Review- Traverso, “Fire and Blood”

Enzo Traverso, “Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945” (2007) (translated from the French by David Fernbach) – Italian historian Enzo Traverso lobs the logic of civil war like a bomb at the warmed over totalitarian-school readings that were big stuff in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and which look to be coming ‘round again after Trump et al. In many respects, this book is an extension of Arno Mayer’s great work, “The Furies.” Mayer argued that rather than illustrating the danger of ideology as a free-floating concept, the great ideological bloodlettings between the French Revolution and today show that violence is the inevitable concomitant of change- that “violence is the midwife of history.” This goes along with the blind eye liberal anti-totalitarian scholarship turns towards massive violence that did not proclaim its ideological nature (or, more cynically, didn’t happen to white people)- the violence of imperialism, for instance. Imperialism, revolution, industrialization, all among the main movers of modern history, all substantially violent, so sticking at one type of violence as unavoidably tragic and wrong makes little sense. “If all civil wars are tragedies, some deserve commitment,” as Traverso puts it.

Mayer wrote about the French and Russian revolutions, Traverso writes about the arc of violence in Europe that began with World War One, extended through the waves of revolutions and counterrevolutions in the 20s and 30s, and ended with World War Two. There’s a few reasons to see this as a long European civil war, along the lines of the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century or the French revolutionary/Napoleonic wars at the dawn of the nineteenth. Civil wars are proverbially ferocious, calling forth degrees of commitment (both in scale and depth) seldom seen in other types of war. They tend to be layered conflicts- regional, ideological, international, local, religious fault lines are all activated by civil wars and interact in complex ways. Case in point, the way the age of crises between 1914 and 1945 affected every society in Europe (and beyond- one weakness of the book is that it’s unabashedly eurocentric).

I tend to agree with Traverso about his framing of the early twentieth century, and am always down with a tilt at liberal historiography. This book had a kind of assembled, essayistic feel to it which wasn’t awful or anything but which doesn’t compare with works like “The Furies,” as Traverso himself would probably agree. ****

Review- Traverso, “Fire and Blood”

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