Fire and Blood – a review

Jane Shallice reviews Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914–1945,  by Enzo Traverso, translated by David Fernbach. Published by Verso Books, London, 2015, 304pages, £16.99.



One of the major political discussions in the last twenty to thirty years has been how to analyse the period of wars and revolutions, which occurred throughout most of the twentieth century. In debating this period it appears standard to use the framework of “totalitarianism” – a concept that during the Cold War became central to equalising out political agencies and states, equating communism (in all its forms) and fascism. Recently Verso has been publishing books which subject such formulations to critical scrutiny and Traverso’s book could be as one such.

He persuasively argues the age of wars and revolutions extending from 1914 to 1945 should be viewed as a European civil war. Such a formulation carries little personal resonance with most people living in Britain, “civil war” exists only in the distant past of the English revolution, now securely placed as history. The exception being of course those living in Ireland. However throughout much of Europe the term, civil war, recreates the most searing experiences in living memory. It is part of family histories passed onto and forming political allegiances of new generations. In many countries such wars meant that communities and classes within the same geographical space were and are permanently fractured by actions based on diametrically opposed political positions and which resulted in deaths, traumas and with long standing scores still to be settled. Sometimes they were part of the wars of liberation from occupation, but they were also struggles which arose from the desire to overthrow inherited wealth and the “established order”, based on hopes and beliefs that there should be greater equality and societies formed with the interests of the many to replace the concerns of the few.

Traverso frames the book by recognising that much of historical research today instead of being dominated by the history of the victors is drawn from the perspective of the victims and their experiences. Consequently the victims become the witnesses and upon whose evidence, historical assessments and judgments are developed. But to understand the whole historical perspective, he demands that the stick be bent backwards and the role of the actors/perpetrators as well as the vanquished be given due presence. For him the voices of those defeated need to be heard, such as Luxemburg, Gramsci, Azana, Trotsky and Benjamin but also figures like Junger and Schmitt. It is as though he accepts Walter Benjamin’s position in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, when Benjamin argues we ought to have “contracted a debt to those who fought” and who did not win. Writing in 1940 in the darkest period for the anti fascists and socialists, he states “in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it …Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious. ”

For Traverso the twentieth century should not be just viewed as human tragedy or the evil power of ideologies. In his fine preface establishing his historical perspectives, he then acknowledges the antifascist family from which he came. They were Italian partisans and his mother only twenty when Italy was liberated. It is seldom that an author’s references and sympathies are so boldly and clearly stated. For him “if civil wars are tragedies, some deserve commitment”, and given that today’s “amnesiac democracy is necessarily a fragile one… an attitude of an apolitical rejection of commitment, condemnation of violence and stigmatising of ideologies should not be seen as a form of timeless wisdom”

“Fire and Blood” is a series of interlocking essays, the first part considering the origins of the European civil war, its anatomy, the war against civilians and a fascinating chapter on judging the enemy. He uses the comparisons with the 30 Years War which, he argues like that of the twentieth century, ended with a structural change within the European states, then through the Treaty of Westphalia establishing absolutism over feudal states. This together with the impact of the French revolution sets out his necessary templates, parallels and differences.

The series of crises, catastrophic events, wars and revolutions in the period up to 1914 was evidence of the advent of huge social and political changes. “Mass society, the transition from liberal capitalism to monopoly capitalism, the democratisation of politics, the nationalisation of the masses and the military revolution developed prior to 1914”. Total war, (Carl Schmitt’s term), evidenced in World War One, “required mass armies and technological developments in communications and weaponry”. Through the preceding period, agreed “regulations” had been developed covering “just wars”, encompassing the prohibition of torture and for a humane treatment of prisoners and non combatants. Such regulations were of course often notional and were never applied to colonial wars, where in the interests of trade, circulation and property all actions were permitted in the appropriation of lands and goods “supposedly waiting, as de Tocqueville wrote, for their legitimate owners”.

The period from 1914 to 1945 was framed by the two “total wars” in Europe, and within each there were identifiable civil wars. In the interwar years, when the Russian revolution was fighting for its very existence, initially against the Whites with foreign states intervening, it fertilised a series of revolutions and workers uprisings in Germany, Vienna, Hungary and parts of eastern Europe. Quoting Robespierre’s statement when the French revolution faced external threats from the Vendee in 1791, “What is the war that we can force? Is it a war of one nation against other nations, or of one king against other kings? No, it is a war of the enemies of the French Revolution against the French Revolution”. Such was the Bolshevik position. Only with an extension of the revolution to other states could their revolution succeed. The Spanish Civil War became such a crucible, crystallising and distilling out in full clarity the forces of revolution and counterrevolution, sucking in wider international political forces set against each other.

Divided into two sections Fire and Blood’s initial part considers the commencement and then the war against civilians which, this being Schmitt’s “total war”, became a significant differentiation with all previous conflicts. Not only the forms of weaponry but the tactical use of bombings and the spreading of terror but then too the development of a new category of non-citizens – the refugees. Hannah Arendt locates the paradox of modernity in the identification of the stateless. The Enlightenment had established the concept of abstract Humanity, but it simultaneously “outlaws”; there being no law capable of reassigning the stateless as citizens.   He has written stimulating chapters on the judgements made at the ends of the stages of the conflicts with a revealing diagnosis of the Nuremberg trials and an interesting consideration of “purging”, amnesties, pardons and forgiveness. Quoting from Camus’s Defence of Intelligence when in writing about the hatred and desire for revenge that was engendered by the response to the brutality that had been enacted by the fascists, “And the most difficult battle to be won against the enemy in the future must be fought within ourselves, with an exceptional effort that will transform, our appetite for hatred into a desire for justice”.

The second section reaches out to analyse the cultures of war: its eruption, the imaginaries of war, the weapons and finally the “antimonies” of fascism. Throughout the 20s and 30s only communism or fascism appeared to be the way out of the impasse of a deepening political, social and economic crisis, reflected in the works of the intellectuals, writers, filmmakers and artists. In his chapter Imaginaries of Violence, he looks at figures from Remarque, Ernst Junger, the German artists from the Weimar period, and D’Annunzio, together with the ranging debates in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and with an interesting section on the Hobbesian concepts of Leviathan and Behemoth, and the importance they played for Carl Schmitt.

Whilst in many ways overwhelmed by the richness of his work, it has for me one weakness. Whilst initially asserting that the current day norms of democracy have to be questioned, Traverso writes about the “antidemocratic figures like Lenin and Schmitt”. Whilst quoting Luxemburg, “It is the historical task of the proletariat when it comes to power to create social democratic instead of bourgeois democracy, not to suppress democracy of any kind”, throughout he uses “democracy” as a known, given and agreed term. What is evident over the last twenty or thirty years is that the revisionist historians (which he is not) use democracy and totalitarianism (and the coup d’état in place of revolution) as blanket terms to equate communism and fascism thereby replicating the liberal handwringing of the 1930s. Both German and Italian fascism saw their access to power through their genuine revolutions, their language replicating that of the left as a continuation of war by other means. But Traverso almost overlooks the huge differentiation of the ideologies – one based on country and race whilst working hand in glove with capitalism, whereas the other was based on internationalism, with a universalist emancipatory anti capitalist programme. The enormous economic underpinnings of the crises which have riven the twentieth century, Traverso mentions only in passing. This presents those of us from a Marxist tradition with a slight difficulty. Having always understood the essential contradiction being between capital and labour, Traverso makes few references to these essential underpinnings. He does tip his hat at the start with a sentence acknowledging that the period was starkly riven by the economic crisis that Capital was facing. But that is as far as he goes, and whilst not wanting his focus to be hijacked, a sentence or two seems insufficient.

It is however an important and immensely rich text for those of us in Britain, coming as it does from sources which are European wide: sociological, cultural and political. He rightly acknowledges the importance of Carl Schmitt as the key thinker of fascism and about whom so few people in Britain have ever heard of and fewer still understand his importance. A fascinating and hugely valuable book it has a new and particular focus on aspects of the last century’s civil war, analysed with creative perspectives. It is important today as his references pour out from wide areas of European history and culture where fascism and its expressions were, and are increasingly, lived experiences, and where antifascism is still the much needed bed rock of today’s politics.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.