing a radical period of transformation with the installation of a democratic republic. The many ethnicities part of the Habsburg Empire found themselves with the possibility of becoming nation states, but not all of them were able to achieve this. The violence that moved the war could be explained, but instability that many countries in Europe were facing in the aftermath of the war depicted a very different type of violence. This one “had no clear or coherent ideology. Greed, envy, thirst for material gain, desire to grab land all played their parts” (105). Kershaw does not connect these affects with other big events of this period. That, for Kershaw the general state of violence without ideology that some countries faced is disconnected from the violence in Russia, during the Bolshevik revolution, the diplomatic meetings in Paris, and the triumph of Fascism in Italy. However, as much as there was a plan that moved the Bolsheviks or an “agenda” in the meetings in Paris, perhaps everything was more improvised like the always shifting career of Benito Mussolini. What was fascism, embodied by Mussolini, but a form of politics without ideology, a form of politics that was greedy, melancholic, conservative and aggressive?

The “world of nation-states [that] was emerging” (147) was prepared to emerge. As the Great War was interpreted as a war of self-preservation, so were the negotiations, the conflicts, and general violence after the war, affairs of self-interest. These were, in fact, the new rules in town: self-conservation and to self-interest. Or perhaps, these two were always already there, always contingent, or about to emerge in the world of Empires that Europe self-disguised as. 

Notes on To Hell and Back. Europe 1914-1949 (2015) Ian Kershaw

Chapter 2

“The Great Disaster,” there is, perhaps, no better title to address the years that the armed conflict of the first world war lasted. The war was, indeed, a disaster for everyone. For Kershaw this event marked the beginning of European twentieth century (44). Indeed, this ferocious and terrible event was only the beginning of what later was going to be continued only 20 years after. While the first chapter identified 4 drives that motivated the clash, this chapter abandons any possible categorization, or reading, that can possibly capture what this war was. Weather it is understood as a “war of industrialized mass slaughter” (45), or as a total war (45), what any history of the armed conflict of the first world can only recount deaths, lands lost, people displaced. 

The task that Kershaw proposes, then, is less to try to make sense of that which precisely escapes sense, and more to simply give numbers and dates the main stage. At the same time, this recount of the chaos also trims what the image of Europe was at the beginning of the war. When discussing the situations of each front, it is noteworthy how in some cases the war was not only between “nations,” but between ethnicities. The case of the Ottoman Empire, for instance, offers a clear example on the ways the war transformed too internally the way the country functioned. The Armenians, first supported by the Russians to proclaim their independence from the Ottoman Empire, were left alone in an ethnic conflict with Turks and Kurds. Though these atrocities happened in 1913, their consequences were present for the war period (50). Same case, also told briefly, but with larger consequences, was the Russian Revolution of October. The changes of the Bolshevik revolution not only aided to finish the war but will later prove to have deep influence for Europe. What conflicts like this one prove is that the war was many wars in one. 

The will to war present at the beginning of the conflict vanished too. While in certain latitudes, like Verdun, in France, war was understood as a necessary patriotic sacrifice, this formula soon found its exhaustion. For many soldiers of all ranks it became clear that “it was probable unclear just what they were fighting for” (52). Terror propagated in all fronts, and with this many affective responses bloomed. There were soldiers who thought still on winning at all costs, others that surrendered to terror, and other who kept fighting by inertia. The war drastically changed many habits, but the old habit of warfare, for those soldiers well trained, prevailed. The days of war were for many just like any other day (63-64). There are testimonies for all tastes, and even if for Kershaw, literary accounts “can at best be impressionistic” (63), perhaps these accounts do something other than merely exaggerate or lie. 

More than ending the war, the cease of fire was the beginning of an intense period of reform. The transformation happened in all fronts. But perhaps were these transformations had stronger implications was in the figure of the state. With most of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points to build a durable peace in Europe being applied, the state found itself at a threshold were its development relied not only in the creation of a nation, but in the creation of a market. The state at the end of the first world war found itself changing its governmental reason, not only arms needed to be mass produced, but also research in general and health institutions. With the end of the Habsburg rule, after 500 years (85), “ethnic nationalism was one of the war’s main legacies” (91): the capture of the sad and happy passions that guard the unsayable affect that the the great war brought.  

Notes on To Hell and Back. Europe 1914-1949 (2015) Ian Kershaw

-This term I’m TAing a course on European History from 1900 to 1950. This book is the “textbook” for the course. These series of blog posts are notes for the discussion groups I organize for the course-

Chapter 1

Historiography is, to a certain extent, a delicate game to play. One can make connections to the present, or comment on the events that happened, but what one should always be careful of is to imply that our relations with the historical events is free of any layer that separates the event from us. History is a rotten archive. And, for sure, we always arrive to late when things have happened. In this tone, Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back (2015) acknowledges its own limitations. The book is, as we are told in the first pages, tries to offer an image of a time in history “dominated by war” (xxiii). Since war is, at its core, illegible, Kershaw argues that “a history of Europe cannot, of course, be a sum of national histories. What is at stake are the driving forces that shaped the continent as a whole in all or at least most of its constituent parts” (xxiv). Flows and forces are what move history, not a sum of events. And yet, the flows too add to one another, they come and go, shape things and dissolve them. 

What the first chapter of To Hell and Back is trying to do is to detect the flows that shaped the turbulent years previous to the first world war. As the epigraph of the paragraph tells us, “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings” (1), the things that happened at the beginning of the twentieth century are, in a way, beyond the solid and monolithic figure of the monarch. We are, as the chapter tells us repeatedly, in the age of the masses. So far, then, Kershaw has two main characters in his history of Europe: the masses, and their flows, their affects. To understand how masses and affects came together Kershaw proposes 4 interlocking motives. 1.- An explosion of ethnic-racist-nationalism. 2.- Bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial division. 3.- Acute class conflict. 4.- Protracted crisis of capitalism. The adjectives chosen could not be better, all of them are circling an idea of excess and lack, what explodes, what is irreconcilable, what is acute and what is protracted. History is not a sum of events, but it is a sum of affects. 

The first world war, from this perspective, was crisscrossed between two forms of war, the war of kings and the war of the masses. What can possibly distinguish both is the way that in a world of masses all social figures are involved, somehow, in the armed conflict. From “Eugenics” (20) as a project to exercise a power capable of expelling all negativity from “progress,” to the enthusiasm of the masses for war (39), the driving forces of history are revealing themselves to be ambivalent and yet to be willing to fight for an imagined community. The array of emotions that the war provoked (39) depicts not only that the idea of monarchy, as the main form of politics was being vanished from Europe, but also that politics was going to be a dependant aspect of what the will of the masses. As the “armies that went to war in 1914 were nineteenth-century armies [and] they were about to fight a twentieth-century war” (43), the governements that went to war in 1914 were about to witness a twentieth century politics.