Paul Kennedy: How to account for the 20th century's violence and progress?

Roundup: Talking About History

... 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? ...

How, then, is one to understand why extremes of violence occurred chiefly in certain regions, and at certain times? They were caused, [Niall Ferguson argues in his new book, The War of the World]—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 advance 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 land 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 seem 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.

But had not these disparate ethnic groups lived literally alongside one another for hundreds of years, interrupted by occasional pogroms but without full-scale genocides? Yes, says Ferguson, but that is where the other two elements come in. On top of their intense anxieties about national and religious identity, many of these peoples were affected by economic worries. They were affected, that is, by precisely those pressures for commercial and industrial and technological change that were forcing backward, agrarian societies, with much turmoil and resistance, into the ever-modernizing world of the twentieth century.

On this point, of course, Ferguson is advancing no great new theory. No less an observer than Lenin was excited by the potential for turbulence and revolution that emerged whenever hitherto stable social groups were upset by capitalism's habit of disrupting traditional ways of life. And while the anti-Marxist economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described these processes as "creative gales," they were gales nonetheless, destroying economies like a Caribbean hurricane before new structures emerged. In the lands of east-central Europe especially, patterns of everyday life were disrupted not just by invasions, destruction of crops, and looting of towns, but also by loss of markets, changed boundaries (with new tariff walls), and new competitors. Unemployment, the slide into poverty, and rootlessness became the order of the day, as did of course the blaming of the "Other"—the bourgeoisie, the Jewish merchants, the foreigner.

Even so, these seething discontents were long held in check by powerful state enforcement agencies. When uprisings occurred, shops were looted, farm machinery smashed, Jewish settlements attacked, and minorities plundered...until the troops arrived. But what if, as happened at the end of the World War I, four great, multiethnic, autocratic empires—the Habsburg, Turkish, Hohenzollern, and Romanoff—collapsed at the same time, leaving utterly chaotic conditions right across the lands that feature in Ferguson's study? The end of empire is all too often accompanied by bloody internecine struggles for land and power, with even single villages split into two hostile camps, and with ethnic cleansing an almost inevitable result: witness the bloodshed that attended the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, the ferocious regular and irregular wars that have taken place in the Palestinian and Iraqi lands since that same time, and the horrors that have occurred—and still occur—in the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi since the end of Belgian imperial rule. The collapse of hitherto strong regimes can produce mayhem and strife as easily as peaceful democratic transitions. Little wonder that the current Chinese and Saudi governments are not attracted by naive American urgings to loosen the reins of power. And little wonder that the end of European and Turkish imperial authority brought chaos and purges to places like Bukovina, Lodz, Vilna, Armenia, and Visegrad....

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