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“Perfect and private things”: a short story by John Burnside

An exclusive short story for the New Statesman by poet and author John Burnside.

At two o’clock, on the last Friday of every spring semester, Amanda Bax would make her way along the High Street, pausing occasionally for a perfunctory and, in some cases, barely intelligible exchange with a passing colleague or one of her soon-to-be-former students, before disappearing, not just metaphorically but – in something close to a vanishing act that delighted her every time – almost literally, into the florist’s on Blackberry Lane. She had been doing this now for 13 years, but today – which also happened to be her birthday – it felt no less strange and sensual a pleasure than it had the first time around: the little shop, damped down against the summer heat, was, as always, a wall of perfumes and thick, humid shadows, the floor and the long water-stained counter a profusion of roses and stocks and gypsophila, and little Elspeth, white-faced and abstracted, like an illustration from some old fairy tale, busy at the back table in a nest of flower bottles and polypropylene ribbon, assembling bouquets for weddings and exam dinners, her blue-black hair streaked randomly with sap and pollen. By now, Elspeth was used to Amanda’s yearly ritual, but she didn’t know its purpose: one of those innocents who can only survive in certain more or less isolated vocations, she thought the large bouquet of red roses that Amanda carefully picked out and sent, without a greeting, to a different young man every year, was nothing more than a kindly gesture, a small memento from a dedicated teacher to a particularly intelligent, or particularly well-mannered, student.

As it happened, nothing could have been further from the truth, but Amanda had no desire to let Elspeth in on her secret – and she was grateful that the tiny, elf-faced woman who made up her order, in what could only be described as a near-reverent silence, appeared to have no further interest in this transaction than the usual consolation of customer satisfaction. Elspeth, Amanda knew, was religious – she read obscure tracts in her little storeroom-cum-kitchen at the back of the shop when business was slow and she had once offered up a small, rather faded pamphlet on the Manichean controversy for Amanda’s consideration, back in the early and less fastidious days of their business together, but Amanda did not think – could not, in fact, imagine – her as churchgoing. The idea of Elspeth in a good winter coat and a hat, standing among the other worthies in the nave of St Salvator’s seemed to Amanda just as unlikely as the idea that she might have a sex life; and, sure enough, their long, if somewhat reserved acquaintance had revealed that Elspeth was, in fact, both a confirmed spinster and something of a spiritual dissenter – on which, had she been inclined to break the terms of their now almost perfect customer-client privilege, Amanda would have been more inclined to congratulate the little florist than to commiserate with her. Amanda was herself married and she had learned long ago that matrimony was not so much the occasion of romantic desire as its final and inescapable cure.

“These just arrived,” Elspeth said quietly, as she laid out a box of deep-red, almost crimson roses. “I always get something special in for . . . Well . . .” The woman looked at Amanda, with just a hint of dismay in her face.

Amanda nodded. She knew the florist had nothing but good intentions and that she wasn’t trying to start an inappropriate conversation, in order to pry. “They’re lovely,” she said. “Two dozen of those would be perfect.”

“And gypsophila?” The florist looked up at her enquiringly, then immediately bowed her head. Amanda thought she detected the smallest trace of a blush in that chalk-white face. She didn’t like the smell of gypsophila, but they added something – a neither-here-nor-there quality that contrasted sharply with the blood-coloured roses – and she always had a little, just to lighten the bouquet. “Oh, yes,” she said, her voice no more than a satisfied murmur, directed mostly to herself. “Most definitely. Gypsophila.”


Sending the flowers was a break in her normal day-to-day routine but it was nothing compared to the ritual she observed, directly upon leaving the shop. It was a ritual that, for several reasons, she preferred to observe alone – usually the simplest thing in the world to arrange except that on this particular morning, halfway through breakfast, Simon had suddenly asked, quite out of the blue, if she wanted to meet up after his last tutorial of the year and go to the Westport for a drink. He had made this suggestion while she was about to pour the tea and, for one delicious moment, she considered spilling the hot liquid over his outstretched hand and the sleeve of his natty hound’s-tooth jacket – quite accidentally, of course – before pulling herself together and fashioning a more or less unlikely excuse. Fortunately, the one good thing about marriage, after it passed the ten-year stage, at least, was that excuses no longer needed to be plausible. Simon knew she wasn’t seeing anyone else – had he considered the idea for a moment, he would only have found it amusing – and it was easier on them both if she claimed a prior “postgraduate pastoral meeting” or an impending deadline, rather than simply admitting what she knew for certain, and suspected that he suspected, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, that she would rather stand up to her neck in slurry for a week than sit with him for a perfunctory birthday drink in some café-bar while he eyed up the waitress.

Still, it had been a close call. If he’d arranged something that involved someone else – some kind of celebration with Matt and Sarah, for example – she wouldn’t have been able to get out of it so easily and she couldn’t help lingering for a moment over his basic lack of tact. Didn’t he know how their life was organised by now? What could possibly have prompted him to suggest they go out together – by themselves? Didn’t he understand the unspoken rules that, as far as she had understood, they had contrived, in a tacit mutual exercise in trial and error, to build conveniently separate lives? For a long moment, after he had returned to his copy of the Times Ed, she considered him with something close to rage. Or not rage, so much as loathing. She had married Simon when he was a rising star in academic circles but he had stopped rising long ago and settled, not altogether deliberately, for comfort. Now he worked in the cultural studies department of the respectable, but unexciting new university where she, the perennial academic wife, had first taken a part-time post teaching modern poetry – she had written her doctoral Weldon Kees and enjoyed reciting the opening lines of Kees’s heartbreaking elegy, “The Smiles of the Bathers” to her startled
students when they first arrived for her “US Poetry in the Twentieth Century” module:

The smiles of the bathers fade as they leave the water,
And the lover feels sadness fall as it ends, as he leaves his love.
The scholar, closing his book as the midnight clock strikes, is hollow and old;
The pilot’s relief on landing is no release.
These perfect and private things, walling us in, have imperfect and public endings –  
Water and wind and flight, remembered words and the act of love
Are but interruptions. And the world, like a beast, impatient and quick,
Waits only for those who are dead. No death for you. You are involved.

She loved that poem and, with this untimely and unexplained recital – followed immediately, after the briefest pause for effect, by a taking of the class roll – established herself as an eccentric among the students, and so, if not liked, then at least regarded. Eventually, she had drifted into teaching full time and, during the occasional unexpectedly stimulating class, she actually enjoyed it, becoming more caught up in her professional existence with each new failure in her marriage, till all she and Simon had in common were New Year’s parties with a handful of similarly faded colleagues and the occasional dinner with Matt and Sarah, who both worked in art history and were too wrapped up in their research interests – abstract expressionism and pre-Columbian pottery, respectively – to notice that their closest friends could barely sit in the same room together for more than a couple of hours at a time. What couldn’t be concealed, however, was the long-term hiatus in Simon’s professional standing, and his recent lack of worthwhile publications. For a long time, he had traded on the reputation of his one good book – a more or less Marxist study of Robert Louis Stevenson – but that flame had burned out long ago and all that remained was the confidence he had acquired during his brief but, to him, utterly deserved period of high standing. The book’s thesis – that RLS was, in effect, Scotland’s Goethe – had been cobbled together from a close reading of Marshall Berman, a probable misinterpretation of The Strange Case of, and youthful arrogance; and went something along the lines that, with the Jekyll/Hyde paradigm, Stevenson had gone one better on the Faust-Mephistopheles pairing, claiming that, in response to the high period of modernity, what had been a post- Enlightenment vision of intellect set against and complemented by raw power had been resolved by RLS into an essentially schizoid model, where the hero, instead of being assisted by some supernatural force from without, was left alone with himself, divided perhaps between intellect and id, but divided inside the single, riven soul of a truly modern man, for whom human nature has become at once a monster and a liberator. So far, Amanda supposed, so run of the mill, but Simon had then cobbled together a Marxist interpretation of this schismatic self that, apparently, nobody had ever though of before – perhaps because most people had better things to do with their time. Of course, in the early days, she had tried to see the brilliance of her new husband’s thesis but she had never been altogether convinced and now, a decade and a half later, she had come to the conclusion that the only regrets she had – not just in this case, but in so many others along the way – was that she had too often allowed herself the luxury of misplaced loyalty.



But loyalty, of any kind, was a thing of the past now. Now, her anonymous bouquet duly despatched, she was ducking in from the May sunshine to the dim, beer-scented bar of the Withies Tavern, for the second half of her yearly ceremony of perfect and private things. The roses were on their way to the boy she had chosen this year – a tall, skinny Mancunian named Tim, who had stood with her for just a moment too long once or twice in the quad, rambling about William Carlos Williams – and now it was time to relax into the warm, slow lull of forgetting that had become her once-yearly pleasure. It had taken her years to understand that, when it came to romance, she preferred certain varieties of subtle pain – physical, when that was possible; emotional and psychological when it was not – to any conventional notion of happiness. She had, in fact, refused to give the idea of happiness anything more than passing consideration: it had immediately struck her as an illusion, a sorry bribe offered by social convention – that complex, mediocre Authorised Version of life and love – to divert its subjects from other possibilities, possibilities that Amanda had explored, alone and occasionally with others, enough to understand that, for her at least, the unnamed alternative to this insipid happiness consisted of blood and fire and absence in more or less equal measure. Naturally, she had never conducted these experiments in pain with the boys who, like Tim, drifted through her poetry classes, too self-absorbed or too inarticulate to claim the prize that they sensed might just be available behind the ironic facade she maintained through the occasional intense conversation after class, a prize that, had they been able to claim it, would have cut them to the quick. She knew that. Fifteen years of being married to Simon had made her dangerous, too hungry to be left alone for too long with anything that might, in a certain slant of light, begin to look like prey. All that longing had to be contained, all that desire had to be ritualised. A bewildered boy called to the door in his PJs, hungover from a post-exam party, to take delivery of two dozen blood-coloured roses, a secret held in her mind in much the same way as the one thorn she would break from a rose stem and clutch to her palm as she left the shop, a glass of malt whisky in the dim bar of the Withies, among men she didn’t know.




This year, however – this year, for the first time ever – there was someone she knew in the bar of the Withies. He was sitting at a table in the middle of the room, part of a large group that included several boys and a few girls, all obviously fellow students, though none of the others was from any of the classes Amanda taught. They were the only other customers in the bar and they had dragged chairs from the tables close by to make a wide, untidy circle around a table littered with beer bottles and half-eaten packets of crisps. A few looked round when she came in but Tim had his back to her and she was grateful for that. Still, she hesitated, nonetheless, before she made up her mind and walked over to the bar. There, quietly but firmly, she ordered a whisky from the large, horse-faced landlord whose name, she had once heard, was Bill. She didn’t know the man, naturally, but she could always tell from his expression that he remembered her from previous visits. Maybe this was part of his inner calendar: early summer, strange woman comes in, drinks one or two whiskies, then leaves. The Withies wasn’t a pub generally patronised by students or academics – that was why she had chosen it – so she probably stood out enough for him to recall her face. Or her manner, perhaps. Usually, she was happy, usually she felt strong and confident, someone in charge of her life and going about it with a certain relish. Today, however, she didn’t feel confident at all. She felt studied. She felt looked at – not just by this man, but by the entire room. Still, she ordered the whisky, paid for it and started towards her usual place – the table by the garden door, where she could sit with her back to the bar and look out at the flowering shrubs in the walled yard – because she was determined not to let her ritual be spoiled. She wouldn’t stay long, perhaps – just one whisky this time – but she would do what she needed to do and, when it was done, she would catch a taxi home and open the bottle of wine she had left to chill in the fridge. And she would be damned if she let anything divert her.

Tim still had his back to her as she crossed over to the table by the door but one of the other boys looked up and, as if making her out for the first time, he gave her an odd look, a smile that wasn’t quite right, something close to but not altogether a smirk. She didn’t know who he was but there was something in that half-smile that made her look away a little too quickly, so he knew she had noticed him and she hadn’t wanted that at all. She moved quickly to her table and sat down, her back to the group; then she drank some of the whisky right away, not lingering over it a moment as she usually did but gulping it, rather, the ice butting at her teeth, the taste too sudden and too warm in her throat. She didn’t know why she was upset – Tim knew nothing at all about her yearly ritual and she wasn’t besotted by him, like some lovestruck girl – but she was. In fact, she was very upset and she had to allow herself a long moment to calm down, before she took another sip from the glass. Only then did she look up and that was when she realised that Tim had seen her and was watching her – had, perhaps, been watching her for several moments – with a detached, even impassive expression. He didn’t say anything, and his face remained still, but he kept on looking at her for another moment, before one of the others spoke and he looked away, his eyes alighting on the girl’s face as if he had suddenly found something he’d lost and had been trying to find for the longest time. Amanda couldn’t make out what the girl had said, but she was smiling and, after a moment, Tim laughed.

Amanda looked away. She didn’t want to hear that laugh, or see him like that, with a girl he liked, among friends, celebrating the end of exams. Now and then, she would imagine him drinking, or at a party, she would even imagine him out with friends but those others were never very clearly defined. They were amorphous, anonymous, the merest background to the leading actor in her fantasy. Not that she fantasised often; that wasn’t the point of this yearly ritual. It wasn’t about the boys, it was about her. It was about the ritual she had created, a form of discipline, a process by which she entertained and, at the same time, purged herself of certain impulses, going through the stages of something clear and well-defined so that this year’s Tim, or Andy, or Greg could begin the long process, not of fading from her memory so much as merging into the massed weight of those who had gone before. She didn’t want them. She didn’t want anything to happen with them. She didn’t want to take these boys home to her bed, or creep from their rooms at three in the morning, mussed and sticky and stupidly illumined with guilt or lust. This had always been a game to her and that game had only one true player.



Now, though, the game had been interrupted. A rule had been broken and, as she finished the whisky and rose to her feet, she felt cheated, just a little – cheated and deceived, somehow, though by whom she couldn’t say. Not by Tim, or his friends, not by the landlord, certainly, and not by anyone she could have named. Yet, even as she made her way to the door – not looking at Tim’s group as she passed, though not visibly averting her gaze either – she couldn’t altogether dispel that sensation of having been tricked and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to redeem the ritual until she got herself a taxi and headed for home. She still didn’t know why she felt so upset – but she was and it seemed to her that she had given something away, she had let something become visible, or rather tangible, that should have been kept concealed. Not from those boys, not from the landlord, not from the world, but from herself. Something had dawned on her that made her feel awkward and ordinary. It was a feeling she didn’t want to have, an understanding she didn’t want to have to acknowledge. She couldn’t name it – it wasn’t really about sex and it certainly wasn’t about love either. It was something else, something more basic and needful – and it seemed to her, as she walked to the far end of Church Street and got into the first available taxi, that it was about touch, if anything: touch and then, inevitably, what touch led to – and that was what made it so frightening. If one of those boys had ever though to reach out and touch her face, she told herself, if he had just brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes as they stood talking in the quad, she would have dissolved into the moment and let go of the stupid grief she had carried for so long – so long and yet so lightly, it seemed, a light and steady and habitual dismay, part of what she was to herself and, so, a subtle trapdoor in the world through which, with the least contact, she and whoever touched her might fall forever, into the pleasurable pain that, presumably, they both secretly wanted. A pain that could not be ritualised with roses and whisky, a pain that could not be kept from the world but demanded to be celebrated, openly. It would never happen, of course, she knew that, or at least, she told herself she knew it, staring silently out of the car window at the last of the houses sliding by, and then at the water meadows, and then at her own house, set in the tidy garden that Simon paid a young man with a nose ring and the most absurd acne to keep in immaculate condition, even though they never used it. She told herself that she had always known that nothing would ever happen and she reminded herself once again that she didn’t want anything to happen – just as she knew, now, having paid the taxi driver and walked, steadily, to her all too familiar front door, that the only real pleasure remaining to her was an ordered solitude that, from time to time, would present itself as a gift – just as it did right then, quite unexpectedly, in the moment when she stepped inside and stood quietly in the hall, sensing that the house was, for some reason, mercifully empty. She didn’t know where Simon was – he’d indicated at breakfast that he would be back by mid-afternoon – but at that moment everything brightened and she walked straight to the kitchen to pour herself some Chablis from the bottle she had left cooling in the fridge and she didn’t notice until her glass was full and she went through to the last buttery sunshine streaming in through the windows of the dining room, that someone had left a huge bouquet of roses on the time-weathered table just inside the door – two dozen of them, blood-red, but lightened here and there with a few strands of gypsophila, the dense, almost black thorns just visible through the plastic wrapping.

John Burnside is a poet and author. His most recent collection is “Black Cat Bone”

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide