Why was the twentieth century ravaged by such horrendous, savage wars? A recent book by Niall Ferguson, here reviewed by Edward Luttwak at Commentary, proposes three main reasons for the holocausts of the last century: “ethnic conflict with a racial dimension, economic volatility, and empires in decline.”
Luttwak disagrees on all counts, and makes a good case against each of Ferguson’s prime movers. Ethnic violence was frequent and bloody, but the most deadly conflicts, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to the population, were waged by governments against their own people in China, the Soviet Union, and Cambodia.
Economic volatility no doubt played a part in the rise of Hitler in Germany, but Luttwak observes that this response had as much to do with Germany’s political culture as it did with its prosperity. After all, countries like the U.S. and Australia, which suffered disproportionately in the Depression, did not turn to violent or warlike leaders.
The great empires were complicit in the catastrophe of World War I, which let loose many of the demons that haunted the twentieth century. Luttwak believes the war was inevitable, given the nature of the empires: “imperial stability had been achieved by the soft or hard suppression of internal forces whose frustrated energies kept accumulating until they exploded in revolution, civil strife, ethnic violence, and war.”
Luttwak is wrong about that: there are no inevitabilities in history. In fact, World War I was a singularly avoidable conflict. Revolution, civil strife, and ethnic violence followed in its wake, but were far less important causally than the stupidities of kings, ministers, and diplomats. Still, the “decline of empires” — Ferguson’s formula — seems even more hollow as an explanation.
Great events are never monocausal. The human animal is far too complicated for that. The twentieth century began at a high point in the welfare of our species, when tremendous advances were being felt in economic conditions, health, education, technology, mobility, and international relations.
Yet those very advances shook the societies that reaped them. Prosperity allows the luxury of brooding. Education offers the illusion of superiority over custom and convention. Technology and mobility rearrange relationships, sometimes drastically, so that master becomes servant and viceversa. In the many permutations of this great disruption — one we are still enduring — lie at least some of the chief causes of twentieth-century bloodshed.