A miserabilist history of the twentieth century

Niall Ferguson’s War of the World is shot through with a negative view of progress and some dubious socio-biological thinking.

Author and historian Niall Ferguson has a reputation for iconoclasm. He nearly gave up studying history to write angry op-ed pieces for the Daily Mail, so overwhelming did he find the left-liberal consensus in British academia. But his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) established the Thatcherite Scotsman as someone who was prepared to challenge the self-lacerating gloom of post-colonial academia.

Now with War of the World, his new book which is accompanied by a Channel 4 series of the same name, Ferguson promises a bold new theory to explain the reason why the twentieth century was so bloodthirsty, and why it ended with the victory of the East, not the West. His rival TV history-men – Simon Schama, Tristram Hunt, Michael Wood and David Starkey – had better run for cover.

Channel 4 has invested heavily in the series. The script was written first, but nobody at the Guardian-readers’ favourite TV channel seems to have looked too closely at the arguments made by Ferguson in the book itself. Or maybe in these postmodern times it does not matter that your talking head seems to hold to a view of eugenic racial science that belongs in the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first.

‘Man’, writes Ferguson, ‘is programmed by his genes to protect his kin and to fight the “Other”….the evolutionary logic that produces tribal violence also promotes interbreeding, as captured womenfolk become the victors’ sexual partners.’ However, ‘nature does not necessarily favour breeding between genetically very different species’, offers Ferguson, citing this medically fatuous and slightly weird example: ‘[W]hen a Chinese woman marries a European man, the chances are relatively high that their blood groups may be incompatible, so that only the first child will be viable.’ (xliv-xlv) Of course I am condensing, and within those ellipses are some caveats – but read the introduction yourself, and you will see that this is a fair account of Ferguson’s argument.

He does entertain the counter-argument: ‘It may be objected that the historian, especially the modern historian, has no business dabbling in evolutionary biology. Is not his proper concern the activity of civilised man, not primitive man?’ But this is only to re-emphasise the point that it is ‘possible for one civilisation to make war on another for the same base motives that had actuated man in prehistoric times: to expropriate nutritional and reproductive resources.’ And this is not just a philosophical speculation but an explanation of the dynamics of the twentieth century: ‘[T]hese instincts were to be unleashed time and again after 1900. They were a large part of what made the Second World War so ferocious.’ (xlvi-xlvii) (1)

Maybe it is a bit politically correct to take issue with Ferguson’s socio-biological views. There is no reason that they have to interfere with his historical research. In today’s intellectual climate, old-fashioned right-wingers often offer up insights that elude the relativistic melange. And Ferguson has already been shouted down by Johann Hari of the UK Independent, and others, for justifying the British Empire. It would be scuzzy and wrong to point the finger at him and shout ‘racist’, as though we were in a student union AGM. However, Ferguson’s theoretical framework does influence his account of the material, and not for the better.

The Nazis’ eugenic policies are already well-described, and Ferguson is not offering anything new in showing that they were modelled on US segregation laws (see Elazar Barkan’s Retreat of Scientific Racism, 1991). But over time, Ferguson’s fascination with the Nazis’ fascination with sex between the races begins to grate. Of course he tut-tuts in all the right places, as he quotes another Nazi screed against a ‘repulsive racial mix of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs and Croatians’ (p254); or a Nazi apologist writing that ‘the Teuton and the Slav are irreconcilable’ (343). Of course, Ferguson is no Nazi apologist, but reading this, one is minded to think of the arguments he makes in the cranky introduction to his own book.

Reflecting on the ‘great puzzle’ that the Jewish minority was very well blended into German society before being targeted by the Nazis, Ferguson wonders whether ‘the anti-Semitism of the Nazis is [perhaps] best understood as a reaction to the very success of German-Jewish assimilation’ (p252). Indeed, Ferguson thinks it particularly telling that many key Nazi figures were themselves engaged in or products of racial mixing. Is it really ‘interesting to note’ that the leader of the Sudeten Germans ‘was himself the product of a mixed marriage’? (p351) And, no, Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger’s affair with the Jewish Hannah Arendt tells us nothing about the reasons for the rise of fascism (p252), any more than Himmler’s youthful interest in Inge Barco or Ludwig Clauss’ affair with Margarethe Lande do (p257). Ferguson’s argument that racial mixing may be the cause of anti-Semitic reaction is a great step backwards from the socio-political analyses of fascism that we get from Ian Kershaw, Lawrence Rees or Richard Evans. Those historians have tried to get beyond the explicit rationale for the Nazis’ anti-Semitism to understand how it gave an ideological form to a campaign against the left, the working class, redirecting anti-capitalist sentiments into racial scapegoating. With Ferguson, we are back taking the Nazis’ arguments at face value. The need for the racial purity laws arises because…the races are too mixed.

Ferguson’s preoccupation with racial mixing leads to a prurient interest in inter-racial sex that does indeed sometimes border on the pornographic. He lingers over details of the German campaign against Moroccan troops stationed as part of the French army of occupation on the Rhine after the First World War – such as the ‘semi-pornographic postcards and cartoons [that] were published showing grotesque Negroes menacing half-dressed white women’ (p256), and many, many more propagandistic accounts of sexual predation by Jews and others. But Ferguson’s aside that ‘the fact that there were around 500 “Rhineland bastards” confirms that miscegenation was no imaginary construct’ gives too much ground to propaganda (p256). The concept of miscegenation is ideological, not scientific, implying more than inter-racial sex – it suggests the loss of a fictitious racial purity as well. Claude McKay, who covered the ‘Black Peril on the Rhine’ story for Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought, gives an altogether more interesting explanation of the way that race was talked up to sidestep labour unrest on the Rhine. And when McKay writes ‘I think the Anglo-Saxon mind becomes morbid when it turns on the sex life of coloured people’, he might even have been talking about Niall Ferguson (2).

Ferguson’s underlying socio-biological philosophy does seem to shape his general argument about the nature of the twentieth century. One-sidedly, he fixates on the violence. It is, he says, the most violent century ever. And of course that is true of the first half. Sixty million died in the Second World War, nine million in the First. (Ferguson is on less sure ground arguing that the second half was just as violent; it was nothing like as destructive, though he is right to say that the theatre of war tended to shift to the Third World.) He means, it seems to me, that violence arises out of our biological programming against ‘ethnic confluence’ (p646).

To characterise the twentieth century as a century of violence, though, is to describe only one part of it, and not the most important part, either. The violence that rises to the surface is primarily a reaction to the stronger trend towards social progress. The real story of the twentieth century is one of rising living standards, an astonishing increase in the population, based on an equally astonishing growth in productivity. What is more, this material progress was accompanied by social and political progress, greater freedoms and the growth of democratic movements, notably towards self-government in the developing world, Africa, Asia and the Far East.

One blind spot in the narrative of the Second World War, which is the major part of the book, is Ferguson’s unwillingness to grant any role to the popular armies of liberation that took on the Wehrmacht. The Italian partisans who liberated northern Italy, only to be left in the lurch by the Allied forces, are unmentioned; the Greek resistance, which liberated much of the country before the Allies recruited the Greek fascists to fight them, are dismissed in a sentence; the Yugoslav partisans who pinned down 10 German divisions are cattily annexed to Stalinism. Equally, Ferguson tends to dismiss those Indonesian, Burmese and Indian forces that allied with the Japanese to kick out European colonists as dupes, when in truth they went on to liberate their countries. These genuinely popular contributions to human emancipation do not fit Ferguson’s miserabilist version of history.

If there is tragedy in the twentieth century, it is that the old order viciously resisted every step along the way, waging war against popular democracy and national liberation, redirecting human productivity towards the mass slaughter of World War. But Ferguson reduces the positive side of human progress, not the least part of which is the great assimilation of ethnicities, to the reaction against it. For all his traditional right-wing grandstanding, Ferguson’s grim view of human nature is all too postmodern, recalling the gloomier prognoses of the deep green environmentalists about the human pestilence infecting the Earth. As well as the close-to-pornographic interest in inter-racial sex, Ferguson indulges in the pornography of inter-racial violence that has become a mainstay of the liberal media’s coverage of post-Cold War conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda and the Congo.

Particularly problematic is his account of the rise of the East, which he says is one of the defining features of the twentieth century. Consistently he tells the story of the Japanese ascendancy in the Far East from the point of view of nostalgia for a lost Empire. But gruesome as Japanese military occupation of China was, the dislocation of the European colonies in East Asia was the condition for the liberation of Indonesia, Malaysia, China and the Philippines. Here, Ferguson’s version reminds us of EH Carr’s description of the high Tory belief that the extension of the franchise to one’s servants constitutes a decline.

For all of his assumed iconoclasm, Ferguson’s worldview is predictably traditional, and his telling of history clumsily one-sided. He is engaged in a rearguard battle to save the honour of the British Empire against the ‘moral relativists’ who want to say that the Allies’ war crimes and those of the British Empire are just as bad as Hitler’s. Here, though, Ferguson is forced from the outset to admit that he is fighting a losing battle, citing Orwell’s argument that the ‘choice is not between good and evil, but between two evils’, with the Empire the lesser of the two (p532, p510). It is a concession he has to make because the accumulation of historical research is against him, as more and more atrocity stories are uncovered in the former colonies and in the Allied campaigns. That is because the old received wisdom, that the Allies fought the Good War – perhaps we could call it ‘Patriotic Correctness’ after Robert Hughes – is wearing thin.

Of course Ferguson is right that there is something creepy about the over-extension of the term holocaust, as in Mike Davis’ account of colonial Indian famines as Late Victorian Holocausts. But it will not do to insist, as Ferguson does, that the 1943 Bengal famine was unlike the Nazi Holocaust because it ‘began with a cyclone and the loss of imports from Japanese-occupied Burma, not with an order from Churchill to starve Bengalis’ (p414). In truth, it was not weather conditions that caused the famine but the British orders to buy up rice from the countryside to deny it to the advancing Japanese. The British suppressed news of broadcasts by Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the pro-Japanese Indian National Army offering to send rice from Burma to Bengal to relieve the famine – a news blackout that Ferguson continues to honour (3).

There is a difference between Allied bombardment of Dresden and the Nazi extermination of European Jews, but it is not necessarily the one that Ferguson draws: ‘Allied bombing was as indiscriminate as Nazi racial policy was meticulously discriminating.’ (p571) As Ferguson points out, Allied Bomber Command were under instructions ‘that the primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular the industrial workers’ (p560). This was, at its core, war against the working class.

Ferguson is decidedly touchy about the extensive evidence of Hitler’s admiration for the British Empire, dismissing the ‘flophouse autodidact’ for failing ‘to understand that the foundation of British power was not coercion or contempt, but collaboration with indigenous elites’ (p475). To which one feels bound to say that this was only part of the story, and that the British Empire knew coercion and contempt long before the Third Reich.

For the most part, though, Ferguson does not defend the British Empire head on, but around the houses, by blackening every potential alternative in an attempt, it seems, to diminish the British Empire’s crimes. He has a tendency to get carried away with the argument, though. Saying that Trotsky put machine gun posts behind his soldiers, lest they try to bolt or disobey orders, is one thing. (Is it true? We cannot check the source because ‘owing to pressure of space’ the references are not footnoted, but promised on niallferguson.com at a later date.) But to segue from that to describing the policy as ‘Trotskyism’ (p531) is surely to ignore the fact that British officers were armed with revolvers to shoot their men, not the enemy, or that 307 British soldiers were executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy in the First World War. Similarly, it is one thing to point out that Stalin had ‘concentration camps’, but it is well-known that they were pioneered by the British against the Boers (the term was coined by the Spanish in the Spanish-American war in Cuba).

Ferguson’s blind spot to the destructive side of imperialism is a major flaw in a book that tries to account for the twentieth century’s tendency to violence, because that violence reached its climax precisely in the clash of Empires, between the German and Japanese attempts to create Empires in Eastern Europe and the Far East, and the unwillingness of the French and British to suffer rivals and the subsequent rise of American power. The impossibility of reconciling imperialism and civilisation is the reason that Ferguson’s thesis ends up being such a bodge of socio-biology, misanthropy and rear-guard imperialism.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. The War of the World by Niall Ferguson is published by Allen Lane. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

(1) One ought to concede that it is true that natural drives like hunger are never abolished; but Ferguson fails to understand that they reassert themselves not directly in the individual psyche, but mediated through social laws, and therefore in higher forms, such as economic crises, or even national competition. To miss out those mediations is as he says to reduce civilised man to primitive man.

(2) Claude McKay, A Long Way from Home, Pluto Press, 1985

(3) Sugata Bose, ‘Starvation amidst plenty: the making of famine in Bengal, Honan and Tonkin, 1942-45’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol 24, No 4, October 1990

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