Books: Our life and crimes

This was meant to be the century of peace and progress; the reality proved darker. Roy Porter wonders what went wrong
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Dark Continent: Europe's 20th century

by Mark Mazower

Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, pounds 20

Progress and Barbarism: the world in the 20th century

by Clive Ponting

Chatto & Windus, pounds 25

With the approach of the millennium, histories of modern times are bound to come flocking in. Few will be as good as this complementary pair of early birds.

Much that has happened this century could, of course, have been predicted. Indeed, it was. In his last, unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Gustave Flaubert has his pedantic protagonists doing their own bit of crystal- gazing. "Future inventions; means of travel," forecasts Bouvard the optimist: "submarine boat with windows... there will be travel to the stars." Well, almost. Pecuchet is gloomier: "America will have conquered the world. Universal vulgarity."

But much was to happen which was hardly predictable. Few imagined that the great empires amassed by the European powers would collapse so fast. Today the merest specks remain. And who seriously expected that the new century would be without equal in death, destruction and cruelty?

On that score, at least, our great-grandfathers tended to back Bouvard. Building on Gibbon's conviction that "every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue of the human race," the Victorians banged the drum for progress. War would give way to peaceful competition; technological developments would spell plenty; education, literacy and law would secure human rights.

Nor did it all seem just wishful thinking. After all, since Napoleon there had been no protracted period of Continental warfare; parliamentary government seemed to be replacing autocracy; and plagues and famine were becoming things of the past.

How wrong they were! As Mark Mazower and Clive Ponting insist in their accounts, respectively of Europe and the world, the 20th century will be remembered for its unthinkable carnage. Towards 100 million people died in the two world wars, three-quarters civilians. Of course, one might counter, wasn't that just an unfortunate side-effect of technical progress and better fire-power? Likewise, faced with the fact that hundreds of millions were to die of hunger, disease, squalor and poverty, might one not rejoin that all that was an accidental spin-off of the world population revolution (up from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 5.9 billion today).

But what is truly shocking is this century's calculated recourse to atrocity. It has been our epoch which, for the first time, has seen military machines making systematic war on civilian populations - exterminating not just traditional enemies, but their own peoples. This century, Ponting suggests, governments have been responsible for slaughtering up to 90 million of their own subjects.

The list is headed by the Soviet Union (eight million died in Stalin's collectivisation alone) and China (30 million perished in the Great Leap Forward). However, if we are calculating per capita, none can match the late Pol Pot, who eliminated one third of all Cambodians in just three years.

Genocide itself is a 20th-century invention. Turkey set the ball rolling with its onslaught on the Armenians; then came the Holocaust, followed latterly by the Rwanda and Burundi massacres - another 14 million deaths. Ours has been a century unique for its barbarism.

It closes with gloomy prospects. At this time, according to Ponting, the majority of states are either under military rule, personal dictatorship or one-party government. Over 40 countries, mostly in Africa, have military rulers; 22 (such as Turkey, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia) have militarised party systems; just under 30 are one-party states. The majority of the world's people have no say in how they are governed.

How are we to explain all this? Mazower, author of a prize-winning history of Greece under the Nazis, and Ponting (who wrote a highly original Green History of the World) come at the problem from rather different angles. It is ideologies which fascinate Mazower. Democracy, he maintains, long failed to thrive, precisely because, for much of the century, large sectors in most nations did not think it was the solution.

Adopting nationalist guidelines, the Versailles Settlement of 1919 established new states like Czechoslovakia and Poland with parliamentary government. By no standards were such nations a success: they did not resolve ethnic tensions, nor command loyalty. Overwhelmed by depression, inflation and unemployment, their laissez-faire economic dogmas sacrificed citizens to big business. They did not even restrain the resurgence of German threats to order.

Thus, Mazower argues, when democratic regimes were assailed in the interwar years, it was not simply due to the ruthlessness of Hitler and his ilk, but because voters positively welcomed an alternative to geriatric politicians, feuding parliaments and corrupt capitalists. He focuses on two experiments in constructing a "New Order" in the laboratory of Europe: National Socialism and Communism.

Nazism grew in a well-prepared soil. It prized leadership, strength, action and success, overriding scruples about legality and morality. Its appeal was great not least to those for whom Bolshevism was a bogeyman. Yet, as dissected by Mazower, Nazism had one fatal flaw. Its maniacal racism made it virtually unexportable.

Totalitarianism German-style could never forge true alliances with like- minded groups abroad, be they Ukrainian fascists or Polish anti-semites. The Volk-based pan-German Aryanism, rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-Slav, which was the secret of Hitler's success at home, also ensured the precariousness of his expansionism. The triumphant Germans of the early 1940s never amounted to more than an army of occupation. Hitler thus squandered a golden opportunity.

Soviet Communism, Mazower's other New Order, managed, in fair measure, to avoid this predicament. After 1945, the Soviets may have dictated to the Eastern Bloc somewhat like Hitler; but there was a crucial difference. The USSR was not into racism, but was exporting Marxism, which promised to be the key to the rapid industrialisation of backward economies.

To the degree that Soviet communism was credibly bringing economic development to the Eastern Bloc, it was an ideology which could win applause, or at least acquiescence, and hence it proved more durable than Hitlerism. Of course, as we all know from the events of the late 1980s, there was the rub. The party regimes and command economies of the East proved, in the end, incapable of delivering the goods. Economic failure would only be tolerated so long.

Why, then, is democracy in post-Second World War Europe - from 1945 in the West, from around 1990 in the East - seemingly enjoying so much more success than its interwar precursors? Ironically, suggests Mazower, we may be the beneficiaries of the earlier carnage. The terrible exterminations, ethnic cleansings and repatriations which attended the world wars and their aftermath may have brought in some stabler kind of balance across much of Europe between peoples, nations and borders. Where that has not yet been achieved - as in the former Yugoslavia - opportunities for abominations have remained. Meanwhile, social democracy, welfarism, economic planning and the gospel of growth have finally given ordinary people some reason to believe that the parliamentary system is not a mere cloak for the interests of financiers.

Ponting tells a comparable story, only writ large. His is a genuinely global canvas, commendably giving generous space to South-East Asia and Latin America. Perhaps recognising that in Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994) we already have an authoritative chronological account, Ponting has tried a different tack - a thematic one. Successive chapters tackle topics such as empire, economies and environment. His approach is also structural, dividing the world's nations into core, "semi-periphery" and "periphery", depending on their clout.

The drawback here lies in problems of organisation, with inevitable repetition and some backtracking. But this approach does bring out one point with enormous clarity: how little the league-table of nations has changed. The 20th century will be seen as an age in which the rich parts of the world, in general, grew richer - and the poor poorer.