The only cer­tainty is un­cer­tainty, con­cludes the his­to­rian of Eu­rope’s com­plex post­war trans­for­ma­tions

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Christo­pher Kis­sane

Ian Ker­shaw de­scribed his last in­stal­ment in the Pen­guin His­tory of Eu­rope se­ries ( To Hell and Back, on 1914 to 1949) as “the hard­est book I had ever at­tempted”. “That was,” he adds in this fi­nal vol­ume, “un­til this book.” The re­cent past presents par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges for his­to­ri­ans.

In 1950, Eu­rope was wrecked by war, em­broiled in the messy end­ing of em­pires. Re­cov­ery was “not just ex­tra­or­di­nary but unique” thanks to de­mo­graph­ics, re­con­struc­tion, freer trade and a new in­dus­trial consumerism.

Yet from Lübeck to Tri­este, an iron cur­tain di­vided the con­ti­nent. Rhetoric of rev­o­lu­tion and com­mu­nist utopia was hol­low jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for au­thor­i­tar­ian states.

In the west, the age of boom was also one of po­lit­i­cal con­ser­vatism and an em­pha­sis on sta­bil­ity. The par­tic­u­lar eco­nomic cir­cum­stances could not last, and frus­tra­tion grew among young peo­ple. “We don’t want to find a place in this so­ci­ety,” ex­plained an Ital­ian stu­dent dur­ing the protests of 1968, “we want to cre­ate a so­ci­ety in which it is worth­while find­ing a place.”

Eu­rope even­tu­ally reached “the turn”, when the post­war eco­nomic model dra­mat­i­cally stalled. In­ter­na­tional con­di­tions – not least the oil shocks – severely nar­rowed the op­tions of many gov­ern­ments: “There is no al­ter­na­tive,” Mar­garet Thatcher said of her “ne­olib­eral” pre­scrip­tions. On the other side of the cold war, the eco­nomic chal­lenges were even greater, and there, too, a rad­i­cal shift be­gan: “No other path is avail­able to us,” Mikhail Gor­bachev said of per­e­stroika.

At times, Ker­shaw seems to take the pri­macy of pol­i­tics too far: more cul­ture and more voices would have been wel­come, but his abil­ity to cre­ate a co­her­ent his­tory of trans­for­ma­tion is im­pres­sive.

Eu­rope to­day, he points out, is “more peace­ful, more pros­per­ous and more free than at any time in its long his­tory”, but old sores still fester: in­equal­i­ties per­sist; au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism is ris­ing; eco­nomic and mi­gra­tion crises have re­vealed the lim­its of sol­i­dar­ity. Ker­shaw be­lieves “the obit­u­ary of the na­tion state” was writ­ten pre­ma­turely. He is too wise to pre­dict the fu­ture, not­ing that “the only cer­tainty is un­cer­tainty”. by Ian Ker­shaw, Allen Lane, £30

To buy Roller-Coaster for £26.40 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Roller-Coaster: Eu­rope, 1950-2017

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