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:: By Ethan D. Frenchman, ’08

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Civilization’s alter egos

Historian Bernard Wasserstein peels back the layers of 20th-century horror and humanity.

Before World War I, Europe was predominately a peasant society, writes historian Bernard Wasserstein in his new book, Barbarism and Civilization (Oxford, 2007): even in “advanced areas,” the “family wash” occurred no more than four times a year. But after a century of war and modernization, Europe has come a long way in a short time. Not only did Europeans bathe more regularly by 2000, but the continent had also become literate and “post-Christian.”


Wasserstein’s latest research spans Europe’s bloodiest 100 years.

In weaving his story of 20th-century Europe, Wasserstein combines a narrative of the continent’s major political events with snapshot looks at significant turning points: 1914, the 1930s, occupied Europe, the 1960s, and the new millennium. Through these moments, he hopes to draw particular attention to the “extraordinary pace of change” across “military, economic, diplomatic, social, cultural, and national histories.” Among those fast-paced changes:  Europe’s great empires disintegrated into nation-states and those nation-states then took steps toward a common government through the European Union.

Wasserstein’s perspective on Europe springs from a statement by German–Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazi invasion of France. “There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism,” Benjamin wrote. While many scholars may believe that civilization and barbarism are “on opposite ends of the spectrum,” Wasserstein says in an interview, the two “are, on the contrary, enmeshed.” This past century witnessed “some of the most savage episodes of collective violence in the recorded history of the human species,” but also “incontestable improvements in many aspects [of life].” For instance, European schoolchildren are now nine times more likely to attend secondary school than they were when World War I began in 1914. While Belgians drank nearly 50 gallons of beer per person in 1905, heavy drinking is now taboo, complete with a medical label—alcoholism—and a compendium of treatments. On average Belgians drank about 24 gallons of beer in 2004, a reduction of more than 50 percent from the previous century. Ranking among the most significant changes, Europeans are expected to live into their 70s, twice the average life expectancy than in 1914.

 Yet “evil stalked the Earth in this era,” Wasserstein writes, “moving men’s minds, ruling their actions, and begetting the lies, greed, deceit, and cruelty that are the stuff of the history of Europe in our time.”

Wasserstein was first contracted to write about 20th-century Europe in 1982, as a volume of the now-completed The Short Oxford History of the Modern World. Still bound by his contract with an editor who has since died, he spent 25 years crafting his contribution. The effort nearly overwhelmed Wasserstein, Chicago’s Harriet & Ulrich E. Meyer professor in modern European Jewish history. In eight monographs he has analyzed themes as diverse as Jewish history, modern France, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and colonial wars in Northern China. “The literature on the 20th century of Europe is bigger than the whole of the rest of history put together,” Wasserstein explains. “It is the biggest [topic] I have ever tackled. There were one or two points that I almost despaired of finishing it.” Coming in at 900 pages, the story is much longer than he ever imagined.

Wasserstein is particular about the lessons that he wants readers to draw from his work. “Dubious” of the traditional lessons usually taken from history, he does not think the past offers today’s leaders “political guidance.” In fact, Wasserstein argues, the study of history may lead to calamitous results, such as France and Britain’s 1956 war against Egypt. With the memory of appeasing Hitler still fresh, Britain and France were anxious to confront dictators all over the world. The two states readily invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal and to depose the nation’s leader, Gamal Nasser. The outcome was “disastrous” for Britain, inviting international outrage and further diminishing its global empire. Rather, Wasserstein cautions, the lessons leaders should take are those revolving around history’s ethos, the ways in which “barbarism was inextricably bound up with civilization.”

Now with his “Sisyphean labor” done, Wasserstein feels “a mixture of joy and melancholy, as if saying goodbye to an old friend that I thought I would have to live with for my whole life.” Yet he knows that he “will not actually be able to ride off into the sunset and wave goodbye,” with revisions for a second printing in the works: “Books are a bit like children: they should go off and swim on their own, but one wouldn’t want to leave them totally to their own resources.”

Meanwhile, Wasserstein has moved on to a new project about Europe’s Jews on the brink of World War II. He notes that many scholars have studied the Holocaust, but few have taken a detailed look at European Jews in 1939. “What is much more important than studying the history of how people were killed is the history of what was destroyed: the people, their culture, and their society,” Wasserstein explains. Currently on leave from the University doing research in Berlin on a Guggenheim fellowship, afterward he plans to embark on fieldwork in Amsterdam, Israel, and Eastern Europe to reconstruct the way European Jews lived immediately before the Holocaust.