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Sing of the new invasion

Ralph Fiennes’s upcoming film adaptation of Shakespeare’s
Coriolanus shows its versatility – and p

The way to test a great work of art is to ask how it survives decontextualisation, transposition into a new context. One good definition of a classic is that it functions like the eyes of God in an Orthodox icon: no matter where you stand in the room, they seem to be looking at you. For instance, by far the best cinema version of a Dostoevsky novel is Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot, which is set in Japan after the Second World War with Myshkin played as a returning soldier. The point is not simply that we are dealing with an eternal conflict that appears in all societies but that, with each new context, a classic work of art seems to address the very specific qualities of that epoch.

There is a long history of such successful transpositions of Shakespeare: to mention just a few modern film versions, Othello in a contemporary jazz club (Basil Dearden's All Night Long, 1962); Richard III in an imagined fascist UK of the 1930s (Richard Loncraine, 1995); Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, set in Venice Beach, California (1996); Hamlet in corporate New York (Michael Almereyda, 2000).

Shakespeare's Coriolanus poses a special chal­lenge to recontextualisation: the play is so exclusively focused on its hero's militaristic, aristocratic pride and contempt for ordinary people that one can easily see why, after the German defeat in 1945, the Allied occupying power prohibited its performance. Indeed, the play seems to offer a rather narrow interpretative choice. What are the alternatives to staging the play the way it is, surrendering to its anti-democratic allure?

For his forthcoming film adaptation, Ralph Fiennes (with the writer John Logan) has done the impossible, confirming in the process T S Eliot's claim that Coriolanus is superior to Hamlet. He has fully broken out of the closed circle of interpretative options and presented Coriolanus not as a fanatical anti-democrat but as a figure of the radical left.

Fiennes's first move was to change the play's geopolitical co-ordinates. Rome is now a contemporary colonial city state in crisis and the Volscians are leftist guerrilla rebels, organised in what, today, we would call a "rogue state". The effects of this are felt in many luminous details, such as the decision to present the border between the territory held by the Roman army and the one held by the rebels as an access ramp on a highway, a kind of guerrilla checkpoint. (One can dream further here: how about fully exploiting the film having been shot in Serbia by making Belgrade the "city that called itself Rome", imagining the Volscians as Albanians from Kosovo and Coriolanus as a Serb general who changes sides to join the Albanians?)

Gerard Butler was an excellent choice for the role of Aufidius, the Volscian leader and opponent of Caius Martius (who is later renamed Coriolanus). Butler's biggest hit was Zack Snyder's 300, in which he was cast as Leonidas, king of the Spartans. In both films, he plays more or less the same role: the warrior leader of a rogue state fighting a mighty empire. Snyder's film, the saga of the 300 Spartan soldiers who sacrificed themselves at Thermopylae in an effort to halt the invasion of Xerxes's Persian army, was attacked as the worst kind of patriotic militarism, with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq. However, it can be defended against such accusations - it is the story of a small, poor country (Greece) invaded by the army of a much larger state (Persia). When the last surviving Spartans and Leonidas are killed by volley after volley of arrows, are they not in a way being bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like US troops today, who launch missiles from warships moored in the Persian Gulf?

Attempting to convince Leonidas to accept Persian domination, Xerxes promises him peace and sensual pleasures if he joins the new global empire. All he asks of him is that he kneel down in recognition of Persian supremacy. If the Spartans do this, they will be given authority over the whole of Greece. Is this not what Ronald Reagan demanded from the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s?

The Spartans, with their discipline and spirit of sacrifice, resemble the Taliban defending Afghanistan against US occupation (or the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, ready to sacrifice itself in the event of an American invasion). Perceptive historians have already noted this parallel. Here, for instance, is the blurb for Tom Holland's book Persian Fire: "In the 5th century BC, a global superpower was determined to bring truth and order to what it regarded as two terrorist states. The superpower was Persia . . . incomparably rich in ambition, gold and men. The terrorist states were Athens and Sparta, eccentric cities in a poor and mountainous backwater: Greece."

A programmatic statement towards the end of 300 defines the Greeks' agenda as being "against the reign of mystique and tyranny, towards the bright future". This sounds like an elementary Enlightenment programme - with a communist twist. Recall also that, at the beginning of the film, Leonidas rejects outright the message of the corrupt "oracles", according to whom the gods forbid the military expedition to stop the Persians. We learn later that the oracles who were allegedly receiving the divine messages in ecstatic trances were, in effect, paid by the Persians, like the Tibetan "oracle" who, in 1959, delivered to the Dalai Lama the message to leave Tibet and who was, it turned out, on the payroll of the CIA.

What about the apparent absurdity of the ideas of dignity, freedom and reason being sustained by extreme military discipline, including the practice of discarding weak children? This apparent absurdity is just the price of freedom - "Freedom is not free," as it is said in the film. Freedom is not something given, but rather is regained through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything. The ruthless military discipline of the Spartans is not just the opposite of Athenian "liberal democracy"; it is its inherent condition and lays the foundation for it.

True freedom is not freedom of choice made from a safe distance; it is not like choosing between a strawberry cake or a chocolate cake. True freedom overlaps with necessity - one makes a free choice when one's choice puts at stake one's very existence. One does it because one cannot do otherwise. When one's country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, it is phrased not as, "You are free to choose," but, "Can't you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?" No wonder all early modern egalitarian radicals, from Rousseau to the Jacobins, admired the Spartans and imagined republican France as a new Sparta. There is an emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline that survives once you subtract all the historical paraphernalia of Spartan class rule - the ruthless exploitation of slaves, and so on. No wonder Trotsky described the Soviet Union in the difficult years of "war communism" as a "proletarian Sparta".

Soldiers are not bad per se but soldiers mobilised by nationalist poetry are. There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.

Religion fits this role perfectly, and so does ethnic belonging. There are instances of pathological atheists being capable of committing mass murder just for pleasure but they are rare exceptions. The masses need to be anaesthetised against their elementary sensitivity to the suffering of others and, for this, a sacred cause is needed. Religious ideologues claim that, whether its dogmas are true or not, religion can make otherwise bad people do some good. Yet, as Steven Weinberg has argued, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, but only religion can make good people do bad.

Plato's reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city. It was rather sensible advice, however, at least when judged from the vantage point of the post-Yugoslav experience, in which ethnic cleansing was prepared by the dangerous dreams of poets. True, Slobodan Milosevic "manipulated" nationalist passions but it was the poets who provided him with the raw material that lent itself to manipulation. They - the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians - were at the origin of it all when, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism not only in Serbia but also in other Yugoslav republics.

Instead of the military-industrial complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the military-poetic complex, personified by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel mentions the "silent weaving of the spirit", the underground work of changing the ideological co-ordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then explodes, taking everyone by surprise. This is what was going on in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s, so that when things exploded in the late 1980s, it was already too late: the old ideological consensus was thoroughly putrid and it collapsed. Yugoslavia was like the proverbial cat in the cartoon that falls only after he looks down and becomes aware that there is no firm ground beneath his feet. Milosevic forced us all to look over the edge of the precipice.

To dispel the illusion that the military-poetic complex is a Balkan speciality, one should mention Hassan Ngeze, the Karadzic of Rwanda who, through his newspaper Kangura, spread anti-Tutsi hatred. And, discussing the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus quipped that Germany, a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), had become a country of Richter und Henker (judges and executioners). Perhaps such a reversal should not startle us too much.

This brings us back to Coriolanus. Who is the poet there? Before Caius Martius takes the stage, it is Menenius Agrippa, who pacifies the furious crowd demanding grain. Like Odysseus in Troilus and Cressida, Menenius is the ideologist par excellence, offering a poetic metaphor to justify social hierarchy (in this case, the rule of the senate). In the best corporatist tradition, the metaphor is that of a human body. Here is how Plutarch, in his Life of Coriolanus, relates the story, first reported by Livy:

It once happened . . . that all the other members of a man mutinied against the stomach, which they accused as the only idle, uncontributing part of the whole body, while the rest were put to hardships and the expense of much labour to supply and minister to its appetites. The stomach, however, merely ridiculed the silliness of the members, who appeared not to be aware that the stomach certainly does receive the general nourishment but only to return it again and redistribute it among the rest. Such is the case . . . ye citizens, between you and the senate. The counsels and plans that are there duly digested convey and secure to all of you your proper benefit and support.

Coriolanus not only rebels against the Roman body politic but abandons his body by going into exile. Is Coriolanus then really against the people? Which people? The "plebeians", represented by the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, are not exploited workers but rather a lumpen proletarian mob, a rabble fed by the state. The two tribunes are proto-fascist manipulators - to quote Kane (the citizen from Orson Welles's film), they speak for the poor, ordinary people so that the poor, ordinary people would not speak for themselves. If one wants to look for the "people", they are to be found among the Volscians. Look at how Fiennes depicts their capital: as a modest city in liberated territory, in which Aufidius and his comrades, clad in the uniforms of guerrilla fighters, mix freely with ordinary people in an atmosphere of relaxed festivity. All this is in stark contrast to the stiff formality of Rome.

So, yes, Coriolanus is a killing machine, a "perfect soldier", but he has no fixed class allegiance and can easily put himself at the service of the oppressed. As Che Guevara put it: "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."

There are two scenes in the film that provide a clue for such a reading. When, after his violent outburst in the senate, Coriolanus leaves the large hall, slamming the doors behind him, he finds himself alone in the silence of a long corridor and confronted by an elderly cleaning man. The two exchange glances in a moment of quiet solidarity, as if only the cleaner can see who Coriolanus is now. The other scene is a long depiction of his voyage into exile, done in road movie style, with Coriolanus as a lone rambler, anonymous among ordinary people. It is as if Coriolanus, obviously out of place in the Roman hierarchy, only now becomes what he is and gains his freedom.

The only thing that he can do is to join the enemy Volscians. He does not join them solely in order to take revenge on Rome. He joins them because he belongs there. It is only among the Volscian fighters that he can be what he is. Coriolanus's pride is authentic, but it has no place in imperial Rome. It can thrive only among the guerrilla fighters.

In joining the Volscians, Coriolanus does not betray Rome out of a sense of petty resentment. He regains his integrity. His only act of betrayal occurs at the end of the drama when, instead of leading the Volscian army towards Rome, he organises a peace treaty, succumbing to the pressure of his mother, the true figure of superego evil. This is why he returns to the Volscians, fully aware of what awaits him there - well-deserved punishment for his betrayal.

And this is why Fiennes's Coriolanus is like the eyes of God or a saint in an Orthodox icon: without changing a word in Shakespeare's play, the film looks squarely at us, at our predicament today, offering us the figure of the radical freedom fighter.

Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is "Living in the End Times" (Verso, £12.99)

“Coriolanus" (certificate 15) will be released in the UK on 20 January

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

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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