In mid-summer, 1941, following the Nazi incursion into the Soviet Union, German soldiers entered the small Ukrainian town of Jedwabne. Instead of resistance, they were welcomed by the local Christian community. Once they met with town authorities, the Nazis had no trouble organizing local mobs to engage in a bloody pogrom slaughtering various people of Jewish descent: old men, young mothers, newborn babies, many of them incinerated in the barn of the town baker. What was most remarkable about this was not just that half the town’s male population was involved in the carnage but that until the chaos engendered by the Nazi invasion, the town had enjoyed peaceful religious heterodoxy.
This gruesome account is one of dozens of such episodes described (often referenced in detailed first person accounts) in Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World. It is an ambitious work that attempts to explain the violence of the 20th century, the cataclysms of which led to the decline of the West in military, economic, and moral terms. Regarding the causes of violence itself, he cites economic volatility, ethnic conflict, and the nationalism that spurred the decline of the great royal empires of the 19th century.
Ferguson finds it ironic that in a time of so much progress— not only scientific and technological but artistic and liberal as well— that the century, particularly the first half, should be defined by violence so wretched and thorough, it defies contemplation. Technology, of course, made genocide more systematic and quicker (the huge numbers of casualties listed repeatedly chillingly recall the words of a prominent mass murderer, Josef Stalin, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”)
Throughout most of history, ethnic conflict was often a contest of land, food, wealth, and resources, vied for by peoples of unique language, culture and customs. But the beginning of the 20th century saw the popularization of eugenics adopted by megalomaniacs and fanatics, who would argue that not only color and physiognomy, but also intelligence, aptitude, character, and even morals were hereditary, rather than environmentally influenced. Thus miscegenation, or racial interbreeding, would dilute the genetic quality of superior races. It was this ability to create a hierarchy of “good” and “bad” that enabled normal, young, perhaps intelligent men to commit atrocities. If the “enemy” is so dehumanized, then it is no different than slaughtering swine or poultry, or as the Hutus called the Tutsi, “cockroaches.”
What fascinates Ferguson about the Nazis is that the war and genocide were carried out by highly educated people in the most industrialized state of Europe under the dictates of a government elected by primarily democratic means. The extermination of the Jews, in particular, utilized the genius of German science and logistics, and the examples Ferguson cites are psychopathic:
- A PhD thesis from Breslau University, titled, “On the Possibilities of Recycling Gold From the Mouths of the Dead.”
- Fares charged by German state railway for transporting Jews to extermination camps were half price for children and discounted for groups of 400 or more.
- Victims of gas chambers had their screams drowned out by songs mocking their execution, like, "Highlander, Have You No Regrets?
The man responsible for human experiments at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, had doctorates in medicine and anthropology. How could highly educated men running this extraordinary killing machine not know better? Was it conviction in Hitler’s racial war, peer pressure, or were they simply “following orders” like Eichmann, the logistical mastermind of the Holocaust? This commitment of a professional, educated class to the wholesale destruction of a certain ethnic group is both astonishing and frightening. The Nazis were very modern in the engineering of their philosophy— the radicalization of these professional classes is one of the great enigmas of the Second World War.
Nazi Propaganda Poster Painting the U.S. as Some Strange Robot Monster
This hatred of the other was notably inorganic, specifically a product of state propaganda, yet accepted by majorities of the public as fact. This was true in Imperial Japan as well, which fought a war of aggression in Asia that was racially motivated and thus comparably violent. What is commendable in Ferguson’s approach as a historian is that as much as he finds the Nazis’ behavior reprehensible, he demonstrates that although the plans for a “final solution” were beyond contempt, their methods of constructing a monstrous, bestial enemy were not unique. The so-called victors of the war, the Americans and British, utilized caricature in order to demonize the enemy and mobilize popular support for a conflict in which the Allies adopted the practice of Total War.
Many historians (and pundits especially) call WWII a “good war,” (oxymoronic, anyone?) fought valiantly by the “greatest generation.” I suppose they see it as such because the Korean and Vietnam wars were fought on ideological grounds rather than against a demonstrably evil, dangerous, and threatening regime. There is no question that Hitler needed to be stopped. That is not debatable. But how much did we need the “means” in order to secure the “end?” Total War meant beating the Nazis at their own game, the slaughtering of civilians. In order to push through victory, cities like Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo could be justifiably firebombed and Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be rationally atomized. Ferguson does not suggest there was a moral equivalence between Auschwitz and Hiroshima as the former was meticulous slaughter as a goal of war while the latter, an indiscriminate mass killing in order to end the war. Some justified the bombing as payback. Others saw it as a demonstration of Machiavellian terror that would demoralize support for the regimes. Whatever it was, it resulted in the deaths of millions of civilians, people who had been dehumanized to the point where they were just meaningless statistics obliterated for the sake of victory guaranteed to the “good guys.”
Ferguson makes an interesting contestation about who really won the Second World War, as the map of Europe was redrawn at the end of the conflict to one nation’s titanic advantage: the Soviet Union, who draped their infamous Iron Curtain over the Eastern Bloc from the Baltics to the Balkans, as well as instituting rigid control over East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Albania, the so-called Soviet satellites, thus replacing the totalitarianism of one government with another. But Britain refused to take a stand against Soviet imperialism, as it had gone to war to protect Poland from Germany, not Russia, so that its loss of sovereignty was regrettable but not in its best interests.
Did Churchill and his Allies thus regret their collaboration with the Soviets? It’s clear that this had been a Faustian bargain struck under conditions of extreme duress but a deal with the devil nonetheless. Without American supplies, i.e. rations, radios, tanks, and bullets and British intelligence, the Eastern Front would have seen a lot more attrition; had armies been bogged down there, perhaps the British and Americans might have liberated Eastern Europe. As it happened, with aid and logistical support, the Soviets prevailed and in their march through Germany into Berlin, looted, raped, and murdered civilians with unrelieved brutality. Once the German government capitulated, the British returned more than a million POWs to the Soviet Union, aware that these men would be either executed or sentenced to hard labor in Siberia.
The unconditional access to resources offered Stalin and the ingenuous faith that he would be accommodating in postwar development had not been the only flaw in Allied strategy. Much has been rightly criticized of Churchill for his idea of situational democracy. Believing that the Poles had the right for self-determination, but not Malays, Kenyans, or Indians is hypocritical, if not racist. The dismantling of English, French, and Portuguese empires and the kind of governments they would be allowed to have would mean a perpetuation of war, but in different theaters.
Ferguson’s primary research focuses on the great wars and the causes leading up to them. One of his principle arguments rails against the traditionally accepted length of the World Wars, arguing that the sloppy configuration of borders at Versailles meant that there had been no true peace so much as truce (and that in the dismemberment of empires, nationalism had taken an ethnic character leading to massive violence not just in the former Hapsburg empire but in the Ottoman disintegration as well). He also makes it clear that though the Cold War was ostensibly peaceful to the superpowers, the period of decolonization saw massive violence in the Third World, wars (famously Vietnam but all over) fought by proxy armies between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. And again the Americans are criticized for taking a morally ambivalent stand, proclaiming the language of peace and democracy, while suppressing democratically elected governments sympathetic to the Soviets or anti-capitalist in general. Thus their backing of infamous strongmen like Saddam, Suharto, and Marcos to protect American interests (“It doesn’t matter if he’s a sonofabitch, so long as he’s our sonofabitch.”).
And with the end of the Cold War what shall we look forward to in the new century? Ferguson’s critique on nations, ethnicity, and war ends with a caveat against Islamic fundamentalism. Curiously, Ferguson laments the declining birth rate of Europe, arguing that it will be impossible to support entitlement programs like health care and pensions without an influx of immigrants, and the likely source of this labor will come from North Africa, where the birth rate is significantly higher. Reminding us of the recent bombings in Madrid and London, Ferguson warns the contemporary citizen:
“A hundred years ago, globalization was celebrated in not dissimilar ways as goods, capital, and labor flowed freely from England to the ends of the earth. Yet mass migration in around 1900 was accompanied by increases in ethnic tension…with ultimately explosive consequences. In 1914 the first age of globalization ended with a spectacular bang because of an act of terror…”
Ferguson goes on to say that civilization, even the most well integrated ones sharing language, faith and even genes, can collapse, particularly during economic volatility. But in order to protect ourselves, what are we willing to give up? What moral values do we cede in order to be safe? How far do we rely on government and state sanctioned violence to protect us before we stop being the victim and start being the terrorist?
What the Jew, the Communist, the Nazi, the Islamist and the terrorist all seem to have in common is the specter of the Boogeyman. This is the default setting which governments and media utilize in order to rally patriotism, whether the system is democratic or totalitarian. What this regrettably leads to is simple: the dismantling of basic civil and human rights. In Germany, this meant the Holocaust. In George Bush’s America, this has meant Guantanamo Bay. Of course, what the Nazis did was much worse, but that’s not the point— the conception of the modern “terrorist” is male, Islamic, bearded. This association has already been deeply drawn by the wars and crises over the last decade so that the Muslim is shrouded in Boogeyman terror—just last week over a third of Americans polled favor a ground invasion of Iran. This is the self-destructive nature of our terror: that in our fear of the other, we debase the physical humanity of our enemy, impoverishing our own spiritual humanity.
There is no winning or losing a war, there is only loss.