The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West by Niall Ferguson, Penguin Press, $32.95
How did it come to pass that the 20th century gave us such murderous wars, so many of them, on so grand a scale, inflicting such massive noncombatant death, most of it as deliberate as it was pointless? How is it that seemingly civilized human beings could begin the century in peace and prosperity and plunge almost immediately into such unparalleled warfare and genocide—and a century later, sadder and no wiser, still be at it? And why did so much of the mass murder of the 1900s target and victimize people whose principal transgressions were their religious faith or their physical appearance?
Examining the tragic evidence, detective-historian Niall Ferguson sets out to uncover “the motives behind the murders”—about 175 million of them, by his count. The conundrum of the century is at once the conundrum of the human condition: no matter our enlightenment and our experience, no matter our sense of right and wrong, why are we compelled to exterminate whole populations of people in the name of nations, creeds, and races?
These harrowing questions launch and haunt The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, the latest big book from the precocious and astonishingly productive Scottish historian, author of recent major works on the First World War, the British Empire, the American Empire, and The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000. Clearly Ferguson is not cowed by the size of any topic, including, here, man’s inhumanity to man. But despite the freight of the theme, The War of the World should not be confused with a work of anthropology, let alone philosophy. It is, rather, a deeply disturbing chronicle of the last century’s grisliest descents into hell, with World War II the black heart of the epoch’s seamless shame. He leaves it to us to draw the lessons—and to remain helpless still.
In framing his approach, Ferguson indulges his predilection (as teacher, as popularizer, as maverick) for throwing traditional brackets and universally accepted labels out the window. Such tricks of the trade have helped propel Ferguson’s career beyond the walls of the university, notably as public television’s latest intellectual emcee. (The War of the World is tied to a bbc series, coming to a viewer-supported station near you.)
“It might therefore be said,” Ferguson writes (in such frequent throat-clearing phrases we can hear both the professor on autopilot and the occasionally indifferent writer—my only disappointments about the execution of the book),
that the late 1930s and early 1940s witnessed the crescendo of an entire century of organized violence—a global Hundred Years War. . . . In the end, I have elected to locate the war of the world between two dates: 1904, when the Japanese struck the first effective blow against European dominance of the Orient; and 1953, when the end of the Korean War drew a line through the Korean peninsula, matching the Iron Curtain that had already been drawn through Central Europe. But what followed this Fifty Years War was not a “long peace” but what I have called the Third World’s War.
Ferguson is keen to explore his own claim that the 20th century was “without question the bloodiest century in history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era,” and so he offers in the British edition an instructive appendix on the subject of numbers—and the nature of violence. Here he coolly asks questions that are as perplexing to the historian as to the moral philosopher:
Does it require a greater quantity of violence (though I remain unsure in which unit violence should be measured) to kill a hundred people with a machete than with a bomb? Finally, does intention matter? Is it worse to kill people out of racial or religious prejudice than to kill them in pursuit of a strategic objective? Should we allow for the fact that in some cases organized violence is asymmetrically perpetrated against defenseless civilians, while in others it is reciprocally inflicted by well-matched armies? To put it differently, is “genocide” merely a term for a civil war in which only one side is armed?
The statistics are sobering, staggering. Of the century’s 167 million to 188 million “deaths by organized violence,” nearly 60 million occurred during World War II (between 1939 and 1945). Many more citizens from the Soviet Union died than from any other country—25 million. Poland’s mortality rate was the highest of the war—19 percent; Germany-Austria’s rate was 10 percent; France, England, the United States, and Italy had a mortality rate of less than one percent. (No wonder, in some places, it’s called the good war.) By comparison, Pol Pot’s reign of butchery in Cambodia, albeit a small country, probably came as close as any other to matching those numbers, with a 10 percent mortality rate. The proportion of people killed in the Congo under Belgian rule may have been as high as 20 percent. Only Genghis Khan in the 13th century killed on such a scale, wiping out 10 percent of the population of the world, according to Ferguson’s estimates.
Naturally enough, the numbers horrify in indirect proportion to their size, and Ferguson is as attentive to the details as to the broad canvas. He deftly zooms in to put a human face, or an inhuman one, on the bloody statistics—quoting here an Italian reporter’s 1941 account of the night of hysteria when 4,000 Romanian Jews were slaughtered.
Hordes of Jews pursued by soldiers and maddened civilians armed with knives and crowbars fled along the streets; groups of policemen smashed in house doors with their rifle butts; windows opened suddenly and screaming disheveled women in nightgowns appeared with their arms raised in the air; some threw themselves from windows and their faces hit the asphalt with a dull thud. Squads of soldiers hurled hand grenades through the little windows level with the street into the cellars where many people had vainly sought safety; some soldiers dropped to their knees to look at the results of the explosions within the cellars and turned laughing faces to their companions. Where the slaughter had been heaviest the feet slipped in blood; everywhere the hysterical and ferocious toll of the pogrom filled the houses and streets with shot, and weeping, with terrible screams and cruel laughter.
This savagery was the work not of German or Soviet invaders, but of the victims’ neighbors, willing and even eager executioners. It was all of a pattern with the century’s wars and genocides, and pogroms and gulags—the job could never have been done by the authorities and the soldiers alone. Collaborators always materialized. Societies—in Germany’s case one of the most advanced and civilized extant— turned on ethnic minorities that had been among the most fully assimilated in the world, whose rates of intermarriage were high, whose numbers were anything but threatening.
Ferguson, an economic historian by training, is drawn here to evolutionary biology for sharpening our perplexity about humanity’s fear of the Other—its need to invent the Other when it is not actually there. “All the human dna in existence today originated with as few as 86,000 individuals,” he notes.
Around 85 percent of the total amount of genetic variation in humans occurs among individuals in an average population; only 6 percent occurs between races. The genetic variants that affect skin color, hair type and facial features involved an insignificant amount of the billions of nucleotides in an individual’s DNA. To some biologists, this means that, strictly speaking, human races do not exist.
Rape has been an instrument of violence for as long as there have been wars, but for Ferguson it is also—today’s received wisdom once again tossed aside—a display of biological attraction. The organized policy of rape that went along with the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Serbs by their fellow non-Muslim Serbs in the early 1990s—to name only one recent instance of this heritage of oppression—bespeaks for Ferguson the duality of human nature. We lust for what we want to kill. “Freud’s analysis went to the elusive heart of hatred itself,” Ferguson writes, “by capturing its essential ambivalence—its combination of Eros and Thanatos, of the sexual and the morbid.” When Einstein asked Freud to join a high-minded effort to promote world peace, Freud replied that the destructive instinct would forever struggle against the erotic one and was, in some sense, an expression of it. “Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life’s odious importunities? For it seems a natural enough thing, biologically sound and practically unavoidable.”
Among the reasons for Niall Ferguson’s outsized renown are his age (born in 1964 and thus still plausibly young), his output (a book every 18 months for a decade, a weekly newspaper column, television productions, and presumably some teaching), his politics (pugnaciously Tory), and his intellectual ambition. He once said to the Canadian journalist Robert Fulford: “What’s the point of having knowledge about modern history if you confine yourself to writing monographs for Oxford University Press?” As a consequence, Ferguson may have found that the popularizer is never honored in his own faculty club—his club being in business class over the Atlantic Ocean or in the American heartland; he holds faculty appointments at Harvard and Oxford and the Hoover Institution.
Ferguson’s training was not all academic, and it’s telling in his work. As a young Ph.D. candidate in Hamburg, working on his dissertation and first book (on German inflation), Ferguson used an assumed name and a disguised photograph to write string for the Daily Mail, knowing that his academic confreres would be scandalized if he were known to dabble in journalism. The rubric of the provocative generalization supported by the choice of only the most-telling facts and anecdotes may seem a self-evident choice for any scholar; if only it were so. But by any standard Ferguson is an unusually impressive narrator. He can charge confidently, even hastily, across wars and cabinet conflicts, stitching currency trading to naval maneuvers to personal peccadilloes; he can sketch a tyrant, pause to take you inside the cockpit of an raf bombing run over wartime Germany, move on to thrash out competing balance-of-payments arguments, before taking a side trip into Nazi architecture and symbolism.
Here’s a sample of Ferguson’s brisk and pungent style as he introduces the reader to Adolf Hitler:
An art-school reject who had once scraped a living by selling kitschy picture postcards; an Austrian draft-dodger who had ended up a decorated Bavarian corporal; a lazy mediocrity who rose late and enjoyed both Wagner’s operas and Karl May’s cowboy yarns—here indeed was an unlikely heir to the legacy of Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck. . . . [Some] thought he looked more like ‘a man trying to seduce the cook’ or perhaps a renegade tram conductor. If it had not been for the advice of his publisher Max Amann, he would have called his first book Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice instead of the distinctly catchier My Struggle. . . . As for his sexuality, about which there has long been speculation on the basis of circumstantial or tainted evidence, he may have had none. Hitler hated. He did not love.
Please, Niall, tell us what you really think.
Ferguson is known for championing the counterfactual; he edited a book, Virtual History (1997), that lent some scholarly weight to a mode of analysis that my old professors used to dismiss as “what-if” history, but unquestionably engages anyone who thinks about the complex machinery of fate—that is, history. In The War of the World, accordingly, Ferguson constantly and, for me, endearingly points out roads not taken, roads not noticed, could-haves and should-haves. He lectures his long-dead forebears on the bungling negligence of their misjudgments and speculates on happier outcomes had they only acted, by his lights or hindsight’s, rationally. It follows that Ferguson adores confronting accepted readings of historic turning points, relishing the chance to make a convincing case for appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1939 and, elsewhere, mocking the stupidity of British generals: “By 1935, incredibly, they were so convinced of their own hopeless vulnerability that they did not even dare fight the Italian navy. In 1938 the Chiefs of Staff ruled out even ‘staff conversations’ with the French, since the very term ‘has a sinister purport and gives an impression . . . of mutually assumed military collaboration.’ Perish the thought!” The Yanks are not spared. Ferguson dismisses the American fighting men in World War II as “significantly less well-trained than their opponents,” adding the following poke: “The ‘greatest generation’ may have been greater than other American generations; they were far from being the greatest warriors of World War II.” Cheeky.
And gloomy, too, from beginning to end.
H. G. Wells had imagined a “War of the Worlds”—a Martian invasion that devastated the earth. In the hundred years that followed, men proved that it was quite possible to wreak comparable havoc without the need for alien intervention. . . .
The War of the World is, however, historical fact. Perhaps, like Wells’s story, ours will be ended abruptly by the intervention of microscopic organisms like the avian influenza virus. . . . Until that happens, however, we are our own worst enemies.
Ferguson stops short of addressing the catastrophic United States invasion of Iraq and the terrifying tribal war it has rekindled, but his conclusion holds. Among the violent zealotry of the toppled dictator, the violent zealotry of the foreign invaders, and the violent zealotry of the domestic sectarians, the competition for worst enemy is stiff.
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