Sir Ian Kershaw on His Latest Book, Brexit, and the Future of Europe

tags: British history, books, interviews, historians, European history, Brexit, Sir Ian Kershaw

David L. O'Connor received his Ph.D. in history in 2000 from Stony Brook University, and is a history teacher at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY. He is a Contributing Editor at HNN.

Sir Ian Kershaw, FBA (born 29 April 1943) is a British historian and author whose work has chiefly focused on the social history of 20th century Germany. He is regarded by many as one of the world's leading experts on Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and is particularly noted for his monumental biographies of Hitler.


David O’Connor:  Your new book was a massive undertaking, covering so many issues in Europe’s post-war history.  How did you go about setting up a framework for your analysis?  

Sir Ian Kershaw: The first step was to acquire an overview of the period, its most important developments, changes and so on. Secondly, I then worked out the chapter divisions, and the subdivisions. Thirdly, I explored the most important literature on the relevant themes. Finally (and obviously the difficult part), I attempted the actual writing.


DO: You use the term “matrix of rebirth” to explain how Europe was able to recover so well from the devastation of World War II.  What are some of the key features of this “matrix,” and which do you consider the most important?  

IK:  The ‘matrix of rebirth’, as I called it, arose from the condition of Europe at the end of the Second World War. It comprised, as its fundamental premise, the elimination of German great-power ambitions. A second component was the territorial and geopolitical reordering of central and eastern Europe under the aegis of Soviet power. Thirdly, national interests were now subordinated to the interests of the two new superpowers – in western Europe the USA, in eastern Europe the Soviet Union. A fourth element was the extraordinary economic growth that, in western Europe, was a major contribution to the consolidation of pluralistic democracy. Finally, and perhaps the most important factor of all, the availability to both superpowers of a growing arsenal of devastating nuclear weapons acted as a vital deterrent to another war in Europe. 


DO: Many of the tensions that exist in the European Union today—especially on the issue of national sovereignty—were present from the beginning of European economic integration with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community soon after World War II. Please explain some of the main motivations for integration and how objections to it were initially overcome.  

IK: It was widely felt in the post-war years that a new basis for friendship, cooperation and supranational organization was needed to overcome the extreme nationalism that had produced such catastrophic conflict, and to rule out any prospect of a return to war in Europe. Once the Soviet Union had replaced Germany as the major international threat in the eyes of western leaders, the path opened up for the first steps towards European integration to bolster security and promote prosperity. Alongside the idealism, the different but complementary national interests of France and West Germany were served by the creation of a common market in a trading bloc that also included the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy. A tension between national and supranational interests was present from the start. But the economic success of the trading bloc in the early years overcame many of the objections, even if advances towards further integration were slow and often difficult.


DO: The division between Eastern and Western Europe is a prominent issue throughout your book.  The two sides had very different cultures, social structures, and economic and political systems, yet the Cold War was a remarkably stable period in European history.  What are some of the most important factors that contributed to this stability and absence of outright warfare?  

IK: Crucial, as already mentioned, was what came to be labelled ‘mutually assured destruction’ of the superpowers, both of which presided over immense nuclear capability. The nuclear deterrent was represented organizationally by the existence of NATO in western and the Warsaw Pact in eastern Europe. Stability in the Cold War was always under the shadow of a potential nuclear conflict. But once the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and the Cuba Crisis the following year ended without catastrophe, the likelihood of nuclear confrontation in Europe greatly diminished. Meanwhile, the power of Soviet repression was sufficient to contain, if sometimes with difficulty, instability in the eastern bloc, and the West generally accepted that Soviet domination of eastern Europe could not be ended. This in itself contributed to stability in Europe.


DO: You cover a lot of what you call “impersonal dynamics” (demographics, economic growth, etc.) but in the book’s “Forward” you also note the importance of individual leaders who made important decisions that shaped their eras. One of the most prominent figures you examine is Konrad Adenauer. Please explain how he helped the Federal Republic of Germany become such a powerful force in Europe’s post-war economic recovery and an anchor in NATO.  

IK: Adenauer is certainly among the individuals who helped to shape Europe’s postwar history. He was crucial in ensuring that West Germany turned to the West and wedded its future to its membership of NATO, to west European integration and to friendship with the traditional enemy, France. What seems today to be an obvious step was at the time highly controversial, since the turn to the West ruled out re-unification as a realistic goal – something that was greatly unpopular with the oppositional Social Democrats and much of the population which preferred a re-unified and militarily neutral Germany to commitment to the American-dominated capitalist and militarized West.


DO: One of the key themes you explore is how Europeans were greatly affected by events outside of Europe in the post-war era.  Perhaps the most jolting and consequential example was the oil embargo imposed by Middle Eastern countries in the 1970s.  How did this shake the European economy and the confidence of Europeans in general?  

IK: The extraordinary economic boom that had lasted for more than two decades was already fading when Europe was hit by the first oil-shock in 1973 in the wake of the Yom-Kippur War in the Middle East, followed by a second after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The double oil-crisis in countries by now so heavily dependent on oil led to high rates of inflation accompanied by a significant rise in unemployment. States struggled to adjust to an abruptly altered economic climate and increased political volatility. All at once, it seemed, the optimism that had characterized the first post-war decades had evaporated. The oil crises inaugurated a new era in Europe, east and west.


DO: The expansion of the European Community and later the European Union has often been controversial, whether it was the integration of Spain, Portugal, and Greece in the 1980s or the entry of former communist countries from Eastern Europe.  In each case, the European Community allowed for expansion even if the nations didn’t meet the economic standards needed for entry.  How did geopolitical considerations shape these decisions to ignore prescribed preconditions?  On balance, was the expansion beneficial?  

IK: Spain, Portugal and Greece had all recently emerged from dictatorship – in the first two cases lasting for decades – when they were integrated into the European Community. The political consideration was that integration would significantly help to consolidate democracy in those countries, and so it proved. A similar imperative lay behind the readiness to integrate former communist countries in eastern Europe. Here, too, the benefits have greatly outweighed the disadvantages of incorporating less developed economies, even though Hungary and Poland, especially, have come to pose some new challenges to the liberal values of the European Union.


DO: Mikhail Gorbachev is another one of the key figures who gets a lot of your attention in the book.  One of the most important parts of your analysis of the era of perestroikais the impact that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had on Gorbachev.  How did Chernobyl affect his decisions at this critical point in history?

IK: No individual had a greater impact on European (and global) change in this era than Gorbachev. Chernobyl, little over a year after Gorbachev had acceded to power in the Soviet Union, convinced him that the Soviet system as a whole was rotten, and needed root-and-branch reform.


DO: In addition to explaining the roles of leading politicians you also provide examples of less well-known figures who played great parts in momentous events, including a Polish priest named Jerzy Popieluszko.  Who was he and how did he help strengthen opposition to the Polish government in the 1980s?  

IK: Popiełuszko was a young Catholic priest who had been vociferous in support of Solidarity, the trade-union opposition to the Polish regime which had been banned under the declaration of martial law imposed in December 1981. In October 1984 he was kidnapped and murdered by members of the state security police. The murder of Popiełuszko led to an enormous outburst of popular anger, reflected in the huge numbers attending his funeral. Indirectly, the reaction to the murder convinced the regime that concessions had to be made to the opposition. By 1986 an amnesty for all political prisoners arrested under martial law was granted.


DO: The fall of communism in Eastern Europe ushered in incredibly high expectations for Europe and indeed the world, yet despite the enthusiasm, there were many obstacles standing in the way of Eastern European prosperity and hopes for a peaceful transition.  Which of the former communist states did the best job making the change to democratic government and market-based economic systems? What made them successful?  Which of them fared the worst and why?  

IK: The difficult transition was best managed by the German Democratic Republic (though, of course, the incorporation in the Federal Republic made this a special case), and by Poland. In the latter case, the change to trade liberalization, convertible currency, a fully-fledged market economy, and extensive privatization took place extremely rapidly, through what was labelled ‘shock therapy’. Poland’s debts were effectively written off and the country benefited from assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. By 1992 Poland was recovering strongly, though experts differ over whether this was on account of the ‘shock therapy’ itself. The slowest countries to adapt were Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, which had been relatively backward under Communism, with poor infrastructure, low level of industrialization and weak civic culture and high levels of corruption and clientelism.


DO: Why did you describe Helmut Kohl as a “disciple” of Adenauer?  How do you assess Kohl’s impact on Germany and on European integration?  

IK: Kohl was particularly keen to continue Adenauer’s policy of binding Germany to the West and consolidating the friendship with France as the basis of policy towards Europe. Kohl’s reputation as the Chancellor who brought about unification is guaranteed, and as such his impact on Germany was enormous. Probably, once the Wall had fallen unification would have happened anyway in the relatively near future. But Kohl’s negotiations, especially with Gorbachev, were important. Kohl, like Adenauer, was a fervent advocate of European integration. His legacy here was the agreement that he and the French President, Mitterrand, reached at the Maastricht conference in 1991 to introduce a single European currency, the Euro.


DO: In the final chapter, which you call “Global Exposure,” you analyze several threats to twenty-first-century Europe that were the result of developments outside the continent, including the financial crash of 2008 and resulting recession, the rise of nationalism, mass migration of refugees from the Middle East, and the rise of Islamist terrorism.  We don’t have time to cover each so I’d like to focus on one and put it into historical perspective.  How is Islamist terrorism different from other terror campaigns in Europe like those of the IRA, ETA, and the Red Army Faction? 

IK: IRA and ETA terrorism, though the consequences for the victims were horrendous, had limited aims of national independence. The Red Army Faction’s nebulous objective was the destruction of capitalism and the West German imperialist-fascist state (as they saw it).  The terrorist attacks of these organisations were directed in the main at political, military and economic representatives of the states that they wanted to destroy – though, of course, many innocent bystanders were sometimes caught up in the attacks. Islamist terrorism, in contrast, had an essentially unlimited objective – the destruction of western values and their replacement by those of fundamentalist Islam. Civilians were directly targeted in order to make the greatest impact. And the perpetrators were ready to sacrifice their own lives for the cause. 


DO: When you concluded the book in August 2017, Brexit was a simmering issue, and you had some rather witty yet unkind things to say about then Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.  What are your thoughts about him now that he has become Prime Minister?  How do you see Brexit unfolding and does it pose an existential threat to the EU?  

IK: Johnson should not be taken for a fool because he sometimes acts like one. He is a clever, calculating politician. He hopes to attain legendary status in Britain as the savior of the Conservative Party who achieves Brexit and restores British greatness. He has become Prime Minister only on the votes of around 160,000 Conservative Party members and lacks any popular mandate. Nevertheless, he has surrounded himself by a cabinet committed to leaving the EU on 31 October, if need be without a deal which all experts see as damaging for the EU but far more so for the UK. Both the EU and the UK will survive even ‘no deal’, but lasting, and unnecessary, harm will have been done. How the political drama will unfold over the coming few weeks is impossible to foresee with any clarity.


DO: One of the striking things about your book is how well it illustrates the durability of the institutions that were created in the post-war era, despite facing numerous crises over the last seventy years.  Now with Russia’s meddling in the domestic politics of other countries, Eastern Europe’s reversion to authoritarianism and numerous other problems, are you optimistic about the future of the EU?  

IK: The EU has come a long way and, as Brexit shows, the networks built up over previous decades are extremely complex. What has been achieved will go a long way to sustaining the EU in the future. As it has done so often in the past, the EU will have to adapt to change and the current organizational framework may be reformed and in some ways reconstituted in years to come. But the prospects for the EU’s future remain bright, despite Brexit and other current economic and political problems.