August 23, 2010


The Most Violent Century

Stephen Elliott

In the introduction to his 2006 book The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, Niall Ferguson says, “The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era. . . . By any measure the Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time. . . . There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale violence in one part of the world or another.” Ferguson’s fascinating and frightening analysis of what he calls the hundred years’ war departs from simpler explanations for the destruction and death often blamed on more efficient weaponry and fascist governments, and instead names ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline as the true causes.

To appreciate Ferguson’s view, we only need to reflect on the history of the last 100 years. Waning empires in their death struggles, countries and ideologies vying for supremacy, major powers using surrogates as chess pieces, peoples and tribes seeking payback for earlier offences and each acting out their fractious nature and temper—person against person, neighbor against neighbor, poor against rich, uneducated against intelligentsia, ethnic and religious and social groups against each other—until an estimated 167 million to 188 million people of the ostensibly best and highest and latest culture the long history of mankind had to offer, were shoveled into early graves. 

In “Gendercide—The war on baby girls,” published on March 10, 2010, The Economist notes that during the same period 100 million females were purged from the human race because they were considered less worthy than males.

Yet the 20th century was in many other ways a new age. Politically, it produced universal suffrage, communism, socialism, facism, nationalism, republican progressivism, while technology placed in our embrace automobiles, airplanes, television, computers and other wonders. But the haunting specter of radical self-interest even now ties us to the combative attitudes of previous generations. After over 60 centuries of recorded history, is this as good as it gets for humanity?

In discussing the ends of empires witnessed during the 20th century, Ferguson observes that the most violent period of any empire, country or ideology is during its death struggle. This is when rebellions are spawned, and are countered with what he calls “exemplary brutality” by the established ruling class. Ferguson also graphically illustrates that people take advantage of chaos to take what they want: attack other tribes or religions, and exact revenge for previous grievances whether real or imagined.

At the beginning of the century, the colonial powers were struggling to develop their empires. World War I can be viewed as a European Civil War between the imperial powers where they fought until they each exhausted themselves, killing off virtually an entire generation of young males while bankrupting their economies and losing their empires—a consequence experienced immediately by the losing side; but also eventually by the seeming winners.

In earlier centuries, European wars had been limited in scope and effect. But World War I was a senseless, bloody brawl. Ferguson postulates that some of the military commanders had learned tactics of annihilation fighting colonial wars and they simply carried the practice back to Europe. But this was a war unique in the history of warfare and it laid a foundation for a new approach to war that has prevailed since. The emerging technology provided machine guns, tanks, poison gas, aircraft that were all deployed in the carnage. The aftermath of this war and the Second World War was the end of empire as the Europeans had known it over the past centuries, and it came with tremendous bloodshed. However, large-scale warfare enabled by technology was not the only contributing factor to the high death toll of the 20th century. Adding to the record of violence was the wholesale murder of civilized societies by their own leaders.

While it has been impossible to arrive at accurate counts, and estimates by historians vary widely, Stalin is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of 20 million and Lenin tens of millions in the Soviet Union; Mao’s rule resulted in the deaths of several tens of millions of Chinese; Pol Pot killed 20 percent of the population of Cambodia; and that pattern was reflected elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Mexico, and Central and South America. Each regime couched their objectives in honorable terms such as liberty, freedom, democracy and “the greater good” to justify their murderous and wanton actions. But all too often the real motivations involved tribal, religious or cultural conflicts; or greed for supreme god-like power or wealth.

The Correlates of War project estimates that there were at least 200 wars between 1900 and 1990. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that over 100 armed conflicts occurred in the last 10 years of the 20th century alone.

Joseph Stalin is supposed to have said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is only a statistic.” When we talk about such huge and incomprehensible multitudes, the mind numbs to the horrors suffered by individuals.

And hope for the 21st century appears dim. The Journal of Peace Research states that 33 armed conflicts were being waged in 2000, while other sources (see Global list 37 current ongoing armed conflicts in the spring of 2010.

Daily world news reports of organized conflicts, terrorism, bombings, murders, political deceptions and other examples of the powerful forcing their will on the weak, have become the normal background noise of what we call civilization. Are we so numbed by it that we no longer feel outrage?

Can we expect no better from humanity? The very term humanity intends to signify a higher, better nature—but where is it? What keeps modern, highly educated and cultured peoples in the competitive, animalistic mind-set of the jungle and prevents cooperation for mutual good?

Have we nothing to look forward to but more efficient destruction, more planned chaos, more merciless coercion? Unfortunately, it would seem so. In fact, many scientists and experts fear for the very survival of the human race and of the planet. Stephen Hawking, one of the noted scientific minds of our time, asked the question, “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?” He later added, “I don’t know the answer. That is why I asked the question.” 

A Telegraph article proposes, “The survival of mankind depends on nations overcoming their lethargy and tackling the problems of climate change, species extinction and feeding a growing population, a panel of the world’s leading scientists has said.” Sadly, without a change in the violent nature of humanity, it seems doubtful that we can resolve these problems for the benefit of all and not just a few. It would appear that mankind’s governments have little to offer in the way of solutions. Perhaps this is as good as it gets.

And yet, there is a still small voice that speaks otherwise, always present but seldom listened to, long offering the relevant answers but seldom heard—and it offers good news for humanity.

That voice, who says He is the God who designed and created all that is, says He is going to end this experiment in human self-rule before we can destroy His handiwork. “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive,” said Jesus to His followers. However, He also assured them that, nevertheless, “those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:22, NIV). Jesus told His followers that He would eventually return to the earth and establish a new government, which He called “the Kingdom of God”.

In a departure from the human political legacy of tyrannical self-interest, this kingdom will be governed for the genuine good of all mankind—here on earth. In this government no one will be permitted to oppress and abuse others. “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever” Revelation 11:15 (NKJV). “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,  but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus describes life under this ultimate government in terms of restoration, cooperation and peace. Rather than struggling with self-consuming attitudes that produce global wars and genocide, a different way of thinking will be taught: one that looks to the concerns of others rather than the concerns of self. As a result, having been rescued from their own tyranny, mankind will ultimately be free to learn how to achieve their highest potential.