The War of the World
Twentieth-Century Conflict
And the Descent of the West.
By Niall Ferguson.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

"Published on the eve of the 20th century, H.G. Wells's 'The War of the Worlds' (1898) is much more than just a seminal work of science fiction. It is also a kind of Darwinian morality tale, and at the same time, a work of singular prescience. In the century after the publication of his book, scenes like the ones Wells imagined became a reality in cities all over the world."

So begins Niall Ferguson's "War of the World," a hugely ambitious panorama and moral analysis of the military-industrial slaughter of the 20th century that poses the big question: Why was it that "the hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history"? Ferguson answers his own question: "Three things seem to me necessary to explain the extreme violence of the 20th century…These may be summarized as ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline." There is another theme in this colossal survey: the Spengleresque "descent of the West," by which he means that the American Century will actually be remembered for the exhaustion of the West and the rise of China.

The subject matter here is dark (mass murder) and overfamiliar (World Wars I and II), the text is 646 pages long and accompanies a television series, four reasons for any reviewer to dread his task, but it turns out to have been a highly enjoyable one. Ferguson's conclusions are sensible and cleareyed even if they are not revelatory. He relishes pungent turns of phrase, witty footnotes and provocative flashes of revisionism, like the perfectly reasonable suggestion that World War II really started with the Japanese push in China in 1937 and not with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Yet he is always sound on the fundamentals, and on the right side.

Ferguson is a fine narrator and impressive scholar, but above all he is a passionate teacher who understands that his responsibility in an age of philistine education and mass ignorance is to teach us the lessons of history. His achievement is to create a heartbreaking, serious and thoughtful survey of human evil that is utterly fascinating and dramatic, and always has something new to tell us. His book can be variously enjoyed as superb narrative history, a collection of essays on the key themes of the 20th century or just a sumptuous treasure trove of fresh facts and the latest scholarly interpretations. He begins with ethnicity and genetics: "paradoxically … a sharp rise in assimilation … may actually be the prelude to ethnic conflict." Such conflict, Ferguson writes, was most likely to occur in regions of "mixed settlement" like the Balkans. He charts German anti-Semitism, with its strong sexual obsession.

He is equally good on how, as the concept of ethnic exclusivity and nationalism spread, the Jews, the ultimate cosmopolitans, found themselves under pressure across Russia and Central Europe: "These Yids," Czar Alexander III said, "make themselves too repulsive to Russians, and as long as they continue to exploit Christians, this hatred will not diminish." But Ferguson also shows how czarist authorities did not organize most pogroms, since they feared disorder more than they feared Jews.

World War I is described as "nothing more than the most terrific train crash": Ferguson reveals how all the participants were soon brutalized into killing their prisoners. "don't take prisoners, kill them," an Irish soldier recalls a clergyman telling him. Yet this brutality kept armies together. When the killing instinct wavered among the Germans, they started to surrender.

In his section on Stalin's terror, Ferguson concentrates on an aspect only recently revealed by newly available archives. Stalin, it turns out, regarded not only class as hereditary but cultural characteristics as well, and resolved to purge and deport entire populations like the Poles and Koreans. Ethnic cleansing began in Russia before Hitler took it up. "For Stalin regarded certain ethic groups within what was still a vast multinational Russian empire as inherently unreliable - class enemies by dint of their nationality." This part of the terror was less important than the wider terror: "persecuted nationalities accounted for around a fifth of all political arrests," but, Ferguson adds, "more than a third of all executions."

Ferguson's best passages are his damning but entertaining narration of the naïve, self-regarding and sinister folly of Anglo-French appeasement: "Our enemies are little worms," Hitler said. "I saw them at Munich."

Ferguson argues that the Western powers should have gone to war in 1938, which would most likely have avoided much of the horror of World War II, or Britain and France could have forged an alliance with Stalin as a deterrent. He is undoubtedly correct, but this is simply omniscient hindsight: at the time, Stalin probably regarded the West as his chief enemy, while many in the West regarded barbaric Bolshevism as theirs. Moreover, it's questionable if public opinion would really have tolerated war in 1938. Still, Ferguson is certainly right that "Stalin's policy of trusting Hitler was a calamitous blunder without equal in the history of the 20th century."

The book's poignant heart is the Holocaust, which Ferguson rightly calls "the first and only industrialized genocide." It stands without parallel as the most wicked act in all history: "Other regimes had perpetrated mass murder … Yet there was something qualitatively different about the Nazis' war against the Jews and the other unfortunate minorities they considered to be 'unworthy of life.' It was the fact that it was carried out by such well-educated people…perpetrated under the leadership of a man who had come to power by primarily democratic means. The Nazi death machine worked economically, scientifically and euphemistically…It was very, very modern."

And Ferguson never loses sight of the Holocaust's human horror. He quotes the SS officer Kurt Gerstein describing a scene at Belzec: "The train arrives. Two hundred Ukrainians fling open the doors and chase people out of the wagons with their leather whips…Then the procession starts to move. They all go along the path with a very pretty girl in front, all naked…They corpses are thrown out wet with sweat and urine, smeared with excrement and menstrual blood on their legs. Two dozen dentists open mouths with hooks and look for gold…Some of the workers check genitals and anus for gold, diamonds and valuables."

The 20th-century "war of the world" ended, Ferguson argues, with the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, though as he says, it is "absurd for us to remember the Cold War fondly as a time of peace and stability" when "between 1945 and 1983 around 19 or 20 million people were killed in around 100 major military conflicts."

Now, with the Cold War over, "it is China," Ferguson says, "That is the rising power."

But his real conclusion is a warning to the West. We must study the 20th century, he insists, because in different ways, it could all happen again: "We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused that 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."

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