This is the first of Niall Ferguson’s books I have read. It won’t be my last. If War of the World is a fair representation of his writing, then Ferguson sets the standard of excellence among historians and history writers I have read. He is exquisitely knowledgeable about the pertinent aspects of the human condition—social, political, economic, tribal, national, technological, etc.—prerequisite to gaining an objective understanding as to what went on and why during the period in question. He writes with a clarity and brevity and insightful verve that few in science or academia can muster.
And his is not history as ideology. It is not dogma disguised as objectivity. Had I not already known, it would have been quite impossible for me to tell which side of the great political divide (conservative/liberal) he might fall. And he artfully understands how to pace and space and interlink his arguments and stories into a narrative whole, much as writer of fiction might. War of the World was an engaging and informative read, another of that rare species of book that compels dread in the reading because of the knowledge that it must eventually end.
WOTW basically covers the twentieth century, particularly focusing on the events leading up to World Wars One and Two and their aftermath. Ferguson derives the title of the book from George Orwell’s War of the Worlds, where aliens attack Earth and kill people with trenchant and cold efficiency, much like the efficiency and ruthlessness with which the German Wehrmacht marched through Europe. Germany, like others of the era, notably the Soviet Union, channeled the passionately-held bigotries of their people into coldly bureaucratic and ruthlessly efficient expressions of killing, torture, rape and oppression. Orwell’s War of the Worlds didn’t, however, come close to capturing the brutality of World War Two. World War Two, particularly in the Eastern European theater, was so horrible, as Ferguson makes abundantly clear through vignettes personalizing the barbarity, that it wouldn’t have been believable as fiction.
But what was the world like before the outbreak of World War One, the war that marked the beginning of a remarkable period, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, of turmoil and bloodshed? It turns out that it was remarkably similar to the world of today. In the following, Ferguson quotes Keynes, the leading political economist of the time, describing the life of a reasonably well-off bloke in London in 1901:
He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could dispatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.
Now that privilege extends to practically anyone anywhere. The world today is like it was before 1914 changed everything, but on a much grander scale. To be sure, there are passports and visa restrictions today that weren’t in place a century ago, but the basic expectation of cheap and easy travel is the rule today, just like then, only now it is yet cheaper and easier and quicker. But if modern man prefers, he can bring the world to where he is. So too could the gentleman in London:
The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery on his doorstep…
All those dot com busts of the early 2000’s, and Jeff Bezo’s idea to deliver stuff the same day via drone aircraft, seem a bit revanchist when juxtaposed upon the condition of the average Londoner in 1914. A century and two hot wars and one Cold War later, and we’re just beginning to recover lost ground.
So, why did it all have to end, over something as seemingly insignificant as an assassin’s bullet? To say the world was a powder keg of nationalist/imperialist impulse and sentiment begs the question. The world was, as Ferguson points, experiencing the apogee of European dominance and control as had not been seen since the Roman Empire ruled the Mediterranean and most of Europe. Only this time, the dominance and control extended across the seven seas. England ruled a half billion Indians with only a token force, had gained hegemonic control over most of Southern Africa, and had colonies in Southeast Asia and China. And that was only the British. The French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans had also extended their influence well outside their borders. If the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been the age of European imperial ambition, the twentieth would be the age of retrenchment and dissolution.
Take the experiences of China during the era. At the time of Keynes’ London observations, China’s Qing dynasty was soon to disintegrate, to be replaced by a quasi-republican regime that almost immediately found it necessary to mount arms against a fledgling Communist insurgency. Chinese dynastic rule, at one time many times more powerful than perhaps even the Roman Empire in the West, finally fell from the weight of centuries of ossified corruption. In the process, it lost control of substantial portions of its country through externally-imposed free trade zones (“treaty ports”) where Europeans, and later, the Japanese also, enjoyed immunity from Chinese law and policy, to live and trade freely.
The degradation of the Chinese Empire began in earnest in the mid-1800’s with the two Opium Wars Britain fought in order to facilitate their trafficking of Indian opium, which the Dynasty sought to abolish. By the time the British succeeded in imposing her will, China was forced to pay reparations, and cede Hong Kong, and the scramble for China’s riches among the European powers was on. But it was only a few years after Japan and Germany were defeated that China had regained practically all of its lost territory, had kicked out its corrupt Nationalist government, and had abolished completely the trafficking in opium. Within another half-century, it would overtake Japan as the second largest economic system in the world (on an aggregate basis; Japan still far exceeds China on a per capita basis).
Ferguson makes the point that what made the world so unstable in 1914 was not that so many empires were strong and competing against each other. It was that so many were weak and technologically backward. The Ottoman Empire, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Qing Empire were either totteringly unstable or had already fallen. There were spoils to be divvied up. There were power questions to be resolved. The nineteenth century was spent leveraging the new technologies of the Industrial Age for the building of empire. Those empires that fell behind in the race for technology, i.e., the three previously mentioned and a few others, became vulnerable to the ones who embraced technological advancement.
The twentieth century was spent applying the technologies to internal imperial power dynamics and international relationships. Which meant killing. Lots and lots of killing. Because one answer of what to do with the multitudes of ethnicities populating the various empires was very simply genocide. Kill them all, and let God sort out the good from the bad. It was a policy Germany certainly pursued, and the more maniacally as its military fortunes declined. But Stalin probably killed as many people in the Soviet Union before the war as Hitler killed in Germany and the occupied territories during it. And the killing wasn’t restricted to just Germany and the Soviet Union. By the time World War Two rolled around, wherever there was a minority, especially a religious minority, there would be some killing, raping and oppressing by the majority. It happened in Poland, before, during and after each war, at times more severely than anywhere else.
It happened in the Soviet Union to pretty much everyone, including even the dominant ethnic group, Russians, if they happened to be suspected of subversive sentiments, though non-Russians took the brunt of the abuse. Stalin starved probably 2-3 million Ukrainians to death before and during the war. Once the Red Army turned the tide of war in its favor and started its march through Germany, it behaved like marauding Vikings, raping, pillaging and plundering all along the way, just as the Germans had in their truncated march to Moscow. And in the East, Japan literally raped and murdered perhaps 20,000 women in Nanking, the Nationalist government’s capitol, while enlisting thousands of Korean women as prostitutes to satisfy savage appetites unleashed by the brutality, not to mention the wholesale slaughter it inflicted on populations everywhere it conquered.
It is readily clear that the cycle of violence didn’t start with the bullet to Prince Ferdinand’s head in 1914 nor end in Nagasaki in 1945. From a human perspective, war compresses time and space. In active combat, seconds seem to last for hours. A lifetime can be lived in two weeks. Yet it can take years for the tectonic forces of war to sufficiently build such that they are released in the crescendo of combat. World War One was as much a product of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 as it was of the intervening years of empire building. Germany consolidated and defined its empire and identity in the 1870 war. Almost half a century later, it was eager to extend its realm at the expense of Western European powers it considered as having grown weak (France) and overextended (Great Britain). And the conditions compelling its impulse to aggression changed very little in the intervening years between the World Wars. France grew weaker and markedly less resolute about defending its empire, and even its native borders. Great Britain could not have possibly held onto her empire in the face of a viable threat. When France’s army proved to be nothing but a paper tiger, capitulating in less than six weeks in the face of the German Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg, it was obvious that France had been defeated a long time before the war had even begun. Napoleon’s Army that had once wreaked havoc over all the Continent was never again to rise. Lonely Great Britain could barely defend herself, let alone her African and Asian colonies.
It could be imagined that the twentieth century was exceedingly bloody because the nineteenth had been exceedingly less so, as the race for applying the new technologies of the Industrial Age consumed the competitive energies for awhile. Only after the first wave of technology, particularly the refinement of mass production, was fully exploited, did the empires turn on each other, applying the technological advancements to ghastly ends. (Which wasn’t so much Ferguson’s assessment, but makes sense to me.)
The brutality of which Ferguson wrote seared images in the mind that are hard to dispel. The story of the Holocaust only partially tells the tale. The killing began far earlier than the latter years of the war that is associated with the wholesale slaughter of Jews in the death camps. The killing began as soon as the blitzkrieg was under way. And it was often not the Germans who were doing the killing, but the locals of the conquered territory. Ferguson offers the account of a Latvian, Boris Kacel, after the Germans took over:
In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined the hidden animosity the Latvians had for their Jewish neighbors. Trucks arrived carrying small vigilante groups of ten to fifteen armed Latvians, who wore armbands in their national colors of red, white and red. These men intended to kidnap Jews off the street and take away their personal belongings. The prisoners were then forcibly loaded onto the trucks, taken to the woods, and killed… I did not expect such a severe assault; after all, the Jews had lived with the Latvians for many years. The two groups had always tolerated each other and had lived together in a friendly, harmonious atmosphere…The greatest tragedy was that these crimes were not committed by strange, invading forces, but by local Latvians, who knew their victims by their first names…The Jews soon had to seek German protection from the vicious Latvian hordes.
The brutality was almost unbelievable; this is from a Ukrainian’s account of his countrymen’s persecution of Jews:
First, they raped his wife. Then, they proceeded to execute her by tying her up to a nearby tree and cutting off her breasts. As she hung there bleeding to death, they began to hurl her two-year-old son against the house wall repeatedly until his spirit left his body. Finally, they shot her two daughters.
It is tales like this that offer some perspective on, for example, the Black experience in the US. This sort of thing never happened in the US, or if it did, was exceedingly rare and was severely punished as the criminal behavior that it is. But ethnically-motivated rape, torture, murder and theft (now called ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic-cleansing’) was more or less routinely happening in 1940’s Europe, just over seventy years ago, just as Blacks in the US felt comfortable enough to coalesce into a movement for an expansion of their Civil Rights. Blacks in the US should thank their lucky stars every day that their ancestors were kidnapped and brought here as slaves. No matter how bad they might have had it here, they would have had it far worse anywhere else. The protesters in Ferguson and New York and elsewhere need to just shut up. The facts of Ferguson and New York are ambiguous, at best. There was no ambiguity in the slaughter that prevailed in Central Europe before, during, and sometimes after, World War Two.
The subtitle to Ferguson’s book is “Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”. The point being that the World Wars were as much about a Western comeuppance vis a vis Asia and the Middle East and Africa as anything else. Prior to the wars, Britain ruled five times her population in India, and all the delectable morsels of China and Southeast Asia had been carved away by European powers, as well as in Africa. Between the first and second war, Britain and France acceded to Turkish possessions abandoned with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Middle East. As a result of World War Two Britain lost India and her Middle East holdings, the imperial European powers were soon enough run out of China with the ascendancy of Mao and the Communists, and Southeast Asia and Africa slowly pulled away from their colonial masters. In many respects, the US was the only imperial power left standing, and it had little stomach for empire for its own sake, but sought empire only when it was clearly advantageous economically to do so. Descent is always as relative matter, but there is no doubt that Western civilization descended in status, power and prestige in the twentieth century relative to the rest of the world. Japan’s descent with her defeat marked something of a reversion to a recent mean for the region in which she tried her hand at empire building. The European descent marked a reversion to a more ancient mean.
The question that plagues the mind when the carnage of the twentieth century is assessed is whether it could happen again. The answer surely lies in understanding why it happened in the first place, but there is little that can be concretely said as to why Germany, Italy, Japan and to some extent, the Soviet Union, all became more or less simultaneously gripped with a fever for conquest and ethnic cleansing. World War Two seems more racially motivated than was World War One, which was nationality-motivated, but that may be a distinction without any substantial difference. But why? What unleashed the hounds of racial animosities that turned otherwise fully civilized humans into brute, almost-alien savages, gleefully perpetuating horrendous crimes against their fellows—against their neighbors, friends and citizens? Why have we, by and large, seen practically nothing of the same in the last half-century? Are Europeans and Asians becoming less antagonistic and more cooperative? If so, as much can’t be because of a change in our genetic architecture. Fifty years isn’t much more than a blink in the eye of recorded history, and is effectively nothing in the deep geologic time that has the capacity to shape and form genomes to fit the environments in which they are found. So what is it?
In 2011 Steven Pinker came out with a seven-hundred-plus page assertion that mankind has gotten less and less violent over the millennia (The Better Angels of our Nature), at least since the advent of sedentary agriculture begat civilization, from which ultimately devolved states with the Hobbesian power of the Leviathan. The legitimacy of a state depends on it having a monopoly on the use of deadly force. But as the first half of the twentieth century provides ample example, legitimacy does not imply the absence of despotic and tyrannical use of the power. The individual violence that characterized the human experience through much of history became organized and corporate with the economic reorganization of life fostered by sedentary agriculture. It may have lessened as a ratio of the total population, but only as an incident of populations growing geometrically larger with agriculture’s relative efficiency over hunting and gathering. And it’s doubtful a member of the disfavored ethnicities in Germany and its conquered territories—the Roma, the Jews and the physically or mentally disabled, and really anyone who didn’t appear to be Nordic, with at least blue eyes and fair features—thought that the human heart had softened since before the time of agriculture. And can there be any doubt that in the breast of the most civilized man walking the streets of London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Berlin or Beijing beats the heart of a savage, always alert for the environmental clues that would compel its expression? There is only a thin veneer between savagery and civilization, one that is sometimes explored in artistic and popular venues but that is mainly avoided in social interactions as a truth that is too taboo for acknowledgement.
There has been, it seems, and Pinker argues, a dramatic decline in violence of all sorts in the decades since the end of World War Two. How much of the decline has to do with the reality that conventional violence has been rendered more or less irrelevant, except around the margins, since the development of nuclear weapons? The human race is only a few buttons away from its almost certain annihilation. What point is there in petty little killings otherwise? The twentieth century was about the clashes of empires. Today’s nuclear-armed empires, were they to clash in total war, would completely destroy each other. So it can’t be long before it happens. The heart of the savage beast still beats within us. In fact, unless humans are fighting each other, there is little opportunity for the expression of mankind’s finely-honed genetic legacy of combativeness (particularly in the male). Pinker dismisses the “hydraulic” origin of violence (the idea that it bubbles up from some innate wellspring), while at the same time acknowledging how much of human nature must be overcome for civilization to flourish.
What might the future hold? Did history end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as Francis Fukuyama famously asserted? Ferguson emphatically says, “No”. History didn’t end with the rise of liberal democracies in Western Europe. Conflicts rage all across the globe. And he’s mostly correct, but in the developed world mass conflict and violence seems to have been thrown upon history’s trash bin. But could a maniacally racist, nationalist, violent century like the twentieth, where whole ethnic populations were singled out for elimination, happen again?
World War Two was, at least as Germany, prosecuted it (and to some extent, Japan), an exercise in expressing deep-seated racial and ethnic animus through the application of modern killing and destroying technologies. The German people’s principal motive for fighting seemed to be racial and ethnic animus for those around and within Germany that they felt were inferior, and should therefore be subjugated or eliminated. German state policy was to identify and separate the various races and ethnicities for disparate treatment, a policy not so unusual among empires, but one which eventually turned quite sinister in Germany’s case.
Though not yet nearly as sinister, disparate racial and ethnic treatment obtains in the US today, where the federal government parcels out, through its Affirmative Action programs, social, political and economic spoils according to membership or not in racial and ethnic categories. The US is playing a dangerous game, pitting each racial category against the other in order to magnify the power of the central government, much in the same manner as Germany and other empires (the Soviet Union comes to mind) have done. The logical conclusion of the strategy in Germany was the Holocaust. There is no telling where things might lead in the US. Ferguson points out that it is when empires are faltering and failing that latent bigotries among their populations are most violently expressed. The Ottoman Turks didn’t slaughter the Armenians on a massive scale until it was clear, halfway through World War One, that the Ottoman Empire would not survive the war.
What would happen in the US if its empire started to falter and fail? What if the next Great Recession becomes a grinding, poverty-inducing Great Depression that causes the empire to splinter along well known ethnic and racial fault lines? The coagulation of European ethnicities in the US that blended together to become the cultural group known as ‘Whites’ feel that they by and large built the country. What if they see their relative demise as analogous to that of the Turks in the Ottoman Empire? The White’s chiefly British culture, with a mishmash of German, Dutch, French, Irish, Italian, Polish, Greek, etc., thrown in, provided the leadership and initiative for the great institutions and cultural norms used in settling and pacifying the land. What happens when the Whites come to believe their country and their culture is being usurped and abandoned and replaced by the culture of the Hispanics and Blacks and Asians? Will the White culture go quietly into that good night? The next War of the World might very well be in these United States, as the majority culture becomes only a plurality, and fights to retain its power and relevancy.
In any event, it is a sobering thing to use the vehicle of Niall Ferguson’s capable narrating to peer back to a past not even a century old and clearly see the utter depravity lurking in men’s souls. To imagine that we have somehow permanently negotiated our way out of all that came before this period of relative peace would be baseless and foolish. The War of the World is the rule. The relative peace since then is the exception.