“Earlier eras, with their wars, famines, and revolts, were deprecated as times when mankind was still immature and unenlightened. But now it was merely a matter of decades until the last vestige of evil and violence would finally be conquered, and this faith in an uninterrupted and irresistible “progress” truly had the force of a religion for that generation…There was as little belief in the possibility of such barbaric declines as wars between the peoples of Europe as there was in witches and ghosts.”
— Stefan Zweig, 1941
Until recently, my understanding of European history went like this: For centuries there was war, culminating in the two world wars of the twentieth century. Then, through a series of collective security arrangements after the Second World War, things stabilized.
In other words, Europe was more or less always at war. Then, after 1945, it wasn’t.
My take on Europeans’ view of war followed suit. For centuries, I assumed, someone living in Europe took war for granted as an ordinary, expected part of life. It was anticipated, not surprising. Then, in the 1950s, things changed. Suddenly and for the first time, it was possible to envision the end of European land wars.
This narrative I long held reflects not only an inadequate study of history but the distortians of a modernist sensibility. By “modernist,” I mean a worldview that sees progress as likely, if not inevitable, and relegates humanity’s deepest horrors to the past. “Sure, times are tough, but I could never imagine that happening.” Denial may not be a river in Egypt, but when you are subject to the modernist sensibility, it might as well be.
Many Americans share this sensibility, yet with a crucial twist. Not only are full-scale land wars a thing of the past, but they are literally “over there.” When my grandfather returned to New York after the Second World War, he arrived in a country (save Hawaii) filled with intact buildings and inhabited by civilians whose closest contact with warfare had come through newsreels and letters. The same could not, of course, be said of Europe. There 15–20 million civilians perished, and the physical destruction was overwhelming and omnipresent for years. This difference, coupled with the United State’s cultural predisposition to forget the past, explains the triumphant narrative of the war passed down from my grandfather to my father and then to me.
So, for Europeans, full-scale land wars have been a thing of the past. For Americans, they have been that plus an event “over there.”
Until recently, this story of history resonated for me. What shifted my interpretation wasn’t the Russian invasion of Ukraine (more about this in a moment) but a book written three quarters of a century ago. In the 1920s and 30s Stefan Zweig was Europe’s most widely translated novelist. In The World of Yesterday, his 1941 memoir, Zweig describes life in his native Vienna before the First World War as forward-looking and optimistic. Modern culture had taken root. Civilization was on an upswing. War and other forms of barbarism were a thing of the past. Yes, there was suffering and inequality. Yes, there were examples of what we now call injustice around the world. But for Zweig and many in modernized Europe, the notion of a world war centered in Europe seemed outlandish.
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914, Zweig writes, few saw this as a harbinger of major conflict. People assumed that Europe’s powers would work things out — so strong was the “faith in an uninterrupted and irresistible progress.” Only in retrospect can we see this assassination as the spark that lit the fuse. Nonetheless, one by one, a series of events and decisions quickly led Europe into what became known as the War to End All Wars and, after that hopeful prediction proved false, the First World War. Thus, the very experience that Zweig and his generation considered unthinkable became a reality. As Tony Judt writes in Thinking The Twentieth Century, the book he cowrote with Timothy Snyder, this represented the “utter collapse of what had once seemed not just a permanent condition of prosperous well-being, but a new and promising world in the making.”
Reading Zweig’s memoir turned my understanding of history on its head. It was no longer possible to see Europe’s past as simply one war after the other. Missing from my narrative were the experiences of actual Europeans living in particular periods of history. When you put yourself in their shoes and see what they saw at the time, things look very differently.
For me, the four decades of peace between the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the start of the First World War always seemed like a blip in time (when I thought of them at all). For Zweig and his generation, it was nearly a lifetime. With war a distant memory and with modernism in the air, it was reasonable to conclude that humanity had finally outgrown centuries of bloodshed. That we now know this assumption to have been shortsighted does not negate the fact that millions of Europeans held it.
As did millions of Europeans (and Americans and…) earlier this year.
Even as Putin’s armies marched west and U.S. intelligence predicted an invasion, few thought it would actually happen. How, in this modern day and age, could a full-scale land war break out in Europe? A week after the invasion, I read a social media post from an American of Ukranian descent. He admitted that, although hardened by his knowledge of Putin’s brutality, he had never imagined Putin would take things that far. Again, Zweig: “There was as little belief in the possibility of such barbaric declines as wars between the peoples of Europe as there was in witches and ghosts.”
And yet here we are.
That’s the thing about catastrophic risks like war, pandemics, and climate-related catastrophes. How they appears shifts dramatically based on where you are in time. Afterwards, you view them as inevitable. But beforehand, they seem outside the realm of possibility. One reason is the modernist belief in progress and the cognitive biases this reinforces. The dark days, we say, are behind us.
But equally important is an assumption about how past generations experienced horrors like war. We think that they saw it coming, that there were clear signs each step of the way saying “disaster ahead.” This leads us, by analogy, to erroneously conclude that the signs of a future horror should be obvious to us today. If they aren’t, then our time must be different from that earlier time. We must have escaped history.
The Russian invasion taught all of us the opposite. There is no way to escape history. And the impulse for barbarism and violence remains very much a part of the human experience.
So, perhaps it’s time to read history differently — not simply in retrospect, but also through the experiences of those living through it. Putting ourselves in others’ shoes reminds us that uncertainty isn’t new and the future has never been predictable. Although our society is in many ways more complex than the world of Stefan Zweig, in at least one regard it is strikingly similar. We simply don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We don’t.
This gives today’s uncertainty and volatility new meaning. We stop fooling ourselves that this era of humanity is the first that is capable of being blindslided by catastrophe. And we stop expecting the future to send back clear signals of what lays ahead. This is a humbling realization, but one that can make us better prepared and perhaps even wiser.