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How Was It Possible?

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson. Penguin Press, September 2006. $35

It’s hardly an original question, but it still needs to be asked: How could the twentieth century have gone so wrong? When it began, Europe was peaceful and prosperous, economically integrated and socially progressive. The great powers seemed to have worked out a stable diplomacy. Indicators of moral progress were encouraging. Slavery had been formally abolished in the previous century; the immemorial subjection of women had been challenged; the laboring masses had gained a political voice; religious toleration and the separation of church and state were increasingly accepted in principle. There were, it’s true, plenty of militarists and imperialists around, but also a fair number of anti-militarists and anti-imperialists, whose morale was not at all bad. Perhaps most strikingly, the theoretical and practical achievements of science were immense and its prestige paramount. If the philosophes had been reincarnated in 1900, they would probably have looked back complacently on the old century and forward confidently to the new one.

In 2000, they would have blanched. Europe had convulsed, twice, in several-years-long spans of cataclysmic violence. The first time, the scale of destruction was unforeseen and, in a sense, unintended, both sides having begun with limited goals and having expected a short, relatively bloodless conflict. The second time was a war of annihilation. The most advanced nation in Europe, industrially, scientifically, and artistically, set out to enslave or exterminate hundreds of millions of innocent people. In the resulting global conflict, one in forty human beings died. “The hundred years after 1900 were without question,” the acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson writes in The War of the World, “the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era. Significantly larger percentages of the world’s population were killed in the two world wars that dominated the century than had been killed in any previous conflict of comparable geopolitical magnitude. . . . There was not a single year before, between, or after the world wars that did not see large-scale organized violence in one part of the world or another.”

Not merely the number but perhaps even more the identity of those killed would distress the philosophes. The laws of war are also an index of moral progress, and the first law of war is “kill only combatants.” The murder of prisoners of war and the shooting, raping, and forced-marching of civilians reached vast proportions in the twentieth century, while the firebombing of cities was something new in the world. And not all civilian deaths from “large-scale organized violence” occurred in the course of a war: a similar order of magnitude were victims of political or ethnic “cleansing.” A large proportion of these victims—approximately 100 million, according to a now-famous estimate1—were killed by governments claiming descent from the Enlightenment by way of its illustrious successor, Marx. By now our poor philosophes are holding their heads, bewildered and traumatized, moaning: “How is it possible?”

Some twentieth-century thinkers have blamed the philosophes themselves, whose rejection of religion and metaphysics allegedly resulted in nihilism and moral relativism. Others reply that, on the contrary, secularization has not gone far enough and the persistence of (sometimes displaced) religious fanaticism is to blame. Others blame our biological nature, exposed by Darwin as red in tooth and claw, full of acquisitive and violent instincts. Some (fewer these days) blame capitalism, whose stern injunction to expand or die forced nations into lethal conflicts over resources and markets. Still others blame technology, which provided governments with unprecedented means of mass destruction and social control.

Historians are in general empirically minded, more concerned with identifying patterns than root causes. Niall Ferguson mostly brackets or discounts such comprehensive explanations: at best they propose necessary but not sufficient conditions. Given whatever innate tendencies humans have toward aggression and domination, whatever incapacity to endure cosmic disenchantment and social anomie, under what circumstances are these most likely to issue in mass violence? “Three things,” Ferguson replies, “seem to me necessary to explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century.”

These may be summarized as ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline. By ethnic conflict, I mean major discontinuities in the social relations between certain ethnic groups, specifically the breakdown of sometimes quite far-advanced processes of assimilation. This process was greatly stimulated in the twentieth century by the dissemination of the hereditary principle in theories of racial difference (even as that principle was waning in the realm of politics) and by the political fragmentation of ‘borderland’ regions of ethnically mixed settlement. By economic volatility I mean the frequency and amplitude of changes in the rate of economic growth, prices, interest rates, and employment, with all the associated social stresses and strains. And by empires in decline I mean the decomposition of the multinational European empires that had dominated the world at the beginning of the century and the challenge posed to them by the emergence of new ‘empire-states’ in Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany.

The ethnic conflicts of the twentieth century followed the remarkable ethnic intermingling of earlier centuries. Central and Eastern Europe in 1900 were a patchwork of peoples: Lithuanians, Latvians, Byelorussians, Russians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Italians, Slovenes, Magyars, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, Greeks, and Turks. Communities of Germans were all over the map. These groups had long coexisted more or less peaceably in one or another empire: e.g., the Holy Roman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or Ottoman. But the nineteenth century saw the formation of many nation-states; and the two world wars completed the process, destroying, in addition to those continental empires, the Dutch, British, and Japanese maritime empires. The result was “an exceptional mismatch between ethnic identities and political structures.” Imperial rule had allowed for some local administrative autonomy, but new aspirations to national unity and cohesion ran up against heterogeneous settlement patterns and linguistic variety. Borders were more numerous and contested in a world made up of many nation-states rather than a few empires.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also the heyday of racial ideology. Paradoxically, this may have been, Ferguson suggests, because the legitimacy of inherited privilege was under attack in politics and economics. “Even as the hereditary principle ceased to govern the allocation of office and ownership, so it gained ground as a presumed determinant of capability and conduct.” Increased intermarriage and cultural assimilation—especially prevalent among German Jews—did not defuse ethnic tensions and may even have heightened them.

Another ingredient in the tinderbox was economic change. Rapid fluctuations in growth and/or prices made for economic insecurity, and except in the most rigidly controlled societies, widespread insecurity meant political instability. The First World War had badly damaged the economies of most European states, causing a level of volatility from 1919 to 1939 nearly twice as great as in the thirty-year periods before and after. In the resulting crisis atmosphere, resentment of minorities (especially disproportionately successful ones) was easier to arouse and organize, and persuasive demagogues were more likely to gain emergency powers. Economic volatility “very often provides the trigger for the politicization of ethnic differences.” The scale of subsequent violence depends on the absence of effective central authority and the presence of disputed borders—two typical consequences of declining empires. “Ethnic confluence, economic volatility and empires on the wane,” Ferguson sums up; “such was and remains the fatal formula.”

After laying out this thesis in fifty pages or so, Ferguson illustrates it with six hundred pages of masterly narration. His range of source material—economic, demographic, and medical statistics, diplomatic and military history, novels, memoirs, journalism, travel writing, pamphlets, letters, sectarian tracts—is staggering; his sense for the compelling detail is unerring; his ability to keep masses of material in motion at high velocities is unflagging; his dialectical agility in rapidly canvassing all sides of an argument on his way to a conclusion is bracing. Not least, his grave, unsparing account of some of the worst horrors ever perpetrated is chastening. Ten-page sections on apparently unpromising topics like miscegenation, pogroms, the pre-World War I bond market, and the World War II plague of rape by the Japanese and Russian armies are as vivid and absorbing as those on prewar diplomacy and military campaigns. The effect is like that of a memorable public-television series—which is, in fact, how The War of the World originated.

Here is one of Ferguson’s innumerable long paragraphs, characteristically crammed with piquant detail and wry observation:

To read English memoirs of the war [WWII] is to be struck by the extraordinary resilience of the public school mentality—the persistence of sang-froid and frivolity, no matter how savagely the other combatants waged their total war; the dogged determination to treat every operation, regardless of its dangers, as either a foxhunt, a cricket match or a dormitory prank. All of these qualities are exhibited in William Stanley Moss’s account of the abduction of the German commander from Crete in 1944. Few prisoners in the war can have been shown more gentlemanly consideration. Off-duty fighter pilots conducted themselves like Oxford undergraduates; while based in India, Group Captain Frank Carey found the Screechers’ Club, new members of which were ‘allowed to drink only as long as they remained amusing’; success entailed promotion through the ranks from Hiccough to Roar, then Scream and finally Screech. Musical accompaniment was provided by the ‘Prang Concerto’, the last movement of which ‘demanded the complete demolition of the piano’. Also engaged in fighting the last war but one, if not two, was Lord Lovat, who insisted that his 1st Special Service Brigade be piped ashore on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. (Miraculously, the bagpiper survived.) After four years of German occupation, the Dutch were mystified by the good manners of British officers, who politely asked permission to fire from their bedroom windows.

Not much of the book, of course, is so lighthearted. But the grimmest story, sufficiently well told, is satisfying, even exalting.

Is The War of the World successful interpretively as well as narratively? The patterns Ferguson points to certainly seem to be there.2 But what should we make of them? Are there implications for policy and morality, and does Ferguson expound them convincingly?

Readers of Ferguson’s earlier bestsellers, Empire and Colossus, may be surprised by his restraint here. There is comparatively little of his usual enthusiastic advocacy of global economic liberalization and American military intervention. Instead he closes on a melancholy, almost helpless note. “We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand . .  the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so negate our common humanity. They are forces that stir within us still.” Even more soberly: “In writing this book I have be gun to doubt whether the war of the world described here can genuinely be regarded as over even now. .  . As long, it seems, as men plot the destruction of their fellow-men—as long as we dread and yet also somehow yearn to see our great metropolises laid waste—this war will recur, defying the frontiers of chronology.”

Such anxious agnosticism is, of course, one appropriate response to the harrowing story Ferguson has recounted. But a measure of simple-minded progressive moralism also seems warranted, notwithstanding Ferguson’s tough-minded aversion to it. That treating enemy prisoners well made enemy surrenders more likely, while abusing prisoners made the enemy less likely to surrender and more likely to abuse their own prisoners; that Germans in the 1930s blamed unfair reparations (justifiably or not) for their country’s terrifying economic collapse and remembered with great bitterness the unnecessary continuation of the British blockade after World War I, which caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths; that the insane behavior of the Khmer Rouge followed the almost incomprehensibly intensive bombing of their tiny, premodern country—these and many other examples suggest that on the whole, as a rule, with undoubted exceptions and no precise statistical correlation, he to whom evil is done doeth evil in return. It is hardly a sufficient lesson to take away from the history of the twentieth century, but it is a necessary one.3


1. Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 1999), 4.

2. For a more rigorous, theoretically elaborated treatment of modern mass violence, which reaches similar conclusions, see Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

3. This lesson is applied very astutely to the twenty-first century in Amy Chua, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2002).


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