Ian Kershaw – The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017
Kershaw is best known as a historian of Nazi Germany, and the author of the definitive two-volume Hitler biography. More recently, he has turned his focus to modern Europe more generally. This book concludes a two-part series. The first, gloomier half is To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949; this volume is rather sunnier.
Major themes early in the book include the fall of the Iron Curtain and rapid nuclear armament, along with all the tension and unease those developments caused. I was previously unaware of the scale of post-war migration to escape socialism. East Germany lost about 2 million people to West Germany during the 1950s, with an average of 2,300-2,400 people escaping daily until the Berlin Wall was finished in 1961.
As the book goes on, the reader realizes how deep the scars of 20th century’s first-half tumult run. The very reason for the formation of the European Community and its various iterations on up to the European Union was to prevent another world war. In line with thinkers from Montesquieu in the 18th century on up to Cordell Hull in the 20th, have argued, close trade and economic ties help to maintain peace. Economic integration will make war so costly that no country would dare attempt another round of Napoleonic conquest or, more to the point, a Third Reich.
This argument is deeply felt throughout the continent at a visceral level, something most American observers don’t see. The EU’s agricultural and regulatory policies have few defenders, but then those aren’t the EU’s raison d’etre. Understanding that dynamic is essential to understanding the Brexit debate and other debates about the EU’s future. It does not hinge on a socialism-vs.-markets debate. For most of the debate’s participants, it is instead about nationalism-vs.-cosmopolitanism, or more fundamentally, how best to prevent another World War II.
Even the Cold War was largely an echo of World War II. Most of the continent was overtaken by one of two forms of totalitarianism; communism just happened to be the one that lasted longer. In the post-war Stalin and Khrushchev years, the Soviet bloc was a feared nuclear enemy, requiring NATO and extensive U.S. involvement to keep it at bay.
But as time went on, Brezhnev-era political sclerosis took its toll while the more market-oriented West grew. The Soviet threat became gradually less scary and less stable. By the Gorbachev era, the thinking went from how to deal with nuclear fallout to how to deal with the political and economic fallout from communism’s coming collapse. An American reader might see the Europe-Russia relationship under Yeltsin as a little bit like the dynamic between the Griswold family and Uncle Eddie in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies.
Kershaw is more of a political historian than a social one, so everyday life for ordinary European people is not the focus here. Music, fashion trends, and art are mostly cordoned off into separate short chapters throughout the book, roughly one per decade. If you want to know what it was like to live there during this period, go elsewhere. But Kershaw is excellent at identifying larger historical themes and seeing how they interact and play out. Kershaw is also a talented prose stylist; this book reads quickly and easily enough for the reader to forgive its 700-page length.
Kershaw also clearly lacks substantive background in economics. He shows this in his frequent use of the term “neo-liberal,” which has no coherent definition. It is nearly always used as a pejorative, though Kershaw’s usage ranges from neutral to mildly negative, further adding to the confusion. In discussing trade issues, Kershaw adheres to the balance of payments fallacy, which would flunk him out of a freshman introductory economics course.
He also does not grasp that John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman’s differing monetary policies share a common conception of the quantity theory of money. They part ways on the ought, not so much the is. In addition, Kershaw cites Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom as Friedman’s statement on monetary theory. That book contains just one chapter out of thirteen on monetary issues. Friedman’s 800-page Monetary History of the United States, coauthored with Anna Schwartz, was his definitive work, the leading cause of his Nobel Prize, and is hardly obscure.
So long as one takes Kershaw’s attempts at economic theory and policy analysis as seriously as they deserve, this is an excellent survey of a neglected area of history that is impacting everything from today’s Brexit debate to trade relations with the United States to how Europe will deal with the rise of China as a major power.