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To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by British historian Ian Kershaw, perhaps best known for his enormous two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler (1889-1936 Hubris and 1936-1945 Nemesis), is the first of two new entries in the Penguin History of Europe series. This book marks the "era of Europe's self-destruction" through World War I, interwar economic and political calamities, World War II and the beginning of the continent's division between the United States' influence and the Soviet occupation. The second book will span the Cold War through the modern day.

Even as a standalone volume, To Hell and Back is a monumental work. As Kershaw readily admits in his preface: "for practically every sentence I wrote a plethora of specialist works, often of great quality, was available." In covering such broad and well-trodden ground, To Hell and Back must find success or failure in its clarity and organization. By these measures, Kershaw's work is a triumph. His engaging prose guides readers through details thorough enough to understand fully a given topic without becoming bogged down. Politics, cultural trends and economics alike are coherent in Kershaw's capable hands.

With so much material to cover, Kershaw might have been tempted to gloss over "common knowledge," leaving casual history readers lost in the process. He instead keeps the basics succinct, covering, for example, the course of the Spanish Civil War without boring history buffs or alienating newcomers. The sheer breadth of To Hell and Back gives fascinating insight into the pushes and pulls of the geopolitical tides that shaped the modern world. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer