States and Nations

By December 13, 2008

I just finished The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (Penguin, 2006), an 800-page tome by Niall Ferguson, the Lawrence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution. [Tisch and Hoover, an interesting pair of sponsors.] Ferguson recounts the violent first half of the 20th century with reference to nations (in the classical sense of “peoples” or, more modernly, ethnic groups) rather than states, but doesn’t leave much hope for improvement as we move through the first half of the 21st century.  I’ll throw out a lifeline [hint: religion] in the closing paragraph.

Ferguson rejects the standard explanations of the violent 20th century and even the standard descriptions of what was going on. In his view, it was not the rise of aggressive political regimes or ideologies but the disintegration of supranational empires that created the conditions for intensified, industrialized violence. Here’s a paragraph from his introduction that identifies the three factors he relies on in the balance of the book.

Three things seem to me necessary to explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century, and in particular why so much of it happened at certain times, notably the early 1940s, and in certain places, specifically Central and Eastern Europe, Manchuria and Korea. These may be summarized as ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline. By ethnic conflict, I mean major discontinuities in the social relations between certain ethnic groups, specifically the breakdown of sometimes quite far-advanced processes of assimilation. … By economic volatility I mean the frequency and amplitude of changes in the rate of economic growth, prices, interest rates and employment, with all the associated social stresses and strains. And by empires in decline I mean the decomposition of the multinational European empires that had dominated the world at the beginning of the century and the challenge posed to them by the emergence of new “empire-states” in Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany.

By highlighting violent conflict between ethnic groups rather than wars between states, organized violence over the course of the 20th century expands to include all those messy but murderous civil wars that don’t fit neatly into the standard account of wars between states. Germany made war against neighboring states, but also ethnic Germans directed violence against Jews, gypsys, Poles, gays, and the mentally deficient. The Soviet Union fought for its collective life against Germany, but ethnic Russians fought not only Germans but also dozens of minority nationalities, and this went on both before Germany attacked in 1941 and well after it was defeated in 1945. There are plenty of other examples. The rise of the nation-state in the 20th century is linked, it seems, with heightened conflict between peoples and ethnic groups, whether across borders or within them. No one, it seems, can get along anymore.

There’s nothing clever or nuanced about the author’s arrangement or argument. He just bludgeons through the sorry chronicle of murderous ethnic strife in the 20th century, showing it wasn’t limited to Europe and it wasn’t limited to fascism or communism or any -ism. It had more to do with the rise of ethnic identity and assertiveness in the wake of failed empires than anything else. The Far East was a theater of conflict as well as Europe. In the second half of the 20th century (which Ferguson reviews in a 50-page epilogue) conflict moved to the Third World in locations may seem peripheral or remote to First World readers, but the author emphasizes there is nothing marginal or peripheral for those poor souls who get caught up in the genocide of the month.

If there’s a letdown in reading the book, it’s that there is no set of hopeful suggestions for the future laid out, even in passing. And with a new episode of “economic volatility” (Ferguson’s second factor) presently in full-swing, we need some ideas, in particular forces or institutions to counter the violent ends to which ethnic identify is so easily turned. We need, it seems, supra-national forces, institutions, or ideologies that, as cures, aren’t worse than the disease. What are they and how do we get one?

Addressing that question is a book in itself, I suppose, and social cures are harder to identify than social problems. But I would offer religion as one of the few supra-national institutions still active in the modern world that has a track record of successfully bringing together repesentatives from a wide variety of ethnic groups under an umbrella of cooperation and fellowship (the current attempts by several New Atheist authors to paint religion as the primary cause of violent conflict notwithstanding). If religion can’t mute the dark side of ethnic identity that is so prevalent in the world, what can? The UN? Multinational corporations? The benefits of free trade? There aren’t a lot of good candidates. Let’s hope the bleak view of the 21st century implied by a reading of The War of the World doesn’t come to pass.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for this, Dave. I’ve been meaning to read The War of the World for some time now. It’s one of those books that I always pick up when I go into a bookstore to do some casual reading. Awhile back the hardcover was going for cheap on Amazon (like $8), and I bought one, but ended up giving it away as a gift before I had a chance read it.

    I’d be interested in Joel’s thoughts on Ferguson’s use of ethnicity as an organizing concept.

    Comment by David G. — December 13, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  2. “If religion can?t mute the dark side of ethnic identity that is so prevalent in the world, what can? The UN? Multinational corporations? The benefits of free trade?”

    Social justice.

    Comment by Chris H. — December 13, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

  3. Social justice.

    Indeed. Whether one believes that governments should be in the social justice business or just private enterprises, I think everyone can agree that a greater commitment to justice and equality can do a great deal to “mute the dark side of ethnic identity.”

    Comment by David G. — December 13, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

  4. I didn’t manage to work the Mormon ethnicity angle into the post, but seeing 20th century conflicts as primarily between ethnic groups does, I think, lend some perspective on the Mormon experience. It’s fair to say that what happened in the US is in some ways not so different from what happened in Europe, with various ethnic and pseudo-ethnic minority groups, including Mormons, on the receiving end of group violence or political bias.

    Comment by Dave — December 14, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  5. Dave,

    I haven’t had a chance to comment for a while, but I enjoyed this book review. I also agree with you that religion, at its best, has the potential for mitigating some of the most violent and hateful strains of human behavior. I spent two years on the dusty streets of Peru because I hoped it would change lives–to this day I have no regrets. In my mind, the tenets of social justice are the same as true religion.

    As for Ferguson’s conceptual scheme and analysis–as described in the post–I feel like he might be underplaying the fact that much of what he would define as ethnic tension developed under the coercive imperial regimes of the 19th Century and were perpetuated by developed nations’ desperate attempts to hold the reins of power over perceived inferiors. They created and perpetuated artificial boundaries, destructive identities, and economic and racial inequalities.

    Ferguson’s large-scale invocation of ethnic conflict as an all-encompassing explanation seems to support my previous contentions about ethnicity’s weaknesses as an explanatory construct. The situation on the ground was so complex. It seems that he is collapsing interimperial conflict, tribal disputations, racism, nationalism, and religious conflict to make one unifying concept of ethnicity.

    Thanks for the review, I always look forward to your thoughts

    Comment by Joel — December 18, 2008 @ 12:06 pm


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