The best and worst of times

Barbarism and Civilization
September 21, 2007

John Bew on a European 20th century marked by modernity and evil.

In his 1921 book Modern Democracies , Viscount James Bryce, the eminent legal scholar, liberal politician and former British ambassador to the US, wrote of "the universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government", a "word of praise" to be "welcomed, extolled and worshipped". Bryce had observed the horrors of the First World War and, as one of the key thinkers behind the League of Nations, believed Europe's darkest days had passed. How wrong he was. Within years, as Bernard Wasserstein points out in this excellent book, the idea of "a new order in which righteousness would reign supreme" was shown to be an illusion.

Barbarism and Civilization builds on the largely uncontroversial claim that the 20th century was the most brutal in human history. Far from being the denouement of centuries of struggle between the great powers of Europe, the First World War was the opening act of a period that would see the unleashing of unprecedented barbarism, violence and evil (a word that Wasserstein is not afraid to use). At the same time, however, as the title suggests, the story is not all one-sided. By the end of the century, the peoples of Europe had also experienced huge improvements in living standards, life expectancy, education and individual liberty.

Eloquent, exhaustive and highly learned, this book is both a considerable achievement and an enlivening read. A broad-based and far-reaching survey of Europe "in our time", it covers a dizzying range of material and disciplines, including political, military, economic, social and demographic history.

The potential pitfalls in such an approach are many but, by and large, Wasserstein avoids scoring any obvious own goals. His previous work includes a prizewinning biography of Trebitsch Lincoln, the Hungarian-born adventurer of Jewish origin whose many careers included those of petty thief, MP for Darlington, German spy and Buddhist monk in China. In his capacity to traverse borders and boundaries across such a diverse terrain, the author relies on similar skills here.

Indeed, the ability to digest so much information, and to present it so elegantly, is the most striking quality of the book. It might be said that Barbarism and Civilization does not often veer too far from the conventional; but it is, nonetheless, a brilliant general survey of Europe, in which the author makes a convincing case for including the British Isles, Turkey and most of Russia. Justifiably, also, the book does not shy away from putting the US in the frame throughout as a guiding and often decisive influence on the destiny of Europe.

A number of the 20 chapters are in straightforward narrative form, and much of the book takes the form of a whistle-stop tour of a variety of European destinations at different moments in the century. The key to its success is that, in most cases, the right watering holes are visited along the way.

In terms of bibliography, Wasserstein is clearly on top of his game. Refreshingly, though, the book is not overly fashion-conscious. Controversial historiographical debates, such as that surrounding Fritz Fischer's Sonderweg thesis, are dealt with in detail, but the book is richer for making unostentatious use of older, established sources, particularly those from Britain. The fact that names such as Lewis Namier, Trevor Roper and Harold Temperley pepper the footnotes will add to its enduring appeal.

Using Ireland as a litmus test for Wasserstein's forays into various national histories, it also becomes clear that the book studiously avoids the light headedness and tendency to resort to cliche that sometimes afflicts general surveys of this kind. To take one example, the controversial issue of Irish neutrality in the Second World War is dealt with in a balanced and dispassionate manner. For Ireland and other non-combatant nations such as Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Sweden, neutrality was, of course, "relative rather than absolute".

The book is big on economics, topography and demography, but one consequence is that it is a little short on ideas. In explaining his approach at the outset, Wasserstein argues that the use of hard evidence and statistics can act as a corrective to the notion of a Zeitgeist defined solely by writers and publicists. Nevertheless, while Barbarism and Civilization is likely to become an authoritative work for students of modern European history, academic readers may be left wondering if the author could have done more to tease out the "big idea" that, at first glance, seems to be hinted at in the title.

An important theme developed in the second half of the book is the gradual ossification of the Communist project in Eastern Europe. Yet Wasserstein's narrative does not fully take into account the ideological resilience of Marxism among Western intellectuals, particularly in the university system, even as late as the second half of the 1980s. Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968, like those in Budapest in 1956, may have "aroused revulsion and protest in the West" but these events did not precipitate a haemorrhaging of support away from Marxism among Western academics, as an aspiration as well as a mode of analysis - a point aptly illustrated in Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'N' Roll .

On one of the definitive ideological questions of the 20th century, Wasserstein makes a convincing case that we should avoid drawing a "false parallelism" between Communism and Nazism, despite the fact that both "developed into mechanisms of brute force and thuggery". Communism, notwithstanding all the violence that was subsequently to be perpetrated in its name, was "a sophisticated and internally coherent framework of thought", a "modern transformation of the Utopian chiliasm of the most enlightened elements in European thought since the 17th century", and which owed a debt (albeit a rarely acknowledged one) to Rousseau's concept of the general will.

Less convincing is the book's concomitant verdict on Nazism as basically "a caveman morality". By emphasising the anti-intellectualism of the Nazi movement, Wasserstein perhaps misses the chance to pinpoint the uniqueness of the phenomenon. What made Nazism so potent was its combination of the most barbaric prejudices with the instruments of modernity and science. This point does not necessarily go against the grain of Wasserstein's argument. However, in placing so much emphasis on the economic conditions in which Nazism thrived (the Great Depression is seen as the single most important factor behind the rise of Hitler), this is something that the book only ever hints at, rather than satisfactorily resolves. Surprisingly, social Darwinism only makes a fleeting appearance in a reference to the First World War, and Charles Darwin does not appear in the text at all thereafter.

On finishing Barbarism and Civilization , therefore, it is difficult not to feel that it has left something unsaid about the explosive fusion of modernity and evil that defined the 20th century. Wasserstein uses Walter Benjamin, from whom the title derives, to reiterate that civilisation and barbarism were not polar opposites but locked in a dialectical relationship. This is repeated at the start and end of the book, but it is a realisation that could perhaps have informed much more of the 700 pages in-between. Ultimately, however, this only takes some of the gloss off what is a highly competent and impressive book.

John Bew is lecturer in modern British history and fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time

Author - Bernard Wasserstein
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 800
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780198730743

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