Magazine article History Today

`The Barbarians Have Not Come'

Magazine article History Today

`The Barbarians Have Not Come'

Article excerpt


As we approach the true end of the century, Peter Waldron argues that those who describe Europe's experience of the last hundred years as bleak and dark are missing part of the story.

THE DYING YEARS of the twentieth century have not been kind to its memory. Historians and commentators almost universally judged the period an unmitigated disaster for Europe and the wider world. `The most terrible century in Western history' in the words of the polyglot philosopher Isaiah Berlin; `the most violent century in human history' -- the novelist William Golding; `a century of massacres and wars' -- the French scientist Rene Dumont, while historian Mark Mazower titled his recent book on the twentieth century, Dark Continent. I want to argue, however, that this gloomy view of the last hundred years is misleading and fails to take into account the huge advances that have benefited the lives of ordinary people in this time.

It is, though, undeniable that Europe in the twentieth century witnessed many horrors. War engulfed the entire continent twice, between 1914 and 1918 and in the six years after 1939. There were localised conflicts, especially in the Balkans in 1912-13 and again in the 1990s. Civil war tore into individual countries: most memorably in Spain in the 1930s, but also in Ireland in 1922-23, in Finland and Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution and in Greece between 1947 and 1949.

The wars of the twentieth century were of a ferocity that set them apart from previous conflicts. The last general war in Europe before 1914 had been the Napoleonic campaigns at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, but since then rapid industrialisation had brought with it the development of lethal new weapons that could kill and maim with great effectiveness. The rapid repeating rifle, machine gun and heavy artillery were all to make the First World War wholly different in nature from any preceding conflict.

The number killed and wounded as a result of war between 1900 and 2000 far exceeded that in any other century. More than 8 million died during the First World War. This toll, though, pales into insignificance beside the price exacted by the Second World War. Perhaps as many as 40 million Europeans died in the six years 1939 to 1945. In contrast to previous conflicts, more than half of those killed were civilians. The two world wars were `total wars', reaching deeply into civilian society. The wider population came under direct military attack. Total war required the mobilisation of the civilian population to produce the munitions and equipment needed for such intense fighting. Civilians worked longer and harder than before, and food was rationed. War ceased to be a male preserve: women were drawn in through the need for labour in both factory and field to replace men conscripted to fight.

The consequences of war were dramatic, especially in compelling people to migrate from their homeland. Fighting between Greeks and Turks led to more than 1.5 million becoming refugees after 1922, as Greek Muslims were deported to Turkey and Orthodox Christian Turks were shipped to Greece, even though in both cases the refugees had little in common with their new homes. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 produced a wave of emigration as more than 1 million stalwarts of the old regime left Russia for foreign shores. In Eastern Europe the creation of new states after the First World War produced a backlash, especially against Germans, who found themselves unwelcome in areas where they had formerly held sway. Nearly 500,000 Spaniards fled north into France when Franco triumphed at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. And after the Second World War more than 11 million Europeans were formally classified as Displaced Persons. But this huge number was less than one quarter of the total 46 million who found themselves uprooted from their homes in the decade between 1939 and 1948. …

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