Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review: Barbarism & Civilization

Barbarism & Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time by Bernard Wasserstein

Wasserstein is the Harriet and Ulrich Meyer Professor of History at the University of Chicago and has many works--both fiction and non--to his credit. He opens his survey of 20th century Europe with a quote from Walter Benjamin: "There is no document of civilization...that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism." Wasserstein continues:
During the past century Europe was the scene of some of the most savage episodes of collective violence in the recorded history of the human species. Yet the same period has also seen incontestable improvements in many aspects of the life of most inhabitants of the continent: human life has been extended, on average, by more than half; standards of living have increased dramatically; illiteracy has been all but eliminated; women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals have advanced closer to equality of respect and opportunity.
Wasserstein has set himself the task of describing these improvements amidst a century of war and strife. His 20th century begins in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, and he sets the stage by explaining that there are two ways of looking at Europe in that year: backwards to a time of peace, prosperity and stability or "forwards and see the early tremors of social and international upheaval--the beginning of the end of the Eurocentric world." As he points out, the logic of the former approach is that "contemporaries could look back much more easily than they could see ahead." And what they saw was pretty positive, but under the veneer, trouble was brewing.

The veneer included the emergence of a middle-class, the bourgeoisie, as well as of the intellectual classes. Yet, this was also the time of the rise of the trade union. Together, forces converged and the raising of class consciousness led to “class conflict” and the emergence of various ideological movements such as Marxism and various socialist derivatives. But Europe's coming discord lay not in ideology--not yet.
The root of European disorder in 1914 was not…class, but ethnicity. Solidarities and antagonisms based on ethnicity, for reasons that lie buried in human hearts, answer to some of the most deeply rooted and instinctive social feelings of our species. European history in our time shows how futile it is to ignore them.
This is an argument that, for me, immediately called to mind Patrick Geary’s thesis in his Myth of Nations, but others have made the same observation. It is only one lesson learned (if not heeded) in the aftermath of the Great War. Another would be that conflict “inevitably increased the power of central governments, civil liberties, and diminished the ability of parliaments, courts, or public opinion to check the authority of governments and armed forces.” Still other lessons were better remembered and put to use in WWII such as the theory of “total war” involving both the military and the civilian population.

Wasserstein’s telling of the post WWI European revolutions is compelling and informative. (As a European history naïf, I was unaware that the U.S. had sent troops to help bolster the anti-Bolshevik forces). His explanation of how the Bolshevik’s won is a good example of his ability to synthesize and summarize a bit of military history for the layman:
In the Civil War the Bolsheviks had virtually the whole world and a largepart of the former Russian Empire ranged against them. Yet they won. The primary reason was the disunity of their enemies, who shared neither common aims nor a common strategy. Unlike their enemies, the Bolsheviks enjoyed the advantage of holding the centre and consequently of relatively secure internal lines of communication. They controlled the bulk of the population and of war industry.
In detailing the post-war peace process, Wasserstein returns to his cassus belli nationalism informed by ethnicity:
The diplomacy of the peacemakers, clothed in the garb of national self-determination and peaceful resolution of disputes, was sullied at several points by the crude imposition of national interests and by acquiescence in the use of force. The illusion was nevertheless created of a new order in which righteousness would reign supreme.
Thus was the League of Nations born and the world fooled itself into thinking there could be everlasting peace. Meanwhile, Nazism and Fascism rose. Fascism, writes Wasserstein, was:
...a primitive rationalization of gangsterism rather than a political philosophy in the conventional sense….Yet Fascism was vastly appealing to many. It promised to cut through the hypocrisy of the Giolittian spoils system, to restore order to society and the economy, to recreate the glory of the Roman Empire.
He has harsher words for Hitler’s Nazism
His movement was a revolt of the gutter, of losers who felt that, through no fault of their own, they had been thrown aside by respectable society and were determined to rise up and wreak their revenge. Apart from ill-defined dreams of racial domination, Hitler’s politics were inspired by no social vision. On the contrary, underlying his thought and actions was a barely hidden sociopathy: ‘What is stable’, he said, ‘is emotion, hatred.’ Hitler claimed to offer the German people a restoration of their national self-respect.
Wasserstein also compares Nazism with Communism and makes an interesting differentiation.
[Nazism] was an attempt to seize history by the collar and frog-march it in a direction determined primarily by the selfish interests and obsessive beliefs of those in power…[Communism‘s] claim, derived from Marx, [was] to be able to discern and to accelerate the underlying motive forces of history.
He also offers critical insight into the post-WWII mindset of those who survived. To wit, not only America has come to believe in a "greatest generation."
Each country, each national group, each political party fashioned its own version of the war and , as time went on, burnished remembrance and amnesia into self-serving myth. For some peoples, such as Serbs and Jews, a narrative of victimhood was a potion that came to serve as justification for resurgent nationalism. For the British, the lone struggle of 1940-1, the heroism of the few in the Battle of Britain and the many in the Blitz, reinvigorated national self-consciousness. For the French, the petty day-to-day accommodations that most had made with the occupier were overshadowed by the legend of resistance, that the Vichy regime had been made in France and supported, at least, initially, by the great majority of the French people.

For Germans the chief components of wartime memory were the agonies of the eastern front, the terror of Allied carpet-bombing of German cities, and the flight of civilian population from the path of the Russian army in East Prussia and elsewhere in the east…. From 1947 onwards the Cold War rendered the earlier struggle of the German army against Bolshevism somehow respectable. Military service on the eastern fron became a virtual badge of honour with all responsibility for the attendant atrocities against prisoners of war and civilians shunted onto the shoulders of the disbanded police state apparatus….For many Germans the terrible losses from Allied bombings of German cities somehow canceled out the crimes committed by the Nazis.
No country involved escaped the temptation to privilege “preferred memory” over history.

Wasserstein continues into the Cold War, which looms large in the second half of the century. But he also discusses post-WWII social and cultural changes spurred by both the memory of the conflict as well as the the re-drawing of national borders and the displacement of various peoples in its aftermath. He also explains why post-war Europe was fertile ground for the development of the welfare state.
Government spending everywhere had reached unprecedented levels during the war….High taxation, rationing, and government controls during the war had inured the possessing classes to a much greater degree of state control of the economy and society. Common sacrifice of soldiers and civilians of all classes had prepared minds for the application of egalitarian policies in the period of reconstruction. The warfare state…shaped the welfare state.
Wasserstein continues along, detailing the ebb and flow of the Cold War, de-colonization and the gradual movement towards European unity. (Of the last, an interesting counterpoint is the example of Belgium, which even now is experiencing tension based on the ethnically halved population of Flemish and Walloons.) The European youth uprisings of the '60s and the economic downturn of the 1970s culminated in the rise of neo-liberalism in Europe and the application of “Chicago school” economic theories here and there, particularly in Western Europe.

He continues until 2004, hitting all of the major touchstones. His final chapter offers a comparison between now and 1914.
Before 1914 undemocratic regimes interfered in the lives of the majority of ordinary people far less than the most liberal European governments of the new millennium. This was the paradox of the contemporary liberal state: it intruded in many unprecedented ways into the private sphere; yet liberty of the individual, measured by most reasonable criteria, had enormously increased in Europe by 2005 by comparison with 1914.

Two competing tendencies emerge from the dislocations of the pst century: on the one hand a growth of ruthlessness, manifested in wartime atrocities, criminality, and heightened racial hatreds; on the other, a growth of tenderness, exemplified in changed attitudes to the treatment of the mentally ill, the disabled, prisoners, children, and animals.
Barbarism and Civilization, indeed. But, pace Mark Steyn, demography is working against Europe and their ability to keep up the level of social welfare “civilization” to which they’ve become accustomed. The population is getting older and there are fewer young people (working fewer hours) to support them. And the short term solution of importing masses of immigrants, segregated from the rest of each particular nation’s mainstream culture, may have a higher cost in the long run. Ethnic-based nationalism is more dangerous when you are relying heavily upon a segregated “other” to maintain your way of life. Europe has to come up with a new way of dealing with this reality. But will it be a barbaric or a civilized method?

Wasserstein notes that throughout Europe, religion’s importance has drastically reduced. And he asks, “What could replace religion as a source of values?” Unfortunately, nothing has taken its place. And though “a variety of doctrines, mainly re-treads of old ideas” have been tried, “None, however, provided the scaffolding for an alternative social morality that could satisfy a majority in society.” Wasserstein’s final sentence gives us a depressing summary of the past century.
Evil stalked the earth in this era, moving men’s minds, ruling their actions, and begetting the lies, greed, deceit, and cruelty that are the stuff of the history of Europe in our time.
In that light, and keeping in mind the moral vacuum Wasserstein previously described, Europe seems ill-prepared to deal with the myriad problems it faces in a civilized manner. I hope he’s wrong.

All in all, B&C is a thick, weighty read with an important thesis. Wasserstein is a skilled synthesizer and a fluid writer and presents his topics in an engaging, if sometimes workmanlike, style. Barbarism and Civilization is a solid and insightful recounting of Europe's past century.

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