TECH TALK: Good Books: The War of the World (Part 2) has a review from Booklist: Ferguson’s broadest work to date, this sprawling book folds the author’s previous theories of empire and economics into an international history of twentieth-century violence. What went wrong with modernity, he asks, such that the Fifty Years War from 1904 to 1953 could be the bloodiest in history, and why did so much violence happen at particular times (such as the early 1940s) and particular places (such as eastern Europe)? To the common answers of ethnic conflict and economic volatility, Ferguson adds, perhaps unsurprisingly, the decline of empires. Consistent with Empire and Colossus, the problem was frequently that the empires of the twentieth century were too strong not to fight, but that they were too weak, as illustrated by an analysis of Britain’s reluctance to intervene in Germany before 1939. Coupled with ubiquitous and persistent notions of racial superiority and the ill-fitting contours of nation-states, the borderlands of empires–Manchuria, Poland, the Balkans–became the killing fields of the twentieth century. In chronicling what he labels the “descent of the West,” Ferguson challenges many scholars on many fronts, and deploys a broad spectrum of sources–from war novels to population data to his perennial attention to the bond markets. His ultimate conclusion–that the War of the World was the suicide of the West–is tinged with regret about what might have been, and perhaps even a Gibbon-esque anxiety about the coming Asian century.

The Guardian wrote in a review:

According to Ferguson, the 20th-century bloodbath was down to the dreadful concatenation of ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline. Despite genetic advances that revealed man’s essential biological similarities, the 1900s saw wave upon wave of ethnic strife thanks (pace Richard Dawkins) to a race “meme” entering public discourse. Across the world, the idea of biologically distinct races took hold of the 20th century mindset to deadly effect.

Tensions along increasingly conscious ethnic faultlines (in regions such as the eastern edges of Germany) frequently spilt over into conflict during periods of economic volatility. For extremities of wealth and poverty proved far more incendiary than the steady, immiserating effects of economic depression. When ethnicity and financial turbulence then occurred in the context of retreating or expanding empires – British, German, or Soviet – the capacity for bloodshed proved even greater. And, as a final thought, the 20th century witnessed not the triumph of the west, but its inexorable descent.

The Boston Globe interviewed Ferguson and had this to say in its introduction:

Ferguson maintains that the United States is unquestionably an imperial power, but because Americans don’t like to think so, the US often fails to fulfill its imperial responsibilities. One crucial case in point for Ferguson is Iraq, where, in his view, an imperial power less in denial about itself would have known that such an invasion required forethought, vast resources, and the willingness to stick around for a very long time.

The theme of empire is central to the new book, as well. Ferguson believes the real problem with an empire shows up when it declines, at which time genocidal hatred is liable to break out among the ethnic groups it had governed. That’s what happened, he argues, in the extraordinarily-often interethnically-violent 20th century, and what he worries may be underway in the Middle-East.

Here is a quote by Ferguson: The really troubling thing is that all the things that happened in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s and `40s could happen in the Middle East now. The ingredients are there: You’ve got ethnic and religious hatred, economic volatility, and an empire- the American empire-declining and losing control. Not a great scenario.

The past is often a guide to the future. Fergusons analysis of conflict in the previous century holds a lot of clues for what can happen next.

Tomorrow: In Spite of the Gods

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.