Europe’s Modern Age of Violence, 1914-1949

Course Material 2023/24

For Europe, the period 1914-1948 was the Age of Extremes (Hobsbawm). The intertwining of warfare and ideological polarisation gave rise to what one historian has called the ‘European civil war’.

This paper begins with the First World, the ‘seminal catastrophe’ of the twentieth century and closes with the formal division of Europe between two global systems. For the citizens of Europe, this was an era of radical uncertainty. The politics of the liberal, conservative and social-democratic ‘centre’ was ground between the totalitarian projects of left and right. States aligned themselves with experimental visions that imposed enormous demands on their populations. Planners reimagined cities and dreamed of engineering new forms of human life. Populations were drawn for the first time into the ambit of national mass media, leisure and consumption.

This was an era in which international systems were built, fell apart and were reconfigured. In the 1930s, Spain became the theatre of a new kind of political ultra-violence. For the people in the post-imperial shatter-zones between the totalitarian powers, these years witnessed ruthless state intervention and genocide. Overseas empire had played a central role in both world wars. But by the 1940s, the European imperial project was beginning to unravel. On both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’ new (and very different) forms of transnational integration reframed the geopolitics of the continent. The period covered by this paper is so rich in trauma that it continues to reverberate in present political and popular culture.