Monday, July 5, 2010

The War of the World by Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson has written a truly exceptional history of the twentieth century called War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking history I have ever read. Ferguson provides new insights into the events of recent history and raises fundamental, and rather frightening, questions about mankind and its nature.

The author takes his title from H. G. Well’s science fiction novel The War of the Worlds (1898) which he describes as
"...much more than a seminal work of science fiction. It is also a kind of Darwinian morality tale, and at the same time a work of singular prescience. In the century after the publication of his book, scenes like the ones Wells imagined became a reality in cities all over the world—not just in London, where wells set his tale, but in Brest-Litovsk, Belgrade and Berlin; in Smyrna, Shanghai and Seoul."Wells’ novel tells a story of the world being attacked by an alien species that uses advanced weapons to systematically slaughter helpless humans. Ferguson makes the analogy to the type of warfare waged in the twentieth century that had many of the characteristics of the interspecies conflict in Wells’ novel: the attempts to exterminate "sub-human species," indiscriminate killing of civilians, industrial scale murder. The author argues that
"The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era....By any measure, the Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time. And yet, for all the attention they have attracted from historians, the world wars were only two of many twentieth-century conflicts. Death tolls quite probably passed the million mark in more than a dozen others."What makes his book so interesting is the focus Ferguson brings to the causes of this extreme violence. The question he seeks to answer is
"What made the twentieth century, and particularly the fifty years from 1904 to 1953, so bloody."He discards the more commonly presented causes such as class conflict, economic crises, more lethal technologies, or the actions of a few evil megalomaniacs, as being unable to explain the prevalence and the ferocity of conflict. What Ferguson ends up doing is framing the entire history of the twentieth century in the context of ethnic strife. Used in this context the terms "ethnic" and "racial" become interchangeable.

World War Two is normally viewed as the attempt of two countries, Germany and Japan, to create empires through aggression. That is part of the story. What Ferguson emphasizes in his history are how the concepts of racial superiority formed the basis for these ambitions, and justified the methods that were ultimately used.

The author also suggests that one misses much of the history of the past century if one focuses on only the big picture having the allies struggling against the two evil empires. He indicates that it is more informative to think of the world war as a collection of individual conflicts. The war Hitler waged against Western Europe was a tactical war in which was mixed an element of revenge. Hitler needed control of the resources and manpower of the western nations in order to support his war machine so he could attack to the east. The war against Poland and Russia was not just to expand an empire; his intention was to wage a war of extermination against the indigenous populations. These are two different wars requiring different perspectives on mankind’s capabilities and flaws.

If one looks at the history of the past century as a collection of many local conflicts, as the author suggests, one is overwhelmed by the pervasiveness and the ferocity of the violence. It is not just armies slaughtering other armies, but also neighbors slaughtering neighbors. One finds it hard to believe that humans are capable of such brutality. After reading this book it is difficult to ever think of history or mankind in the same way again.

The author’s study led him to conclude that one could attribute the onset of violence to three factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline. One puts down this book firmly believing that there is a fourth reason: man’s own innate nature. The industrial slaughter of Hitler and the lethal enslavement policies of Stalin are relatively tame and understandable in comparison with the extreme violence that occurred when multiethnic regions lost their controlling governance. This is when neighbor began murdering neighbor, often with exceptional cruelty. The fear and loathing of "the other" has its roots in the earliest stages of evolution of mankind. When the thin veneer of civilization breaks down, people seemingly revert to much more primitive modes of conduct. The evolutionary and social implications of this behavior will be the subject of a separate post.

Interestingly, Ferguson’s focus is on economic volatility rather than merely bad economic conditions. Everyone suffers in bad times. In volatile times the winners and losers can change roles and uncertainty and such change seem to be a fearsome trigger for violent behavior. The reference to empires in decline pinpoints the trigger for decades of political volatility which culminated in the multiple clashes that we refer to as World War Two.

The twentieth century begins with the globe dominated by European empires. An empire is, by definition, hegemony of one political entity over a range of geographic and ethnic entities. In fact, the existence of an empire, with its remote governance, encouraged the mixture of peoples from different regions and cultures. When there is no local control, there is no local competition for dominance. Ethnic mixtures could remain stable for generations. The problem for the world was that these empires were in decline. The inevitable march of history was towards the establishment of regional nation states.
" certain parts of the world there was an exceptional mismatch between ethnic identities and political structures. The ethnic map of Central and Eastern Europe, to take the most obvious example, was a true patchwork. In the north—to name only the largest groups—there were Lithuanians, Latvians, Byelorussians and Russians, all linguistically distinct; in the middle, Czechs, Slovaks and Poles; in the south, Italians, Slovenes, Magyars, Romanians and in the Balkans, Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, Greeks and Turks. Scattered all over the region were German-speaking communities."

"The fatal triangle of territory between the Baltic, the Balkans and the Black Sea was a zone of conflict not just because it was ethnically mixed, but also because it was the junction where the realms of the Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans met, the fault lines between the tectonic plates of four great empires."
The First World War set the stage for what was to come. It introduced new technologies to enhance and extend lethality so that death need not be limited to a narrow battle line. This war also hastened the decline of the political structures that had been holding the world in place. In the aftermath, the requisite political and economic volatility was readily available. Remote governance was breaking down and people wished to form regional nations based on a common culture. The inevitable ethnic conflicts ensued.

This violent process of transformation was exacerbated by the popularity of the burgeoning science of eugenics which allowed one group to justify dominance over other groups. The worst of the bad actors were Germany, Japan and Russia. All were driven, to various degrees, by motives of racial superiority that justified treating classes of peoples as sub-human. Once one has labeled a group as "sub-human," the next step seems to be enslavement and/or extermination (remember the analogy to Wells’ story).
"This capacity to treat other human beings as members of an inferior and indeed malignant species—as mere vermin—was one of the crucial reasons why twentieth-century conflict was so violent. Only make this mental leap and warfare ceases to be a formalized encounter between uniformed armies. It becomes a war of annihilation, in which everyone on the other side—men, women, children, the elderly—can legitimately be killed."Hitler is best remembered for his attempt to exterminate all Jews, with six million deaths attributed to his campaign, but he had other peoples in his sights also.
"The Nazis simultaneously sought to annihilate a variety of other social groups deemed to be ‘unworthy of life,’ notably mentally ill and homosexual Germans, the social elite of occupied Poland and the Sinti and Roma peoples. In all, more than three million people from these other groups were murdered."The idea of war against an entire population was clearly what Hitler had in mind.
"From the outset Hitler had determined that his campaign against the Soviet Union was to be fought according to new rules—or rather without rules at all. It was to be he told his generals on March 30, ‘a war of extermination’.....General Erich Hoepner, the commander of Panzer Group 4 took his orders to mean that ‘every military action must be guided in planning and execution by an iron will to exterminate the enemy mercilessly and adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared."There were various versions of "General Plan East" which anticipated extending German settlement to Archangel in the north and Astrakhan in the south. One version concluded:
"....the total unwanted population would be closer to fifty or even fifty-seven million, assuming that 15 percent of the Poles, 25 percent of Ruthenians and 35 percent of Ukrainians would need to be retained as agricultural laborers, the rest being deported to Siberia. The Russian population would whither away through the use of contraception, abortion and sterilization. The Jews would be exterminated."Presumably, the 50 or so million were to be sent to Siberia to die. Although Hitler’s plans may have been more grandiose, when it comes to accomplished lethality, he pales in comparison to Stalin.
"Stalin had perpetrated comparable acts of violence against national minorities within the Soviet union....Of around four million non-Russians who were deported to Siberia and central Asia, at least 1.6 million are estimated to have died as a result of the hardships inflicted on them....A minimum estimate for the total victims of all political violence in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1953 is twenty-one million."Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide up what was once Poland. It is amazing how similar and how heinous their plans were for the conquered people.
"The Soviet zone of occupation was in many resects a mirror image of the German zone....Like Hitler....Stalin wished to decapitate Polish society....Between September 1939 and June 1941 the Germans killed approximately 100,000 Jewish Poles and 20,899 non-Jewish Poles in their occupation zone; the NKVD (Stalin) came close to matching that body count in just two operations....between February 1940 and June 1941, around half a million Polish civilians were rounded up....most were deported to the camps and collective farms of Siberia and Kazakhstan....By 1942, according to some estimates, barely half the deportees were still alive."While Stalin’s distaste for "untrustworthy" ethnic groups, such as the Poles, was based more on practical considerations than ideology, his actions were just as murderous. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was particularly brutal. The Germans, military and civilian, were repaid in kind when the Russians recaptured their territories and invaded Germany. Consider this quote from Tony Judt’s book Postwar:
"In the final months of the war, as the Soviet armies pushed west into central Europe and eastern Prussia, millions of civilians—most of them German—fled before them. George Kennnan, the American diplomat, described the scene in his memoirs: ‘The disaster that befell this area with the entry of the Soviet forces has no parallel in modern European existence. There were considerable sections of it where, to judge by all existing evidence, scarcely a man woman or child of the indigenous population was left alive after the initial passage of the Soviet forces....The Russians....swept the native population clean in a manner that had no parallel since the days of the Asiatic hordes."The German soldiers who behaved so brutally when they invaded the Soviet Union and the Soviet soldiers who retaliated were not monsters. Before the war they were farmers and clerks. These endless descriptions of mass murder and mass rape make one suspicious that there is more active here than just the extenuating circumstances of war.

The Japanese leaders had their own plans driven by this same racial madness.
"....a report completed in July 1943, officials in the Population and Race Section of the Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry’s Research Bureau took as their premise that the Japanese were the ‘leading race’ of Asia, whose mission was to ‘liberate the billion people of Asia’ by planting as much Japanese ‘blood’ as possible in Asian soil....’We should actively improve our physical capacity eugenically by promoting such methods as mental and physical training as well as selective marriages’....each Japanese couple being encouraged to have around five children. This would provide the surplus of Japanese necessary to colonize and run what had been known since 1940 as The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere....Like the Nazis, the more radical theorists of Japanese imperialism saw racial ‘pollution’ as one of the gravest threats to their own innate superiority."There are many familiar examples of Japanese brutality that emerge from the War years. Perhaps the worst incident, and the one that puts them in the same league as Hitler with his death camps and Stalin with his Gulag, was what is referred to as "The Rape of Nanking." This was about a five week period in which Japanese soldiers murdered a quarter million Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking. This was not industrialized slaughter. This was an individual soldier murdering a helpless civilian repeated a quarter million times. The term "rape" is not used lightly. Thousands of Chinese women were literally raped to death. When asked by a journalist about the nature of these proceedings, a Japanese officer replied:
"Frankly speaking, you and I have diametrically different views of the Chinese. You may be dealing with them as human beings, but I regard them as swine. We can do anything to such creatures."The US and its allies were not innocent in their mode of waging war. Let us remember that the US willfully characterized Japanese as "sub-human" and, night after night, sent its bombers off, in good conscience, to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese and German civilians.

The industrial scale murder carried out by the major players in the Second World War is somewhat familiar. The Japanese behavior in Nanking is an introduction to the parts of Ferguson’s tale that were the most disturbing. They relate to the acts of violence that individual human beings are capable of when the restraints of civilization are removed. These were not a few isolated incidents where one group suddenly turned on another. This is a response repeated over and over throughout Central and Eastern Europe. One is tempted to say that the humans behaved like animals, but animals do not torture their prey before they kill them—only humans are capable of that.
"The Ukraine was perhaps the most blood soaked place of all. In Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), egged on by the Germans, massacred between 60,000 and 80,000 Poles. Whole villages were wiped out, men beaten to death, women raped and mutilated, babies bayoneted....As another Pole recalled, ‘Stories abounded of Polish mothers being held by the Ukrainian Nationalists and forced to watch as their families were dismembered piece by piece; of pregnant women being eviscerated; of vivisected pregnant women having cats sewn into their bleeding abdomens; of Ukrainian husbands murdering their Polish wives; of Ukrainian wives murdering their Polish husbands; of Ukrainian fathers killing their own sons in order to prevent them from murdering their own Polish mothers; of sons of Polish-Ukrainian heritage being sawn in half because, the Nationalists said, they were half Polish; of children being strung up on household fences; of helpless infants being dashed against buildings or hurled into burning houses’."One is tempted to read these accounts and conclude that they must be exaggerations, but that would be a mistake. Ferguson recounts several such incidents, and we have ample evidence within our own lifetimes of mankind’s capability to commit such atrocities.

The author identifies the end of the "War of the World" with the stabilization of the two Koreas in 1953. At that point the world had attained a relatively stable configuration. The ethnic cleansing murderously attempted via the nation-empires during World War Two was followed by enforced migrations, to essentially the same effect, as part of the post-war cleanup process. Most states ended up with clearly defined ethnic majorities, or, at least, well-defined governance. This relatively stable phase was not without violence. The cold war ushered in a period of warfare by proxy in which the two sides supported opposing groups in various counties in what was usually a civil war between ethnic groups. The violence continued for the remainder of the century but it was localized.

The facility with which highly cultured countries could turn their expertise and technology to planning, and sometimes realizing, many millions of deaths is bewildering, shocking and frightening. However, it is the capability of individuals to convert from law-abiding citizens to ruthless murderers that leaves me the most unsettled. I am beginning to suspect that there must be some physiological response, perhaps buried in our reptilian brain that, in certain circumstances, removes all inhibitions to violence and encourages rape. And what is to keep those circumstances from being repeated?

Ferguson finishes his story on an ominous note. Ethnic clashes were minimized by an administrative form of ethnic cleansing. Massive population transfers occurred after the war in an attempt to make the European nations as ethnically homogenous as possible. The trends fostered by twenty-first century dynamics counter this homogeneity. The European countries all have declining populations and are experiencing large rates of immigration from the Muslim countries of North Africa. This is a potentially volatile mixture of cultures. Ethnic conflicts have already begun to emerge. We certainly have our share of economic and political volatility at the moment. Could history repeat itself?

Stay tuned.

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