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Eric Hobsbawm, "Twentieth Century Most Murderous in History"

"Twentieth Century Most Murderous in History"

Eric Hobsbawm, Guardian [UK], Saturday February 23, 2002

The 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history.
The total number of deaths caused by or associated with its
wars has been estimated at 187m, the equivalent of more than
10% of the world's population in 1913. Taken as having begun
in 1914, it was a century of almost unbroken war, with few
and brief periods without organised armed conflict
somewhere. It was dominated by world wars: that is to say,
by wars between territorial states or alliances of states.

The period from 1914 to 1945 can be regarded as a single "30
years' war" interrupted only by a pause in the 1920s --
between the final withdrawal of the Japanese from the Soviet
Far East in 1922 and the attack on Manchuria in 1931. This
was followed, almost immediately, by some 40 years of cold
war, which conformed to Hobbes's definition of war as
consisting "not in battle only or the act of fighting, but
in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is
sufficiently known". It is a matter for debate how far the
actions in which US armed forces have been involved since
the end of the cold war in various parts of the globe
constitute a continuation of the era of world war. There can
be no doubt, however, that the 1990s were filled with formal
and informal military conflict in Europe, Africa and western
and central Asia. The world as a whole has not been at peace
since 1914, and is not at peace now.

Nevertheless, the century cannot be treated as a single
block, either chronologically or geographically.
Chronologically, it falls into three periods: the era of
world war centred on Germany (1914 to 1945), the era of
confrontation between the two superpowers (1945 to 1989),
and the era since the end of the classic international power
system. I shall call these periods I, II and III.
Geographically, the impact of military operations has been
highly unequal. With one exception (the Chaco war of
1932-35), there were no significant inter-state wars (as
distinct from civil wars) in the western hemisphere (the
Americas) in the 20th century. Enemy military operations
have barely touched these territories: hence the shock of
the bombing of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on
September 11.

Since 1945 inter-state wars have also disappeared from
Europe, which had until then been the main battlefield
region. Although in period III, war returned to south-east
Europe, it seems very unlikely to recur in the rest of the
continent. On the other hand, during period II inter-state
wars, not necessarily unconnected with the global
confrontation, remained endemic in the Middle East and south
Asia, and major wars directly springing from the global
confrontation took place in east and south-east Asia (Korea,
Indochina). At the same time, areas such as sub-Saharan
Africa, which had been comparatively unaffected by war in
period I (apart from Ethiopia, belatedly subject to colonial
conquest by Italy in 1935-36), came to be theatres of armed
conflict during period II, and witnessed major scenes of
carnage and suffering in period III.

Two other characteristics of war in the 20th century stand
out, the first less obviously than the second. At the start
of the 21st century we find ourselves in a world where armed
operations are no longer essentially in the hands of
governments or their authorised agents, and where the
contending parties have no common characteristics, status or
objectives, except the willingness to use violence.

Inter-state wars dominated the image of war so much in
periods I and II that civil wars or other armed conflicts
within the territories of existing states or empires were
somewhat obscured. Even the civil wars in the territories of
the Russian empire after the October revolution, and those
which took place after the collapse of the Chinese empire,
could be fitted into the framework of international
conflicts, insofar as they were inseparable from them. On
the other hand, Latin America may not have seen armies
crossing state frontiers in the 20th century, but it has
been the scene of major civil conflicts: in Mexico after
1911, for instance, in Colombia since 1948, and in various
central American countries during period II. It is not
generally recognised that the number of international wars
has declined fairly continuously since the mid-1960s, when
internal conflicts became more common than those fought
between states. The number of conflicts within state
frontiers continued to rise steeply until it levelled off in
the 1990s.

More familiar is the erosion of the distinction between
combatants and non-combatants. The two world wars of the
first half of the century involved the entire populations of
belligerent countries; both combatants and non-combatants
suffered. In the course of the century, however, the burden
of war shifted increasingly from armed forces to civilians,
who were not only its victims, but increasingly the object
of military or military-political operations. The contrast
between the first world war and the second is dramatic: only
5% of those who died in the first were civilians; in the
second, the figure increased to 66%. It is generally
supposed that 80 to 90% of those affected by war today are
civilians. The proportion has increased since the end of the
cold war because most military operations since then have
been conducted not by conscript armies, but by small bodies
of regular or irregular troops, in many cases operating
high-technology weapons and protected against the risk of
incurring casualties. There is no reason to doubt that the
main victims of war will continue to be civilians.

It would be easier to write about war and peace in the 20th
century if the difference between the two remained as
clear-cut as it was supposed to be at the beginning of the
century, in the days when the Hague conventions of 1899 and
1907 codified the rules of war. Conflicts were supposed to
take place primarily between sovereign states or, if they
occurred within the territory of one particular state,
between parties sufficiently organised to be accorded
belligerent status by other sovereign states. War was
supposed to be sharply distinguished from peace, by a
declaration of war at one end and a treaty of peace at the
other. Military operations were supposed to distinguish
clearly between combatants - marked as such by the uniforms
they wore, or by other signs of belonging to an organised
armed force - and non-combatant civilians. War was supposed
to be between combatants. Non-combatants should, as far as
possible, be protected in wartime.

It was always understood that these conventions did not
cover all civil and international armed conflicts, and
notably not those arising out of the imperial expansion of
western states in regions not under the jurisdiction of
internationally recognised sovereign states, even though
some (but by no means all) of these conflicts were known as
"wars". Nor did they cover large rebellions against
established states, such as the so-called Indian mutiny; nor
the recurrent armed activity in regions beyond the effective
control of the states or imperial authorities nominally
ruling them, such as the raiding and blood-feuding in the
mountains of Afghanistan or Morocco. Nevertheless, the Hague
conventions still served as guidelines in the first world
war. In the course of the 20th century, this relative
clarity was replaced by confusion.

First, the line between inter-state conflicts and conflicts
within states - that is, between international and civil
wars - became hazy, because the 20th century was
characteristically a century not only of wars, but also of
revolutions and the break-up of empires. Revolutions or
liberation struggles within a state had implications for the
international situation, particularly during the cold war.
Conversely, after the Russian revolution, intervention by
states in the internal affairs of other states of which they
disapproved became common, at least where it seemed
comparatively risk-free. This remains the case.

Second, the clear distinction between war and peace became
obscure. Except here and there, the second world war neither
began with declarations of war nor ended with treaties of
peace. It was followed by a period so hard to classify as
either war or peace in the old sense that the neologism
"cold war" had to be invented to describe it. The sheer
obscurity of the position since the cold war is illustrated
by the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Neither
"peace" nor "war" exactly describes the situation in Iraq
since the formal end of the Gulf war - the country is still
bombed almost daily by foreign powers - or the relations
between Palestinians and Israelis, or those between Israel
and its neighbours, Lebanon and Syria. All this is an
unfortunate legacy of the 20th-century world wars, but also
of war's increasingly powerful machinery of mass propaganda,
and of a period of confrontation between incompatible and
passion-laden ideologies which brought into wars a crusading
element comparable to that seen in religious conflicts of
the past.

These conflicts, unlike the traditional wars of the
international power system, were increasingly waged for
non-negotiable ends such as "unconditional surrender". Since
both wars and victories were seen as total, any limitation
on a belligerent's capacity to win that might be imposed by
the accepted conventions of 18th- and 19th- century warfare
-- even formal declarations of war -- was rejected. So was any
limitation on the victors' power to assert their will.
Experience had shown that agreements reached in peace
treaties could easily be broken.

In recent years the situation has been further complicated
by the tendency in public rhetoric for the term "war" to be
used to refer to the deployment of organised force against
various national or international activities regarded as
anti-social -- "the war against the Mafia", for example, or
"the war against drug cartels". In these conflicts the
actions of two types of armed force are confused. One --
let's call them "soldiers" -- is directed against other armed
forces with the object of defeating them. The other -- let's
call them "police" -- sets out to maintain or re-establish
the required degree of law and public order within an
existing political entity, typically a state. Victory, which
has no necessary moral connotation, is the object of one
force; the bringing to justice of offenders against the law,
which does have a moral connotation, is the object of the
other. Such a distinction is easier to draw in theory than
in practice, however. Homicide by a soldier in battle is
not, in itself, a breach of the law. But what if a member of
the IRA regards himself as a belligerent, even though
official UK law regards him as a murderer?

Were the operations in Northern Ireland a war, as the IRA
held, or an attempt in the face of law-breakers to maintain
orderly government in one province of the UK? Since not only
a formidable local police force but a national army was
mobilised against the IRA for 30 years or so, we may
conclude that it was a war, but one systematically run like
a police operation, in a way that minimised casualties and
the disruption of life in the province. Such are the
complexities and confusions of the relations between peace
and war at the start of the new century. They are well
illustrated by the military and other operations in which
the US and its allies are at present engaged.

There is now, as there was throughout the 20th century, a
complete absence of any effective global authority capable
of controlling or settling armed disputes. Globalisation has
advanced in almost every respect -- economically,
technologically, culturally, even linguistically -- except
one: politically and militarily, territorial states remain
the only effective authorities. There are officially about
200 states, but in practice only a handful count, of which
the US is overwhelmingly the most powerful. However, no
state or empire has ever been large, rich or powerful enough
to maintain hegemony over the political world, let alone to
establish political and military supremacy over the globe. A
single superpower cannot compensate for the absence of
global authorities, especially given the lack of conventions
- relating to international disarmament, for instance, or
weapons control - strong enough to be voluntarily accepted
as binding by major states. Some such authorities exist,
notably the UN, various technical and financial bodies such
as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, and some
international tribunals. But none has any effective power
other than that granted to them by agreements between
states, or thanks to the backing of powerful states, or
voluntarily accepted by states. Regrettable as this may be,
it isn't likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Since only states wield real power, the risk is that
international institutions will be ineffective or lack
universal legitimacy when they try to deal with offences
such as "war crimes". Even when world courts are established
by general agreement (for example, the International
Criminal court set up by the UN Rome statute of July 17
1998), their judgments will not necessarily be accepted as
legitimate and binding, so long as powerful states are in a
position to disregard them. A consortium of powerful states
may be strong enough to ensure that some offenders from
weaker states are brought before these tribunals, perhaps
curbing the cruelty of armed conflict in certain areas. This
is an example, however, of the traditional exercise of power
and influence within an international state system, not of
the exercise of international law.

There is, however, a major difference between the 21st and
the 20th century: the idea that war takes place in a world
divided into territorial areas under the authority of
effective governments which possess a monopoly of the means
of public power and coercion has ceased to apply. It was
never applicable to countries experiencing revolution, or to
the fragments of disintegrated empires, but until recently
most new revolutionary or post-colonial regimes - China
between 1911 and 1949 is the main exception - emerged fairly
quickly as more or less organised and functioning successor
regimes and states. Over the past 30 years or so, however,
the territorial state has, for various reasons, lost its
traditional monopoly of armed force, much of its former
stability and power, and, increasingly, the fundamental
sense of legitimacy, or at least of accepted permanence,
which allows governments to impose burdens such as taxes and
conscription on willing citizens. The material equipment for
warfare is now widely available to private bodies, as are
the means of financing non-state warfare. In this way, the
balance between state and non-state organisations has

Armed conflicts within states have become more serious and
can continue for decades without any serious prospect of
victory or settlement: Kashmir, Angola, Sri Lanka, Chechnya,
Colombia. In extreme cases, as in parts of Africa, the state
may have virtually ceased to exist; or may, as in Colombia,
no longer exercise power over part of its territory. Even in
strong and stable states, it has been difficult to eliminate
small, unofficial armed groups, such as the IRA in Britain
and Eta in Spain. The novelty of this situation is indicated
by the fact that the most powerful state on the planet,
having suffered a terrorist attack, feels obliged to launch
a formal operation against a small, international,
non-governmental organisation or network lacking both a
territory and a recognisable army.

How do these changes affect the balance of war and peace in
the coming century? I would rather not make predictions
about the wars that are likely to take place or their
possible outcomes. However, both the structure of armed
conflict and the methods of settlement have been changed
profoundly by the transformation of the world system of
sovereign states.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union means that the Great
Power system which governed international relations for
almost two centuries and, with obvious exceptions, exercised
some control over conflicts between states, no longer
exists. Its disappearance has removed a major restraint on
inter-state warfare and the armed intervention of states in
the affairs of other states - foreign territorial borders
were largely uncrossed by armed forces during the cold war.
The international system was potentially unstable even then,
however, as a result of the multiplication of small,
sometimes quite weak states, which were nevertheless
officially "sovereign" members of the UN.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the European
communist regimes plainly increased this instability.
Separatist tendencies of varying strength in hitherto stable
nation-states such as Britain, Spain, Belgium and Italy
might well increase it further. At the same time, the number
of private actors on the world scene has multiplied. What
mechanisms are there for controlling and settling such
conflicts? The record is not promising. None of the armed
conflicts of the 1990s ended with a stable settlement. The
survival of cold war institutions, assumptions and rhetoric
has kept old suspicions alive, exacerbating the
post-communist disintegration of south-east Europe and
making the settlement of the region once known as Yugoslavia
more difficult.

These cold war assumptions, both ideological and
power-political, will have to be dispensed with if we are to
develop some means of controlling armed conflict. It is also
evident that the US has failed, and will inevitably fail, to
impose a new world order (of any kind) by unilateral force,
however much power relations are skewed in its favour at
present, and even if it is backed by an (inevitably
shortlived) alliance. The international system will remain
multilateral and its regulation will depend on the ability
of several major units to agree with one another, even
though one of these states enjoys military predominance.

How far international military action taken by the US is
dependent on the negotiated agreement of other states is
already clear. It is also clear that the political
settlement of wars, even those in which the US is involved,
will be by negotiation and not by unilateral imposition. The
era of wars ending in unconditional surrender will not
return in the foreseeable future.

The role of existing international bodies, notably the UN,
must also be rethought. Always present, and usually called
upon, it has no defined role in the settlement of disputes.
Its strategy and operation are always at the mercy of
shifting power politics. The absence of an international
intermediary genuinely considered neutral, and capable of
taking action without prior authorisation by the Security
Council, has been the most obvious gap in the system of
dispute management.

Since the end of the cold war the management of peace and
war has been improvised. At best, as in the Balkans, armed
conflicts have been stopped by outside armed intervention,
and the status quo at the end of hostilities maintained by
the armies of third parties. Whether a general model for the
future control of armed conflict can emerge from such
interventions remains unclear.

The balance of war and peace in the 21st century will depend
not on devising more effective mechanisms for negotiation
and settlement but on internal stability and the avoidance
of military conflict. With a few exceptions, the rivalries
and frictions between existing states that led to armed
conflict in the past are less likely to do so today. There
are, for instance, comparatively few burning disputes
between governments about international borders. On the
other hand, internal conflicts can easily become violent:
the main danger of war lies in the involvement of outside
states or military actors in these conflicts.

States with thriving, stable economies and a relatively
equitable distribution of goods among their inhabitants are
likely to be less shaky -- socially and politically -- than
poor, highly inegalitarian and economically unstable ones.
The avoidance or control of internal armed violence depends
even more immediately, however, on the powers and effective
performance of national governments and their legitimacy in
the eyes of the majority of their inhabitants. No government
today can take for granted the existence of an unarmed
civilian population or the degree of public order long
familiar in large parts of Europe. No government today is in
a position to overlook or eliminate internal armed

Yet the world is increasingly divided into states capable of
administering their territories and citizens effectively and
into a growing number of territories bounded by officially
recognised international frontiers, with national
governments ranging from the weak and corrupt to the
non-existent. These zones produce bloody internal struggles
and international conflicts, such as those we have seen in
central Africa. There is, however, no immediate prospect for
lasting improvement in such regions, and a further weakening
of central government in unstable countries, or a further
Balkanisation of the world map, would undoubtedly increase
the dangers of armed conflict.

A tentative forecast: war in the 21st century is not likely
to be as murderous as it was in the 20th. But armed
violence, creating disproportionate suffering and loss, will
remain omnipresent and endemic - occasionally epidemic - in
a large part of the world. The prospect of a century of
peace is remote.