I just finished watching The War of the World. It was an interesting documentary and the parallels the historian Niall Ferguson draws between the anarchist-terrorists assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand near the beginning of the C20th and the Muslim-terrorists attack on the World Trade Centre in
Sorry if I misinterpret it, but his thesis lacks something. What I think he basically said was that:
“…the C20th was one of total war; it was the time when falling empires were brought into conflict with emerging empire-states. Global capitalism at the start of the century, with enormous movements of goods and peoples around the world under the supervision of the global empires, was curtailed by conflicts that were brought about partly because foreign minorities became so integrated into society (so says Ferguson – I think this sounds too similar to the “justification” of the Holocaust by Nazis, i.e. “the Jews are racially inferior and have wormed their way into every part of our society, so they must be cleansed”. Genocide seems to be something people do, and it is a compulsion that continues. Exactly why it occurs is a question for social anthropologists, sociologists and social-psychologists, and I feel deserves a little more attention than was given by
OK. Personally I found
OK. This is how I see the history of the Twentieth Century. For thousands of years humankind warred amongst itself. War, like genocide, seems to be part of the much celebrated “human-condition”. It is something we do. Possibly because its fun, possibly because life has always been a zero-sum game, or maybe there’s a cross-wire in our evolutionary makeup.
For most of human history there have been barbarians. I don’t just mean people who don’t live in cities. I mean people who had no concept of the rights of man, and who did not know of the value of liberal democracy (something I believe in). These barbarians include the Romans, and the British. Back when we had an empire and a concept of divine right or manifest destiny to rule the world, our guys on the frontier had very little scruples when it came to strapping the Pathans to a cannon and giving Johnny Foreigner a taste of British [school firewall].
I mentioned the cannon. This is important. Technology amplifies our actions. Advanced, industrial technology mixed with collapsing empires and emerging empire states makes for baaad voodoo at the dawn of the C20th. I think looking at population-movements and macroeconomics ignores the greatest lesson of the C20th. At the start we had machine guns and kites. Now we have ICBMs tipped with thermonuclear warheads capable of devastating an area the size of
The C20th was when the barbarians met heavy industry. WW1 was so shocking because before war had been something that happened a long way away (from the British perspective) and was rifles vs. pointy leaves. War between industrialised nations never reached a level of “total war”, where the entire economy is forced over the producing the means to destroy the enemy, and where the objective becomes to destroy the enemy, as opposed to warding them off or suppressing them.
My point (made with even less clarity than
Progress, people and weapons
Why? What made the 20th century, and particularly the 50 years from 1904 until 1953, so bloody? That this era was exceptionally violent may seem paradoxical. After all, the 100 years after 1900 was a time of unparalleled progress: by the end, thanks to myriad technological advances and improvements in knowledge, human beings on average lived longer and better lives than at any time in history.
To explain the extraordinary violence of the century, it is not enough simply to say that there were more people living closer together, or more destructive weapons. No doubt it was easier to perpetrate mass murder by dropping high explosives on crowded cities than it had once been to put dispersed rural populations to the sword. But if those were sufficient explanations, the end of the century would have been more violent than the beginning and the middle.
In the 1990s, the world’s population for the first time exceeded six billion, more than three times what it had been when the First World War broke out. But there was actually a marked decline in the amount of armed conflict in the last decade of the century. The highest recorded rates of military mobilisation and mortality in relation to total population were clearly in the first half of the century, during and immediately after the world wars. Moreover, weaponry today is clearly much more destructive than it was in 1900. But some of the worst violence of the century was perpetrated with the crudest of weapons: rifles, axes, knives and machetes (most obviously in Central Africa in the 1990s, but also in
I don’t agree with
But I digress. My basic point is that the idea of genocide is not new. Genghis Khan killed millions. The Romans succeeded in wiping out an entire civilization (one up on the Nazis) – the Dacians. Someone’s written a gruesome account of what the Roman’s did to the Dacians on a big rock in