Book Review: Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914–1945, by Enzo Traverso.
e Journal of International Relations
Review: Fire and Blood: T he European Civil
0 The Journal of International Relations, Peace and Development Studies A publication by Arcadia University and the American Graduate School in Paris
Book Review: Fire and
Reviewed by Chris Goldie
Fire and Blood aims to establish the validity of a European civil war, 1914-45 as an historical period.
It argues that all “participants” whether civilians or belligerents were governed by its precepts, and
that all modes of critical thinking, ethical discourse, artistic and cultural representation and political
theory were drawn into its ambit, foreclosing on the possibility of thinking outside of its logic. From
this logic flows its use of sources such as Carl Schmitt, its interpretation of violence, and its
assessment of the contradictions of antifascism. There is an extensive discussion of the
phenomenology of civil war, characterised by limitless violence and novel forms of conflict. The
review considers critically the book’s periodisation and the tension it creates between the
identification of geopolitical historical processes and those of an apparently transhistorical character.
Fire and Blood has to be understood first as an exercise in periodisation. It is also much more than
this, but the strengths and weaknesses of Traverso’s conception of the sequence of time from 1914 to
1945 as a coherent phase of European history are intrinsic to the process of its construction as a
period. Some historical periods once appeared to be self-evident, but no historian since the publication
of Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in the
late 1940s can be unaware of their artificial nature. Historical periods are the forcing of temporal flow
into a frame, one with no existence prior to its identification, a structure made for a purpose. Periods
are not primarily chronologies within which the mere succession of one event by another provides
historical meaning. Periodisation is an interpretive tool, designed to pursue an intellectual task or
question, through which certain features – agents, identities, processes, places – are abstracted from
the flow of time, not simply as aggregations of events happening within the same time frame but as
sets of correspondences and connections within which disparate and distinct phenomena are enlisted
into a coherent yet complex narrative.
Traverso touches very lightly and rarely explicitly upon the practice of historical periodisation but the
organisation of the book suggests an underlying methodology. He also identifies a key temporal
category: Braudel’s notion of a “conjuncture” or “cycle”, a period within which the distinct
temporalities of long-term historical structures - the longue durée - and the fleeting “event” are
brought together. It is argued that the notion of “European civil war” can be understood in this
conjunctural sense: it is neither a unique, ephemeral occurrence nor a long-term movement in society
but “a cycle in which a chain of catastrophic events – crises, conflicts, wars, revolutions – condenses a
historical mutation whose premises were built up, over the longue durée, in the course of the
preceding century” (42-43).
Some of the rationale for this conception of a 20th century European civil war is established through
reference to its hypothetical antecedents: the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, which concluded with the
Peace of Westphalia; and the period following the French Revolution, ending with the Congress of
Vienna in 1815. In the main, though, the argument is presented through a series of thematic chapters,
focusing upon the period 1914-1945 but also trawling further into the past, engaging with events,
processes, philosophical debates, political theory, and artistic representations, each of which has a
distinct rhythm and timescale.
There is a tension within the book between the identification of inescapably geopolitical historical
processes and those of an apparently transhistorical character. The conception of civil war employed
frequently emphasises forms rather than causes, repeatedly embracing the notion that in such conflicts
ferocity is without boundaries. To read the book as suggesting that periodic catastrophes, as that which
occurred in 20th century Europe, take the form they do because of the human propensity for violence,
is to do it a disservice, however. One aim is indeed to represent the phenomenology of civil war, how
all “participants” whether civilians or belligerents were governed by its precepts, the novel forms and
limitlessness of its violence. But it is also an account of the historically determined logic of civil war,
a discussion of the extent to which all modes of critical thinking, ethical discourse, artistic and cultural
representation and political theory were drawn into its ambit, foreclosing on the possibility of thinking
outside of its logic.
Because the book conceives of its period as having a deep, paradigmatic and inexorable logic it is
possible to present Leon Trotsky and Carl Schmitt as unreconcilable adversaries, but also as
possessing similar analyses of their historical situation. Employing Carl Schmitt as a source is of
course problematic, not simply because of his avowed Nazism but because his political philosophy is
now regarded by some as recuperable. It is necessary to decide, therefore, if Schmitt offers historical
insights irrespective of the deplorable context in which they first appeared, or whether his much
broader critique of Enlightenment ideas has some value. Traverso does both: he considers Schmitt’s
definitions of civil war and the “partisan” useful despite their wider context (65,79); and he stages a
‘dialogue’ between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, on the grounds that the latter had drawn from
Schmitt’s political theory some of its key categories. They had each, Traverso argues, formulated “a
similar diagnosis of the crisis of the present, and the need to take a decision in order to escape from
it…, but leading to opposite political therapies: revolution and counter-revolution” (243-244). One
might argue, as TJ Clark has, that some “dangerous voices” one only consults “at a moment of true
historical failure. We read them only when events oblige us to ask ourselves what it was, in our
previous stagings of transfiguration, that led to the present debacle” (2012). Alternatively, the use of
Schmitt or Ernst Jünger might be justified on the grounds that their ideas are not simply commentaries
on civil war as an event requiring explanation, but are inseparable from its unfolding and complicit
with it as a political project.
The dialectical tension integral to the concept of a European civil war is not always clearly
communicated. There is a discussion of the frequent but rarely rigorous employment of the concept.
The author cites its first use as by the German painter Franz Marc, shortly before his death at Verdun
in March 1916. Ernst Jünger then adopted the term in 1930 in an essay reflecting on the apocalyptic
nature of the 1914-18 war, and again in the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad. The German
philosopher Karl Löwith, in exile in Japan in 1940, used the concept of civil war to define the
nihilistic character of both the First World War and the war then under way. Subsequently the concept
of a European civil war had been accepted by historians, most notably and notoriously by conservative
historian Ernst Nolte in Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, 1917–1945 (1987), by Marxist Eric Hobsbawm
in The Age of Extremes (1996) and by Francois Furet in The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of
Communism In The Twentieth Century (2000).
Traverso refers to the “richness and plurality of meanings” (28) with which the concept is associated
but these are not always given sufficient background. The statement made by Franz Marc, for
example, that the “European civil war” was “a war against the inner invisible enemy of the European
spirit”(P.24) needs greater explanation. Marc had been a member of the Blaue Reiter group of
expressionist painters and shared with the rest of the European avant garde a desire for cultural
renewal, a feeling at its most intense in Italy and Germany where the view that war would be a great
purging of the decadence ascendant in Europe was common. Given this context, Marc’s reference to a
“European spirit” makes most sense in relation to a discussion, in the second half of the book, of the
extraordinary consensus amongst intellectuals across Germany and the Hapsburg empire that the war
was a mission to regenerate civilisation. Thomas Mann, Siegfried Kracauer, Wittgenstein and Freud
were aroused by the patriotic frenzy. Traverso refers too to the patriotism that swept all of Europe in
1914 but these examples are not necessarily relevant, given that chauvinism took different forms in
each of the belligerent nations. If in Britain patriotism had its precursors in the consolidation of the
culture and ideology of empire in the preceding decades – the crowning of Victoria as Empress of
India in 1877, public celebrations of the relief of Mafeking in 1900 – Wilhelmine Germany was
distinct in that the cause of war was so often advocated in terms of a spiritual yearning and as a great
civilising mission simultaneously expressed in the language of geopolitics: a recent monograph cites
Thomas Mann’s response to the sinking of the Lusitania, in which the author enthused over “the
destruction of that impudent symbol of English mastery of the sea and of a still comfortable
civilisation, the sinking of the gigantic pleasure ship”, and a socialist journalist who was reported to
have described the event as “the greatest act of heroism in the whole of human history” (Jasper 2016).
These bewildering manifestations of collective consciousness during the era of the Kaiserreich were
not unconnected to the latter’s expansionary ambitions and its military leaders’ sense of the intolerable
restrictions placed upon it by an international law perceived to be of benefit to Britain. How culture,
collective mentalities and state action corresponded is not easy to establish, however. This would
certainly have been an uneven relationship, developing at different tempos within each sphere, but
Mann’s enthusiasm for submarine warfare and the drowning of civilians as part of the battle against
cultural decadence is a perplexing example of such a configuration. That Traverso cites some of these
examples but doesn’t place them more firmly within the political culture of Germany is a little
frustrating. There is in contrast an excellent discussion of the end of Mitteleuropa: on the one hand it
had “signified the geopolitical idea of a Grossdeutschland as the dominant power at the heart of the
continent”; but it also denoted the “cultural unity of the Germanic world, beyond political frontiers”, a
notion which then became identified during the interwar years with the mythical “legacy of the
Hapsburg empire, multinational and cosmopolitan” in form. None of this survived the “ravages of the
European civil war” and the redrawing of borders after 1945. But above all its end had been brought
about by “the extermination of the Jews, who had been its real cultural cement” (125-126).
The issue of international law is a recurring theme in Fire and Blood. The first chapter begins with a
short account of the “hundred year peace” born at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, during which
Europe was disturbed only by short and limited conflicts: the Crimean war (1853-54); the
FrancoAustrian war (1859); the Austro-Prussian war (1866-67); and the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71).
There existed, it is argued, a “sentiment, deeply rooted in all countries of the continent, of belonging to
one and the same civilisation and sharing the same values” (36). Because diplomacy was entrusted to
an aristocratic elite, all the members of which shared similar tastes and habits and held the same
worldview, it was thought inconceivable that European peace could be shattered in the manner that
occurred in 1914. The short explanation for the undermining of this common culture is the rise of
nationalisms, but it is evident from subsequent chapters that the disintegration of consensus occurred
also around issue of international law in relation to war, its ambiguities and ideological underpinning.
This is palpable in the mentality of the German High Command in 1914, whose justification for the
violence against Belgian civilians, widely seen by international public opinion as illegal, was the
memory of the danger of ‘snipers’ during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.
There is a digression into the social practice of duelling, legal in 19th century Prussia and encouraged
within the aristocratic, military caste as a means of regulating conflict, but which went into sharp
decline after 1914. The duel was analogous to, even a symptom of, the doctrine that war could only be
declared by a legitimate authority, that it was bound by rules and that “use of force should be
proportionate to the injustice suffered” (65). Duelling was the preserve of social elites, the objective
was to wound but not kill the opponent, it was seen as an honourable and highly regulated exchange
between adversaries each of whom recognised the legitimacy of the other. In this respect the duel
embodied the principles of war, “codified [in a] system of relations between states possessing the
monopoly of legitimate violence within their respective territories” (65).
The principles of proportionality, regulation and legitimacy have no place in civil war. Traverso
quotes from Thucydides’ commentary, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, on the civil war that
occurred on the island of Corcyra in 427 BCE: “as usually happens at such times, there was no length
to which violence did not go” (71). He argues that Thucydides’ description of the phenomenology of
violence could equally be applied to the 20th century, suggesting that the cruelty, atrocities and horror
of civil war were intrinsic to a situation in which combat is not regulated by law and in which the
complete destruction of the enemy is its only objective. But he also suggests that the impulse towards
violence cannot be understood as part of a strategic calculation: the violence of civil war is a form of
transgression, a “collective effervescence”, comparable to a festival in which what has been
“traditionally forbidden is now permitted or prescribed” (84).
Because the book is premised upon the notion that civil war has a logic from which contending parties
cannot withdraw, it inevitably has a complex position in relation to the violence of the left. Traverso
begins by arguing that “the moral condemnation of violence” cannot “replace its analysis and
interpretation” and that “if all civil wars are tragedies, some deserve commitment” (8). He rejects
historical approaches in which revolutions from the left are characterised by their tendency towards
“limitless terror”, and disclaims Ernst Nolte’s conception of totalitarianism, within which Nazi
violence was a reaction to and imitation of the “class genocide” of the Bolsheviks.
The book tends to accept that violent resistance is a necessary expedient, whilst being sceptical of its
defence on abstract philosophical grounds. The author recognises that in 1920 the Bolsheviks
“practised terror as a weapon of survival, in a desperate struggle against an enemy that threatened to
crush them”, but is less impressed by its justification “in the name of the laws of history…, the forceps
needed to give birth to a new society…, the practices of the Cheka” finding “legitimation in Marx’s
thesis of violence as the ‘midwife’ of history” (99).
There is an extensive discussion of Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours (1938), in which the author had
argued that “defence of the revolution meant unconditional approval of all the political and military
measures adopted by the Bolsheviks during the civil war”(149). The main weakness in the argument is
not his justification of the conduct of the war, which Traverso sees as a realistic appraisal of the
situation, but its confused and illogical attempt to postulate a morality of the proletarian revolution,
embodied by Bolshevism and based on the rejection of any dualism between ends and means,
qualifying this with the notion that not all means are acceptable but without specifying which. Trotsky
is in other words at his weakest when he reveals himself to be a “good disciple of the Enlightenment”,
rejecting the idea that morality can be embodied within a Kantian categorical imperative, but seeking
for it another universal grounding, whereas, Traverso maintains, the revolutionary leader’s accurate
perceptions were that “humanism” had “been felled in the trenches of the Great War and buried by a
new age of tensions and conflicts” (253).
There is, on the other hand, a strand of discussion in Fire and Blood suggesting that the forms of “hot
violence” endemic to civil war situations were not a Hobbesian “regression to a pre-political state of
nature”, and that the desire for rules and ethical standards persisted amongst the carnage (81). The case
of Simone Weil and her enlisting in the Spanish Republican cause is used to illustrate the moral
dilemmas faced by someone who hated war and violence but who “couldn’t ethically refuse to
participate” (255). In the anarchist militia in which she enrolled Weil saw “immorality, cynicism,
fanaticism and cruelty rubb[ing] shoulders with love, the spirit of fraternity and above all the demand
for honour that is so fine among humiliated men” (246). The partisan militia is a striking example of
the prevalence of irregular combatants in civil war conditions, but they would often seek “to embody a
new legitimacy” and to “set their own rules” (81). The historian of the Italian Resistance, Claudio
Pavone, discussed the tendency within partisan groups to establish “normative standards”, and to
demonstrate that they were not “brigands”, as their enemies maintained; thus, “summary execution”
and “excesses of violence” coexisted with “an extremely sharp sense of justice and a firm morality of
combat”. Weil observed that, despite the atrocities committed, “theft and rape were capital crimes in
the anarchist militias” (82).
As the book’s final chapter, “The Antinomies of Antifascism”, argues, there was a turning-point
Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, reaching its “apogee during the Spanish Civil War” - when it was
almost impossible to avoid being “caught up in the cleavage between fascism and antifascism”
(258259). A notable development was the “deep metamorphosis in the world of culture” within which the
“transition from intellectual to fighter” occurred (256). Traverso considers that fighting fascism was a
moral and existential obligation but his observations of the imperative forms of commitment: the
taking up of arms, the “necessity of combat”, underline the overall theme of the book. He also
expresses the view that antifascism didn’t really understand the nature of its adversary and the full
extent of the calamity that had occurred, partly because it still inhabited the conceptual world of the
“It is clearly impossible to grasp the modernity of fascism on the basis of a philosophy of history that
postulates the evolution of humanity towards the ineluctable triumph of reason. Yet an important
characteristic of antifascism, which contributes to explaining both its complacency towards Stalinism
and its involuntary blindness to the Jewish genocide, was its bitter and uncritical defence of the idea of
progress, inherited from the European culture of the nineteenth century” (274).
The philosophers of the era best able to grasp the catastrophe were those who refused the idea of
progress: Adorno, who “shared the antifascist culture while remaining on its margins, aware that,
despite its defeat, Nazism had already changed the face of the century and the image of man”(275);
and Walter Benjamin with his apocalyptic vision of history in ruins.
Fire and Blood is not a book about origins, even though there are legitimate questions still to be asked
about the causes of the First World War. Nor is it a book about fascism in the 20th century, taking as it
does a much broader perspective on the cataclysmic events of which fascism was so clearly a part.
Nevertheless, there are moments in the book when fascism looms large. In the final chapter Traverso
identifies Georges Bataile as someone who was sceptical towards antifascism, despite his
anthropological critique of Nazism’s symbols and myths. He might have added, though, that Bataile
had considered fascism to have an appeal not currently provided by bourgeois culture or its orthodox
socialist opponents. It had, Bataille argued: “an effervescence of subversive heterogeneity”, its
“transgressive, genuinely antibourgeois moments” and its “celebration of the mutilated and ecstatic
body” offering a “timely reawaken[ing] of affective forces” (Jay 1993: 56-57).
Whilst Nazism is often characterised as anti-modern, its embrace of neoclassical architecture and its
staging of Entartete Kunst - the Degenerate Art Exhibition – providing evidence of this, particularly in
its early years it had a powerful modernist strand, a component of which came from the First World
War experience, which for writers such as Ernst Jünger represented an ecstatic moment of frenzy, the
erotic nature of which was realised through the technologies of war. In his novel The Steel Cubicle,
Marinetti had imagined his adventures in the war with his armoured car: “equipped with a machine
gun installed as a ‘spine’ at the rear…”, his “relationship with his vehicle was one of love, a source of
the aesthetic and sensual pleasure celebrated in the futurist exaltation of the machine. Battle, or
entering a town, became ‘forced coitus’ ” (211).
These horrible examples of sadism and misogyny are particularly disturbing because they were the
product of a much wider culture than the one eventually established under Nazi rule, representing a
repertoire of unrealised possibilities from which fascism could draw. That Nazism once in power
promoted a culture of homogeneity, incorporating such imperatives as duty, discipline and obedience,
neglecting the “explosive expressions of heterogeneity” (Jay: Ibid) anticipated by intellectuals of the
radical right such as Schmitt and Jünger, might have been simply a question of timing, something that
Fire and Blood, with its particular synthesis of distinct yet conjunctural temporalities conveys.
Braudel, Fernand (1966) : The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip
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Clark, T.J. (2012) “For a Left With No Future.” In: New Left Review 2/74.
Jay, Martin (1993)) ‘The Reassertion of Sovereignty in a Time of Crisis: Carl Schmitt and Georges
Bataille.’ In: Force Fields, New York and London: Routledge.
Jasper, Willi (2016): ‘Lusitania’: The Cultural History of a Catastrophe, New Haven: Yale University
Chris Goldie is Honorary Research Fellow, formerly Senior Lecturer, in the Department of Media,
Arts and Communication, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. He is a cultural historian with an interest
in Marxism, cultural theory, the British New Left, art and design history, and the social history of