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