I have just been watching Niall Ferguson bestride the globe. He does it in his documentary The War of the World, aired on PBS over the last three weeks. The documentary is the film version of his recent book of the same name. In the book he does a lot of bestriding, too. He ranges over the history of the 20th century, reordering and re-prioritizing as he sees fit. Ferguson is, to say the least, not very interested in the traditional historical narratives of the epoch. He is prepared to see things differently and to let everyone know that he is something of a maverick. Indeed, the documentary is chock full of lingering shots of Ferguson as he drives through or walks around important sites of the 20th century. Here he is, gazing wistfully up at the buildings as his car moves through the streets of Berlin. Next, see him standing meaningfully amidst the ruins of a village near the Greek/Turkish border as he talks about the forms of ethnic cleansing that went on in the area.
As far as technique goes, it is the very opposite of, for instance, the influential documentary makers Ric and Ken Burns (The Civil War, New York). For the Burns brothers, historical filmmaking is not so much about arguing over possible interpretations as about getting to the immediacy of the stories that are beyond interpretation. The Burns Brothers never show themselves. They keep the craftsman out of the picture. Tellingly, they pioneered the innovative technique of moving the camera slowly across or zooming in and out of still pictures and historical documents. The technique becomes a metaphor for the unbiased but sympathetic eye of “The Historian” writ large. The Burns brothers suggest that they are merely ciphers, mediums through which this ‘Historical Eye” can carry the definitive story of history directly out of the past and into the living present.
Ferguson puts himself front and center. Handsome, Scottish, bold. He wants to shock us with the audacity of his interpretations. This is part and parcel of his historical approach, in which the events being narrated and the characters doing the narration are tangled up in one another. History is a realm of contestation. This is true not only of our interpretations, but of the events themselves. Ferguson doesn’t see history as a narrative line running from less civilization to more civilization. He sees ebb and flow, collapse and rebirth. An enormous stream of contingency in the control of no one force in particular. More importantly, he sees civilization as riding uneasily over a sea of roiling human passions. He is not optimistic about how human beings, left to their own devices, behave. Generally, they behave like animals. They have a tendency to break up into smaller groups along ethnic and racial lines. And then they go about the business of exterminating one another. The 20th century, he wants to say, is not an exception to this rule but its very confirmation. Throw a little instability into the civilizational process and presto!— genocide, mass murder, large-scale ethnic cleansing.
This is what is so startling about The War of the World. It suggests that we’re now ready to look at the 20th century as we would any other. The 20th century becomes just one more chapter in a story that is not particularly edifying, that does not tell us about the progress of our species or the triumph of the fundamentally good forces over the fundamentally evil ones. In the West, we’ve enjoyed telling ourselves a story about how the forces of fascism rose, practically ex nihilo, at the beginning of the 20th century. These forces swept over the globe and were then defeated by the forces of democracy in an epic struggle. That story is a pretty one. It has led to the widespread acceptance of WWII as “The Good War.” The problem is that as soon as one scratches the surface of that story a lot of ugly details begin to emerge. Ferguson likes to quote Norman Mailer who wrote in The Naked and the Dead, “There’s an osmosis in war, call it what you will, but the victors tend to assume . . . the, eh, trappings of the loser.” In the case of WWII, Ferguson claims that the Allied states all took on aspects of the totalitarianism they were trying to fight. They ended up participating in the same senseless killing and brutality as their enemies. The utter destruction of civilian populations by Allied carpet bombing is simply indefensible by the very standards of civilization that the Allies claimed to be fighting for. Further, the outcome was not exactly the victory for Western liberal democracy that some proclaimed. In perhaps his boldest argument, Ferguson claims that the two World Wars and the Cold War that followed (WWIII) were essentially the final breakup of Western global hegemony and set the stage for the coming dominance of the East. For all the historical significance of the crumbling of the Soviet Empire in 1989, Ferguson points to 1979 as being far more important. For it was in 1979 that China liberalized its economy and began to unleash itself as a global powerhouse. If anyone won the great wars of the 20th century, Ferguson argues, it was the powers to be and not the powers that were.
Ferguson’s unconventional arguments strike me as a sign of a greater attitudinal shift happening now in the early part of the 21st century. The assumptions of the century past don’t seem so obvious anymore. We’re more inclined to look backward in dispassion and perhaps a little melancholy. The German critic Walter Benjamin once came up with a startling image he called the Angel of History. Here’s the passage:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.
We are starting to be able to see the 20th century as that catastrophe, that pile of wreckage linking our most recent past to all the other centuries that have piled up man’s folly. Surely it is the only thing we’ve got and there is a strange beauty to the wreckage. But it becomes impossible to look back at the 20th century without a sense of tragedy.
It is only fitting, then, that WWII should become a centerpiece of contention. WWII has always been the success story of the 20th century, the war that everyone can feel good about even while recognizing its terrible costs. Suddenly, though, it is possible to wonder whether such a horrific orgy of destruction could ever be called “good.” Even the once unchallengeable claim that it was “The Necessary War” has recently come under fire. Patrick Buchanan — hardly a marginal figure — has recently come out with a book called Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. Buchanan comes to many of the same conclusions about the Allies’ responsibility for the war as the Left pacifist Nicholson Baker does in his recent book Human Smoke. (I wrote specifically about Nicholson’s book in these pages a short time ago.) Buchanan writes:
“Victory at all costs” proved costly indeed. Yet, horrendous as the cost was, it had to be paid. So we are told. For Hitler, as Henderson wrote, was out to “rule the earth.” But if he was out to rule the earth, and war was the only way to stop him, we must ask: Where did Hitler declare his determination to destroy the British Empire and “rule the earth”? How was a nation of Germany’s modest size and population to conquer the world? Was there no way to contain Hitler but declare a war in which, as Chamberlain told Joe Kennedy, millions must die?
The fact that we have three analysts — Ferguson, Buchanan, and Baker — coming from such different political standpoints and all raising such similar questions about the hitherto almost universal opinions about WWII is telling. Once again, at the beginning of a new century we are looking forward to a new era with as much uncertainty as ever. The concrete truths we stood upon to survey the world just a few years ago suddenly melt beneath our feet. The cost of historical understanding comes at the expense of surety.
In the last episode of The War of the World documentary (covered in the epilogue of the book) Ferguson makes the point that the second half of the 20th century wasn’t much less bloody than the first half. The areas of conflict simply shifted from Europe to the Third World. Ferguson closes with the following thought:
[W]e remain our own worst enemies. We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one—the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so negate our common humanity. They are forces that stir within us still.
It is a strange conclusion for Ferguson to draw when he has spent so much time showing us the overwhelming force of history as against the relatively pathetic human attempts to consciously control it. The more realistic conclusion to be drawn is that historical understanding works only in one direction: backward. Like Benjamin’s angel of history, we only get to view the catastrophe once it has already happened. In that sense, our knowledge is frustratingly impotent. The 20th century found its own special and remarkable ways to be the bloody mess that it was. There is little reason not to assume that the 21st century, too, will add to the carnage of history. A new perspective on the 20th century merely confirms our essential uncertainty. But as an old man once mentioned after visiting the Oracle at Delphi, there is wisdom in knowing how much you don’t know. • 18 July 2008