The Age of Catastrophe review: once upon a hellish time in the West

This monumental, thoroughly accessible history may be the last word on the period that began with the battle of Mons and ended with death in the Führerbunker

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Photograph: HULTON GETTY

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Photograph: HULTON GETTY

Sat, Sep 19, 2015, 00:10


Book Title:
The Age of Catastroph: A History of the West 1914–1945


Heinrich August Winkler

Yale University Press

Guideline Price:

In 1994 Britain’s best-known historian of recent times, the late Eric Hobsbawm, famously called the “short” 20th century between the outbreak of the Great War and the fall of communism the “Age of Extremes” – an age characterised by unprecedented misery, bloodshed and ideologically driven politics.

Others have followed Hobsbawm in attempting to encapsulate the essence of the 30 years between 1914 and 1945 in the titles of their books. Richard Overy has referred to the interwar years as the Morbid Age; Mark Mazower called his European history of the 20th century Dark Continent.

Heinrich August Winkler, author of The Age of Catastrophe, may not be as well known as these historians in the English-speaking world, but he certainly is in his native Germany, where everyone from Chancellor Angela Merkel to President Joachim Gauck pays close attention to his books and opinion articles. When Winkler retired as professor of modern history at the Humboldt University of Berlin, a who’s who of the political and cultural establishment attended a symposium in his honour.

The Age of Catastrophe covers a shorter period than Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes but it is no less ambitious, offering a transnational account of European and American history in the period encompassing the two World Wars. Combining historical narrative with an astute analysis of military, political and social history, the book includes chapters on the United States, Russia, Britain and the other European powers.

First published in Germany in 2011 to great critical acclaim, The Age of Catastrophe is the second volume of Winkler’s trilogy A History of the West. Although all three have now been published in German, only this one has been released in English, in an excellent translation by the award-winning Stewart Spencer.

The western project

In his first volume Winkler introduced and developed his underlying thesis, namely the emergence over centuries of what he calls “the normative project of the West”.

This project was characterised by the gradual development of shared basic values and political norms shaped by the European Enlightenment and the great political revolutions of the West, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789: universal human rights, the rule of law, representative democracy, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and so on.

Violations of these norms occurred repeatedly and in various contexts (notably, but not exclusively, in the colonial realm). Yet these values are still at the heart of western political culture.

Whereas volume one focused primarily on the history of political ideas and institutions from the Middle Ages, The Age of Catastrophe offers a narrative analysis of the much shorter, but very eventful, period between 1914 and 1945. With impressive skill and knowledge, Winkler surveys the political history of Europe and the US without neglecting the East.

In particular, he devotes considerable attention to Russian history, without which the general history of the West in this period is difficult to understand. After the 1917 October Revolution, the Bolshevik dictatorship formed the most radical challenge to the normative values of the West.

A second major challenge to these values arose in Italy in 1922, when Mussolini became the first fascist prime minister in Europe, partly in response to the popular fears that the Bolshevik revolution was about to spread west.

Italy was by no means the only country that abandoned democracy in the interwar period. Of the nine states newly founded after the implosion and disappearance of Europe’s land empires, only Finland and Czechoslovakia remained democratic in the interwar period. The other successor states – Poland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, the Baltic states and Yugoslavia – all fell under authoritarian rule of one kind or another. The same applies to states such as Greece, Romania, Portugal and Spain, all of which had existed before 1918.

The “authoritarian transformation” of Europe demonstrated clearly that under the political and economic pressures of the Great Depression years, most states in Europe turned away from the normative values of the West.

Ostensibly western

Given the centrality of Germany in the eventful history of the period under investigation, Winkler devotes considerable attention to its destiny after 1914. Culturally, Germany was a western country. It had been part of the major European emancipation processes that began in the Middle Ages, and played a key role in both the Reformation and the European Enlightenment.

Right up until the 20th century, however, Germany’s ruling elites had rejected the essential political offshoots of the Enlightenment: inalienable human rights, popular sovereignty and representative democracy. For these political elites the first World War was partly a battle against the values of the French Revolution – liberté, égalité, fraternité. And even after that war was lost the political right regarded the Weimar Republic, the first German democracy, as a product of defeat, as an “un-German” state imposed by the victors.

Winkler contrasts the fate of central and southern Europe with the resilience of the western democracies, notably Britain, France and the US. He argues that democracy survived the severe crisis of the Great Depression in these nations, where the values of the West were the most deeply rooted and where they dominated the ideologies of both the political elites and those they governed.

Despite Winkler’s stated admiration for the political culture of the West, he is not an uncritical admirer. The entire project of colonialism, for example, was a clear violation of the normative values that the West advocated at home.

He is also very critical of Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill for their willingness to give Stalin a free hand in east-central Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a decision that condemned the peoples of eastern Europe to decades of living under yet another dictatorship.

Their decision was made for practical reasons – it was the price they paid for leaving the lion’s share of the fight against the Nazis to the Red Army before the Allied landings in 1944 – but it constituted a clear violation of the Atlantic Charter, which promised the newly liberated states of Europe political self-determination.

Despite its length, of nearly 1,000 pages, Winkler’s book is easily accessible for general readers. This is a remarkable achievement given the enormous amount of secondary literature that had to be synthesised and digested for such a complex analysis.

This monumental book is the culmination of a lifetime of scholarship and thought about the period. Winkler’s judgment is always sound, his narrative analysis always gripping and insightful. It can only be hoped that the other two volumes of his trilogy will soon be made available to English-speaking audiences.

Robert Gerwarth is professor of modern history at University College Dublin and director of its centre for war studies. His The Vanquished: Europe and the Aftermath of the Great War will be published by Penguin in 2016