Fire and Blood:
The European Civil War, 1914 - 1945
David Fernbach, Translator
Enzo Traverso tells us that what happened twice in Europe between 1914 - 1945 need not be called "world war" but, instead, should be seen as a series of civil wars. Why would that be so, and why important? Because civil wars are traditionally bloody, what he calls a "crazy festival" where "the warrior feels extraordinary freedom in living out his feelings and passions."
In civil war, violence is
never purely instrumental. It takes on a strong symbolic dimension, feeds on itself and acquires its own dynamic, eventually becoming an end in itself . . . [where] extreme violence converts into cruelty.
Example: in 1936, "Spanish soldiers killed nearly a thousand Republicans in the region of Valladolid. They organized public executions in the city center, which fascist dignitaries attended while eating churros and drinking anisette."
Or, if we are looking for something closer to home, the Civil War Trust reports that
The Civil War was America's bloodiest conflict. The unprecedented violence of battles such as Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, and Gettysburg shocked citizens and international observers alike. Nearly as many men died in captivity during the Civil War as were killed in the whole of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands died of disease. Roughly 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the line of duty. Taken as a percentage of today's population, the toll would have risen as high as 6 million souls."
By contrast, 25,000 died in the American Revolution, less than 60,000 Americans in Vietnam.
As one reviewer of Fire and Blood wrote, the violence of the years 1914 - 1945 culminated "in genocide, [which] stemmed from the industrialisation of mass murder, flowing from ideologies of racial supremacy and colonialism." In the Guardian, Adam Tooze wrote of the book, "the polarised division into left and right went to the heart of personal identities. Europe, in this new age of civil war, Traverso suggests, was experiencing something akin to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. The cause on both sides was not merely that of national interest, but sacred and redemptive ideology. The enemy was demonised."Traverso tells us that the earliest dictators - - - Greek and Roman - - - were those who were appointed only at times of crisis to resolve extraordinary events; but they always ruled "within the scope and routine of the republic," were only given power for limited times.
This changed with Oliver Cromwell, the Terror of the French Revolution and the appearance of new "charismatic authorities" who could dissolve the rules that had operated before." It was a
charismatic power by its very nature: fragile and transitory, like the disturbed and chaotic times that engendered it, condemned to 'routinization' that finally erodes it.
He cites the power that appealed to Mussolini, who, "if he finds himself in the midst of a crowd, the crowd begins to surge and boil around him; the people surround him, forming a pyramid and placing him spontaneously at the summit."
But it was inevitable that "the end of this charismatic power should involve the destruction of its embodiment: trampled, humiliated, and hanged by the feet, like the body of Mussolini in April 1945."
§ § §
Clauswitz wrote that "war is but a duel on a large scale" and Traverso explains how duels were played out in the 19th century. There were swords that could but draw a small amount of blood, pistols that were explicitly designed to fire bullets that would not kill, just wound slightly. Duels were not intended to produce bodies or mortal wounds, and were only protecting a victory of a system of thought, e.g., the standards of honor of the participants.
In the same way, in 1914, the World War began as a duel of honor between states. All of those who participated in WWI were convinced that it would be a short-term fight to readjust the existing state lines of power, to carefully adjudicate the proper honor of the participants, to recreate the order from before.
However, it was almost immediately changed into civil war when, after their invasion of Belgium, the Germans created a new right and wrong. War then was no longer a duel but a series of cruel rampages that permitted the victor to assert his sole right to violence. Furthermore, it was quickly apparent that it was the sovereign state that held proxy to that particular monopoly.
In a not-so-subtle reference to Hiroshima and present-day drones, Traverso stretches back to the eighteenth century to quote Diderot's "Letter to the Blind:"
If there were no fear of punishment, many men would refer to kill another person a long way off than to use their own hands to kill a cow.
"In the [new] European civil war, however, cold violence and 'distance' were combined with the heat and passion of a crusade against the known enemy, aiming to kill him and to exhibit his corpse as trophy."
What was different in the twentieth century, according to Tooze, was "The challenge, amid the violence . . . to build a new order."
In a civil war the promise of a new dispensation could be a powerful weapon. Already in the American civil war, Abraham Lincoln's armies linked slave emancipation to a radical new military code. Tito's and Mao's partisans won over the Balkan peasantry with promises of land reform. What was distinctive about their war-making was not their sheer ruthlessness, but the way they combined military mobilisation with the reordering of society.
This reader's fascination with Traverso's excellent study flows from, in part, the author's ability to import facts from Greek and Roman antiquity, bringing along with them Cromwell and the Constituent Assembly of the French Revolution, plus the American Civil War to make his salient points. He labels the period from 1914 to 1945 as one which gave birth to unprecedented and astonishing violence, with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the partisan uprisings in eastern Europe and in Spain 1936 - 1939, the shoá, total war in the east and the wars of the partisans - - - all demonstrating the brutal element of civil conflict where brother ruthlessly battles brother.
And if you include the Polish Armia Krajowa and the Yugoslav Titoists, the French Francs-Tireurs Partisans and the Italian Garibaldi Brigades, one can make a strong case for this singular concept: that these various wars were able to show such ferocity because they were wars fought amongst those who knew each other all too well.
All were imbued with the belief in the cleansing power of Fire and Blood.