Attempting to explain root causes of a most violent century
It is often the case that ambitious volumes of history fall short of providing any fresh answers to, or even clearer interpretations of, the big questions such books inevitably set themselves to address, leaving the reader to question at the end whether the effort required to get through the innumerable pages was worth it.
Either their gaze is too encompassing and the reader fails to see theconnectionsbetweenwhatseem to be the key elements of the story, or the narrative falls into disarray as the author takes tedious account of each and every element.
But the latest offering from Niall Ferguson, “The War of the World,” stands as a welcome exception to these pitfalls. Its encyclopedic reach and bold assertions speak to significant research and nuanced reflection by the author.
That the 20th century was the most violent in the history of civilization is a common assertion among historians, but while stating this claim is “by no means beyond dispute,” Mr. Ferguson seeks to discover exactly what made the first half of the century — what he calls “the age of hatred” – so exceptionally bloody. His answer gives us fresh insight into the complicated relationship between empires, ethnicity and the flow of history.
Specifically, he attributes this half-century of upheaval to the fatal convergenceof“ethnicconflict,economic volatility, and empires in decline,” the last element central to his refutation of yet another common idea that the end of World War II representedthetriumphofWestern ideas over totalitarianism.
It is “only when the extent of Western dominance in 1900 is ap- preciated,” he writes, “that the true narrative arc of the twentieth century reveals itself. This was not the ‘triumph of the West,’ but rather the crisis of the European empires, the ultimate result of which was the inexorable revival of Asian power and the descent of the West.” This allows the reader to perceive a longer historical trajectory than one that takes World War I, the interwar years and World War II as discreet units.
The gradual diminution of the global influence of the West relative to its dominance in 1900 forms one key element of his narrative framework, while ever-present ethnic strife forms the other. One of Mr. Ferguson’s singular contributions here is to put the violence of the Holocaust into the narrative of ethnic violence reaching back to the turn of the century.
The Holocaust was extraordinary, yes, but here it seems less of a surprise when it does burst upon the scene of Europe’s unsettled landscape. The key characteristics of the places in which most of the violence in these years played out (central and eastern Europe) were a multi-ethnic population, shifting demographic balances and political fragmentation, all of which had contributed to deadly ethnic violence traceable back to the pogroms of 1880-81.
Even more disturbingly, the new intensity of ethnic conflict discernableintheRussianpogromsof1905 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 came in the course of World War I and after “to be adopted as legitimate methods of warfare by the great powers themselves.”
Linking empires and ethnicity as Mr. Ferguson does leads the reader to the fatal triangle of territory between the Baltic, the Balkans and theBlackSeawheresomuchofthis sorrow was to unfold. It “was a zone of conflict not just because it was ethnically mixed, but also because itwasthejunctionwheretherealms of the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans met, the fault line between the tectonic plates of four great empires,” and their cataclysmic destruction in World War I dissolved the boundaries between civilian and combatant.
Also destroyed were the longstanding checks against the way in which ethnic violence could flare out of control. The momentum of killing then continued on into the postwar world.
As World War I brings about the end of “the old order of multi-national empires and ethnically-mixed communities,” those empires and communitiesnowseemtohavehad a purpose. Instead of German enmity over the Treaty of Versailles, it was the Wilsonian notion of self-determination that sowed the real seeds for the next round of violence.
“IncombinationwiththeLeague, self-determination was to take precedence over the integrity of the sovereign state,” Mr. Ferguson writes.
Consequently, the causes of World War II in Europe “arose from the conflict between territorial arrangements based on the principle of ‘self-determination’ and the realities of ethnically mixed patterns of settlement.” He believes that “the single most important reason for the fragility of peace in Europe was the fundamental contradiction between selfdetermination and the existence of these minorities.”
Mr. Ferguson adds other provocative twists to common interpretations of events. Typical of this is his observation that in the summer of 1914, “from a modern standpoint, the only European power to side with the victims of terrorism against the sponsors of terrorism was Germany.” Little nuggets like this crackle with resonance in our time.
Similarly, World War I spells the end of a remarkably “globalized” world. His use of the modern word globalization is purposeful and subtly disturbing when we realize that a globalized world could still allow the catastrophe of 1914.
Like several other authors, Mr. Ferguson refutes the errant notion that World War II began in September 1939, noting the outbreak of related conflicts as early as 1931. The novelty comes when he observes therefore that Hitler “was a latecomer to the war” and consequently that “appeasement did not lead to war. It was war that led to appeasement.”
But along with such insight, the book’s very breadth, however, will ensure that some people will find some parts of it a little dry. Further, there are numerous tables and charts explaining, for instance, rates of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles, and other large sections that read more like census data. We note, for instance, that such intermarriage in Germany represented 28 percent of total marriages in 1933.
But he ultimately puts the data to good use: In one of his more arresting contentions he says “perhaps the anti-Semitism of the Nazis is best understood as a reaction to the very success of German-Jewish assimilation.” Hitler had the upsurge of mixed marriages in the 1920s — a sign we would expect to be an indication of a well-integrated society — in mind when he railed against German blood being polluted.
Overall, “The War of the World” is a book that is quite literally hard to put down. The reader gets a growing sense of where the narrative is headed and is pulled along smoothly, in part because of the fine writing, in part because of the natural inclination one feels to see if the pieces will fit together in the anticipated way, and, eventually, because of curiosity as to how Mr. Ferguson will interpret subsequent events.
We already have sweeping histories of World War II in a global context (Gerhard Weinberg’s “A World AtArms”comestomind,ofcourse) but what Mr. Ferguson is offering here is more complicated: a history of the world wars together within a larger political-ethnic context.
One hopes that the size of the book itself doesn’t discourage people from picking it up; it is as long as it needs to be to outline the trajectory he seeks to establish. It is a book that requires effort but one that pays rich dividends.
David A. Smith teaches history at Baylor University in Waco, Tex.