Over the long term civilization matters

In Peter Turchin’s work modeling human historical dynamics he introduces the idea of a “meta-ethnic” identity. Quite often this is synonymous with a world religion. These identities emerged in the last few years as human polities scaled so large as to expand beyond tribal-national boundaries.

These sorts of dynamics are clear when we think about the Crusades, the defense against the Ottomans in the 17th century, or the Iberian “division” of the world between Castile and Portugal. Common ties of civilization and identity allow for ingroup cohesion, as well as heightening hostilities against outgroups.

Of course there many exceptions. When reading The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean I recall being struck by how southern Italian city-states like Amalfi opportunistically allied with Muslim pirates against other Christian powers. Similarly, during the Battle of Vienna Protestant Hungarians marched with the Ottomans against the broader Christian alliance which came to the aid of the Habsburgs.

These are two instances which show short term self-interest or necessity driving choices of group coalitions. Amalfi, like later Italian city-states, found it in their interest to do business with Muslims, even if it was to the detriment of their co-religionists. This did not mean they were no longer Christians. But in many instances they put that identity aside for their own gains. In the case of the Protestant Hungarians there’s was an alliance of necessity.

As recounted in Divided by the Faith the decades leading up to the Battle of Vienna the Hungarians experienced a concerted campaign of conversion and persecution of the part of the Habsburg monarchy in concert withe Roman Catholic Church. The Habsburg’s Austrian lands were brought back fully into Catholicism, as was most of Imperial Hungary. It is no coincidence that Hungarian Reformed Protestantism was strong in the east, which had been under Ottoman influence. The arrival of an expansive Austrian monarchy was an existential threat for them.

The flip side are cases where groups with the same civilizational identity engage in wars over resources or boundaries. The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea would certainly fit into this mold, and to some extent the Great War in the Congo which has flared for two decades now.

This sort of dynamic has been used to argue that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is not a useful framework. But on the contrary what Turchin and colleagues have shown is that over the long run civilizational fissures tend to result in the most vicious and dehumanizing wars.

12 thoughts on “Over the long term civilization matters

  1. “what Turchin and colleagues have shown is that over the long run civilizational fissures tend to result in the most vicious and dehumanizing wars.”

    I haven’t read Turchin’s book and probably won’t in the near future…how did he show that? And how do you measure the degree of viciousness, scale of atrocities etc. for premodern conflicts?
    It’s often said that civil wars tend to be the most brutal of conflicts because the combatants fight for control over the same polity, with little room for compromise…how does that fit into this thesis? And what exactly counts as “civilization”? Were Catholics and Protestants in early modern Europe’s wars of religion different civilizations?
    I’m not entirely convinced such a thesis holds for all times and all places. Sometimes it certainly does, e.g. when you read chroniclers of 10th century Germany (like the Saxon Widukind of Corvey) it’s clear the wars of the Saxons against the pagan Slavs involved a different kind of violence than conflicts between the nobility of East Francia/Germany. On the other hand, was William the conqueror’s harrying of the North really any less brutal than what the crusaders did in the Near East (though admittedly William was widely criticized for that even at the time, whereas the crusaders’ violence was regarded much more positively)?

  2. I haven’t read Turchin’s book and probably won’t in the near future…how did he show that? And how do you measure the degree of viciousness, scale of atrocities etc. for premodern conflicts?

    if i recall correctly it was atrocity count.

    It’s often said that civil wars tend to be the most brutal of conflicts because the combatants fight for control over the same polity

    what’s the extent of killing of noncombatants though? e.g., american civil war had huge body count. but the attacks on noncomb were restrained (even sherman’s army mostly engaged in property damage).

    though admittedly William was widely criticized for that even at the time, whereas the crusaders’ violence was regarded much more positively

    you said it. also, turchin uses term ‘meta-ethnic identity.’ i think that gets to the heart of it more than civ., which has other connotations.

    the reaction of other groups can sometimes give u a tell what boundaries of identity are. during the ottoman-habsburg wars even protestants (hungarians aside) began to support the habsburgs, and france’s ottoman alliance came to be something of an embarrassment.

  3. “if i recall correctly it was atrocity count.”

    But how do you do that for premodern conflicts? It’s not like you have any really precise data, so quantification is difficult.
    Granted, I do believe there’s something to that thesis, attitudes towards violence in narrative sources can be quite telling. I’ve already mentioned Widukind – it’s quite striking how he (a monk) approves of extreme violence towards the pagan Elbe Slavs (like treacherously killing their leaders at some banquet or massacring and mutilating prisoners). Similarly with the Gesta Francorum, an eyewitness account of the 1st crusade…matter-of-factly it describes extreme atrocities (e.g. burning down a castle full of heretics – Bogomils? – in the Balkans, then in the Near East frequently things like “Our men went to that place, gave the infidels the option to become Christians, and killed those who wouldn’t” – all reported as if this was nothing extraordinary and quite obviously right) that probably would have been deplored if committed against fellow Christians. So at least on a values level there’s clearly a difference.

    Re civil wars: I don’t have any hard data at hand, but American civil war is a bit different because it was more of an independence struggle (the South just wanted to secede, didn’t fight for control of the entire pre-1860 US)…though iirc the situation in some contested border states was more of a typical civil war nature. I was more thinking of cases like the Spanish civil war where it was about control of the polity, with extermination/utter defeat of the other side being the goal.

  4. “I don’t have any hard data at hand, but American civil war is a bit different because it was more of an independence struggle”

    Many (most?) wars usually called civil wars are also of that type (Biafra, Jugoslavia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, several Burmese rebelions, etc.); there is even the curious case of Ethiopia (were separatist – or at least autonomist rebels – take the central power almost by luck)

  5. “Many (most?) wars usually called civil wars are also of that type (Biafra, Jugoslavia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, several Burmese rebelions, etc.)”

    Ok, good point. I based my statement on what I recall from the introduction to Stanley Payne’s “Civil war in Europe 1905-1949” (which mentions the extreme brutality typical of many civil wars), but the conflicts covered there (the civil wars in Russia, Spain, Greece etc.) may have distorted my perceptions.

  6. though iirc the situation in some contested border states was more of a typical civil war nature.

    While uniformed regular units were waging a conventional war in the East, there was a nasty little “bushwacking” version of the Civil War in the Missouri-Kansas area. At some point, things degenerated into families and clans settling scores in the name of fighting the Civil War. Films such as “Ride with the Devil” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” portray the chaotic violence by freebooters that engulfed the region.

  7. Similarly with the Gesta Francorum, an eyewitness account of the 1st crusade…matter-of-factly it describes extreme atrocities (e.g. burning down a castle full of heretics – Bogomils? – in the Balkans, then in the Near East frequently things like “Our men went to that place, gave the infidels the option to become Christians, and killed those who wouldn’t” – all reported as if this was nothing extraordinary and quite obviously right) that probably would have been deplored if committed against fellow Christians. So at least on a values level there’s clearly a difference.

    Indeed, there are many examples of this kind of violence that is littered throughout history. My take on the overall context is that violence seems to be the most vicious when conflicts take on the characteristics of both a civil war (i.e. war within the same polity and/or among related peoples) AND a civilizational war of opposing or differing ideological (including religious) viewpoints.

    Hence the Thirty Years’ War was one of the most destructive wars in human history, especially when considering the percentage of the population that perished in the main areas of combat (Germany). Similarly, the Albigensian Crusade in Languedoc has been frequently called genocidal due to the extreme violence the Crusaders unleashed on the civilian population. There are, of course, modern examples, such as the Irish Troubles, the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, and, of course, the Iraq War.

  8. “My take on the overall context is that violence seems to be the most vicious when conflicts take on the characteristics of both a civil war (i.e. war within the same polity and/or among related peoples) AND a civilizational war of opposing or differing ideological (including religious) viewpoints.”

    I agree, makes a lot of sense to me, you can even fit something like the Spanish civil war (which had a strong religious dimension, with the extreme anti-religious violence of the left triggering a militant Catholic resurgence) into such a framework.
    I’m still sceptical if it’s really possible to quantify atrocities in premodern conflicts given the nature of the sources (and even in modern conflicts my impression is much is often surprisingly unclear, e.g. assessments of the Oran massacre in 1962 seem to vary widely)…but I’ll reserve judgement until I get around to reading Turchin’s book.

  9. “Hence the Thirty Years’ War was one of the most destructive wars”
    Well, that one could also be used as a counter example. It may have begun as a conflict between Catholic & Protestant interests, but pretty early on it was already very much about European power politics, eg. Catholic France allying with Protestant forces against the Catholic HRE or Protestants allying with the Catholic HRE forces against the Swedes. Many of the mercenaries probably didn’t care very much who they fought for as long as they got paid. Which is one of the main reasons for the disastrous effects of the war. The mercenary armies lived off the lands where they were fighting, pillaged & killed a lot of people if they didn’t get enough.

  10. you can even fit something like the Spanish civil war (which had a strong religious dimension, with the extreme anti-religious violence of the left triggering a militant Catholic resurgence) into such a framework.

    Yes, the Spanish Civil War was another classic case. So was the Yugoslavian Civil War, which saw some horrendous mass murder and rape of civilians along ethno-religious lines within what had been one country peacefully for decades.

  11. Many of the mercenaries probably didn’t care very much who they fought for as long as they got paid. Which is one of the main reasons for the disastrous effects of the war. The mercenary armies lived off the lands where they were fighting, pillaged & killed a lot of people if they didn’t get enough.

    Mercenaries indeed did not care for whom they fought during the Thirty Years’ War (eventually). But it was not true that the extensive use of mercenaries was the reason why there was so much suffering. Prior to industrialization and construction of rail roads, ALL armies lived off the land (unless supplied by waterways, shipping being the ONLY inexpensive method of supply that did not consume itself in transit).

    Many of the mercenaries were GERMANS killing other Germans, including civilians. For a variety of reasons, even the usually lax pre-Westphalian norms of chivalry in warfare broke down as the war became endemic throughout the region. It became the quintessential war of all against all as it progressed.

    Now, this is a speculation on my part, but it seemed to me that when combatants of, say, different religions AND very different ethnic makeup war upon each other, there tends to be some sense of romanticism about the opponents (a type of “noble savage” effect), especially as conflict becomes more constant, but stable. But when the combatants are similar people but with different philosophical-ideological-religious makeup, there appears to be much greater mutual contempt, perhaps in part because of familiarity and lack of tolerance for ideological diversity within the same civilization. That’s why, I suspect, the cruelty of the Albigensian Crusade matched and often exceeded that against the “Saracens” in the strange (to the Western Europeans) land that was the Holy Land.

    In the case of the Thirty Years’ War, what also contributed to the extreme violence was that it was the most technically advanced war that was fought until that time WITH pre-modern rules of siege warfare… which meant that everything – people included – was forfeit when a city was breached. That meant massacres, rape, looting… just a horrific orgy of violence that was the norm after a city was taken prior to the monopolization of warfare by princes and the emergence of more stringent codification of rules of warfare the Westphalian era (largely to protect the spoil of the princes).

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