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Review by Francis P. Sempa

Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006, pp. lxxi, 654, maps, charts, notes, index. $35 cloth).

The optimists among us who believe in the inevitable progress of man, either forget or ignore the fact that the twentieth century was the bloodiest, most destructive century in human history. The century’s two world wars resulted in the deaths of at least 60 million people. The Russian Civil War of 1917-21 killed another 5-6 million. Between them, the tyrannical regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed at least another 60 million of their own citizens. Many millions more were killed in dozens of other, smaller conflicts.

The British historian Paul Johnson, in his remarkable book Modern Times, attributed the twentieth century’s huge death toll to the immense growth of organized state power, the decline of traditional religion, and the rise of totalitarian ideologies and gangster-statesmen. In a new book on twentieth century conflicts, another prolific British historian, Niall Ferguson, points to three other causes: “ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline.”

Like Johnson’s Modern Times, Ferguson’s book, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, weaves together economic, military, political, and geopolitical analyses of the major international events of the twentieth century. In 1901, Ferguson notes, multinational European empires dominated an economically-interdependent world, controlling more than half the world’s land surface and half of its population. But economic, demographic, ethnic and political factors, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, combined to undermine imperial rule, at the same time that geopolitical factors led to the clash of empires in Europe and Asia.

This highly combustible mix exploded in 1914, resulting in the Great War, which, as Ferguson explains, “changed everything.” Globalization ended. “International trade, investment and emigration collapsed…Plans replaced the market; autarky and protection took the place of free trade.” Most importantly, writes Ferguson, the “European empires’ grip on the world-which had been the political undergirding of globalization-was dealt a profound, if not quite fatal, blow.”

The war’s battles, which included the use of poison gas and chemical weapons, produced enormous casualties, and ethnic conflict, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, produced savage atrocities and, in the case of Turkish Armenia, genocide. Four multinational empires fell-Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Hohenzollern Germany, and Tsarist Russia. The British and French empires, although victorious, suffered economic, physical, and psychological injuries from which they never fully recovered. It would take another, even more destructive, war to hasten their imperial retreat.

French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commenting in 1919 on the terms of the peace treaty that ended the First World War, stated (as Winston Churchill wrote, “with singular accuracy”), “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Even more than the terms of the armistice, however, it was the forces unleashed by the Great War-economic, demographic, political-that produced the cataclysm of the Second World War. Ferguson details the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, the Fascist takeover of Italy, the emergence of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, and the rise of militarism in Japan that preceded the outbreak of war.

Ferguson contends that the Second World War began, not in September 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, but on July 7, 1937, when “full-blown war broke out between China and Japan.” Japanese forces occupied much of China’s east coast and inflicted savage brutalities upon the Chinese population. Chinese soldiers and civilians were frequently beheaded, burned alive and buried alive. “A few,” writes Ferguson, “were hung by their tongues on metal hooks.” In the city of Nanking in 1937-38, women and girls were subjected to organized mass rape and murder. Japanese atrocities followed their armies to Southeast Asia, Korea, the Philippines, and wherever the Rising Sun held sway.

While Japanese forces were brutalizing people they considered their ethnic inferiors in Asia and the Pacific, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia waged war against whole categories of people in Europe, systematically imprisoning and murdering millions based on race, class, and nationality. “This capacity to treat other human beings as members of an inferior and indeed malignant species…,” explains Ferguson, “was one of the crucial reasons why twentieth-century conflict was so violent.”

Ferguson makes clear, however, that the Western powers crossed moral lines in the war, too, when they deliberately inflicted civilian casualties by massive incendiary bombings of German and Japanese cities. Yet, contrary to many conventional histories of the U.S. and British air campaigns, Ferguson concludes that bombing German cities “inflicted significant damage on the German war effort,” and implies that the incendiary bombings of Tokyo and other cities, and atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shortened the war and likely saved American and Japanese lives by making an invasion of the main Japanese islands unnecessary.

The chief geopolitical beneficiary of the Second World War, Ferguson believes, was the Soviet Union, which ended the war in control of much of eastern and central Europe, and whose communist allies achieved victory in China and elsewhere in Asia. The remaining European empires-mainly France and Britain-surrendered imperial rule in many parts of the world, forcing the United States to fill the strategic vacuum with the policy of “containment.” What Ferguson calls the “War of the World” continued in the guise of the Cold War, as the U.S. sought to contain Soviet encroachments in Europe, the Middle East, East and Southeast Asia, and in other parts of the “third world.”

The Korean War of 1950-53, writes Ferguson, was the last conflict in which the great empires clashed directly, but the threat of nuclear destruction kept the war limited. After that, he explains, the Cold War “was fought indirectly in new and more remote theatres, where the strategic stakes (though not the human costs) were lower.”

Ferguson does not view the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989-91 as the final triumph of the West. Indeed, like James Burnham in Suicide of the West (1964), one of Ferguson’s main themes, as evidenced by the subtitle of the book, is that twentieth century history is about the “descent of the West.” “A hundred years ago,” he writes, “the West ruled the world. After a century of recurrent internecine conflict between the European empires, that is no longer the case.” The West’s descent is evidenced not only by its imperial retreat, but also by its declining population relative to other civilizations, especially the Islamic world, in the early twenty-first century.

Ferguson’s broad, sweeping, and provocative history of twentieth century conflict is a grim reminder that war, terror and strife are part of the human condition. As he warns, “We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one-the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so negate our common humanity. They are forces that stir within us still.”

Francis Sempa
Francis Sempa

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (2002). He has written lengthy introductions to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Problem of Asia (2003) and The Interest of America in International Conditions (2003), and to William Bullitt’s The Great Globe Itself (2005). He has also written articles and book reviews on historical and foreign policy topics for American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, National Review, Human Rights Review, and Presidential Studies Quarterly. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.


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