Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nitzan Lebovic reviews Fire and Blood

Enzo Traverso. Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914–1945. Trans. David Fernbach Brooklyn, N.Y.: Verso, 2016. 304 pp.

Review by Nitzan Lebovic

9 August 2016

Civil wars, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War, were an eruption of hate in which “general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity” were abolished and replaced by violence and depravity. In such wars, he added, “death raged in every shape.” In chronicling the war that erupted in 427 BCE between the Athenians and the Spartans, Thucydides was one of the first to point out what Enzo Traverso, two and a half millennia later, would characterize as “the breakdown of order within a state [that is] no longer able to impose its monopoly of violence. The enemy parties are not two regular armies but two factions within one and the same state, only one of which possesses a legal status, so that the distinction between civilian and combatant becomes highly problematic. The laws of war no longer apply” (p. 71). For Traverso, the characteristic lawlessness of civil war found its ultimate form in World War I, when a community of nations united by a sense of belonging to a larger culture tore itself to pieces. Thus the European breakdown of the “humanist vision of war” (p. 70).

This highly readable, convincingly synthetic book grounds its discussion of European identity—and what it means to be a humanist in the twenty-first century—in the collapse of jus bellum. For Traverso, a well-known historian of Nazi violence, humanism began with a failure to keep war under control. He explores and extends—from a historical perspective—the current idea of twentieth-century history as the “theater of war” and the breakdown of law, two kinds of crisis that civil war tends to trigger. From this perspective, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the Spartacist revolution in Germany, the series of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and the outbreak of the Fascist revolution in Italy, all belong to the same collapse of European norms.

Theoretically, Traverso’s key insights rely on the critical and antiliberal work of the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin and National Socialism’s “crown jurist,” Carl Schmitt, as well as the more recent explorer of emergencies, Giorgio Agamben. Historicographically, he follows and builds on narratives of the collapse of the liberal order, from Franz Neumann’s Behemoth to George Mosse’s Masses and Man, from Hans Kohn’s work on the rise of nationalism to Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes. The wide scope of this analysis adds a layer to the field, by avoiding the usual rise-and-fall story of Western modernity. If the polis has been stained since its earliest days by the crimson tides of internal conflicts, its constitutive order should be seen in a different light. What might it mean to be “European” when a father can slaughter his son, or if rape—as Herfried Münkler pointed out (see his New Wars)—can serve as part of a “war economy”? What does it mean if the supposedly dissonant relation between fascism and antifascism continued to fine-tune the post-1945 European march to success and unity?

It is both a strength and a weakness of Traverso’s book that he keeps, for the most part, to the rather familiar history of the two world wars. His narrative never strays from sources already well mined in spite of the alternative conceptual framework.  So what does the history of civil war add to this discussion?

Reframing the story of the last century as a European civil war enables Traverso to avoid the clichés concerning the rise of nationalism and the multiplication of more ethnically discrete nations in favor of a more focused story spotlighting the fragility of that identity and the set of political, cultural, and intellectual interests that shaped it. This approach allows one to focus on the mechanisms that make possible such incredible explosions of violence, hatred, and fear rather than their ideological justifications. Traverso concludes that investing in “brutalizing . . . language and forms of struggle” (p. 51) are a necessary condition for genocidal violence. The postwar period of silence and suppression, followed by the backlash against fascism, makes up a state-supported form of “collective ethos” (p. 260). So while Traverso’s book helps to shed light on the internal limitations of classic historiography of postwar Europe, in line with Tony Judt’s Postwar, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, Dan Diner’s notion of Zeitbruch, or Pierre Rosanvallo’ns critique of the anti-fa—he never extends his assessment to the world outside Europe. While scholars of total war have addressed such themes as globalization, “low-intensity warfare,” the neoliberal outsourcing of military capability, and the surveillance state, Traverso has nothing to say about these. This silence is troubling because it keeps his own narrative limited to the safe zone of the same historiography he wants to replace.