books Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945
Fire and Blood:
The European Civil War, 1914-1945
By Enzo Traverso
Translated by David Fernbach,
Enzo Traverso has pulled off the rare reconstruction of a past epoch that pulsates with electric immediacy. Fire and Blood fashions events happening seventy-five-to-one-hundred years ago to feel as lively and pertinent as political debates taking place at present. His principal topic is the hell that was the center of Europe’s two world wars climaxing in a deluge of totalitarianism and genocide, and the devil is back today.
The most menacing revenant from this “Age of Extremes” (as Eric Hobsbawm called it) comes to us in the shape of a spectacular growth of the Right across most of the same continent, with counterparts in the United States not hard to find. Reactionaries now as then traffic in a political imaginary of noxious aliens in their midst — non-Aryans, non-Christians, immigrants — and rally around a mythologized distinctiveness of their national cultures and threatened traditions.
New systems of violence are unleashed, and talk of the deportation and even annihilation of populations marked by religio-ethnic difference is being heard again. Are we facing the latest staging of a persistently revived historical drama?
As a mirror held up to the present, the non-fiction horror story that is Fire and Blood has the merit of never pretending to offer prophetic forecasts or conclusory admonitions; there are no ready-made answers for the new millennium. Rather, it commends a model and method for how to analyze a disaster that profoundly affected all that came after; the point of the book is how this past with a genetic link to our present is remembered and interpreted.
We are in an exceptionally new situation, but elements of older experiences may clarify our vision if one finds the proper means of access.
Against Liberal Anachronisms
Traverso, an Italian-born former Parisian professor now teaching at Cornell University, throws down the gauntlet to the current academic and public treatment of these earlier decades.
Several of his previous books — especially The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate (1990; English translation, 1994) and Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism After Auschwitz (1999) — addressed in detail Marxist approaches to the problem of anti-Semitism as history marched toward the 1941-45 slaughter of the European Jews. He has contributed an article on “the European Cataclysm” to Against the Current (issue 176, https://solidarity-us.org/node/4422).
In eight chapters divided into two parts, Fire and Blood provides a larger framework and perspective on the epoch as a whole. That amplified structure is the controversial theory of Europe as the site of a prolonged, continental-wide conflict, involving far more than just hostile states, but repeated confrontations by adversarial population components of an overarching “European civil war.”
This is a construct often associated with Paul Preston’s The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (2007). The deep national roots of the conflagration were intertwined with continental-wide battles: between modernity and conservatism; concerning regional autonomies and imperial tradition; pitting the urban proletariat and peasantry against capital and landed property; and civil wars within civil wars triggered by the triangulated relationships among Communism, liberal democracy and fascism.
A principal incentive for Traverso’s new embrace of the argument is to contest those scholars and popularizers who evaluate the brutalities of the period by accentuating near-metaphysical totalitarian evils of the fascist Right and Marxist Left, the dangers of ideology, and the virtues of absolute liberal principles. Collectively, such approaches obscure the actual choices faced by humanity in a full-scale state of catastrophe.
Traverso’s affirmation of the first part of his new paradigm begins with a succinct and riveting dissent: “[Fire and Blood] aims to establish a historical perspective against the anachronism so widespread today that projects onto Europe of the interwar years the categories of our liberal democracies as if these were timeless norms and values.” (2)
The upshot of such erroneous thinking is that “Oskar Schindler has dethroned Missak Manouchian [the martyred French-Armenian Communist poet and leader of a Resistance network of immigrant workers]. The example kept in mind is the businessman (a Nazi party member) who rescued his Jewish employees, rather than that of immigrants in France (Jews and Armenians, Italians and Spaniards) who fought against Nazism in a movement linked to the Communist Party.” (6)
Traverso’s chief culprit for such historical obfuscation is to be found in the ideological imposition after World War II of a limited political spectrum consolidated by intellectual elites and popular demagogues. For this muddle, kudos should especially go out to those who displaced the category of antifascism by “anti-totalitarianism.”
The political term “totalitarian” emerged in the 1920s to describe a one-party despotic state; after World War II, the German-born emigré political theorist Hannah Arendt inaugurated a stimulating debate about the degree to which systems such as German fascism and the post-Lenin Soviet Union were updated versions of old tyrannies or new forms owing to the role of ideology.
In the Cold War, however, “anti-totalitarianism” took on a life of its own as a makeshift doctrine that subsumed Communism into Nazism. The former’s tradition of anti-fascism was nearly erased, and the conflation of the two facilitated harsh international policies toward and domestic repression of the entire Left — including nationalist movements aiming at decolonization.
Many other Left-wing books have explored this phenomenon, but a distinction of Traverso’s volume is that a diversified antifascist culture, vital in the history of endeavors to animate a radical socialist mobilization since the 1920s, receives equal space in many of its complexities.
A Critical Framework
To illuminate the concrete relations between violence, culture and politics in years of escalating terrors, Traverso presents a Marxist notion of Europe as a continent torn apart by a civil war (including revolution and counter-revolution) from 1914 to 1945.
This is a critical framework because “these [liberal] norms turn out to be invalid” due to civil war having “its own logic and its own ‘laws,’ which fatally imposed themselves on all the combatants.” Simply put, “it is a false perspective to try to analyze with the spectacles of Jürgen Habermas or John Rawls an age that produced Ernest Jünger [who wrote on technology and modernity] and Antonio Gramsci, Carl Schmitt and Leon Trotsky.” (2, 3)
Ethical and historical categories are not the same, and Traveso’s shift in template brings the interconnections between politics and culture into thrillingly sharp focus. His morally intricate story is especially instructive for those of us who aspire to harmonize hopes and struggles across national borders, revitalizing revolutionary socialist culture through an internationalism from below.
Which brings us to the other half of the book’s paradigm: Traverso’s examination of the challenging “antinomies” of the antifascist tradition that evolved in response to the growing power of the Right.
Antifascism, persisting to the present in beguiling and sometimes perplexing recollections, to my mind incongruously recalls facets of Susan Sontag’s celebrated contention in her 1974 essay, “Fascinating Fascism.” Antifascism, too, is a multifaceted mode of political practice as well as an aesthetic, together subject to a sequence of misapprehensions.
With fascism, according to Sontag, the perceptual subterfuge is due to a curious retrieval of pilloried cultural styles of the past; with antifascism, according to Traverso, the perpetrators of misperception are the distorting prisms of Communism, liberalism and anti-totalitarianism.
In a criticism of ex-Leftist Francois Furet’s The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century (1995), Traverso observes: “The complexity of the relationship between antifascism and Stalinism is avoided a priori by an approach that sees the former as simply a creature and byproduct of the latter.” (11)
No Rocks Unturned
Yet Traverso, who personifies critical autonomy within a committed Left stance, often sees partial truths in the claims of adversaries such as Furet; he will even quote from the notorious Le Livre noir du communism (1977) if there are facts he believes accurate. (51) The effect is that there are no rocks he refuses to turn over as he confronts, rather than flees from, what blinkered minds may find unsettling about antifascist theory and practice.
Civil war is at all times a lamentable horror even if the armed struggle of antifascist resistance was an essential and proper choice:
“If I mention the atrocities of the Spanish Republicans, it is not to put them on the same footing as the Francoists. If I mention the hideous spectacle of the lynching of Mussolini and the public hanging of his corpse, or the mass rapes of German women by Red Army soldiers as they advanced toward Berlin in May 1945, this is not to cast collaborationists and resisters as equal avatars of an interchangeable violence, nor to equate Soviet war-making with that of the Nazis.” (19)
Traverso is equally undaunted in acknowledging that the Soviet-enmeshed, antifascist experience contains much ready-made material for the creation of fables, some of which he subjects to clear-eyed disapproval: “It is certainly possible to criticize the intellectuals who maintained the myth of the USSR for having lied to themselves and contributed to deceiving the antifascist movement, making themselves propagandists for a totalitarian regime instead of the antifascist movement’s critical conscience.” (270)
Acutely conscious that an amnesiac socialist tradition is a fragile one, Traverso makes no bones about affirming that, even in the mid-1930s, “it was possible to be both antifascist and anti-Stalinist, and that the fascination exercised by Stalinism at this time over the antifascist intelligentsia was not irresistible.” (267)
Just as he holds that, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the political commitment of the Left could only find outlets within the broad antifascist movement in which Communists played an outsized role, he simultaneously seeks to reclaim the defeated and marginalized Left traditions he often cites in passing.
An Elastic Term
Fascism itself is a famously elastic term, often a scare word, or simply inflammatory “red meat” for all sides of the political spectrum.
It is true of course that anyone who has read about the menacing radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin in the 1930s knows that the United States is hardly immune to the poison of fascism, and there are currently a few parties in Europe of a neo-Nazi character (Golden Dawn). Moreover, it is natural to respond to new explosions of vile reaction based on what we think we have learned from earlier ones; nobody wants to trip over the same rock twice.
Yet brandishing the name “Nazi” in a reckless and incendiary manner is no solution. Neo-conservatives in the United States parse “Islamofascism” through mental structures governed by Munich and Pearl Harbor; should the Left now imitate them by explaining the Right-wing populist Donald Trump and Tea Party from an eighty-year-old vantage point?
This was a remarkably distinctive time from our own. Back then, the rule of industrial capitalism could only be maintained by mass terror in Germany; Communists controlled a huge country, the Soviet Union, and were on the offensive in the millions; and the appeal of Nazi political principles and culture to its middle class base was that Hitler projected a futuristic new world run by a race of supermen.
Do we really need to pull our volumes of Thucydides off the shelf to recall that passions overriding lack of careful thought lead to bad outcomes? Things today must surely be called by their correct names, including ugly ones, but a serious calibration of the social basis of political forces amassing on the Right, their ideology, and presently-existing structural determinations are what should govern terminology; not just rage and disgust at the bigotries of Right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism.
The Keys to Intelligibility
As a master class in historical analysis, Traverso ‘s full-on riveting reconceptualization of 1914-1945 as a “European Civil War” is a benchmark achievement in the flowering of socialist scholarship by the generation identifying with May 1968. (Traverso is actually a bit younger, born in 1957; no observer above the fray, he dates his entrance into organized revolutionary politics as 1973, and describes his adolescent self as “one of the final representatives of the ‘last generation of October.’” )
Along with a number of other recent publications, especially Leo Panitch and Greg Albo’s The Politics of the Right: Socialist Register 2016 (2015), featuring Geoff Eley’s indispensable “Fascism Then and Now,” such rigorous, activist-minded thinking is a precondition to forging the new political instruments that we need. The study of previous political forms gives our present a past, and such books stand as a rebuke to those who, even for the best of reasons, rush into the minefields of complicated earlier moments in a frenzy that can produce tendentious conflations.
For Traverso, terrific craftsmanship, kinetic prose, and dazzling competence as a scholar combine to clarify how the keys to intelligibility of the roots of the age of dictatorships and the holocaust can be muddled by a historical revisionism we must overcome. This is accomplished by grounding his treatment in the longer view of history commonly associated with the less economic-determinist renditions of Marxism, expressly identified with Isaac Deutscher and Arno J. Mayer.
In his chapter “Commencement,” for example, Traverso explains that the three decades telescoping the two World Wars “has two ancestors: the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 and the French Revolution a century and a half later…” (30) In “The Anatomy of Civil War,” he then describes how and why the ideology of the Bolsheviks became deformed in a manner parallel to that of the Jacobins.
Other chapters demonstrate that the World War II Allies were fully complicit in a “War Against the Civilians,” committing crimes against non-combatants even apart from the fire-bombings and atomic destruction of Japan.
In “Judging the Enemy,” Traverso takes us through the distressing process that led to the European victors’ eventually setting free “with or without a formal amnesty, almost every prisoner accused of fascism and collaboration, often reintegrating them into the state administration.” (146) Despite declarations of “Victory” by the Allies in 1945, there was no happy ending to this story.
The second half of the book is called “Cultures of War.” It begins with the brief “Eruption,” grounds itself more substantially in “Imaginaries of Violence” and “The Critique of Weapons,” and comes to an astonishing crescendo in “The Antinomies of Anti-Fascism” in which brilliant insights stimulate us repeatedly like shots of espresso. As to whether Traverso’s civil war concept can help us understand the relationship between violence, culture and resistance, his survey of the impact of the Great War on European culture should alone settle the matter forcefully.
Literature, art, music and intellectual thought are at this point traced as the political situation after 1914 morphs melodramatically. What began as a classical war between states becomes a continental-wide civil war “that engulfs nations, in which armies destroy civilian populations, and where there are quite simply no longer any rules but that of the complete destruction of the enemy.” (167)
Traverso’s very opening pages on the premonitions of this coming catastrophe draw the reader inexorably into the web of analysis he spins. Then, writing with a breadth of cultural reference and literary flair, his gripping details — about H. G. Wells, Giovavanni Papini, Arnold Schönberg, Filippo Marinetti, Siegfried Kracauer, Stefan Zweig — come to life with the narrative momentum of a novel.
Among his acute observations are those about “the hidden emotions of a social world disfigured by violence” which is the concealed “face of countless monuments commemorating the fallen that were erected throughout the continent” (174). A characteristic example is the Käthe Kollwitz war memorial in Belgium, which shows not violent death but parents weeping over a tomb.
The Culture of Violence Unleashed
Traverso next enters the moral and psychological world of the interwar decades to explore the further cultural consequences of the violence unleashed. Erich Maria Remarque, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Walter Benjamin are only the first of a long list of his subjects addressing fear and death in fiction, photography, film, historiography, psychiatry, political theory, painting and sociology.
A subsection considers nationalist models of masculinity and the evolution of female depictions from “violated woman” to “horizontal collaborator” — “which inevitably involved both moral stigmatization and physical humiliation: head-shaving as a popular spectacle.” (215) His allusions are numerous but each clicks into place with the precision of a Swiss watch.
Turning more specifically to the challenges confronting intellectuals in the “Political Age” of the 1930s, Traverso uses a second long chapter to once again pursue the historical approach of moving from “prefigurations” of political poles (as in Thomas Mann’s 1920 The Magic Mountain) to the historical conjuncture in which Communism and fascism seemed to be the principal solutions to a catastrophic crisis — one that liberalism helped yield and could no longer contain.
With a Jamesian capacity for analytic nuance, Traverso revisits several famous literary encounters — Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt, Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky — to produce treatments that are as lucid for the novice as they will be illuminating for the specialist.
His succinct but stabbing conclusion contains meaningful if unnerving words from Trotsky, the “enigmatic figure” who was both “inflexible dictator and persecuted revolutionary.” In response to one of the most compelling critics of Bolshevik morality, Traverso notes: “At bottom he [Trotsky] was not wrong to ask what [Victor] Serge wanted: ‘to purge civil war of the practices of hostages or to purge human history of civil war.” (253).
This point is so germane to the excruciating paradoxes of Traverso’s book as to deliver a contact high.
To be sure, the primary question for antifascists of the 1930s, or any other time, is whether one will submit to (or cooperate in) the imminent violence of others, or resist by force of arms. Nonviolent means of struggle for social change are preferable wherever that is possible, so the question of accurately recognizing authentic fascism, with its instantaneous brutality ruling out nonviolence, is a necessity.
In the Great Depression, the “committed” intellectuals were so massively in favor of transforming themselves into fighters, sometimes by pen and other times by sword, that it is hard to fathom the state of confusion that prevails in European culture at the present time. Traverso is near apoplectic in reporting that there has been an oscillation of understanding to the point where in Italy and Spain the pro- and antifascist veterans are forced to march together in national commemorations. (6)
This and several analogous developments hit like a sledgehammer as a call-to-arms for the historically-minded Left. Clearly there are areas of contemporary political and cultural life where stating the obvious has become an underrated skill: some civil wars are worth waging, and sides have to be chosen.
What ensues after a commitment to armed struggle, of course, is not a simple matter, as Trotsky’s challenge to Serge points up. The “Prophet Outcast” advocated the use of historical understanding to promote social transformation to permanently eliminate oppression, and he remained suspicious of abstract moral codes that no one actually follows in civil war. This makes sense, but, then again, later history provides reasons to be far less confident than Trotsky about the capacity of even a tried and tested genius to forecast the means that in point of fact will lead to desired ends.
Traverso, too, recognizes the dilemma. Purity — the programmatic catechism of sectarians — was never an option, and “real, existing” antifascism is an indispensible heritage of which the imperfections must be studied.
Traverso’s chapter “The Antinomies of Antifascism” explains the genealogy of the movement in a manner that allows us to further understand why some degree of acceptance of co-operation with Stalinism was so plausible at the time, and why antifascism is hardly reducible to Stalinism.
Antifascist culture emerged in the 1920s, prior to Communist interest, and was never entirely coterminous; in fact, the Soviet leadership’s 1935 turn from “Third Period” ultraleftism in the direction of the antifascist campaign was an adaptation to a growing movement from below. Thus a political and ideological cohabitation within antifascist culture existed from the beginning in Italy and into the early postwar era — social democrats, anarchists, Trotskyists, liberals, nationalists and more.
Nevertheless, relatively few once radicalized around antifascism could resist the magnet of Communism. Liberal institutions in Europe were incapable of fighting fascism until World War II broke out, and the United States intervened only when attacked by Japan. The convictions of the Communists, their will and vision of universal emancipation linked to ideals about the land of the October Revolution – even though the Soviet state was dramatically weakened by Stalin’s execution of the historic leaders of the revolution and the military — became nearly as decisive in the fight as the material resources of the Red Army.
Communists, not liberals, were the primary inspirational force behind 1930s resistance in Germany, Italy and Spain, and then in the 1940s among partisans throughout the continent.
A second puzzle developed in antifascist culture around the issue of what Max Weber called the “ethic of conviction” as distinguished from the “ethic of responsibility.” Should the Resistance act to hurt its enemy wherever possible, even when victory is a long shot; or should it hold back if some actions may lead to worse things (typically mass reprisals), despite intentions?
Today, in human rights discourse, the contrast might seem to be between those willing to sacrifice lives of civilians for a utopian cause as opposed to those simply “concerned for real human beings.” Should the goal have been the long-term liberation of humanity (utopianism) or the short-term object of aiding victims and preventing more casualties (humanitarianism)?
Early in the book, Traverso cites criticisms of the May 1942 attack on Reinhard Heydrich in Prague (followed by the massacre at Lidice) and the May 1944 Via Rasella assault in Rome (resulting in Nazi reprisals against 335 civilians in the Fosse Ardeatine), but concludes: “In the reality of a civil war…the wide spectrum of behavior of the actors involved seems often hard to pin down to one or other of Weber’s two ideal types.” The two “are never completely separated, being instead connected and mingled in various ways,” and “Resistance fighters put much effort into questioning the consequences of their actions.” (7)
For evidence of this, he cites the debate within the Jewish Resistance that preceded the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The armed Resistance had no chance of success and might even be judged by contemporary liberals as fanatics immolating themselves for a hopeless cause; yet their rivals, the leaders of the Jewish Councils who miscalculated that their personal collaboration with the Nazis would surely save more lives, are not the ones we honor today.
The Fate of the Jews
Nevertheless, it is precisely in the area of “the Jewish question” where Traverso posits a strong criticism of antifascist culture. To be specific, the fate of the Jews did not appear particular and prophetic. Antifascists saw anti-Semitism as part of a Nazi regression to Medieval irrationalism and obscurantism, and refused to disentangle the Jewish disaster from the overall misery of the colossal carnage that left Europe in rubble.
To acknowledge something new, different and modern in Nazi anti-Semitism is not the same as a Judeocentrism that refuses to fully recognize the monstrousness of non-Jewish killings among Russians, Poles and others, or that the German people were also victims of fascism.
Rather, this incapacity to grasp the war against the Jews as distinctively foreboding is judged by Traverso to be the mark of an incapacity to apprehend fascism itself as the child of modernity, albeit a reactionary variant. Contrary to an Enlightenment credence in the progress of civilization, genocide against the Jews was no anachronistic relapse but a part of the forward march of history.
Genocide was the product of an industrialized and bureaucratic new world that was already, and would continue, subordinating weaker peoples with the kind of technological and instrumental rationality at work in the death campus.
In Traverso’s view, the same kind of uncritical loyalty to the 19th century idea of progress that led to seeing Nazi anti-semitism as one of many ephemeral throwbacks also lay behind the illusions about Stalinism in antifascist culture. Communists as well as liberal fellow travelers could interpret the actions of the Soviet Union as a kind of Enlightenment on speed, perpetually in a state of emergency; the struggle for progress coincided with the defense of the Socialist homeland.
Yet today we are still faced with a cascade of violent tragedies engulfing millions that can be traced to modernization projects such as the capitalist restructuring of the 1970s and globalization. They feature technologically facilitated massacres by drone attacks as well as suicide bombers recruited through the internet; previously unimaginable mass migrations under acute duress; and racialized propaganda campaigns once again targeting refugees, immigrants and the stateless.
We now have boundless reasons to doubt the prevailing liberal and antifascist view that the end of World War II was the ineluctable triumph of Enlightenment reason. In the dissident genre of antifascist culture that Traverso seems to favor, there is more than an echo of Theodor Adorno’s dictum that sees Auschwitz not as a rupture with but as a product of modern “civilization.”
The Winds of History
Fire and Blood is the gleaming work of a scholar at the pinnacle of his craftsmanship; there are only a few places where the book briefly derails. Some readers may be disoriented by Traverso’s occasional use of “totalitarian” to characterize Stalin’s Soviet Union (10, 270), which seems to contradict his disparagement of the totalitarian model as the means by which attributes of fascism were transferred to communism after World War II.
Possibly, like Trotsky, Traverso is distinguishing between a Soviet political superstructure remarkably like that of Germany and Italy, even as the social-economic base and founding ideology of the state were dramatically dissimilar. (See Trotsky’s “The USSR in War,” September 1939.)
Another matter that could use a fuller exposition is Traverso’s view of the Popular Front, to which there are surprisingly few direct references. He is unambiguous about the impotence of liberalism in the crisis of the era, but far less searching about the limitations of the prevailing cross-class alliance.
A third inadequacy is a paucity of evidence about the case for the “European Civil War” model in the face of challenges that it allegedly downplays the international dimensions of the 30-year conflict and the role of the United States. Finally, I was surprised by the political identification of Albert Camus as “a writer who was never a Communist” (260); in Algeria, Camus in 1935 joined the French Communist Party, from which he was expelled in 1937 as a “Trotskyite.”
Blood and Fire does not tell us “what to do next,” but gives us a past that opens up the future to informed innovation. Much of the narrative seems to point back to roads not taken and decisions not made. To create a radical present, then, contemporary rebels need to look beyond conventionally-acclaimed success stories to the revolutionary traditions that Stalinism and liberalism have done their utmost to bury.
My sense is that Traverso himself signaled a desire to emulate one of the great heresiarchs of this legacy in his opening commendation of “the limpid prose of Isaac Deutscher… borne by the winds of history with its torments and contradictions.” (10) Mission accomplished!
Alan Wald is the author of many books, most recently American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press).