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Best or worst?

After his famous ‘Age of . . .’ trilogy on the 19th century, E. J. Hobsbawm published a coda (best-selling but in my view much less satisfactory) on the history of the 20th century

16 January 2008

12:00 AM

16 January 2008

12:00 AM

Barbarism and Civilisation: A History of Europe in Our Time by Bernard Wasserstein

OUP, pp.900, £25

After his famous ‘Age of . . .’ trilogy on the 19th century, E. J. Hobsbawm published a coda (best-selling but in my view much less satisfactory) on the history of the 20th century

After his famous ‘Age of . . .’ trilogy on the 19th century, E. J. Hobsbawm published a coda (best-selling but in my view much less satisfactory) on the history of the 20th century. It begins with a bleak page of epigraphs, among others from Isaiah Berlin — ‘the most terrible century in Western history,’ William Golding — ‘the most violent century in human history,’ and René Dumont — ‘I see it only as a century of massacre and war.’ This theme of ‘mankind’s worst century’ has become something of a cliché, and deserves closer examination, not least because it almost implies that the horrors of the age were natural catastrophes, like hurricanes or epidemics.

If you blink, then a perfectly obvious case can be made that the 20th century was far and away the best in human history. Any horrors it endured came not from evolutionary change but from unnatural aberrations, in the form of what men did to one another in the name of ideologies. Bernard Wasserstein takes the title of his excellent new book from Walter Benjamin: ‘There is no document of civilisation that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.’ This is a nice line, but it deserves the examiner’s ‘Discuss’. For much of European history, the Whig view — onward and upward — did not seem absurd, and that was never less so than 100 years ago, in that golden age so memorably apostrophised by Keynes. What any historian thus has to address is why Europe relapsed so terrifyingly into catastrophic war, despotism and mass murder.

‘Europe at 1914,’ as Wasserstein’s first chapter is called, was still a largely agrarian continent despite rapid industrialisation, and for all that its tone was increasingly set by urban life and such institutions he dilates on as the café and the department store. Rich and poor were separated by a vast gulf: a very modest income tax was paid by the million British citizens with annual incomes of more than £160, which excluded the whole working class. In many countries the modern state still barely existed, and even the empires of eastern Europe were ruled, if not with a light hand then with much less force than one might suppose. Quite apart from ‘mildly tolerant . . . more or less free’ Austria-Hungary, order was kept throughout the whole Tsarist empire by fewer than 15,000 gendarmes (when Harrods already employed a staff of 6000).

What ruined old Europe wasn’t class conflict but what Wasserstein calls the canker of nationalism: in the Balkans it was the proximate cause of the 1914 war, but it spread like a virus everywhere. For all of later anguish about the ‘war guilt’ clause in the Versailles treaty, most historians now agree that Germany was indeed culpable: a belief that Germany would have to go to war to achieve her aims had, as Wasserstein says, ‘become deeply entrenched in the collective mentality of the German political elite by 1914’.


It wasn’t nationalism or capitalism which led to such unimaginable bloodshed so much as a fortuitous conjuncture of military factors, and one of the war’s gravest consequences, the Russian revolution, was really no less of an accident. The common factor by now was political violence, an infectious cycle destroying the foundations of legality and constitutional government. Dissolving the elected Constituent Assembly ‘means a complete and frank liquidation of the idea of democracy by the idea of dictatorship,’ Lenin said with his usual candour. ‘It will serve as a good lesson’: one learned by Mussolini and then Hitler.

Like Margaret MacMillan in Peacemakers and Zara Steiner in The Lights that Failed (and conspicuously unlike Keynes at the time), Wasserstein does not think the Versailles treaty was grossly unjust, but he sees the postwar settlement in central and eastern Europe as inherently unstable. On the one hand, the abstract national principle was applied in a way that created unviable (as well as undemocratic) statelets, on the other, none of them was homogenous, or could be short of mass expulsion and mass murder.

Whether democracy could have survived in Europe between the wars is an imponderable question; it didn’t, and brute force and unreason triumphed, most shockingly in Germany. There was an utter betrayal by the official and academic classes, and an open contempt for legal forms, typified by the 1935 edict that punishment should be imposed according not to due process but ‘to popular feeling’ (a principle borrowed more recently by New Labour).

With Hitler preaching the importance of ‘emotion, hatred’, the crescendo of violence increased. In the first world war the millions of dead were uniformed soldiers, but now Stalin was waging murderous war on his own people, while of the 365,000 dead in the Spanish civil war, 130,000 were executed, or just killed, behind the lines. This was a foretaste of the vaster coming war, in which the millions killed in action were easily outnumbered by the civilians who died, either incidentally to the conflict or wilfully exterminated. Even when the fighting stopped in 1945, Europe saw ethnic cleansing (as it would later be called) on a greater scale than ever known before. ‘Yesterday the “Jew”, today the “Swabians” [or Germans], tomorrow the “middle classes”,’ the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai said in his diary, as he contemplated ‘the demise of the morality of European life’.

Six decades or more later what may seem just as remarkable is the way European life regained some measure of morality, and how civilisation was recovered. The degree of change in the 30 years after the war was astonishing, in some ways more so than what the past 30 years have witnessed. With a struggle or without, the European powers shed their empires. Stalinist tyranny had its last frightful spasm, with show trials and brutal repression throughout east Europe. And yet another world war was averted, while it gradually became clear that Communism was decaying from within, until the final collapse, and what Wasserstein calls ‘the zigzag road to European unity’.

No book of this length can be inerrant. The figure of 400,000 German civilians killed by bombing in the second world war is considerably lower than that usually accepted (although when, for example, the estimates for the Yugoslav dead in that war can range so wildly it isn’t easy to be confident about any such figures). On a trivial level, Roy Jenkins was not a member of Harold Wilson’s Cabinet when it was formed in 1964, and it was not the case that James Callaghan’s ‘decided’ to call an election in 1979: he had no choice when his government was defeated in the Commons. There are also broader, presumably deliberate, choices of emphasis and omission. The book is excellent on economic and social aspects, including such neglected topics as sewage, but contains little about high culture, art, music and literature, and not much either about popular culture, including sport. The dramatic end of the 1966 World Cup gets a mention, but not the ‘miracle of Bern’ in 1954, when West German victory played an important part in restoring national pride.

For all that, Barbarism and Civilisation is an admirable work of scholarly synthesis, which should be required reading, not only for sixth-formers and undergraduates but also for anyone absorbed by the perplexing century we recently left behind. And what makes the book enjoyable as well as compelling are the incidental asides, acquired in the course of very wide reading, whether it’s the Fascist boss of Bologna deploring coitus interruptus and t
he resulting low birth rate with the command ‘screw and leave it in’ (it may sound better in Italian) or Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania, whose favourite authors were Goethe, Kipling and Jerome K. Jerome.

A penultimate chapter examines the one calamity that followed the fall of Communism, the disintegration of Yugoslavia. This is something of a test for historians and Wasserstein passes, rightly pointing out that the ambiguities of the conflict — ‘that atrocities were in many cases two-sided or three-sided, that the Muslims of Bosnia enjoyed support from some very dubious elements’ — all ‘failed to register in the west’. In 1913 the British ambassador in Vienna had prophesied that ‘Servia will some day set Europe by the ears and bring about a universal war,’ and although Serbia set Europe by the ears again, we may be grateful that it did not bring about another larger war.

In his peroration on ‘Europe in the New Millennium’, Wasserstein looks at the way that ‘Europe has gone down in the world in the past century’, in terms of demography, its share of world population declining from 27 to 11 per cent from 1914 to 2007, along with the disappearance of the empires which once ruled half the world. But the economic statistics he quotes tell no tale of precipitous decline, as opposed to an inevitable shift of comparative balance; and foolish neocon notions about heroic ‘Americans from Mars’ putting ‘Europeans from Venus’ to shame look ever less plausible as the adminstration of Bush the Younger peters out ignominiously. Maybe Europe, in its troisième age (as the French gently call those of us over 60), still has something to teach the world, having shown that barbarism does not have to win the final victory.


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