At­tempt­ing to ex­plain root causes of a most vi­o­lent cen­tury

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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