“Historians always yearn for closure, for a date when their narratives can end. But in writing this book I have begun to doubt whether the war of the world described here can genuinely be regarded as over even now. Rather like Wells’ science-fiction The War of the Worlds, which has been reincarnated as an artifact of popular culture at more or less regular intervals, the War of the World chronicled here stubbornly refuses to die. As long, it seems, as men plot the destruction of their fellow-men—as long as we dread and yet also somehow yearn to see our great metropolises laid waste—this war will recur, defying the frontiers of chronology.”
Niall Ferguson, The War of the World, page lxxi.
The passage above from Niall Ferguson’s 2006 book has always intrigued me as a historian in three basic realms. First is his argument that World War II should be understood as a high point or culmination of a longer, sustained crisis. This is not a new idea—ever the student of history, Winston Churchill much earlier referred to the period of 1914–1945 as a new Thirty Years War—but Ferguson argues that the global crisis is actually a 50-years war from 1904–1953, invoking the rise of Asia from the Russo-Japanese war through the truce on the Korean peninsula. But an expanded historical canvas is always worthy of examination, and often sparks new perspectives and ideas.
His second, more philosophically intriguing notion is that the crisis period in fact has not ended. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, historians, scholars, and many others have asserted that a new era has in fact dawned. From the European Union in the realm of concrete, practical systems, to the so-called “End of History” and the triumph of liberal democratic political and economic systems in the realm of ideas, humanity is now supposed to be walking in the “broad, sunlit uplands” promised by Churchill in 1940. In our modern world filled with headlines that often signify the readjustment or even end of key elements of the post-1945 peace, it is a significant detail that Ferguson has argued that the truly revolutionary year for our modern world was not 1989, but 1979. It was 1979 that saw the revolution of fundamentalist Islam in Iran, China’s Deng Xiaoping usher in economic reforms that founded that nation’s tremendous rise, the Soviet Union set its own ultimate demise in motion with the invasion of Afghanistan, and the recovery of free-market economics in the West ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s government in Britain. But Ferguson’s larger point, and worry, is that the revolutions of 1989 did not change human nature, and our propensity to organized political violence. There is no doubt that Ferguson is correct that the geopolitical fault lines that erupted into violence in the 20th century remain—in Korea, in Asia between Japan and China, in Eastern Europe between Russia and Germany. Therefore, has the conflict truly ended, or merely been deflated, or contained?
Lastly, surely Ferguson is correct that human nature has not radically changed since 1989, much less 1979 or 1945. But just as historians have written of a short 20th century from 1914–1989, they have also written of a long, peaceful 19th century from 1815–1914, lacking world wars. If human nature did not fundamentally change in 1945, much less 1933 or 1917, what does that imply for human nature since 1789? We can reasonably conclude that human nature, with all its flaws, was intact throughout the 19th century. So why, comparatively, was it peaceful? Historians often emphasize technological, industrial, and economic changes that influenced the battlefield, or political changes that strengthened the state’s abilities to wage war, as making the world wars of the 20th century uniquely destructive. But is that true? Not only did human nature remain consistent in the 19th century, but there was ferocious warfare in Europe and the United States in the 1850s and 1860s, and arguably the third worst war in terms of death toll in all history was fought at this time. One source estimates that the Taiping rebellion took up to 20 million lives in China from 1850–1864, and was fought over religious conflicts in a nation that lacked the industrial, technological, economic, and political reasons that historians have attributed for the extreme warfare of the 20th century.
For me, Ferguson’s short passage has some deep, important lessons and implications for how to think of the world we inhabit. First is that history never truly ends; we make history by our choices every day. Second is that human nature remains consistent, and the seeds for war and violence remain within us, with the potential to escalate beyond our control and our wildest imaginations. Lastly, we cannot afford to forget. It is only through learning and memory, through study and knowledge of history, that we build understanding of how bad things can become, and how to choose wise paths to avoid the unthinkable.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.