I recently re-watched the German 1986 biographical fiction titled Rosa. It is a film about Rosa Luxemburg. The film itself is a bit more stylized than Luxemburg’s life probably was and its politics are not nearly as radical as Luxemburg’s were, but they do show her consistent anti-imperialism, her Marxism, and, on the personal level, the passion and intellectualism so obvious in her writings. I also recently finished the newly-published English translation of Enzo Traverso’s exceptional study of World Wars One and Two, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War: 1914-1945. This combination was remarkably compatible in its analysis of the history of that period.
To begin with, both the book and the film (via Luxemburg’s speeches and written words in the film) make the point that the colonialist period prior to World War One was not a period of peace and prosperity around the globe. It was, however, that for much of Europe. All the wars and such took place in other places in the world as colonial powers fought the native peoples (and occasionally each other through proxy and directly) for control of those colonies. The World Wars then, were called this only because of colonial hubris and arrogance which considered Europe as the “world,” while simultaneously rendering the non-European world to a lesser even non-human category. Of course, the label given the rest of the world then was “non-civilized” and not non-human, but the implication was (and is) the same.
This text is not a history of dates, battles, leaders, and armies. Neither is it a political history detailing the debates between and within parties, legislatures and monarchies. It is something much broader and more fundamental. In this book Traverso examines the meaning of the cataclysmic and catastrophic changes wrought by the carnage and movements these wars wrought. He looks for those meanings in the art, the film, and even the philosophical writings of the time discussed. In doing so, he makes his case that the decades of and between the two world wars were schismatic in nature. Indeed, the conflict was the historical equivalent of a natural disaster on a global scale, as if the flood of Genesis were remade in in poison gas, aerial bombardment, and apocalyptic politics. Or less, biblical but still religious, Traverso compares the effects of this European Civil War with the previous one we call The Thirty Years War.
In the nuanced and erudite discussion that makes up this reflection, Traverso invokes Nazi philosophers, Marxist ones and liberals. It his contention that the polarization made all too obvious by the carnage of World War One killed the remaining remnants of bourgeois liberalism; the very political philosophy that was birthed a century earlier during the years of French Revolution and American colonies war for independence after being conceived in the decades preceding those events. The pretense at tolerance maintained by the liberal political state was firstly applicable only to the colonizer nations and secondly attacked by the rightist yet revolutionary phenomenon called fascism. The intention and organizational approach of fascism was (and is) to polarize. The decades between the wars saw this approach take hold and met with an equal reaction from the Left.
This isn’t to say, though, that Traverso repeats the liberal trope that wants us to see Leftist responses to fascist provocations as equivalent. Likewise, he refuses to concede that the revolutionary violence of the oppressed somehow denies the justness of their cause. He does, however, note that violence in the name of revolution tends to bring the most authoritarian elements of the revolution to the fore, if only because the military becomes the most capable defender of the revolution against its foes. Traverso remarks on the tendency of those in the liberal center (both right and left) who decry revolutionary violence yet defend or excuses the violence of the state, as if this latter violence had greater legitimacy. In essence, he writes, this period was one where public’s perception of State violence as the only legitimate violence was successfully challenged. In its wake, new revolutionary states on both the Left and the Right were created. The rest of the century and most of the early twenty-first century involved a continuing rehash of this scenario.
One of the most interesting sections in Fire and Blood are the subsequent chapters titled “Imaginaries of Violence” and “The Critique of Weapons,” wherein Traverso examines technology along with the manifestations of the war in art and culture. These years, writes Traverso, were years where much of art and culture left its traditional search for beauty and became the tools of the political. In other words, culture became propaganda, both in favor of the State and in opposition to it. Philosophical musings were utilized to justify an inhumanity never seen. Intellectual became soldiers in the service of the war and its masters. Technology made mass murder possible on a scale beyond any previous conception. Despite the attempts by historians to denote fascism and its authoritarian brutality as a rejection of the rationality symbolized by technology, Traverso tells the reader it was that rationality’s predictable result.
Fire and Blood is more than a history of a catastrophe that began a hundred years ago. It is also a warning of a potential future. Traverso’s discussions of the use of terror and violence, the migrations of millions because of war and politics, the industrialized nature of mass murder via military weaponry and desensitized soldiers and airmen, the manipulation of the popular will via culture and media; all of this describes the world we live in today. From drone operators killing humans thousands of miles away to award winning films and television shows celebrating torture and racializing crime and murder; from the state of war instituted in 2001 after the Twin Towers and Pentagon went up in flames to the cynical, brutal and often incomprehensible civil war/war by proxy in Syria and the Middle East; the killing fields of Traverso’s exceptional history are a phenomenon that remains closer than one thinks. At the same time, the clues to preventing their repetition are inside this book, too. Even more valuable tools aimed at preventing a repetition of this apocalypse can be found in the writings and speeches of the revolutionary woman whose name began this review: Rosa Luxemburg. It was she who wrote in her pamphlet popularly known as The Junius Pamphlet: “Bourgeois society faces a dilemma; either a transition to Socialism, or a return to barbarism … we face the choice: either the victory of imperialism and the decline of all culture, as in ancient Rome – annihilation, devastation, degeneration, a yawning graveyard; or the victory of Socialism…”