Wars and Atrocities in the Second Quarter of the Twentieth Century



Contemporary Context:

Why did the world suddenly explode into this unprecendented wave of killing? The causes are complex, but after years of study, I think I've narrowed it down to three reasons:

  1. Because they could.
  2. Because they wanted to.
  3. And because everybody else was doing it.

Or, if you'd prefer fancier academic terms for these causes, let's say:

  1. Technology.
  2. Ideology.
  3. The escalating cycle of violence.

Because they could (Technology)

It wasn't just machine guns scything down advancing infantry by the fistfull. It wasn't just airplanes delivering death hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. It was trucks and railroads that could provision huge armies in desolate battlezones. Tanks brought movement back to armies that had stalled in front of unbreakable fortifications. Radar and sonar could locate enemies far beyond the line of sight. Radio could coordinate offensives across an entire continent. Industrialization produced vast quantities of munitions that could be expended in great wasteful overkill. Urbanization brought huge populations together where they could be pounded by air raids or rounded up for massacre or deportation. Well-staffed and well-wired bureacracies made it nearly impossible to hide from the tax collector, the draft board or the secret police.

Because they wanted to (Ideology)

At first I was hoping to be clever and connect the major upheavals of the 20th Century ideologically:

Nationalism (World War One) + Socialism (Stalin) = something even worse: National Socialism (Hitler).

Unfortunately, this analysis fails on two points. Firstly, National Socialism was "socialist" in much the same way that the Democratic Republic of (North) Korea is a "democratic republic". The Nazis called themselves "Socialists" because it attracted more working class support than calling themselves the "We'll Stomp Anyone Who Gets in Our Way Party", but they hated real socialists and supported none of the economic redistribution that is the core of authentic socialism.

Secondly, we can't blame the First World War entirely on Nationalism. In fact, it's hard to blame the First World War on anything in particular because we're still not sure what it was all about; however, the Great War was such a catastrophic trauma for Western Civilization that it caused a massive ideological reassessment across Europe. Among the winning countries, this showed up as post-war hedonism and artistic nihilism, but among the losing countries, the rejection of mainstream philosophy was more thorough. Russia turned Left, toward the hyper-modernism of Marxism, while Germany turned Right, toward the hyper-primitive Nazism. Both philosophies brutally dehumanized and demonized the opposition, and casually threw away the lives of their followers in the name of a greater good.

Because everyone else was doing it (The escalating cycle of violence)

Each killing created a litter of bitter orphans who would grow up to avenge their father's death. Each campaign pushed thousands of refugees into a life of scavenging and plundering. Each draft put more weapons into the hands of thousands of angry, alienated young men who were just as likely to use them against their own government as against the enemy. Every conquered nation had to be liberated. Every surprise attack brought another country into the war. Every loss had to be reversed. No victory was ever final.

It was only after the development of nuclear weapons that the cycle of violence ran into a brick wall and was forced to stop.

Average: During this period throughout the world, wars, genocide and oppression killed approximately 42,000 out of every 1,000,000 people (4.2% of the world).

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Last updated January 2003

Copyright © 1997-2003 Matthew White