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Slavoj Žižek: The politics of Batman

From the repression of unruly citizens to the celebration of the “good capitalist”, The Dark Knight Rises reflects our age of anxiety.

The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies. Here is the storyline. Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, the previous instalment of Chris­topher Nolan’s Batman series, law and order prevail in Gotham City. Under the extraordinary powers granted by the Dent Act, Commissioner Gordon has nearly eradicated violent and organised crime. He nonetheless feels guilty about the cover-up of the crimes of Harvey Dent and plans to confess to the conspiracy at a public event – but he decides that the city is not ready to hear the truth.

No longer active as Batman, Bruce Wayne lives isolated in his manor. His company is crumbling after he invested in a clean-energy project designed to harness fusion power but then shut it down, on learning that the core could be modified to become a nuclear weapon. The beautiful Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, encourages Wayne to rejoin society and continue his philanthropic good works.

Here enters the first villain of the film. Bane, a terrorist leader who was a member of the League of Shadows, gets hold of a copy of the commissioner’s speech. After Bane’s financial machinations bring Wayne’s company close to bankruptcy, Wayne entrusts control of his enterprise to Miranda and also has a brief love affair with her. Learning that Bane has also got hold of his fusion core, Wayne returns as Batman and confronts Bane. Crippling Batman in close combat, Bane detains him in a prison from which escape is almost impossible. While the imprisoned Wayne recovers from his injuries and retrains himself to be Batman, Bane succeeds in turning Gotham City into an isolated city state. He first lures most of Gotham’s police force underground and traps them there; then he sets off explosions that destroy most of the bridges connecting Gotham to the mainland and announces that any attempt to leave the city will result in the detonation of Wayne’s fusion core, which has been converted into a bomb.

Now we reach the crucial moment of the film: Bane’s takeover is accompanied by a vast politico-ideological offensive. He publicly exposes the cover-up of Dent’s death and releases the prisoners locked up under the Dent Act. Condemning the rich and powerful, he promises to restore the power of the people, calling on citizens, “Take your city back.” Bane reveals himself, as the critic Tyler O’Neil has put it, to be “the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99 per cent to band together and overthrow societal elites”. What follows is the film’s idea of people power – summary show trials and executions of the rich, the streets surrendered to crime and villainy.

A couple of months later, while Gotham City continues to suffer under popular terror, Wayne escapes from prison, returns as Batman and enlists his friends to help liberate the city and disable the fusion bomb before it explodes. Batman confronts and subdues Bane but Mir­anda intervenes and stabs Batman. She reveals herself to be Talia al-Ghul, daughter of Ra’s al-Ghul, the former leader of the League of Shadows (the villains in Batman Begins). After announcing her plan to complete her father’s work in destroying Gotham City, Talia escapes.

In the ensuing mayhem, Commissioner Gordon cuts off the bomb’s remote detonation function, while a benevolent cat burglar named Selina Kyle kills Bane, freeing Batman to chase Talia. He tries to force her to take the bomb to the fusion chamber where it can be stabilised, but she floods the chamber. Talia dies, confident that the bomb cannot be stopped, when her truck is knocked off the road and crashes. Using a special helicopter, Batman hauls the bomb beyond the city limits, where it detonates over the ocean and pre­sumably kills him. Batman is now celebrated as a hero whose sacrifice saved Gotham City. Wayne is believed to have died in the riots. While his estate is being divided up, his butler, Alfred, sees Wayne and Selina together alive in a café in Florence. Blake, a young and honest policeman who knew about Batman’s identity, inherits the Batcave. The first clue to the ideological underpinnings of this ending is provided by Alfred, who, at Wayne’s apparent burial, reads the last lines from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some reviewers took this as an indication that, in O’Neil’s words, the film “rises to the noblest level of western art . . . The film appeals to the centre of America’s tradition – the ideal of noble sacrifice for the common people . . . An ultimate Christ-figure, Batman sacrifices himself to save others.”

Seen from this perspective, the storyline is a short step back from Dickens to Christ at Calvary. But isn’t the idea of Batman’s sacrifice as a repetition of Christ’s death not compromised by the film’s last scene (Wayne with Selina in the café)? Is the religious counterpart of this ending not, instead, the well-known blasphemous idea that Christ survived his crucifixion and lived a long, peaceful life in India or, as some sources have it, Tibet? The only way to redeem this final scene would be to read it as a daydream or hallucination of Alfred’s.

A further Dickensian feature of the film is a depoliticised complaint about the gap between rich and poor. Early in the film, Selina whispers to Wayne as they are dancing at an exclusive, upper-class gala: “A storm is coming, Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Nolan, like any good liberal, is “worried” about the disparity and has said that this worry permeates the film: “The notion of economic fairness creeps into the film . . . I don’t feel there’s a left or right perspective in the film. What is there is just an honest assessment or honest exploration of the world we live in – things that worry us.”

Although viewers know Wayne is mega-rich, they often forget where his wealth comes from: arms manufacturing plus stock-market speculation, which is why Bane’s games on the stock exchange can destroy his empire. Arms dealer and speculator – this is the secret beneath the Batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian theme of a good capitalist who finances orphanages (Wayne) versus a bad, greedy capitalist (Stryver, as in Dickens). As Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, who co-wrote the screenplay, has said: “A Tale of Two Cities, to me, was the most . . . harrowing portrait of a relatable, recognisable civilisation that had completely fallen to pieces. You look at the Terror in Paris, in France in that period, and it’s hard to imagine that things could go that bad and wrong.” The scenes of the vengeful populist uprising in the film (a mob that thirsts for the blood of the rich who have neglected and exploited them) evoke Dickens’s description of the Reign of Terror, so that, although the film has nothing to do with politics, it follows Dickens’s novel in “honestly” portraying revolutionaries as possessed fanatics.

The good terrorist

An interesting thing about Bane is that the source of his revolutionary hardness is unconditional love. In one touching scene, he tells Wayne how, in an act of love amid terrible suffering, he saved the child Talia, not caring about the consequences and paying a terrible price for it (Bane was beaten to within an inch of his life while defending her).

Another critic, R M Karthick, locates The Dark Knight Rises in a long tradition stretching from Christ to Che Guevara which extols violence as a “work of love”, as Che does in his diary:

Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.

What we encounter here is not so much the “christification of Che” but rather a “che­isation” of Christ – the Christ whose “scandalous” words from Luke (“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple”) point in the same direction as these ones from Che: “You may have to be tough but do not lose your tenderness.” The statement that “the true revolutionary is guided by a strong feeling of love” should be read together with Guevara’s much more problematic description of revolutionaries as “killing machines”:

Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.

Guevara here is paraphrasing Christ’s declarations on the unity of love and the sword – in both cases, the underlying paradox is that what makes love angelic, what elevates it over mere sentimentality, is its cruelty, its link with violence. And it is this link that places love beyond the natural limitations of man and thus transforms it into an unconditional drive. This is why, to turn back to The Dark Knight Rises, the only authentic love portrayed in the film is Bane’s, the terrorist’s, in clear contrast to Batman’s.

The figure of Ra’s, Talia’s father, also deserves a closer look. Ra’s has a mixture of Arab and oriental features and is an agent of virtuous terror, fighting to correct a corrupted western civilisation. He is played by Liam Neeson, an actor whose screen persona usually radiates dignified goodness and wisdom – he is Zeus in Clash of the Titans and also plays Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, the first episode of the Star Wars series. Qui-Gon is a Jedi knight, the mentor of Obi-Wan Kenobi as well as the one who discovers Anakin Skywalker, believing that Anakin is the chosen one who will restore the balance of the universe, and ignores Yoda’s warnings about Anakin’s unstable nature. At the end of The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon is killed by the assassin Darth Maul.

In the Batman trilogy, Ra’s is the teacher of the young Wayne. In Batman Begins, he finds him in a prison in Bhutan. Introducing himself as Henri Ducard, he offers the boy a “path”. After Wayne is freed, he climbs to the home of the League of Shadows where Ra’s is waiting. At the end of a lengthy and painful period of training, Ra’s explains that Wayne must do what is necessary to fight evil, and that the league has trained Wayne to lead it in its mission to destroy Gotham City, which the league believes has become hopelessly corrupt.

Ra’s is thus not a simple embodiment of evil. He stands for the combination of virtue and terror, for egalitarian discipline fighting a corrupted empire, and thus belongs to a line that stretches in recent fiction from Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune to Leonidas in Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. It is crucial that Wayne was a disciple of Ra’s: Wayne was made into Batman by his mentor.

At this point, two common-sense objections suggest themselves. The first is that there were monstrous mass killings and violence in real-life revolutions, from the rise of Stalin to the rule of the Khmer Rouge, so the film is clearly not just engaging in reactionary imagination. The second objection is that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent – its goal was definitely not a new Reign of Terror. In so far as Bane’s revolt is supposed to extrapolate the immanent tendency of OWS, the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies. The ongoing anti-capitalist protests are the opposite of Bane: he stands for the mirror image of state terror, for a murderous fundamentalism that takes over and rules by fear, not for the overcoming of state power through popular self-organisation. What both objections share, however, is the rejection of the figure of Bane.

The reply to these two objections has several parts. First, one should make the scope of violence clear. The best answer to the claim that the violent mob reaction to oppression is worse than the original oppression was the one provided by Mark Twain in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

There were two “Reigns of Terror” if we would remember it and consider it; the one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood . . . Our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak, whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? . . . A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror, that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror, which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Then, one should demystify the problem of violence, rejecting simplistic claims that 20th- century communism used too much extreme murderous violence. We should be careful not to fall into this trap again. As a fact, this is terrifyingly true. Yet such a direct focus on violence obfuscates the underlying question: what was wrong with the communist project as such? What internal weakness of that project was it that pushed communists towards unrestrained violence? It is not enough to say that communists neglected the “problem of violence”; it was a deeper, sociopolitical failure that pushed them to violence. It is thus not only Nolan’s film that is unable to imagine authentic people’s power. The “real” radical-emancipatory movements couldn’t do it, either; they remained caught in the co-ordinates of the old society, in which actual “people power” was often such a violent horror.

Finally, it is all too simplistic to claim that there is no violent potential in OWS and similar movements – there is a violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process. The problem with The Dark Knight Rises is that it has wrongly translated this violence into murderous terror. Let us take a brief detour here through José Saramago’s novel Seeing, which tells the story of strange events in the unnamed capital city of an unidentified democratic country. When election day dawns with torrential rain, the voter turnout is disturbingly low. But the weather turns by mid-afternoon and the population heads en masse to the polling stations. The government’s relief is short-lived, however: the count shows that more than 70 per cent of the ballots cast in the capital have been left blank. Baffled, the government gives the people a chance to make amends a week later at another election.

The results are worse. Now 83 per cent of the ballots are blank. The two major political parties – the ruling party of the right and its chief adversary, the party of the middle – are in a panic, while the marginalised party of the left produces an analysis claiming that the blank ballots are a vote for its progressive agenda. Unsure how to respond to a benign protest but certain that an anti-democratic conspiracy is afoot, the government quickly labels the movement “terrorism, pure and unadulterated” and declares a state of emergency.

Citizens are seized at random and disappear into secret interrogation sites; the police and seat of government are withdrawn from the capital; all entrances to the city are sealed, as are the exits. The city continues to function almost normally throughout, the people parrying each of the government’s thrusts in unison and with a Gandhian level of non-violent resistance. This, the voters’ abstention, is a case of authentically radical “divine violence” that prompts panic reactions from those in power.

Back to Nolan. The trilogy of Batman films follows an internal logic. In Batman Begins, the hero remains within the constraints of a liberal order: the system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. The Dark Knight is, in effect, a new version of two John Ford western classics, Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show how, to civilise the Wild West, one has to “print the legend” and ignore the truth. They show, in short, how our civilisation has to be grounded in a lie – one has to break the rules in order to defend the system.

In Batman Begins, the hero is simply the classic urban vigilante who punishes the criminals when the police can’t. The problem is that the police, the official law-enforcement agency, respond ambivalently to Batman’s help. They see him as a threat to their monopoly on power and therefore as evidence of their inefficiency. However, his transgression here is purely formal: it lies in acting on behalf of the law without being legitimised to do so. In his acts, he never violates the law. The Dark Knight changes these co-ordinates. Batman’s true rival is not his ostensible opponent, the Joker, but Harvey Dent, the “white knight”, the aggressive new district attorney, a kind of official vigilante whose fanatical battle against crime leads to the killing of innocent people and ultimately destroys him. It is as if Dent were the legal order’s reply to the threat posed by Batman: against Batman’s vigilantism, the system generates its own illegal excess in a vigilante much more violent than Batman.

There is poetic justice, therefore, when Wayne plans to reveal his identity as Batman and Dent jumps in and names himself as Batman – he is more Batman than Batman, actualising the temptation to break the law that Wayne was able to resist. When, at the end of the film, Batman assumes responsibility for the crimes committed by Dent to save the reputation of the popular hero who embodies hope for ordinary people, his act is a gesture of symbolic exchange: first Dent takes upon himself the identity of Batman, then Wayne – the real Batman – takes Dent’s crimes upon himself.

The Dark Knight Rises pushes things even further. Is Bane not Dent taken to an extreme? Dent draws the conclusion that the system is unjust, so that, to fight injustice effectively, one has to turn directly against the system and destroy it. Dent loses his remaining inhibitions and is ready to use all manner of methods to achieve this goal. The rise of such a figure changes things entirely. For all the characters, Batman included, morality is relativised and becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances. It’s open class warfare – everything is permitted in defence of the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters, but with a popular uprising.

Should the film be rejected by those engaged in emancipatory struggles? Things aren’t quite so simple. We should approach the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem. Absences and surprising presences count. Recall the old French story about a wife who complains that her husband’s best friend is making illicit sexual advances towards her. It takes some time until the surprised friend gets the point: in this twisted way, she is inviting him to seduce her. It is like the Freudian unconscious that knows no negation; what matters is not a negative judgement of something but that this something is mentioned at all. In The Dark Knight Rises, people power is here, staged as an event, in a significant development from the usual Batman opponents (criminal mega-capitalists, gangsters and terrorists).

Strange attraction

The prospect of the Occupy Wall Street movement taking power and establishing a people’s democracy on the island of Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly unrealistic, that one cannot avoid asking the following question – why does a Hollywood blockbuster dream about it? Why does it evoke this spectre? Why does it even fantasise about OWS exploding into a violent takeover? The obvious answer – that it does so to taint OWS with the accusation that it harbours a terrorist or totalitarian potential – is not enough to account for the strange attraction exerted by the prospect of “people power”. No wonder the proper functioning of this power remains blank, absent; no details are given about how the people power functions or what the mobilised people are doing. Bane tells the people they can do what they want – he is not imposing his own order on them. This is why external critique of the film (claiming that its depiction of OWS is a ridi­culous caricature) is not enough. The critique has to be immanent; it has to locate inside the film a multitude of signs that point towards the authentic event. (Recall, for instance, that Bane is not just a bloodthirsty terrorist but a person of deep love, with a spirit of sacrifice.)

In short, pure ideology isn’t possible. Bane’s authenticity has to leave traces in the film’s texture. This is why The Dark Knight Rises deserves close reading. The event – the “People’s Republic of Gotham City”, a dictatorship of the proletariat in Manhattan – is immanent to the film. It is its absent centre.

Slavoj Žižek’s latest book is “Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism” (Verso, £50)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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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