Europe in the Era of Two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, 1900-1950by Volker R. Berghahn
How and why did Europe spawn dictatorships and violence in the first half of the twentieth century, and then, after 1945 in the west and after 1989 in the east, create successful civilian societies? In this book, Volker Berghahn explains the rise and fall of the men of violence whose wars and civil wars twice devastated large areas of the European continent and
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How and why did Europe spawn dictatorships and violence in the first half of the twentieth century, and then, after 1945 in the west and after 1989 in the east, create successful civilian societies? In this book, Volker Berghahn explains the rise and fall of the men of violence whose wars and civil wars twice devastated large areas of the European continent and Russia--until, after World War II, Europe adopted a liberal capitalist model of society that had first emerged in the United States, and the beginnings of which the Europeans had experienced in the mid-1920s.
Berghahn begins by looking at how the violence perpetrated in Europe's colonial empires boomeranged into Europe, contributing to the millions of casualties on the battlefields of World War I. Next he considers the civil wars of the 1920s and the renewed rise of militarism and violence in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929. The second wave of even more massive violence crested in total war from 1939 to 1945 that killed more civilians than soldiers, and this time included the industrialized murder of millions of innocent men, women, and children in the Holocaust. However, as Berghahn concludes, the alternative vision of organizing a modern industrial society on a civilian basis--in which people peacefully consume mass-produced goods rather than being 'consumed' by mass-produced weapons--had never disappeared. With the United States emerging as the hegemonic power of the West, it was this model that finally prevailed in Western Europe after 1945 and after the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe as well.
Nils Arne Sørensen
"[Berghahn] writes essentially and succinctly about what he characterizes as the 'men of violence' and the horrors they wrought upon the world. Focusing on German leaders and military and their conduct in wars and civil strife, Berghahn argues powerfully for German responsibility in WWI as well as WWII."Choice
"In an insightful discussion, [Berghahn] makes direct connections between German brutalities in Africa (against the Hereros, for example) and aggressive, social Darwinist modes of thought that produced the Schlieffen Plan and other indications of the increasing European propensity to resort to violence. . . . Berghahn's spare and gripping account of these events incorporates much recent historical literature."Hunt Toohey, Independent Review
"An outstanding . . . thoughtful, highly stimulating . . . [and] convincing essay about the long epoch of violence during the past century."Hartmut Kaelble, H-Soz-u-Kult
"Berghahn's book is well worth reading. It will also function well in university courses on modern Europe as a short, well-argued and provocative supplement to traditional textbooks. Being very clearly plotted as the narrative of a struggle between good and evil, it might even serve to illustrate a few of Hayden White's points about the use of literary conventions by historians."Nils Arne Sørensen, European History Quarterly
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Europe in the Era of Two World WarsFrom Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, 1900-1950
By Volker R. Berghahn
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEUROPE BEFORE WORLD WAR I, 1895-1914
INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY AND CIVIL SOCIETY
Considering its political, economic, and sociocultural consequences, it is no surprise that World War I has been called the "primordial catastrophe" (Urkatastrophe) of the twentieth century. In the light of what happened during the war and in the two decades after its end in 1918, the escalation of physical violence presents historians with great problems, and to this day they are struggling to find plausible explanations. Europe had not seen mass death on such a scale since the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century. Millions of people perished, not to mention the destruction of material assets in a wave of violence that finally came to a cataclysmic end in 1945, ushering in a more peaceful period, at least for western Europe and the United States, though not for other parts of the world.
As far as Europe is concerned, its eastern half was separated off by the Iron Curtain, which became the front line between two extra-European superpowers commanding a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. Despite this cold war between the West (First World) and the Soviet bloc (Second World)that at times seemed to be turning into a hot war, western Europe experienced an epoch relatively free of violence and devoted to material reconstruction and the creation of a new prosperity and political democracy. John Gaddis has called this era the "long peace." It was to a degree; the killing of innocent civilians that had increasingly become the hallmark of the years 1914-45 continued in the Third World, while countless opponents of Stalinist rule died in the gulags and prisons of the Second World.
In light of the rupture that the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 caused in the development of Europe, some historians have been tempted to introduce counterfactual speculations. They have asked how the historical process might have evolved if war had not broken out at that point. Such speculations have been particularly fashionable with respect to Russia and Germany. As to Russia, it has been asserted that the political and economic reforms introduced by the tsarist regime with the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s and later proceeded before and after the revolutionary upheavals of 1905 would have successfully continued. There would have been no 1917 Bolshevik revolution and consequently no Lenin and no Stalin. In short, Russia's development and hence that of world history would have taken a different and, in any case, less violent path through the period covered in this book.
Similar arguments have been advanced with regard to Germany: without World War I, no defeat in 1918, no Hitler, and no Holocaust. In a variation of Manfred Rauh's hypothesis that Germany found herself on the road to parliamentarism, Margaret Anderson concluded that without the catastrophe of World War I the peaceful democratization of the imperial monarchy would have unfolded successfully. A nonviolent "leap" into a parliamentary constitutionalism would have occurred, as in 1918: "Perhaps the death of the Kaiser at eighty-three would have sped a regime change-in 1941-analogous to Spain's after the death of Franco at the same age in 1975." She is circumspect enough to add that "we cannot know."
While counterfactuals once again appear to have become quite popular, more recently promoted with respect to World War I by Niall Ferguson, it is probably more fruitful to start with other trends that were disrupted by World War I. Thus it may be said with much greater certainty that the dynamic expansion of industry and of the world trading system would have continued without the catastrophe of 1914. This industrial economy, it is true, being exposed to the vagaries of a capitalistically organized market for goods and services, underwent repeated upswings and recessions. Still, economic historians generally agree that even the years of the so-called Great Depression of 1873-95 in effect amounted to a period of retarded growth. Overall trade and industry increased even during those years of a widely perceived downturn. Continued growth was particularly marked in the branches of the so-called Second Industrial Revolution, that is, chemicals, electrical engineering, and machine manufacturing. Most important, from 1895, the world economy entered a boom period that, with a few short recessions, lasted until just before World War I.
Here are a few statistics relating to Europe's basic industries on which the prosperity of the new branches could be built. These figures also reflect the changing economic balances between the nations that were also affected by the dynamics of industrial expansion. In Britain, then the leading industrial country, annual iron production reached 6.5 million tons in the early 1870s, four times that of Germany (1.6 million tons) and more than five times that of France (1.2 million tons), with Russia trailing far behind at a level of 375,000 tons. By 1913 annual production of the German empire had not only increased almost tenfold (14.8 million tons), but it had also overtaken that of Britain (9.8 million tons). France's production had grown fourfold, but with 4.7 million tons the country was not that far ahead of Russia (3.9 million tons). As to coal mining, Britain was able to double its production between 1880 and 1913 and thus retain its lead over Germany (191 million tons, plus 87.5 million tons of lignite). In annual steel production, however, there was a marked change. In 1890, Britain was still well ahead of Germany (3.6 millions tons versus 2.2 million). In 1913, however, the Germans outproduced the British by a factor of three (18.6 million versus 6.9 million).
The expansion of industry-especially after 1895-left agriculture well behind. Thanks to rapid population growth, demand for agricultural produce rose in most regions of Europe, but farming was no longer as profitable as it had been in the 1850s and 1860s. In the years before 1914, the largest gains could be made in the industrial and commercial sectors. Agriculture fell behind. This development is reflected in the migratory patterns from the rural parts to the urban centers and the momentous growth of the industrial cities. They attracted millions of workers who were hoping to find a better life than their current one as land laborers on the large estates in East Prussia, Italy, and Ireland, or as smallholders on farmsteads that could barely support a family. Millions more Europeans emigrated to North America and other parts of the world.
Finally, the rapid expansion of domestic and foreign trade has to be considered. The volume of European exports doubled between 1870 and 1900 and-except for two brief recessions in 1900-1901 and 1907-1908-followed an upward trend. By 1913, two-thirds of trade took place among the nations of Europe. Some 13 percent of all goods went to North America. Import and export figures doubled and trebled. Africa and Asia participated in this internationalization of the world economy to the tune of 15 percent.
However, as will be seen when we look more closely at the age of imperialism and colonialism, the terms of trade with the European powers were extremely unfavorable and largely imposed by the metropolitan countries, often accompanied by ruthless methods of political domination. However much Europe as a whole benefited from the dynamic expansion of its industries and its global trading relations, the gains were very unevenly distributed among the domestic populations. It was above all the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie that was able to accumulate wealth. Their lifestyles and urban residences began to compete with those of the nobility, especially at the many smaller courts of Central Europe. There is the description of the British prime minister William Gladstone, who was quite used to the splendor of British upper-class social life in London. Having attended a party at the residence of the Berlin private banker Gerson Bleichroeder, he gave the following description of what he had seen: "The banqueting hall, very vast and very lofty, and indeed the whole mansion is built of every species of rare marble, and where it is not marble it is gold. There was a gallery for the musicians who played Wagner, and Wagner only, which I was very glad of, as I have rarely had the opportunity of hearing that master. After dinner, we were promenaded through the splendid saloons-and picture galleries, and the ballroom fit for a fairy-tale, and sitting alone on the sofa was a very mean-looking little woman, covered with pearls and diamonds, who was Madame Bleichroeder and whom he had married very early in life when he was penniless. She was unlike her husband, and by no means equal to her wondrous fortune."
In comparison to the wealth of the upper-middle classes, the circumstances of the working class were, to be sure, much more modest. Still, in most European countries living standards were also rising among these strata. Many families could not only afford better nutrition and hygiene but were increasingly able to enjoy pleasures of the "little man," such as tobacco and beer. Wages gradually rose and work hours in industry and commerce were slowly reduced from twelve to eleven or ten. This meant that many men and women, who had escaped the much more restrictive routines of labor in agriculture, gained more leisure time. There was more time to socialize with family and friends that was also reflected in the expansion of associational life. Ultimately, there was hardly a hobby in pre-1914 Europe that people could not pursue within an association or club in conjunction with like-minded people. In this sense, the currently much debated idea of a civil society may be said to have been fully developed well before World War I.
Sports became increasingly popular, but just as other clubs and associations tended to be segregated by social class, sports were also stratified. Soccer drew most of its supporters, active and passive, from the working class. The bourgeoisie, by contrast, preferred tennis, field hockey, and golf. But even among such traditionally aristocratic sports as horse racing popularization set in. And where equestrian sports were too expensive and exclusive, the British lower classes, for example, could go the local greyhound races hoping that by betting a few pennies on their favorite dog they might win some money. The idea of competition among clubs and teams created solidarities. Even if people were not actively engaged in a particular sport, they were keen to support their local team.
The prosperity of the pre-1914 years stimulated other leisure activities: shopping and window shopping. While in the provinces shopping continued to be primarily the purchase of daily provisions and other goods in small specialized corner shops-at the same time an important means of local communication among neighbors-cities also had large department stores. These "palaces of consumption" used attractive displays and invited anonymous buying of often mass-produced clothes off the peg and household goods; or, during sales, they encouraged wandering in the aisles in search of a bargain. What was offered here at affordable prices was linked to another phenomenon that spread in the prewar years: rationalized factory production and the increasingly cunning marketing of cheap goods, particularly in the department stores.
Many-though by no means all-of the innovations in the fields of mass production and selling had been developed in the United States, which had undergone a process of rapid industrialization in the final decades of the nineteenth century and by 1900 was among the most powerful industrial nations. Between 1860 and 1900, its railroad network had grown from 35,000 to 250,000 miles, which not only stimulated the iron and steel industries but also opened up a large domestic market with a rapidly growing population. This in turn encouraged rationalization of production. Above all, it was Frederick Taylor and the Scientific Management movement that, by introducing time-and-motion studies and other ideas, propagandized improvements in factory organization and added financial incentives for workers and white-collar management to increase productivity. Engineers designed ever more fast-producing machines, while others labored to make the sales and accounting departments more efficient. Henry Ford, one of the pioneers of the automobile, developed not only the assembly line but also the idea of using a large part of the productivity gains of rationalized mass production to pay bonuses to his diligent workers and to reduce prices. Rather than pocketing all the profits himself, he passed rationalization gains on to the consumer.
His calculation was that even if average families did not have markedly more money in their pockets, their living standard would rise by virtue of the lower prices they would have to pay for goods, including those, such as consumer durables, that were hitherto out of reach. In this fashion, mass-produced items with reduced prices would be affordable to strata of society that had been spending their income on daily necessities. They might be able to buy a glass of beer, or a cigar, or visit to the local dance hall or cinema. Henry Ford was more ambitious, hoping to turn them all into owners of his popular car models that came off the assembly lines of his factories in Michigan. It was Ford's solution to the theory of domestic underconsumption that John A. Hobson had put forward at the turn of the century in his critique of costly British imperialism that, in his view, enriched the few and held back the prosperity of the many.
However, in this pre-1914 period there were also many obstacles to the realization of Ford's dream of creating a civilian mass-production and mass-consumption society that had little to do with imperialism. Looking at Europe, three must be mentioned here.
1. The trend toward a mass-based prosperity had a "civilizing" effect, as defined in our introduction, in regions of Europe that participated in the process of industrial and commercial expansion. Where this trend was powerful enough, earlier forms of violence and the relentless exertion of superior state power receded. Civilian mentalities and practices spread both in daily social intercourse and in political culture. This is not to downplay down the presence of violence in the urban and industrial societies of pre-1914 Europe, although it was in most cases no longer applied to arbitrarily kill and maim. Still, many families, whether middle class or working class, continued to be subjected to the superior muscle power of the husband and father. Where the majority of people in the urban centers were forced to live in one- or two-room apartments in huge blocks, the "rental garrisons," tensions would often explode into physical attacks on the weaker family members. For pupils in schools and apprentices in the workshops, corporal punishment was common, never mind the bullying by fellow students in the schoolyard. Those arrested by the police on criminal or political charges could not expect to be treated with kid gloves, and in the judiciary the dominant principle was retribution, not rehabilitation. Striking workers had to flee from the blows of the police truncheon.
With the introduction of universal service millions of young men were recruited into a highly coercive institution devoted to the administration of violence in foreign and civil war. Army drill was harsh everywhere. Before 1914, all European nations were busily preparing for a foreign war that, in an increasingly tense political atmosphere, many thought might break out at any time. Production was not just for peaceful consumption but also for war and the extreme forms of violence that are the subject of subsequent chapters. And yet, notwithstanding arms races and mass armies, well-equipped with modern weapons, ordinary men and women went about their peaceful and nonviolent pursuits as before. In this sense, prewar Europe labored under a strange contradiction. In essence, a majority of citizens led civilian lives and consumed the nonmilitary goods that rising incomes afforded them. But this idea and its practice were permanently threatened by the production and stockpiling of armaments that, if used in a major war, would consume millions of soldiers and civilians.
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Mary Nolan, New York University, author of "Visions of Modernity: American Business and the Modernization of Germany"
Eric Weitz, University of Minnesota, author of "A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation"
Meet the Author
Volker R. Berghahn is Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books on modern German and European history and on European-American relations in the twentieth century including, most recently, "America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe" (Princeton).
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