The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914-1945, by Heinrich August Winkler, trans Stewart Spencer, Yale University Press, 1,016 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-0300204896
In spring 1915, less than a year into the First World War, Sigmund Freud lamented that “one of the great civilised nations [Germany] is so universally unpopular that the attempt can actually be made to exclude it from the civilised community as ‘barbaric’, although it has long proved its fitness by the magnificent contributions to that community”. The violation of international law, the invasion of Belgium and the commission of atrocities by German soldiers in Belgium and northern France had outraged opinion throughout Europe and in neutral states.
Almost thirty years later, Winston Churchill expressed his shock to Anthony Eden that “one of the leading races in Europe” could perpetrate “the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed”. In part the shock at crimes committed by the German state owed much to the perception that Germany was part of the western political and cultural tradition. Winkler takes issue with this, suggesting that German political culture had only adopted parts of what he calls the “normative project of the West”. In his history of the West, Germany occupies the central role because its geopolitical position and economic power made it the pivotal society in the contest between the West and the rest, and because German rebellions against the West did much to drive the history of the first half of the twentieth century.
An expert in the history of the Weimar republic, Winkler has already discussed the fraught relationship between Germany and western political culture in his two-volume history, Der lange Weg nach Westen (2000), which examined how Germany at the moment of reunification in 1990 finally integrated into the West as a sovereign democratic nation state. This book – translated from the German, and the second of a four-volume history of the West from ancient Greece and Rome to the present – introduces an English-speaking audience to his arguments. According to Winkler, the normative project of the West found its expression in the American and French revolutions of 1776 and 1789, which established national sovereignty and democracy as the cornerstones of a legitimate political community. Of course, other norms were inscribed in these revolutionary moments, such as civil rights, tolerance of minorities and the rule of law. Although Wstates often fell short of the ideals of these revolutions, these norms established a yardstick with which political action could be judged. Different groups, such as slaves seeking emancipation or women seeking voting rights, could stake claims to participation in within the political community by appealing to these norms.
Between 1914 and 1945, Winkler argues, the West faced its greatest challenges, in military, political, economic, and ideological terms. In over nine hundred pages of densely argued text, he guides the reader through the vicissitudes of war, revolution, economic collapse, the rise of totalitarian dictatorships, the fraying of imperial bonds and genocide. His judgments are arresting, sometimes provocative. “Early Soviet cultural politics,” he concludes, “were comparatively liberal.” The French Third Republic, he argues, survived due to the support of the middle class bourgeoisie, whereas in the Weimar republic, the middle class migrated from liberal to radical and authoritarian parties. He shows how Adolf Hitler’s decision to move to the systematic murder of the European Jews must be understood in terms of the Nazi leader’s perverse understanding of American politics and its entry to the Second World. He also offers deft juxtapositions. In early 1933, as Hitler was appointed chancellor and Franklin D Roosevelt entered the White House, the future of the West was “an open question”, he notes.
His argument seeks to balance the contingency of political events with the idea of a second Thirty Years’ War between 1914 and 1945, as catastrophic and foundational as its seventeenth century predecessor. While he echoes the aphorism of American diplomat and historian George Kennan that the First World War was the “seminal catastrophe” of the century, he avoids drawing a direct line from 1918 to the collapse of democracy in interwar Europe and the Nazi dictatorship. In his account, the global economic depression after 1929 occupies as important a place as the First World War. On the other hand, Hitler’s coming to power in Germany also owed much to long-term developments in German history, in particular what he calls the failure to synchronise the democratisation process, so that universal male suffrage existed in Germany for almost fifty years after 1871 before parliament enjoyed real political responsibility. Political parties could wallow in opposition and were not forced to make the compromises required to ensure a functioning parliamentary system until the 1920s, by which time it proved too late to establish a responsible political ethos. On the other hand, in Britain, France, and the United States, where the normative project of the West had put down deep roots, democratic systems overcame the challenge of economic depression.
At times the detail overwhelms the argument. The book is divided into multiple chapters, each addressing a particular country or group of countries in a region (such as the Baltics or the Iberian peninsula). It can veer towards description, losing sight of the analytical framework. Opportunities for reflection are sidelined by the narrative detail and pace. For example, the discussion of American entry to the First World War in 1917 ends with a reference to Franco-American celebrations of their twin eighteenth century revolutions. Yet how the claims of these revolutions were reconciled and their implications for the politics of the war are only hinted at. Likewise the “wave of authoritarian transformations” in the Baltics and eastern Europe in the 1920s receives detailed coverage, but the implications for the wider normative project of the West remain unclear.
In fact the reader could most profitably read the reflective conclusion before digging into the bulk of the text. In the conclusion, Winkler offers his most sustained analysis of the normative project of the West. In the first volume of the German original, taking the story to 1914, he had spelled out his view of the West’s political traditions. This English-language translation might have benefited from a longer introduction, giving readers a clearer understanding of Winkler’s assumptions. Nonetheless, the clear narrative, the depth of detail, and the good judgements make the book a most welcome addition to the debate about Europe in the era of the world wars.
William Mulligan is a lecturer in modern history at University College Dublin and was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin in 2013/14. His most recent book is The Great War for Peace (Yale University Press, 2014)