Roller-Coaster (Europe 1950-2017) – Sir Ian Kershaw


Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to speak to you about “Roller-Coaster – Europe 1950-2017” a book by British historian Sir Ian Kershaw on the story of Europe and in superimposition the European Union and its predecessors in the years following WWII to our days. IK is one of the leading British historians today having made his mark with “Hitler” and “The End”, the former depicting the rise and years in power of the fateful German dictator and the latter going into the fall of Nazi Germany in late 1944 and early 1945. It is a fascinating book all the more for those who were alive during the period but were too close to it to understand it fully. It is a monumental book that captures the road traveled for 70 years focusing on its main themes but also providing ample details at many relevant levels. It is also a very timely opus at a time when the EU is going through struggling times and Britain is in the midst of dealing with Brexit in what is the most important crisis of its post-WWII history. While IK goes through modern European story and the major world events that impacted it, starting with the Korean war, he also spends time on the societal changes that took place in Europe and the world and altered perceptions of race, gender, religious belief and many features of humanity.  Incidentally this book is clearly important to understand where the EU (and its predecessors) comes from and has achieved for its member countries’s populations especially in times when easy attacks against its very nature and institutions fuse from extremist parties wanting to win elections in pointing the finger “outside”, this time to Bruxelles as the source of all ills in a well-tested fashion.

Looking at the various chapters of IK’s great book, which is a gold mine for all the detailed events that took place since 1950 in Europe, it should be fair that my comments are tainted by my own analysis of these though bearing in mind that IK and I would belong to a broadly similar camp of thoughts. In any case, the book is a must read for anyone wanting to get a very thorough account of that period of European history, especially for the younger generations who have not lived through it and thus lack historical memory to understand our times.      

In The Tense Divide, IK brings us to the real start of the Cold War with a world dividing itself in two hostile camps years only after the greatest onslaught in the history of humankind with far out events affecting Europe very directly and organisations such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) or the quickly aborted EDC (European Defence Community) being set up, the former as a US-led Western response to the Soviet threat in Europe. Interestingly the US already thought Europeans were not doing enough cost-wise to defend themselves while many European countries were wary of getting West Germany rearmed, the latter which did not really happen even if it contributed in other ways. It is the time of the nuclear weapon and space races which will redefine what war would mean. We are reminded of nuggets such as the Soviet Union wanting to join NATO for tactical reasons only to be rejected while the famed “missile gap” becomes a major driver for the US hawks like John F. Dulles to engage the Soviets only to realise much later that the US had 17 times more usable nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union when JFK entered the White House. It is a time of fear and resolve and one where conflicting forces seek to shape the future of a new, post-war Europe and world when the former still held centerstage in global affairs.     

In The Making of Western Europe, IK goes through the European project which should be a great reading for our times when it is under attack with Brexit and extremist parties even if counter-intuitively polls today show that there is an increasing majority of citizens of EU member countries supporting the EU. It shows the incremental steps, initially focused on coal and steel but growing wider and the key roles played by the main proponents of Europe such as Konrad Adenauer or Jean Monnet with their “never again” overriding peace driver especially between France and Germany that had been at war three times (if we include Prussia) since 1870. It is actually amazing to see that this construction of a new Europe takes place involving the fiercest earlier foes only years after WWII and in spite of all the atrocities that were unleashed. Reason seems to prevail with a departure from wanting to make the loser, all the more given what it stood for, “pay” like at Versailles in 1919, also as another mega-conflict looms and all hands will be needed on deck.    

In The Clamp, IK goes through the less than smooth tightening of the Soviet noose over all of Central and Eastern Europe and how that process went with the Yugoslav break-up (1948) and eruptions of nationalistic backlash in Berlin (1953), Budapest (1956), Prague (1968) and later in Warsaw (1981) with various degrees of bloodshed. Unlike today nationalism in the East was associated with patriotism and a fight for independence. The Communist parties throughout Central & Eastern Europe win elections like in Czechoslovakia and tighten the noose while gradually eliminating any dissent. This approach is also tried in Western Europe, like France and Italy, where the local Communist parties are the strongest in the political landscape and basking in the WWII victory also enabled by Soviet forces but will ultimately fail.         

In Good Times, IK goes through the economic prosperity associated with the post-war era, this for 30 years roughly until the 1973 oil shock and was named in France “Les Trente Glorieuses” (the glorious thirty). It was a time of societal advancement where people could climb up the ladder (a distant memory for our times and many as judged by the recent Yellow Vests uprising in France) even if some countries like Britain suffered shortages for many years until the fifties. It is a time when households can afford the new tools of prosperity like a television or a washing machine and cars become affordable and an increasing social status symbol across Western Europe and particularly its leading economies.  

In Culture after the Catastrophe, IK reviews the changes in the art, literature, theatre, music, religious attitudes and popular culture that took place in Europe against a Cold War backdrop. European culture during the 1950-1970 prosperity era in the West looked into the future with an increasing optimism. There was a deep sense that mankind coud achieve anything with an almost religious belief in science as exemplified by military-led early space exploration and the many advancements in medicine. Pop music becomes the ubiquitous medium and universal language of the youth which listen to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the West but also increasingly beyond the Iron Curtain representing the first signs of what would become an irreversible freedom course in later years. All is not easy as Europe goes from an unremitting despair brought by the greatest slaughter it ever knew to reach a present day of shallowness of the beginning of a materialistic consumer society that people equate with happiness. Some cannot forget as shown with the famed line of philosopher Theodor Adorno: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” which encapsulates the struggle between the shadow of the past and the desire to break from that past and also its values. Most people wanted to forget and not revisit past misery, squarely looking at the future. In the 1950s and 1960s interest in the two world wars and the Holocaust were actually much lower than in the last quarter of the century as if the memories were too vivid and impossible to handle.      

In Challenges, IK deals with the strong “political turbulence” experienced, west and east, during the late sixties in quite different ways. In the West with the student protests and riots and the request for more individual freedoms of being. In the East with the Prague Spring and the quest for national freedom. The turbulence did not last for very long but had a deep impact especially beyond the Iron Curtain and was a prelude to the eventual fall of the Soviet bloc, which reacted quite harshly to this evolution and demand for freedom. The Invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was the last lesson the Soviets imparted on its bloc in Europe that led to a strengthening of all the regimes in the region, some mixing it with some superficial gifts of freedom (Poland and Hungary) with strong doses of local nationalism. In Western Europe, the changes brought by the student protests and their revendications for “other values” came at a time when the economic boom would stall, creating a different backdrop for a new age.          

In The Turn, IK focuses on the end of the good times and indeed the 1973 oil shock that prompted the end of the long lasting post-war boom at many economic and societal levels with the “negative primacy of economics” taking hold. Incidentally the oil shock of 1973 propelled  the oil barrel from USD 2.76 to USD 9.76 while the second oil shock set the barrel to USD 50 with its massive adverse economic impact, a level which in a crashing oil market in 2018 is considered abysmally low forty years on but in a much different and heavily globalised economy. This is the end of optimism that had characterised the previous two decades but the period also carries its fair share of positive developments with the peaceful end of authoritarian regimes in Spain, Portugal and Greece. The seventies appear as a transition decade also market by a “detente” between the superpowers and their two camps only to end when a “second Cold War” seems to start with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and at the beginning of the eighties as the Soviet Union struggles to find a path forward at the end of the Brezhnev era that will herald a quick succession of caretaker leaders until Gorbachev.    

In Easterly Wind of Change, IK focuses on Mikhail Gorbatchev, the new Soviet leader as of March 1985, and Perestroika (reconstruction) which would change the nature of the ossified Soviet Union ultimately to a point of extinction on 25th December 1991 after its sphere had already collapsed after its own regional bloc in late 1989. This chapter is key as it marks the end of a divided Europe and indeed a world which for ten years will be globally unipolar and growing with the US at its helm, this without major crises in Europe with the notable exception of the Balkan wars pitting former Yugoslav states against each other and reminding the world of atrocities not seen on the old continent since WWII. While the world grows linearly and without major troubles, other powers start slowly emerging like China while a chaotic post-Soviet while Yeltsin-led Russia feels increasingly neglected by the world leader and Cold War winner, paving the way for a resurgent power seeking back its national pride under Putin.  

In Power of the People, IK deals with the period 1989-1991, which many of us lived through and was a true European revolution, largely fresh of bloodshed, enabled by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbatchev and combined by the power of the people in all the nations of Central & Eastern Europe under Soviet control. Such a revolution was enabled by the gradual disintegration of the Soviet Union whose leadership allowed for the collapse of its satellites states throughout CEE. There had been a prelude in 1980 with the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement that was later banned but was a catalyst for many in the Soviet Bloc. In late 1989 all the Soviet satellite regimes collapsed one after the other in a very short time period, most peacefully, like the DDR (with the actual Berlin Wall collapse), Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, some more bloodily like Romania where 1,000 lost their lives, including leader Nikolai Ceaucescu and his wife. German reunification quickly ensued even if serious concerns were initially raised by Britain and France but also the Netherlands remembering a strong Germany and its habits of overreaching. Ultimately that revolution would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, which its leader who had put the whole winds of change in motion had never wanted and would even regret.      

In New Beginnings, IK focuses on the early years of transition following the end of the European divide which after a period of joy shifted to ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia and a feeling of misplaced hopes of rapid life changes for the populations of CEE that were faced with a strong economic transition while Western Europe was trying to unite more through the EU and the changes heralded by the Maastricht treaty. These new beginnings marked by challenging and hopeful developments would go on until 9-11 in New York which were the real start of a new century with a markedly different agenda where Islamic fundamentalism, once barely noticed, would be the new challenge for the West and indeed Europe.   

In Global Exposure, IK goes through the dual narrative of the West’s fight against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism (and its consequences such as the invasion of Iraq and the unsettling of the Middle East) as well as the advent of a globalised world which would in turn bring its many political and economic challenges. A greater number of ordinary Europeans become more aware of the intrusion of the rest of the world into their lives, this being maximised by the rapid spread of the internet. The new millenium was marked by two deep societal events: i) The 9-11 attacks albeit on US soil had a profound impact on Europe beyond the devastating introduction of Islamic Terrorism for the US in terms of attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism and ii) the arrival of the globalised economy and its pervasive effects on everyday life all enhanced by computer technology developments and the vast expansion of a deregulated financial sector, all with instantaneous connectivity across the globe, creating an interconnected and interdependent world as never before and relying upon the credo that it would bring both growth and peace as nations that trade prosper and don’t make war.         

In Crisis Years, IK addresses the economic crisis dubbed the “Great Recession” that started in 2008 which was a turning point in the positive story behind globalisation and free markets, particularly financial. The Greek crisis as major test for the Greek people but even more so for EU resilience with the first attack on the German continental view of the future and the globalisation credo led by Alexis Tsipras (who would, like Matteo Salvini today, be more concilient later on) and Yanis Varoufakis (who would never relent even after leaving office while aptly marketing his message through lucrative books and speech tours).  The Syrian war that takes place at the end of the Arab Spring, itself a consequence of the US desire to reshape the Middle East in the 2000s leads to the most massive influx of migrants from various regions into Europe, creating crisis points notably in Italy. This massive influx of migrants in 2015 leads Germany and Angela Merkel to open borders based both on humanitarian reasons but more so on quasi-existential demographic shortages, this leading to strong opposition and the rise of populist movements across Europe. Russia finally reasserts control of its historical near abroad, scuppering EU dreams of eastern expansion, by seizing control of Ukrainian Crimea albeit a Russian-populated area and starts supporting separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, prompting the beginning of a new quasi-Cold War with sanctions being levelled at Russia and its oligarchs’ interests globally. Brexit, once unthinkable, becomes the potential future of Britain in June 2016 after a referendum that was not needed and a campaign where facts were markedly low and emotions high on both sides.   IK finishes his book addressing what is a “new era of insecurity” where history is “now” as we live through events unfolding in front of our eyes, at times too close to the action to fully understand them while being peppered by news, often via now omnipresent social media, that project news that are either increasingly biased and fact-less or far too many to absorb. Europe has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs with a heady mixture of great achievements, severe disappointments and even disasters. Europe abruptly left the insecurity of the Cold War to reach the insecurity of the multi-facetted crisis of the last decade with the strong economic blows of the Great Recession, the multiple Al-Qaeda and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks on its soil, an externally resurgent Russia looking for a lost role, an overtly and determined ambitious China on the path for global leadership and now the rise of populism under its many forms filled by fears of the adverse impacts of globalisation, uncontrolled immigration and an ever technology-driven world altering minds and eating jobs while creating social divides between its elites and the “left outs”. Europeans should however remember that they are now living peacefully, in freedom and under the rule of law especially those residing in EU-member states and as an integral part of the leading economic bloc in the world, some of us at times forgetting what they take for granted.  
I highly recommend this book as for some of us born and living in that old world and regardless of nations, it is about who we are, Europeans.  

Warmest regards,

Serge Desprat- Dec 28, 2018 (Prague)