Blogs > Cliopatria > Gil Troy: Review of Niall Ferguson's The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

Feb 3, 2007 11:10 am

Gil Troy: Review of Niall Ferguson's The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

Despite the epidemic of red versus blue talk, most Americans share common assumptions about how the world works. Most of us believe that mass prosperity promotes mass happiness, that nationalism is better than imperialism and that multiculturalism is good.
Niall Ferguson challenges those assumptions in his impressive new book, "The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West." His compelling history reveals the great harm done by boom times, nationalism and multiculturalism, arguing that these three phenomena helped make the 20th century "the bloodiest century in modern history." Ferguson warns that unless Westerners identify the true causes of our past failures, we will be hampered as we face what he considers the 21st century's great threat: Islamist terror.

Ferguson, a Harvard professor, best-selling author and British television personality, is one of those Oxford polymaths who makes Americans feel deliciously inadequate. He is so darned erudite, smoothly shifting gears from philosophy to economics to politics. He is equally compelling speculating about the underlying nature of racism, analyzing economic booms' destabilizing impact, and explaining how absolutist ideas overrode Western enlightenment to spawn Adolf Hitler's monstrous murder spree. This wide-ranging virtuosity, along with a European's tragic sensibility, shapes the book's central argument: that a toxic combination of ethnic conflict, "economic volatility, and empires on the wane" set the conditions for murderous conflict expanded beyond recognition by modern technology.

Look no further than Iraq or recall the fighting in the Balkans during the 1990s to see part of Ferguson's thesis in action. There, nations of diverse people had been held together by authoritarian leaders; after Tito's death and Saddam's removal, ethnic tensions were unleashed.

Similarly, Ferguson writes that many 20th century conflicts were rooted in the breakup of old empires -- including the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the British. Today we tend to condemn those imperial behemoths, but they were means of both creating and controlling multicultural societies. Most of the great traumas of the 20th century resulted when diverse societies degenerated into warring ethnic enclaves.

Why should that be? Modern scientists have proved that the differences among humans are biologically negligible, "beneath the skin we are all quite similar." If so, then, why as humans discovered our similarities scientifically have so many emphasized our differences so brutally?

If racism is hatred of the "Other," Ferguson notes, the other is often very familiar. Just as murderers usually know their victims, the worst massacres and bloodbaths have been perpetrated at least in part by neighbors -- even the Nazis' vast killing machine depended on the collaboration of Poles, Ukranians, the Dutch and the French.

Ferguson further observes that in many of the 20th century's most infamous sites of ethnic bloodshed, from Nazi Germany to the Balkans to Rwanda, much assimilation and intermarriage preceded the burst of racial slaughter. In addition, many of the greatest killing sprees involved mass rapes too, suggesting a pathological paradox of intimacy and brutality.

Ferguson argues that throughout Europe, even before the Nazi Holocaust, Jews frequently suffered from this widespread and "volatile ambivalence," this "mixture of aversion and attraction." During the "Age of Hatred," from 1904 to 1953, Jews assimilated magnificently, shaping the European communities they joined. Yet, when instability struck, Jews were often the first to be forcibly expelled from the body politic, with bloody results.

Ferguson argues that such instability involved not only bad times, but good. Prosperity, Ferguson shows, can also be unnerving -- good times create losers as well as winners, and can induce a dizzying vertigo that undermines well-established loyalties and unleashes long-suppressed hatred.

During the 20th century, this destabilizing economic volatility was exacerbated by the waning of empires, which had brought diverse people together, then left them with healthy approaches for living together. In a changing world, the desire for uniformity of thought or of identity often brought out the worst in people. Charismatic demagogues often appeared, infecting people with a desire for an ethnic purity that the broader multinational empires could never achieve.

The long history of anti-Semitic pogroms, riots and expulsions shows that hatred is not a 20th-century invention, but mass production of murder is. The Holocaust became a singular crime because the Germans allocated tremendous state resources and modern science toward fulfilling their gruesome goals as technology and ideology became intertwined in a 20th century dance of death.

As he explores the sources of past conflict, Ferguson worries about the West's ability to defend itself in the future. Western decadence and distraction are especially worrying. He believes that bold pre-emptive action could have stopped the Nazis sooner -- and doubts we have internalized that essential lesson for today. He acknowledges Allied brutality due to what Norman Mailer brilliantly called "the osmosis of war." Yet he is even more critical of the West for mollifying Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union with the greatest spoils of war -- control over Eastern Europe -- rather than properly pressing the advantage.

Obsessed with Western weakness, Ferguson views the Cold War as a wash. He claims that the "United States did as little for freedom as the Soviet Union did for liberation." This judgment is too harsh, considering the American role in rebuilding Western Europe and in spreading democracy in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union imploded.

Still, Ferguson's warnings are very relevant today. Even though global warfare has dropped by 60 percent, marking the lowest level since the 1950s, this book lacks a happy ending. The United States faces a "new economic rival" in China, which outlasted the Soviet Union by crossbreeding aggressive market capitalism with repressive Communist autocracy. More ominously, whereas entrepreneurs in the Far East embraced some Western values, fundamentalists in the Near East repudiated them. "There, the revolution was not about profits; it was about the Prophet," Ferguson writes in a characteristic wordplay. "And whereas the Far East exported products, the Near East exported people."

Radical Islam, in its aggressive and expanding form, rose just as feminism and consumerism led Europeans and Americans toward zero population growth and self-indulgence. Radical Islam, fed by the Muslim birth rate, threatens to overwhelm Europeans demographically and ideologically. In 1950, there were twice as many Britons as Iranians; today there are more Iranians than Britons. The radicalism of the Muslim immigrants to Europe has created what Ferguson calls "a new enemy within," with "the frontier" running through every major European city.

The Balkanizing forces that "negate our common humanity ... stir within us still," as the West, weakened and eclipsed, seems to lack the will and the skill to confront this radical enemy. Ferguson is too cautious to declare conflict "inevitable along these new fault lines." However, he worries. "If the history of the twentieth century is any guide, then the fragile edifice of civilization can very quickly collapse, even where different ethnic groups seem quite well integrated." Thus this lengthy, indispensable guide to the past ends by warning that, only by taking preemptive action and finding a unity of purpose will we preserve the West's future.

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