A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century

Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century
Konrad H. Jarausch
Princeton University Press  850pp  £27.95

Few historians could be better qualified to write this book than the author. Born in Berlin, losing his father on the Eastern Front in the Second World War and emigrating across the Atlantic soon afterwards, Jarausch is in an excellent position to take a clear view of Europe from the US. In spite of harrowing memories, he retains a positive attitude to his native continent, believing that it provides some lessons to the rest of the world.

So this is a good book to get your teeth into, as it contains a stimulating interpretation as well as telling a story. Jarausch takes as his starting point the concept of modernisation, defying criticism of it as Eurocentric, although accepting that it has enough of a dark side to constitute an intellectual problem rather than a widespread aspiration. The ensuing argument is not difficult to follow for the most part, although the observation that Stalinist culture’s ‘voluntaristic revision of structural theory acquired mythical proportions’ is an example of a small number of passages that will be too much for some readers.

There are four parts. The first takes us from 1900 to 1929 and is entitled Promise of Progress. It begins by pointing out that Europe was in many ways the centre of the world at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the promise of continued progress was broken from 1914 to 1918 with the First World War, I would argue, rather than in 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression, as Jarausch claims. While the Versailles Treaty’s failing to restore Europe’s pre-eminence receives full mention, there is neglect of the equally important Washington Treaties establishing the global influence of the US.

There can be little quarrel with the label Turn to Self-Destruction, 1929 to 1945, although arguably Europe took a direct route from one world war to another. In this regard, the potential escape route via the Anglo-French-Soviet talks of August 1939 might have been given more of a mention: their failure was due to Anglo-French as well as Soviet suspicion. However, one can only applaud Jarausch for his insistence that the Second World War in Europe was decided on the Eastern Front and that ‘it is necessary to stop treating the Holocaust as metahistorical morality tale and to reinsert it into the actual historical setting’, recognising that ‘anti-Slavic, antisemitic, and anti-communist phobias converged and mutually reinforced one another.’ 

Surprising Recovery from 1945 to 1973 must indeed have been surprising to those who experienced the total ruin of the war’s end. Jarausch engagingly enlarges on his assertion that the Cold War was much more than a military confrontation, but economic and cultural, too. He sympathetically records the disappointments of decolonisation. He charts the process of European integration with an enthusiasm modified by realism. The final part, Confronting Globalization, 1973 to 2000, begins with a description of a German demonstration against the construction of a nuclear reactor. This was significant, but the year 1968 might have been a better choice because of its more widespread protests. 

The book’s conclusion is put clearly and comprehensively, but is over-optimistic. The suggestion that the rest of the world might take Europe as its model is unlikely in any respect, while the threat posed by climate change and potential global war is greater than it appears here. It would be going too far, however, to suggest that a better overall title would have been ‘Ashes to Ashes.’

As well as considering modernisation from many points of view, Jarausch also looks, in a knowledgeable and incisive manner, at the various shapes and forms of modernism and other artistic movements. For example, I particularly enjoyed his appraisal of Gustav Mahler’s late Romantic ‘interminable symphonies, with their threatening dissonant crescendos … balanced by pleasing strains of folklike melody’. How many of us would agree, I wonder?   

Paul Dukes is the author of Paths to a New Europe (Palgrave, 2004) and A History of the Urals (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).


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