fire and blood

Fire and Blood brilliantly recounts the European civil war of 1914-45, which brought the idea of capitalist progress to an end, argues Chris Bambery

Enzo Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914–1945, trans. David Fernbach (Verso 2016), 304pp.

The central thesis of this wonderful book is that between 1914 and 1945 Europe experienced a crisis of a scale only comparable to the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century. It was a political crisis, which saw the demise of the old liberal order during the blood bath of the First World War, and the entry of the masses onto the political stage, both from the left and the right; an economic crisis, the scale of which led the state to intervene directly in the economy; and it was an ideological and cultural crisis which saw the faith in inevitable progress thrown onto the bonfire.

What Traverso is doing is charting how, in the years from 1914 to 1945, the ideas that would eventually lead both to Auschwitz, on the one hand, and to the resistance against Nazi occupation, on the other, came not from the margins of European society but from its mainstream. Further, the violence of those years, culminating in genocide, stemmed from the industrialisation of mass murder, flowing from ideologies of racial supremacy and colonialism among others.

Before 1914 it was common to see European society, and capitalism in general, evolving in a generally progressive direction. Progress was the rule. This was true for the pre-First World War ‘pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky, who saw the outbreak of that war as an aberration. Traverso, echoing the arguments of those like Walter Benjamin, sees capitalism as not heading in a progressive direction but instead hurtling towards destruction in which massive technological advances are used, not for the benefit of humanity but for its destruction.

This is important because conventional accounts of the Second World War still portray the Holocaust as being an anomaly when, like the dropping of the atomic bomb, it was the culmination of this three decade long civil war. Traverso argues, ‘despite its specific features, the Nazi war against the Jews belonged to this European and global civil war’ (p.24). This in no way demeans the horror of the Holocaust but carefully places it in its particular origins within those years.

During the course of the First World War total war meant the aim became the total destruction of the enemy in which pre-war norms about protecting and respecting civilians went out of the window. The various powers were able to draw on the experience of colonial conquest to justify a war of extermination but also came to see it as a civil war in which their opponents were not a ‘legitimate enemy’ but seen as outcasts from civilisation,

A civil war has never taken place without massacres and similar horrors. Traverso engages with Trotsky’s justification for the methods employed by the Reds in the Russian Civil War which followed the 1917 revolution, ‘Their Morals and Ours’, and despite his criticisms concludes Trotsky was right that the Bolsheviks had to employ whatever means necessary to win a war they did not start and did not want.

This is not a simple history of those years. Rather it examines the ideas which underlay the mass movements of the inter war years, and why the morality of pre-1914 Europe was undermined by a generation scarred by the horror of the First World War.

It involves engaging with the ideas of left wingers, from Lenin and Gramsci to the Frankfurt School, and with those on the fascist wing, such as the German jurist and political theorist, Carl Schmitt, and the philosopher, Martin Heidegger. It is uncomfortable to engage with such Nazi ideologues, but in this context legitimate. These were mainstream figures who would justify book burning and political violence. As late as 1962 Schmitt travelled to Franco’s Spain to deliver a lecture claiming the Spanish Civil War was a war of ‘national liberation’ against international communism.

Traverso quotes First-World-War hero and German nationalist, Ernst Jünger, at the moment of the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, describing the war on the Eastern front as ‘absolute, to a degree that Clausewitz could not have conceived, even after the experiences of 1812: it is a war between states, between peoples, between citizens and between religions, with the object of zoological extinction’ (p.63). That became true for the war as a whole as with the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the destruction of German cities and their civilian population by aerial bombing deliberately designed to create fire storms.

Yet Traverso does make a very clear distinction between the violence of the fascists and that of the left, despite his clear anti-Stalinism. The emergence of mass anti-fascism was a response to the barbarism of Hitler and co. In the course of first the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War, the anti-fascist forces were engaged in a very real civil war in which resistance movements had not just to fight the German occupiers but the forces of the native right who had rallied to the New Order.

Violence inevitably created counter-violence that often mirrored the violence of the enemy, and even its own ritual of killing. Thus the corpse of Mussolini was strung up in Piazzale Loreto in Milan, on April 29, 1945 and subject to the abuse of the crowd. What is less well known was that the bodies of murdered partisans had earlier been displayed at exactly the same spot.

In defending the violence deployed by the left Traverso does not spare Stalin’s Russia and he engages with non-Communist members of the resistance such as Carlo Rosselli and supporters of Trotsky. But he does, I believe, go a bit too far in defending popular-front anti-fascism, which was, for him, an alliance of all the shades of the left and liberals aimed at defending democracy. That alliance had a very clear limit; revolution was off the agenda. This was something Stalin signed the Communists up to. In 1937 the Spanish Republican forces conquered Barcelona in order to suppress the far left and to extinguish the elements of workers’ control established a year earlier when the city’s working class had risen up and defeated the fascist rebellion. In 1945 that same boundary was clear when the leadership of the Italian resistance limited the struggle to the creation of a liberal-democratic republic, despite the fact that armed workers were in possession of Milan, Turin and Genoa. Nevertheless, don’t let this get in your way of reading this fine book.

Traverso argues that civilization and barbarism are not two absolutely antagonistic terms but two linked aspects of the same historical process, carrying both emancipatory and destructive tendencies. He also points out that is true of all modern wars, pointing to the 2003 Iraq which combined the deployment of the most modern forms of weaponry with the most primitive forms of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison.

At the very time the atomic bomb was used in August 1945 Albert Camus argued that science had been turned into ‘organised murder’ and concluded that humanity had to choose between ‘collective suicide and an intelligent use of scientific conquests’. That choice remains before us today.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.