The War of the World (by Niall Ferguson)

The Cruelest Century

Reviewed by James F. Hoge Jr.
Sunday, November 5, 2006


Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

By Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press. 808 pp. $35

The 20th century was the bloodiest in history. By now, the destruction is generally acknowledged, but the causes of the century's murderous conflicts are still matters of debate. So is the haunting question of whether a similar fate can be avoided in the 21st century.

In The War of the World , British historian Niall Ferguson offers a novel analysis of the causes of 20th-century violence. With more than 650 pages of main text and a vast scope, this is obviously a big book. It is also a fascinating read, thanks to Ferguson's gifts as a writer of clear, energetic narrative history.

As the title suggests, Ferguson sees common causes fueling and linking the disruptions of the 20th century. Thus for him, the "war of the world" begins with the Japanese defeat of the Russian navy in 1905 and doesn't end until the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953. Seen this way, World War I and II become peaks in a series of eruptions around the globe, all fueled by the incendiary confluence of three developments.

The first factor was economic. The 20th century was marked by rapid changes in prices and growth rates, and such volatility -- whether in the direction of boom or bust -- triggered social and political instability. The second development was social: Ethnic tensions, already growing, were heightened by the century's economic ups and downs. And the third factor was the decline of traditional empires. With their powers waning, Russia, China, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire lost control over their ethnically mixed borderlands -- the very areas where so much of the century's violence started, including World War I. The weakness of the old empires also tempted rising states such as Japan, Italy and Germany.

These aggressive new powers also embraced race theories that trumpeted the natural superiority of some ethnic groups. Earlier imperial powers had accepted miscegenation and the resulting racial melting pots as a natural characteristic of empire, but the supposedly scientific racism demanded an end to such mixing. Brutal conquest, ethnic cleansing and even genocide were more easily inflicted on so-called subhumans. Such racist thinking was prevalent in the first three decades of the 20th century, and as a result attacks against minorities occurred throughout the unstable, racially mixed communities of Eastern and Central Europe. In short, the stage was set for the Nazis' eradication of Jews, other minorities and the mentally impaired. The evil novelty of the German campaign was the industrialization of genocide in killing factories.

In Germany, assimilation's protective covering was torn away by the Nazi belief that the mixing of blood degraded the master race. "Hitler's determination to exclude Jews from the Volksgemeinschaft [the Nazi term for a racially pure community] meant identifying and persecuting a tiny minority that was inextricably interwoven into the fabric of German society," Ferguson writes. "And that may be the crucial point. Perhaps the anti-Semitism of the Nazis is best understood as a reaction to the very success of German-Jewish assimilation."

Ferguson's three crucial factors help explain why the century's conflicts were so cataclysmic. Even though there were many indicators of impending conflict, World War I took most people by surprise. To Ferguson, the outbreak of war was an "avoidable political error," and its massive destruction represented "nothing more than the most terrific train crash."

On the other hand, he concludes that a military confrontation with the Axis powers was unavoidable, given their determination to expand their living space, control vital strategic resources and found a new world order. "It was to be a world ruled by three empire-states, imperial in the extent of their power, but state-like in the centralized nature of that power," Ferguson writes. "It was to be a world shared between three master races: the Aryan, the Roman and the Yamato."

The Axis powers' aggressive intentions and actions in the 1930s should have convinced the Western allies to nip Hitler's aggrandizing moves in the bud, thus avoiding the all-out conflagration of World War II. Instead, Britain and France responded as if paralyzed and chose the worst option: They embraced appeasement, perhaps out of exhaustion from the century's previous great conflict. Or they may have been trying to buy time, which they squandered by failing to use it to rearm. Rather than forestalling war, appeasement led to it.

In both world wars, the failure of early, knockout military blows doomed Germany and its allies to ultimate defeat, forcing them to fight on multiple fronts. Given the preponderant economic capabilities of the British, French and United States, with the Soviet Union adding further industrial might in World War II, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan could not go the distance.

In terms of its war aims, the Soviet Union was the chief beneficiary of history's bloodiest war, Ferguson argues. "Central and Eastern Europe as far as the banks of the River Elbe was in Stalin's iron fist," he notes. Judged in terms of territories acquired or controlled, "the main beneficiary of victory in Asia, as in Europe, was once again the Soviet Union," which was repaid for entering the war against Japan with control of the Kuril Islands, Outer Mongolia, railways in Manchuria and other territorial gains -- and got a partitioned Korea as a Cold War bonus.

Beyond a redrawn world map, the century's wars left another grim legacy: the blurring of the line between civilians and combatants. Soviet labor camps, Nazi concentration camps, Allied bombings of German and Japanese cities, mass executions and purposefully induced famines disfigured the century. All told, far more civilians than combatants were killed -- a bleak phenomenon that marks the conflicts of our time as well.

As for the future, Ferguson wonders if the "war of the world" is really over. "The dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so negate our common humanity," he warns, "are forces that stir within us still." He sees some hopeful signs, however, that the 21st century may not repeat the horrors of the 20th. First, the vulnerability of the world's major economies to cyclical slumps has declined markedly since 1945. Second, ethnic mixing on the borders of the old 19th-century empires is also less prevalent as a result of the mass killings, expulsions and resettlements of the 20th century. And finally, the anti-liberal empires -- notably the Soviet Union and Austria-Hungary -- have disintegrated and devolved into relatively stable and racially homogenized nation-states such as Poland and Germany.

Of one thing Ferguson is certain: "It is only when the extent of Western dominance in 1900 is appreciated that the true narrative arc of the twentieth century reveals itself. This was not 'the triumph of the West,' but rather the crisis of the European empires, the ultimate result of which was the inexorable revival of Asian power and the descent of the West." This may be the most long-lasting and consequential result of the 20th century's unparalleled violence. It is an undeveloped afterthought in this massive but readable book -- and an obvious theme for a follow-up volume. ยท

James F. Hoge Jr. is the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

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