Reframing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a Civil War

In his provocative new book, Enzo Traverso proposes not only considering World Wars I and II as a single conflict, but also framing them as an extended European civil war, rather than a global struggle; can the same concept be applied to the Middle East?

Nitzan Lebovic
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Government militia members fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Government militia members fight in the Spanish Civil War.Credit: AP
Nitzan Lebovic

“Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945,” by Enzo Traverso (translated from the French by David Fernbach); Verso Books, 293 pages, $26.95

Enzo Traverso’s new book has provoked considerable interest in the English-speaking world. Conferences assessing its thesis have been held at the New School and at Princeton University, The Guardian has praised its “unfamiliar perspective” on European history, and reviewers have lauded it as innovative and comprehensive.

Is the hype deserved? And is the transformation of a world war to a long civil war convincing?

The book presents a relatively simple thesis: Historically, the two world wars were an extended European civil war, rather than a series of international ideological conflicts. Conceptually, civil wars entail the collapse of the political structure before they turn to total mobilization. “Civil war,” Traverso writes, “is not a conflict between states, but a breakdown of order within a state no longer able to impose its monopoly of violence. The enemy parties are not two regular armies but two factions within one and the same state, only one of which possesses a legal status, so that the distinction between civilian and combatant becomes highly problematic.”

In other words, Mussolini and Franco, Hitler and Stalin, were interested first in breaking apart the law and parliamentary system in their own lands and only then in carrying this flame to neighboring countries.

For Traverso, the process starts in 1914-15 with the outbreak of World War I, which raises the question: How does a 20th-century world war qualify as a civil war? The key is the erasure of international issues so as to focus instead on the widespread domestic conflicts of the era – the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil conflicts and political murders within Germany, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Italian fascism, and the collapse of the Balkan states. Without saying it, he demonstrates that if “Europe” has ever existed as a single cultural or political entity, that unity has been defined by warfare.

A positive, united European political identity appeared only once the United States demanded it, after World War I. From this point of view, it is civil wars, beginning with the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), that truly shaped modern Europe – not a shared history of Enlightenment thought, parliamentary politics and tax regulation (one may recall that in “Buddenbrooks,” Thomas Mann described a newly constructed German unity on the basis of a federal tax code). To a World War I veteran, such achievements looked like self-interested schemes. The revolutionary demand for democracy typically served one political camp (the progressives), while the counterrevolutionary legacy served the other (the reactionaries).

Traverso shows that between 1918 and 1939, a series of civil disturbances – which he posits as one prolonged internal conflict – lent their character to the popular conception of Europe, both positively and negatively. The outbreak of World War II only helped to expand the notion of modernity-as-struggle, a reductive division of the world into good and bad, right and wrong. This division expanded its reductive powers after World War II, and determined the ideology of left-wing progressivism as a contrarian, anti-fascist “ethos”: “What explains the spread of antifascism during the 1930s is neither the seductive power of an ideology nor the irresistible force of a propaganda machine, but its capacity to impose itself as a collective ethos on all those set on combating the dictatorships of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco.”

Furthermore, though the world wars are long over, Traverso insists that we are still trapped in the conceptual oppositions that enabled them: for and against the state, for and against international law, for and against the (French) revolution, for and against progress, for and against the liberal order. As the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon wrote in “Democracy, Past and Present” (2006), describing the present moment: “We live through the ordeal of an apparent dissolution or erasure: the feeling of a decline of sovereignty... and democracy. But the key is to emphasize that it is now time to approach the political, taking these gray zones as a point of departure, making sense of the weakened energies, the paralyzing drifts, and the silent fragmentations.”

'The Staircase,' painted by Hannah Höch, 1923-1926, in the collection of the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Credit: Jörg P. Anders

Conceptual triangle

Why should we adopt a new perspective on the last century? What can the idea of civil wars offer that the idea of international wars cannot? Traverso points at a conceptual triangle: First, he suggests that the ancient category of civil war defined Europe much better than the Enlightenment and reason or progress. To prove this, he travels back to the first historian, Thucydides, who described the Athenian-Peloponnesian war that broke out in 431 B.C.E. as a civil war, or “an eruption of hate in which general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity were abolished and replaced by violence and depravity.” When the very essence of order broke down, “death raged in every shape.” The first point is that as much as Europe was the birthplace of democracy, it has long been home to civil wars.

If the first vertex of this triangle suggests a paradigmatic and ahistorical category at the heart of “Europe,” the second attempts to take a series of local conflicts and globalize them; Traverso proposes to view the paradoxical alliance between internal conflicts and world wars as a historical phenomenon, an explosion of violence that was sparked by the radicalization of political discourse during the 1920s. Threatened by the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain, the radical left wing and radical right wing in those countries became unequal partners in the undermining of the global liberal order: The former pushed for a socialist revolution, the latter for a fascist revolution.

Here Traverso turns to Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt. The first was a German-Jewish intellectual who offered a somewhat Brechtian critique of politics. The latter became the “crown jurist of the Third Reich.” Both men attacked the liberal order as an inherently faulty and self-serving mechanism meant to reinforce the position of the economic and political elite. Traverso reads the work of both and the adversity they shared as symptoms of domestic hostility and something like a civil war, a precursor to the genocidal violence that erupted in the 1940s.

The third point of this triangle belongs to the current critics of globalization, from whom Traverso borrows much, mostly the Italian thinker Giorgio Agamben. The idea of the world wars as civil war started here. Quoting Benjamin and Schmitt, Agamben developed an idea of mounting a civil war in opposition to the advance of the neoliberal order. The immediate benefit of this sort of interpretation is the ability to “think Europe” for the “non-European,” be it the Jewish survivor or the Syrian refugee.

For the historian, that course runs outside the usual liberal narrative of the past 50 years, which anchored its understanding of democracy in an explicit rejection of totalitarianism in general, and racist national socialism in particular. However, that historiography ignored the actual order of things: Totalitarian regimes usually obsessed about internal opposition not as a means for war, but as the very essence of the political, which they later exported. Ignoring that first reason and reading civic conflicts in functional terms, Traverso argues, is equal to suppressing the true reasons and motivation for the rise of fascism, totalitarian communism and Nazism.

“Fire and Blood” is the latest addition to a growing field that includes Tony Judt’s “Postwar” (2005) and Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” (2010), extending the orientation toward a post-national history. Like his colleagues, Traverso warns that continuing to repress the past will inevitably lead to a renewed eruption of violence. A simple reduction of recent world history to the conflict between fascism and its foes or dictatorships and anti-totalitarians will not suffice. With the addition of Dan Diner’s idea of “civilizatory breaks” (Zivilisationsbruch) and Hertfried Münkler’s of “new wars” (Die neuen Kriege), it seems that historians and theoreticians of war are carving out a new way of thinking about armed conflict. The time has come to detach our thinking about Europe from 19th- and 20th-century models. (I was disappointed that Traverso did not discuss this new historiography, limiting his reference to secondary materials to rather dated studies.)

Regional perspective

Why is this relevant to us, people of the broken and deprived Middle East? Traverso’s perspective changes the framing narrative of the Middle East from a series of national and colonial wars to a regional perspective: Here, it means seeing how this region has witnessed a bloody civil war that took it over as a whole – be it the 100 years of war between Jews and Muslims within the historical territory of Israel/Palestine, or the series of civil wars that erupted after the Arab Spring. Also, rethinking the history of the Middle East as a series of civil rather than international wars distances us from the legacy of colonialist regimes and remote-control imperial dictates. More specifically, conceiving the Israeli-Palestinian war as a civil conflict could allow us to move on from the victimization cult that the Israeli state has fostered since the Holocaust.

An Arab, armed with a sub-machine gun, stands guard at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall on Feb. 23, 1948.Credit: AP

At the end of one of his chapters, Traverso argues: “Despite its specific features, the Nazi war against the Jews belonged to this European and global civil war....The European civil war created a series of conditions without which the Holocaust could have been neither conceived nor perpetrated.” After all, he reminds us, “five out of six victims of the Holocaust were killed in territories to the east of Auschwitz. The extermination camps were inseparable from the war against the partisans, from the famine inflicted on the Slavic peoples, and from the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war (2.4 million dead).”

The growth of communications and transport networks that facilitated the spread of sophisticated weapons around the globe had begun before World War I, necessitating the establishment of immense armies and enabling the quick obliteration of vast numbers of people. Hence, before we discuss the racist or ideological application of a certain policy, Traverso reminds us, we ought to consider the global mechanisms of killing. Should we remind 21st-century leaders, when they raise the idea of prosecuting genocides, that the ostensibly enlightened and democratic nations supply sophisticated killing machines to the third world?

According to Traverso, precedents such as the Russian civil war or the Bosnian War compel us to put federal governments in place that can govern mixed ethnic populations to ensure peaceful cooperation and solidarity – or face the likelihood of recurrent recourse to murderous clashes where every civilian is a target.

Fluently written and employing a synthetic approach that will appeal to the common reader, “Fire and Blood” is not aimed principally at experts. All historical terms, including even fascism and anti-fascism, are explained, but those definitions differ little from what liberal historians wrote 50 years ago.

One might say that the book succumbs to the same failings it argues against, since Traverso employs Benjamin and Schmitt to critique liberal historiography (which generally proceeds by contrasting the means and ends of fascism or socialism with those of the neoliberal global polity) without indicating an alternative. He never hints at the existence of a non-European discussion of colonialism, a feminist discussion of fascism and anti-fascism, or of the recent discussion of “low-intensity warfare,” a legacy of the world wars. Any of those could have shed a different light on the idea of the 20th-century’s pan-European civil war, and could have pointed up differences between civil wars and total wars – concepts Traverso sees as synonymous. After all, the idea of “civil war” is a dynamic concept, one that changed a great deal from the days of Pericles to the Thirty Years War, not to mention how it has been reshaped by today’s reactionary politicians (Benjamin Netanyahu, and Europe’s radical right wing, to give two examples).

We are living at a time when the scale of conflict is strictly calibrated by the interests of a neoliberal economy, and by the self-interest of politicians whose campaigns and personal wealth depend on the well-being of Halliburton or FST Biometrics. As in the 1920s, today evil is not relegated to one side of the political equation alone.

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