Jonathan Yardley
Maybe the war to end all wars -- at least in Europe -- has already been fought.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 13, 2008


The Transformation of Modern Europe

By James J. Sheehan

Houghton Mifflin. 284 pp. $26

A strong case can be made that the salient fact about Western Europe today is not that it has overcome centuries of bitter animosity to reach near-unification or that it is moving steadily toward bringing Eastern Europe into its embrace, but that for more than six decades it has been at peace. In the first half of the 20th century it was torn nearly to extinction by the two most calamitous wars the world has known; in the second half of that century, and seven years into this one, it has known no major wars at all. Even Eastern Europe, where uprisings in client states were brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union and where the Balkans remain a source of tension and violence, is in a state of tranquility that seems likely to be extended as the legacy of Soviet rule gradually fades away and as ethnic rivalries are brought under control.

This is nothing less than extraordinary. The whole history of Europe up to 1945 is one of perennial warfare interrupted sporadically by periods of uneasy peace. Between 1914 and 1918, Europe fought what millions of people devoutly prayed would be the war to end all wars, yet the peace settlement was so badly bungled that two decades later Europe was at it again, in a second world conflict that far surpassed the horrors of the first. When one considers the condition of Europe in 1945 -- much of the continent reduced to rubble, Germany despised, distrusted and divided, tensions in the Cold War inexorably rising -- the one safe prediction at the time would seem to have been that more wars lay on the horizon.

Not merely did no new wars take place, but in the view of James J. Sheehan none is likely to take place in the future. Sheehan -- a professor of history at Stanford who specializes in German history, and a former president of the American Historical Association -- is no Pangloss. He is as appalled by modern warfare as any decent person ought to be, and one doesn't have to read very deeply between the lines to detect a disdain for the present American misadventure in Iraq, but he understands the warring instinct in humankind and the ways in which states adapt themselves to it. He mourns the end of the brief period of peace that preceded World War I, but he knows that the seeds of it had been planted in the mass armies "based on short-term conscription and ready reserves" that by the early 20th century were commonplace on the continent. Europe in 1900 was a military society:

"The mass reserve army made military service a part of the life experience of millions of European men and gave military institutions a central place in European society. To recruit, train, equip, supply, and deploy millions of citizen soldiers required an array of administrative agencies, complex and expensive equipment, and an elaborate infrastructure. . . . All the powers spent enormous sums of money on their armed forces in the two decades before 1914, and especially after 1912, when an intensified arms race reflected the deteriorating international situation. . . . In order to build and maintain mass reserve armies, states not only needed money, they also had to be able to measure, count, and if necessary coerce their populations."

The task of transforming "civilians into soldiers" was the "central purpose" of these militarized societies. Conscription "blended emancipation and compulsion, freedom and restraint, empowerment and discipline." It was commonly believed that, as one German authority put it, "a genuinely national army is the only political institution that brings citizens together as citizens; only in the army do all sons of the fatherland feel united," though it was widely feared among military leaders "that their soldiers might not be able to shed the habits of civilian life and do what had to be done in defense of the fatherland."

Though there were indeed civilians who failed the test of war, by and large the civilian soldiers acquitted themselves well in World War I. At its end, those who were lucky enough to have survived were physically and emotionally depleted, as were the governments for which they had fought, but the international peace movement of the 1920s didn't last long, not least because "the war prepared the soil in which Nazism could take root." It "created sharp political divisions, severe economic dislocation, and deep national frustrations." It "poisoned Germans' civic life, accustomed them to violence, and weakened their commitment to a legal order." The "promise of national rebirth -- breaking the shackles of Versailles, restoring national honor, regaining Germany's rightful status as a great power -- was at the heart of the Nazi message," and Adolf Hitler was supremely equipped to preach it. The war into which he dragged the world -- "without Germany, there would have been no European war in 1939" -- was almost literally beyond comprehension:

"Nothing like this had ever existed in the history of warfare. However voracious the first war's appetite for blood and treasure, the second consumed much more -- more lives, more resources, more machines. Some fifty million people throughout the world died in the war. . . . Far more than the first, the second war engulfed soldier and civilian alike. Between 1914 and 1918, the war's destructive power was largely concentrated on the battlefield; the overwhelming majority of dead and wounded were soldiers. Between 1939 and 1945, battle had no boundaries; both sides intentionally targeted their opponent's civilians, who died in greater numbers than those in uniform. During the siege of Leningrad alone, 650,000 men, women, and children perished, more than the combined military fatalities of both France and Britain in the entire war. At war's end, most of Europe's great cities had been damaged, some -- Berlin, Dresden, Warsaw, Budapest, Belgrade -- had been virtually destroyed."

This wanton slaughter of innocents and destruction of their environments seem to have been the catalysts for the widespread determination, at war's end, not to let it happen again. On many fronts, victors and vanquished alike reached out to each other, most notably in the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 and the European Coal and Steel Community (linear precursor of the European Union) of 1950. The old military states were transformed into civilian states "organized for peace, not war; in them, social change was translated into economic production, not battle potential." Prosperity surged through Western Europe, while "the military's role in the symbols and ceremonies had everywhere diminished." In "most of Europe, the overwhelming majority of people came to view violence, both domestic and international, as something to be feared and avoided, not applauded or excused. . . . It seemed as if the experiences of the twentieth century had finally taught Europeans that such turmoil was an aberration, a pathological assault on normal society, something to be combated and overcome, like crime."

No doubt more than a few people on this side of the Atlantic will insist that Europe has been able to move into its present reconciled posture on the backs of the American taxpayers, whose lavishly financed armed forces keep Europe protected from whatever militaristic harm might try to come its way. To whatever extent the Western world is now at peace -- acts of terrorism aside -- it is not a Pax Europa but a Pax Americana. Many in this country take offense when Europeans, from the comfort of their American-protected aeries, attack America for one reason or another. This reaction is understandable, but it fails to take into account that European criticism of some American policies -- "an excessive reliance on military solutions, the threat of preemptive action, and the apparent disregard for consultation and cooperation" -- is well founded.

It's easy for us to turn up our noses at Europe's not infrequent outbursts of self-righteousness, especially from the intellectual left, but we do well to remind ourselves that Europe speaks from experience that we have not undergone and can only pray we never do. I am no pacifist, but it seems to me that Europe as Sheehan portrays it in this timely, first-rate book is headed on a sound, mature course. Europeans tend to see terrorism "as a persistent challenge to domestic order rather than an immediate international threat" and to attack it with "more effective policing, stricter laws, better surveillance" rather than with a "war." Maybe, just maybe, they know more than we do. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company