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The Worst of Times?

The time has not yet come—and especially not as we crawl through our present Baghdad, Lebanon, Darfur, and Pyongyang mires—for us to obtain a balanced assessment of how the human species performed during the course of the twentieth century. Economists will tell us that it was the best of all centuries, in terms of sheer economic growth and advances in standards of living. Historians, joined by human rights lawyers, will argue that it was the worst of all historical periods, as measured by the number of human beings killed and mutilated by other human beings. Thus simultaneously amazed by our technological triumphs and ashamed by our self-inflicted wounds, we cannot but be daunted by the very idea of evaluating the impact and the import of the past hundred years. If, as Zhou Enlai once famously told Henry Kissinger, it is too early yet to assess the consequences of the French Revolution, how can we plausibly offer judgments on the effects of more recent convulsions, from Auschwitz to the airplane, from the Internet to Muslim intifadas?

Yet we cannot of course wait that long, even if we were immortal. While the chaos and dust of the twentieth century have not yet subsided, scholars and public alike feel a primal urge to make some sense of what went on; to grasp, and locate in their historical setting, the events that transformed our grandparents’ generation, such as the Great Depression and the onset of World War II; Nazism and the Holocaust; and the later age of cold war bomb shelters, Eisenhower prosperity, and Elvis songs. Then there are the challenges of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, third-world upheavals, and the weakening of the West.

This is not the place for a survey of various “histories of the twentieth century” that have been written, but it has to be said immediately that most of them are too hasty, unbalanced, and breathlessly one-sided (or bland and textbookish, which is even worse). Still, several of them already stand out by their sweep and originality, and before discussing the work under review it may be worthwhile to recall a few titles—the better to reflect upon Niall Ferguson’s long new study, and understand what it is and is not trying to do. All shortlists are artificial creations—“What Are the Five Most Original History Books on the Twentieth Century?” sounds like an after-dinner game—but the exercise is instructive in itself. I remain deeply impressed by Geoffrey Barraclough’s An Introduction to Contemporary History (what were the most important changes in our world condition since the fall of Bismarck?), William H. McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power (how society, technology, and war interacted over time in the modern age), Theodore von Laue’s The World Revolution of Westernization (on the destabilizing effects of borrowing Western technology but not Western liberal practices), Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes (on the destructive and creative twentieth century), and John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun (on what we have done to our planet between 1900 and 2000).1 A book with a strong argument will always be more challenging, and better, than a mere distillation of common knowledge.

Onto this crowded, contested field now strides Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard and a teacher at the Harvard Business School. Ferguson is what the British press dubs a “telly don,” hosting successful television shows like Empire and American Colossus. He is also a prolific columnist on contemporary international affairs for magazines, and may be best known to some readers for his many forays (in the Los Angeles Times, the Sunday Telegraph, and The Wall Street Journal) into the debate over the Iraq war and the limitations of US global policies. It is amusing to watch how his success with the editors of those publications, plus his carefully cultivated public persona, drives more traditional members of the academy in Britain quite nuts. It is easy to forget that his first two books were the truly impressive Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927 (1995) and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild(1998), in which he demonstrated a mastery of the intricacies of international bond markets and private capital flows. And that his next two works, The Pity of War (1999) and The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000 (2001), moved him into the consideration of power politics, imperial conflicts, and the face of battle. Four large works in six years is enough to produce unease in the minds of most fellow academics.

Still, it is not Ferguson’s productivity that is important here—Simon Schama, Geoffrey Parker, David Cannadine, and others, including Ferguson’s idol, the late A.J.P. Taylor, have all been able to write many books within a single decade—but the fact that, his journalistic opinions about George Bush’s fate in Iraq notwithstanding, he is a scholar with substantial credentials to write a major study on twentieth-century conflict.

So what is Ferguson saying? The key, as is so often the case, lies in the subtitle of this book and in particular in the Spenglerian phrase “Descent of the West.” That term has two separate though related meanings, related because the first meaning leads inexorably, at least in his view, to the second manifestation of the West’s decline. In his first and principal usage of this phrase, Ferguson is intent upon exploring why the twentieth century was so bloody, and not just as a result of the tens of millions of combatants and civilians slaughtered during the two world wars but also the many other conflicts—he counts a dozen or more—in which over a million people perished. What was more, these struggles brought with them ever-greater levels of atrociousness and barbarity, so that the “descent” was also a downward spiral toward beastly cruelties and genocides, a falling away from liberal Enlightenment “laws of war,” and a complete disregard for the Hague Conventions: mankind descending into animals.

The second meaning of the subtitle is indeed a play upon Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, not just in its wording but in its meaning—the decline of the West relative to the concurrent rise of the non-Western world, especially Asia. In 1900 Europe and the United States dominated the “Orient,” and the general expectation was that their dominion over that vast region would only increase as the twentieth century unfolded—all of Asia would become something like the British Raj. By 1945, and despite the Allied victories, that assumption was fading fast. By the year 2000 it was hard to believe that people ever thought that way. Thus, Ferguson argues, the longer-term and global consequence of the West’s self-mutilation, quite unintended of course, was to swing the world’s power balances closer to where they were around 1500, before the invention of the long-range sailing ship and the steam engine enabled the West to eclipse the non-Western world. General de Gaulle often used to remark that the twentieth century had not been kind to Africa; nor, ironically, had it been particularly kind to much of Europe from the viewpoint of hard-power politics.

Ferguson is smart enough not to make his long work one-dimensional, a saga of an unremitting descent into the abyss. After all—and here the economists’ brighter arguments cannot be denied—humankind as a whole witnessed a far greater surge in productivity and prosperity during the twentieth century than in any other period in history. Now, rising standards of living, amazing technological breakthroughs, and remarkable and sustained growth rates may seem commonplace to many people in today’s fast-globalizing world economy. But it is worth reminding ourselves that such complacent assumptions also existed in the years around 1900 and were held perhaps with even greater conviction because economic growth was equally amazing at that time and, what was more, seemed likely to last forever. In Keynes’s memorable words, an English gentleman of that time

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 neighbouring 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. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement.2

What is to explain this apparent twentieth-century paradox: bloodshed and the obliteration of people and cities occurring at the same time as transnational prosperity, higher living standards, and much greater interconnectedness? Perhaps, on closer inspection, these two contradictory phenomena did not occur at the same time. Perhaps the explanation is simply a chronological one: there was peace and prosperity until 1914; then followed world war, interwar turbulences, another world war, and the grim cold war—Eric Hobsbawm’s “short twentieth century” of 1914– 19913 ; and then the post–cold war tilt toward global money-making once again. There is surely a lot to be said for dividing the last hundred years into periods, and it is worth noting that Ferguson arranges his arguments within strong chronological segments: the first 185 pages or so advance the tale to 1919; slightly more pages (193) analyze the interwar years; a full 210 pages go through World War II; then an epilogue of 58 pages takes the reader on a giddy survey through some of the worst events (Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda) of the past half-century.

Despite Ferguson’s sporadic accounts of horrible conflicts outside the Old World, such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937, The War of the World is undoubtedly a Eurocentric book. And that is how it should be, its author argues, because it was in Europe and its eastern borderlands—Poland, the Ukraine, the Balkans, Turkey, Armenia—that the bloodletting and holocausts were so relentless and repeated. A story that begins at Sarajevo in 1914 ends, fittingly enough, not too far away in the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian town of Visegrad in 1992. If Latin America had been the scene of such holocausts during the twentieth century, then Ferguson’s focus would have been upon that continent instead.

How, then, is one to understand why extremes of violence occurred chiefly in certain regions, and at certain times? They were caused, Ferguson argues—persuasively, to this reviewer—by an explosive mix of three elements: “ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.” None of these elements is new, and each of them has often been advanced to explain wars, past and present. The first reason is so ubiquitous that it scarcely requires explanation. Ethnicity or, if you like, racism, has been the cause of many of the heartless massacres of one group by another since time immemorial. And the ethnic mix across the lands running eastward from the Elbe River in eastern Germany to Smolensk in western Russia, and from the Adriatic to Baku on the Caspian Sea, was probably more racially and linguistically heterogeneous than across any similar stretch of land elsewhere on the planet. Ferguson seems to me particularly good in describing, with ample statistics and maps, the distribution of polyglot populations. Every land in the regions he discusses east of the Elbe possessed large religious, racial, and linguistic minorities; and everywhere, hated by most people apparently, there were Jews. Everywhere, also, there were Jew-baiters and rabble-rousers.

  1. 1

    Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Basic Books, 1964); William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since AD 1000 (University of Chicago Press, 1982); Theodore H. von Laue, The World Revolution of Westernization: The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1987); Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991(London: Michael Joseph, 1994); J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (Norton, 2000).

  2. 2

    John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (written and published immediately after the Treaty of Versailles was signed; Transaction, 2003 edition, pp. 11–12, is used here). Ferguson quotes and paraphrases on page4 of The War of the World.

  3. 3

    As in the subtitle of his book Age of Extremes (see note 1 above).

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