War and Peace in the 20th Century

Eric Hobsbawm

The 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history. The total number of deaths caused by or associated with its wars has been estimated at 187 million, the equivalent of more than 10 per cent of the world’s population in 1913. Taken as having begun in 1914, it was a century of almost unbroken war, with few and brief periods without organised armed conflict somewhere. It was dominated by world wars: that is to say, by wars between territorial states or alliances of states. The period from 1914 to 1945 can be regarded as a single ‘thirty years’ war’ interrupted only by a pause in the 1920s – between the final withdrawal of the Japanese from the Soviet Far East in 1922 and the attack on Manchuria in 1931. This was followed, almost immediately, by some forty years of Cold War, which conformed to Hobbes’s definition of war as consisting ‘not in battle only or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known’. It is a matter for debate how far the actions in which US Armed Forces have been involved since the end of the Cold War in various parts of the globe constitute a continuation of the era of world war. There can be no doubt, however, that the 1990s were filled with formal and informal military conflict in Europe, Africa and Western and Central Asia. The world as a whole has not been at peace since 1914, and is not at peace now.

Nevertheless, the century cannot be treated as a single block, either chronologically or geographically. Chronologically, it falls into three periods: the era of world war centred on Germany (1914 to 1945), the era of confrontation between the two superpowers (1945 to 1989), and the era since the end of the classic international power system. I shall call these periods I, II and III. Geographically, the impact of military operations has been highly unequal. With one exception (the Chaco War of 1932-35), there were no significant inter-state wars (as distinct from civil wars) in the Western hemisphere (the Americas) in the 20th century. Enemy military operations have barely touched these territories: hence the shock of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September. Since 1945 inter-state wars have also disappeared from Europe, which had until then been the main battlefield region. Although in period III war returned to South-East Europe, it seems very unlikely to recur in the rest of the continent. On the other hand, during period II inter-state wars, not necessarily unconnected with the global confrontation, remained endemic in the Middle East and South Asia, and major wars directly springing from the global confrontation took place in East and South-East Asia (Korea, Indochina). At the same time, areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, which had been comparatively unaffected by war in period I (apart from Ethiopia, belatedly subject to colonial conquest by Italy in 1935-36), came to be theatres of armed conflict during period II, and witnessed major scenes of carnage and suffering in period III.

Two other characteristics of war in the 20th century stand out, the first less obviously than the second. At the start of the 21st century we find ourselves in a world where armed operations are no longer essentially in the hands of governments or their authorised agents, and where the contending parties have no common characteristics, status or objectives, except the willingness to use violence. Inter-state wars dominated the image of war so much in periods I and II that civil wars or other armed conflicts within the territories of existing states or empires were somewhat obscured. Even the civil wars in the territories of the Russian Empire after the October Revolution, and those which took place after the collapse of the Chinese Empire, could be fitted into the framework of international conflicts, insofar as they were inseparable from them. On the other hand, Latin America may not have seen armies crossing state frontiers in the 20th century, but it has been the scene of major civil conflicts: in Mexico after 1911, for instance, in Colombia since 1948, and in various Central American countries during period II. It is not generally recognised that the number of international wars has declined fairly continuously since the mid-1960s, when internal conflicts became more common than those fought between states. The number of conflicts within state frontiers continued to rise steeply until it levelled off in the 1990s.

More familiar is the erosion of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The two world wars of the first half of the century involved the entire populations of belligerent countries; both combatants and non-combatants suffered. In the course of the century, however, the burden of war shifted increasingly from armed forces to civilians, who were not only its victims, but increasingly the object of military or military-political operations. The contrast between the First World War and the Second is dramatic: only 5 per cent of those who died in World War One were civilians; in World War Two the figure increased to 66 per cent. It is generally supposed that 80 to 90 per cent of those affected by war today are civilians. The proportion has increased since the end of the Cold War because most military operations since then have been conducted not by conscript armies, but by quite small bodies of regular or irregular troops, in many cases operating high-technology weapons and protected against the risk of incurring casualties. While it is true that high-tech weaponry has made it possible in some cases to re-establish a distinction between military and civilian targets, and therefore between combatants and non-combatants, there is no reason to doubt that the main victims of war will continue to be civilians.

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[*] This is also the case, by definition, where individual states accept international humanitarian law and unilaterally assert the right to apply it to citizens of other countries in their national tribunals – as, notably, the Spanish courts, supported by the British House of Lords, did in the case of General Pinochet.