To Hell and Back; Europe 1914-1949

To Hell and Back; Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw. Viking 2015.

To Hell and Back by the British historian, Ian Kershaw, suggests that World War I, World War II, and the intervening years can be viewed as a single period of European warfare, another Thirty Years War. Both Wars have some of the same protagonists, but different characteristics and outcomes.

Both were deadly wars, World War I for battlefield participants. World War II saw huge non-combatant casualties when cities were devastated by aerial bombardment. In WWI (the Great War) both sides settled into defensive trench warfare not unlike the last years of the American Civil War. WWII was more of a war of movement, of offenses. The Great War introduced to European warfare new weaponry: poison gases, tanks, submarines, and the beginnings of bombardment by aircraft. WWII was the opportunity for improvements in this new weaponry. Plus the use of atom bombs.

The Great War destroyed most of the European empires established in the last half of the nineteenth century: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and the Russian Empires. The inter-war years were dominated by republics: in France, Germany, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the United States of American (USA).

WWI ended with an armistice in November 1918. After four years of warfare both sides had lost confidence in their ability to “win” the War, but it had been so deadly that both sides also needed a victory to justify their expenditure of lives.  Moreover, the leadership, particularly the German military command, worried about revolution spreading from Russia to central Europe.

The fact that Germany had not been defeated on the battlefield gave rise to a “stab in the back” legend. Soldiers and their commanders had been betrayed by socialist politicians on the German home front. The military and the several right-wing parties including the Nazis considered the Versailles peace agreement in 1918 to be a Diktat, a victor’s peace. Germans were not invited to participate. They were particularly bothered by the “war guilt clause” – having to accept full responsibility for the War. An international mechanism, the League of Nations, was created to mediate conflicts among the successor states created out of the dismantled empires.

Kershaw notes that the boundaries of the successor states mapped at Versailles were based on dominant ethnic groups. Hence minorities found themselves ‘under the thumb’ of nationalist regimes often dominated by military strongmen or fascist parties.

He argues that the American contribution to inner-war instability was to export our Depression to a generally successful European economic recovery from the Great War. History, Kershaw contends, is open ended. Had the Depression not struck Europe in the early 1930s, the continent might have avoided another war.

Great Britain had been left with a leadership position it could not perform. Hence the interwar governments, mostly Conservative, pursued an “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The Munich agreement in 1938 seceded a valuable asset in Central Europe. Czechoslovakia’s security depended upon retaining the Sudetenlands inhabited largely by Germans.

Poland, with even less secure borders and also housing substantial German populations, was given a guarantee from Britain and France in March 1939. Taking no notice of that guarantee, Poland was invaded and occupied by Germany and Russia in June 1941.

Much has been written about the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of August 1939. A non-aggression pact between the two major European powers, but included the secret protocol that divided up Poland.

Stalin had no illusions about German plans. Was he hoping that the Pack would turn German aggression in a westerly direction? The Pact provided him with time to move war plants eastward and marshal his military resources to confront the well-equipped German armies. While the British Conservatives and the French were thinking in terms of various “peaceful solutions,” Stalin was organizing the eventual defeat of the German military machine.

Kershaw has included the well-known story of the Jewish holocaust that followed the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. He has added the role of the Papacy in Germany’s immense criminal act.  Hitler had negotiated a Concordat with the Papacy that was intended to protect German and other European Catholics from Nazi persecution. In return Pius XI largely maintained a public silence on the “Jewish question.” Fearing Bolshevism, there was some sympathy within Papal circles for the Italian and German fascism.

The European states were badly damaged and could not so easily bounce back after 1945, as they had following the Great War. They lacked capital to reinvest in their infrastructure and crippled industries. They had millions of housing units to rebuild. The US fashioned recovery programs such as the Marshall Plan (June 1947), named after General George Marshall then our Secretary of State. The Soviet Union blocked Eastern European participation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) established militarized borders to protect that recovery.

The alliance that had fought the War and obtained an unconditional German surrender began to squabble. By 1949 two hostile blocs had emerged.  A “Cold War” it is called and an “iron curtain” divided the former allies.


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