Political Science / Critical Essay

Vol. 1, NO. 4 / October 2015

The Best of Times

David Berlinski

Letters to the Editors

In response to “The Best of Times

They were men enough to face the darkness.
Joseph Conrad

In the early years of the fifth century AD, a Spanish priest named Paulus Orosius had occasion to publish a work entitled Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (The Seven Historical Books against the Pagans). Orosius was a disciple of Saint Augustine. It was the purpose of the seven books to provide a defense of Christianity against the common pagan charge that Christianity accelerated, if it did not cause, the decline of the Roman Empire. Orosius met this dubious challenge by reversing its polarity. If things were in the fifth century bad, he argued, once they were worse. His book is a tedious account of the violence, brutality, and stupidity of the pagan past.1

Saint Augustine, who had initially welcomed Orosius as a collaborator, in short order rejected him as a schnook.

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century began in August of 1914.2 It has not been a century that has enhanced the dignity of the human race. Or the Whig interpretation of history. Only five years after it began, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova asked whether it was worse than any of the others.3

It was much worse.

Two hundred and thirty one million men, women, and children died violently in the twentieth century, shot over open pits, murdered in secret police cellars, asphyxiated in Nazi gas ovens, worked to death in Arctic mines or timber camps, the victims of deliberately contrived famines or lunatic industrial experiments, whole populations ravaged by alien armies, bombed to smithereens, or sent to wander in their exiled millions across all the violated borders of Europe and Asia.4

At the end of The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, A. J. P. Taylor remarked of the period between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that “Europe had never known such peace and tranquility since the age of the Antonines.”5

One would never have imagined in the nineteenth century that the world could spare so much blood or that it would have conceived the desire to shed it.6

The Whig Interpretation

Robert Southey was a poet, a dreamer, and a dunce. Born in 1774, he died in 1843. Like Wordsworth, he had been a supporter of the French Revolution; and, like Wordsworth, he had been disappointed by the revolution that he had supported. He was determined not to be disappointed again. In 1824, Southey published Sir Thomas More, or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society. Profoundly attached to the English countryside, and especially the Lake District, Southey used his Colloquies to express a fastidious objection to the degradation of rural life.

To Thomas Babington Macaulay, Southey appeared a man at once out of place, out of touch, and, so far as he was concerned, out of time. Southey? Pooh-pooh. The man had been wrong about the past. How could he be right about the future?

It is not strange that, differing so widely from Mr. Southey as to the past progress of society, we should differ from him also as to its probable destiny. He thinks, that to all outward appearance, the country is hastening to destruction … [W]e rely on the natural tendency of the human intellect to truth, and of the natural tendency of society to improvement.7

Why the tendency is natural, Macaulay did not say, and that it exists, he did not demonstrate.

The response to Macaulay came late, but it fell heavily. In 1932, the historian Hebert Butterfield published a little tract entitled The Whig Interpretation of History. The book is an indictment of various Whig historians, but Butterfield managed the difficult trick of faulting them by reputation largely without mentioning them by name. Butterfield was sly and, beyond the criticisms that he made of the Whig interpretation of history, he managed to suggest that, like Southey, the Whig historians were in their own way sentimental provincials.

Where had they gone wrong? Southey had seen the early nineteenth century as part of a long historical decline. Things had gone badly and they were getting worse. The Whig historians reversed his error without cancelling its effect. They sought to

impose a certain form upon the whole historical story, and to produce a scheme of general history which is bound to converge beautifully upon the present—all demonstrating throughout the ages the workings of an obvious principle of progress. [emphasis added]8

It is a principle that has had a deforming effect on historical narrative. “A caricature of this result,” Butterfield adds,

is to be seen in a popular view that is still not quite eradicated: the view that the Middle Ages represented a period of darkness when man was kept tongue-tied by authority—a period against which the Renaissance was the reaction and the Reformation the great rebellion.9

Almost one hundred years later, this caricature of medieval history retains an unquenchable vitality.10

But then again, so does the Whig interpretation of history.

A Wandering Eye

If it is difficult to look at the twentieth century with a steady eye, so terrible are its crimes, the temptation is great to allow one’s eye to wander. Steven Pinker is, in this regard, one step away from clinical strabismus. Things are today not so bad, Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and since they were once worse, they must have been getting better.

Believe it or not … violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence … it is an unmistakable development.11

This thesis, Pinker believes, has been widely overlooked, or as often denied, because historians, lacking access to the perspective vouchsafed Pinker, have failed to see the Big Picture, the one that emerges in the majestic sweep of centuries. The Better Angels of Our Nature has not been warmly embraced by historians, but neither has it been coldly rejected.12 Pinker maintains, of course, that his conclusions are scientific and quantitative.13

Whether they are for this reason true is another question.

The years between the end of the Second World War and 2010 or 2011, Pinker designates as the long peace.14 That they were long is relative; and that they were peaceful, false. The Chinese communist revolution, the partition of India, the Great Leap Forward, the ignominious Cultural Revolution, the suppression of Tibet, the Korean war, the wars of Indochinese succession, the Egypt–Yemen war, the Franco–Algerian war, the genocidal Pol Pot regime, the grotesque and sterile Iranian revolution, the Iran–Iraq war, ethnic cleansings in Rwanda, Burundi, and the former Yugoslavia, the farcical Russian and American invasions of Afghanistan, the American invasion of Iraq, and various massacres, sub-continental famines, squalid civil insurrections, blood-lettings, throat slittings, death squads, theological infamies, and suicide bombings taking place from Latin America to East Timor were as yet unaccommodated.

The Better Angels of Our Nature was published in 2011. Had Pinker not conceived his views just as the world’s economic and political systems underwent a lavish epileptic fit, his predictions about the future might appear more prophetic than they do today.

Bad timing.


Violence is not an obviously measurable property. If the category is allowed to encompass a stellar explosion as well as an animal attack, then it is too broad profitably to allow historians to draw the distinction between a violent battle and a violent crime; if not, then too narrow to describe them both. Violence may be obvious or disguised; systematic, haphazard or incidental; it may be overt or subtle; there are violent states and violent societies. Violence may simmer, boil, erupt, explode, seethe, or subside; or seep, ooze, infect, derange, madden, escalate, or intensify; it may be confined, regulated, distributed, sealed off; it may liberate, intoxicate, and purge; or it may be insensate, demented, irrational, careless, casual, incidental, indirect, verbal, or hidden.15

These are circumstance to which sociologists believe that they are adequate. “For the last few years,” Gerd Schwerhoff observed, “the homicide rate has been regarded as a quantifiable indicator of the degree of violence in a particular period.”16 A society in which homicide rates are very high is a violent society, but the reverse is not obviously true, and in the twentieth century, societies of almost incomprehensible violence were often in a position to observe that if their concentration camps were full, their streets were safe. German homicide rates fell to their lowest level since 1882 in 1939; they have remained relatively stable for more than 70 years.17 Soviet statistics for 1937, when execution cellars in the Lubyanka prison were crowded and fields outside of Moscow began bubbling up with decomposing corpses,18 are notoriously unreliable, but given the Stalinist regime’s determination to redescribe even public urination as counter-revolutionary hooliganism, purely apolitical homicides, if they were recorded at all, must have been low—the occasional ax murderer much appreciated for his willingness to balance the books.19


Homicide rates are expressed as the ratio H/P of the number of homicides H to the population P of a city, region, state, county, country, or even the world. The rate is most commonly given per annum, and the ensuing ratio normalized to 100,000: H/P × 100,000. In the ratio H/P, H designates a reference attribute, and P, a reference class. Both are necessary. To say that there are, or were, five dead men without providing a reference class would be like saying there are, or were, three fat women.

It is just because the reference class in homicide statistics is an historical, social or legal artifact, that homicide rates are arbitrary, a point evident in a number of examples.

Suppose that an imaginary region or city C is partitioned into five smaller regions R1, R2, R3, R4, R5. Homicide and population figures are as follows:20

  • R1 = 200,000
    H = 50.
  • R2 = 50,000
    H = 0.
  • R3 = 50,000
    H = 0.
  • R4 = 50,000
    H = 0.
  • R5 = 50,000
    H = 0.

The homicide rate assigned to C itself is H/R = 12.5 per 100,000. This is at odds with both its mean and median averages. What is unclear, because it is ambiguous, is the homicide rate assigned to R1. This is where the dead are stacked. Should H/R1 be 12.5 per 100,000 because R1 is a part of C? This would seem a reduction in violence achieved by a sleight of hand. The dead are still the dead, and they have not been diminished. Since for every population P, H/P approaches 0 as P approaches , homicide rates may always be reduced by an expansion of their reference class.

Albert Reiss has, on the other hand, argued that so far as homicides go, what is required is “a measure of [the] population that is exposed to the events, or is at risk of being involved in events, such as offenders or victims.”21 This might suggest that, far from being 12.5 per 100,000, the homicide rate assigned R1 should be the one that measures its victims: H/R1 = 25 per 100,000.

This tactic, once encouraged, has a tendency to get out of hand as well. It is always possible, after all, to partition a reference class P into two classes P1 and P2, such that P = P1 P2, P1 = H, and P2 = {P – H}. It follows that H/P1 = 1, and H/P2 = 0. No statistic serves better than H to measure the “population that … is at risk of being involved in events” and no statistic serves better than {P – H} to measure the reverse.

The arguments just given suggest that, so far as R1 is concerned, its homicide rate should be 25 or 12.5 per 100,000. It cannot be both, and no one, I presume, is tempted to say that it should be neither.

Homicide rates are compelling as a statistic because they convey risk as a probability. Selected at random from some reference class P, an individual may observe that his risk of death by homicide is H/P, which is another way of saying that he stands an H in P chance of being killed. The problem lies with the definition of the appropriate reference class. Without a reference class, there is no measure of risk; without a measure of risk, no way to persuade anyone to watch his back. But to talk of risk, death and chance in terms of H/P is already to assume that H/P has been assigned to P as its homicide rate.

These questions are an encouragement to what the logician Hans Reichenbach called reference class ambiguities. “If we are asked to find the probability holding for an individual future event,” Reichenbach wrote,

we must first incorporate the case in a suitable reference class. An individual thing or event may be incorporated in many reference classes, from which different probabilities will result.22

Bruno Squizano, a member of the Mafia, let us imagine, and resident at once in Palermo, Sicily, Italy, Europe, and, beyond that, the world, in endeavoring to measure his chance of violent death, finds himself confronted by an embarrassment of risks.

It all depends, Bruno.

An Eight-Hundred-Year Decline

For anyone wishing to argue that once things were worse than they are now, the Middle Ages are ideal. It is widely supposed that having gotten out of them was one of the accomplishments of modern civilization. No contemporary scholar, one might think, would make such a mistake in judgment. A one-man multitude, Pinker champions the case to the contrary. “The people of the middle ages were, in a word, gross.”23


They ate with their hands, blew their noses with their fingers, belched copiously at table, and “took only perfunctory measures to keep their coitus private.”24

In time freed from public fornication, the men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were occupied in killing one another in tavern brawls or over tavern wenches; at the dinner table, lacking access to the fork, they used their knives to settle slights as well as scores.25

How they made time to eat remains a mystery.

In an essay entitled “Interpersonal Violence in English Society: 1300–1980,” Lawrence Stone argued that homicide rates in Britain were in the past very much higher than they now are.26 Crime is not the historian’s habitual prowling ground; Stone’s essay served to anoint criminology with the oil of his unexpected approval.27 What had caught Stone’s eye was an essay published in 1981 by Ted Gurr, “Historical Trends in Violent Crime: a Critical Review of the Evidence.”28 Gurr wrote as a scout for scholars, and in his interpretation of thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth century English history, he relied upon two sources: James Given’s Stanford Ph.D. dissertation, Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century England,29 and Carl Hammer’s essay, “Patterns of Violence in a Medieval University Town: Fourteenth-Century Oxford.”30

The incidence of homicide in Britain, Gurr argued, Stone wallowing in his wake, “has fallen by a factor of at least ten to one since the thirteenth century.”31 Gurr illustrated his essay by a brilliantly simple graph.32 No one could fail to appreciate its meaning. When it came to murder, what had been up had come down.

Some 22 years after Gurr published his essay, the criminologist, Manuel Eisner, reported that he could see just what Gurr had seen: a striking eight-hundred-year decline in the English homicide rate. Gurr’s original essay, Eisner remarked, “easily qualifies as one of the most influential studies in the field of history of crime research.”33

Gurr’s essay has by now become that rarest of things in historical scholarship: it is its own best source.

The Graphic Gurr

The thesis that there has been an eight hundred year decline in homicide owes much to the peculiar circumstance that Gurr’s essay has been widely read but rarely studied. Beyond arguing broadly that down is down, Gurr did not argue much at all. The curve that connects Gurr’s data points was, as Gurr suavely affirms, drawn by hand. It has no statistical justification. Data points between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are missing. Both Oxford and London diverge widely from what would appear to be the mean homicide rate for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and London in the fourteenth century diverges from itself by a factor of three. Although Gurr’s diagram covers eight hundred years, it lacks intra-century markers. To the right of the diagram, there is an incomprehensible squiggle. Of the diagram’s 21 data points, only four are labeled. None is sourced, Gurr appealing both to Given and to Hammer, as if they shared joint ownership of his graph.

Hammer based his study on medieval coroner rolls; Given on medieval Eyre court records. This raised a methodological question in Hammer’s mind, one that he tactfully relegated to a footnote, but since Hammer based his study on coroner rolls, and Given did not, Hammer’s question answers itself. There is “no other medieval document,” Hammer added in his own favor, “which can bring us closer to the truth of the matter.”34


Of the cities represented on Gurr’s graph, it is fourteenth-century Oxford that has caused a number of eyebrows to hoist themselves upward: H/P = 121 per 100,000.35 This figure brings medieval Oxford into companionship with various exhilarating Latin American drug domains. A careful scholar, Hammer understood that his figures were absurd. Medieval Oxford was a young man’s town; murder is a young man’s game. Hammer addressed this problem by asking what the homicide rate for Oxford would have been were Oxford’s population represented by an age-adjusted population?

If, on this basis, we were to calculate a revised or adjusted homicide rate (victim) we would arrive at a figure of 60 to 80 per 100,000 for a normal population, still very high but exceeding experienced rates in large American metropolitan areas by no more than about three or four times. No doubt there are neighborhoods in New Orleans, Atlanta or Detroit, many times larger than medieval Oxford, the homicide rates of which match or exceed that of the medieval borough. [emphasis added]36

Since they were less alarming in fact than they became in fiction, homicide rates in medieval Oxford have become grimmer in the telling.

To Hammer, the original sources suggested a neighborhood of New Orleans, Atlanta, or Detroit.

To Gurr, “a society in which men … were easily provoked to violent anger and were unrestrained in the brutality with which they attacked their opponents.”37

To Stone, “the highest homicide rates recorded anywhere in the west.”38

To Pinker, no doubt, a region of Gehenna.

Given Facts

Given wrote as a student of thirteenth and fourteenth century English Eyre courts.39 Instruments of royal justice, Eyre courts convened in English shires at intervals ranging from months to years. They served to settle on terms favorable to the Crown both civil and criminal pleadings, and, as Donald Sutherland has observed, their eagerness to see where money could be got lent to their proceedings an air of frank extortion.40 Introduced into the English legal system in the late twelfth century, Eyre courts disappeared at the end of the fifteenth, replaced for the most part by courts of Assize. Whatever their role in the complex administrative machinery of the English Crown, Eyre courts were not, with respect to homicides, close to the ground. They served a recapitulative function, leaving to local officials, coroners among them, the business of poking at the dead. Written in medieval legal Latin, Eyre court records were often written in different hands and in different inks, and they were covered with legal scribbles and annotations—the work, obviously, of clerks pressed for time and under pressure from the Crown.

Presiding over the London Eyre court of 1271, Roger of Seyton was frank about the quality of his rolls:

I cannot vouch for them for various reasons, because sometimes one thing is done and another thing more or less is written in the rolls by the clerks, who continually fail to understand the lawyers and litigants correctly.41

Given’s dissertation records his assessment of seven Eyre records: Bedford, Bristol, Kent, Norfolk, Oxford, Warwick, and London. The first record dates to 1202, and the last to 1276. It is Warwick in 1232 that is recorded as having the highest thirteenth century homicide rate: H/P = 64 per 100,000; and Bristol in 1248, the lowest: H/P = 4 per 100,000. These rates depend on population estimates, and so on a choice of reference class. In the cases of Bedford, Norfolk, Oxford, and Warwick, Given’s estimates were derived from the Domesday Book of 1086; and for London and Oxford, from Josiah Cox Russell’s British Medieval Population42 and Rodney Hilton’s A Medieval Society43 respectively. To make use of the Domesday Book, Given multiplied its figures by 2.5% per annum. This is in agreement with contemporary demographic analysis only to the extent that, if no one knows whether the figure of 2.5% is correct, no one knows that it is not. Russell’s population estimates were, on the other hand, based on the poll tax returns of 1377.

Medieval homicide rates are very sensitive to population estimates. Of course they are. In his study, Plantagenet England, Michael Prestwich found reason to revise previous population estimates for medieval London; and with previous population estimates, previous homicide rates.44 Based on an estimate of London’s population in the mid-fourteenth century of between thirty-five and fifty thousand inhabitants, London would appear to have had a crime rate of H/P ≈ 44 per 100,000. The true population of London, Prestwich argued, was somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and seventy-six thousand inhabitants, making for a revised homicide rate of H/P ≈ 18 per 100,000 inhabitants.

In an essay entitled “Peacekeepers and Lawbreakers in London, 1276–1321,” published in the most recent volume of Thirteenth Century England, Henry Summerson, having examined the roll of crown pleas from the London Eyre of 1321, concluded that with respect to medieval London, H ≈ 15 per annum.45 This makes for a homicide rate H/P ≈ 37.5 on the assumption that P = 40,000; H/P ≈ 15 on the assumption that P = 100,000; and H/P ≈ 8.571 on the assumption that P = 175,000.

In 2012, the homicide rate in the District of Columbia was H/P ≈ 13.9. No one quite knows the population of medieval London, but the population of Washington DC is known to the last miserable miscreant.

There are sufficiently many population estimates at work in the study of medieval homicides to comprise a bouquet of them. And, of course, the various population estimates do not coincide. Why should they? They are each inadequate; but each is inadequate in its own way. Given alone reaches two quite different conclusions about thirteenth-century homicide rates: one based on his own estimates, the other, on Russell’s. The differences are dramatic. On both accounts, Warwick in 1232 remained a ruffian’s delight—rather like Akron, Ohio, in fact—but on Given’s population estimate, H/P = 64 per 100,000; and on Russell’s, H/P = 30 per 100,000.

This is hardly a trivial difference.

The Dead

Bludgeoned, stabbed, bopped on the head, knifed, run through with a pike, pushed out of high windows, trampled in a frenzy, strangled, stuffed into wells, poisoned—the dead, in short, and so the reference attribute in any homicide rate. How many of them were there in a given year?

If it is not possible reliably to assess the size of thirteenth-century populations, then neither is it possible reliably to assess the number of thirteenth-century homicides. Given’s own estimates do very little to support the lurid thesis that “[m]urderous brawls and violent deaths … were everyday occurrences in medieval England.”46 They do nothing at all. Between 1227 and 1248, Given’s figures indicate that there were 16 murders in Bristol, a homicide rate of 4 per 100,000 per annum—hardly an everyday occurrence, and rather less than stimulating Miami’s murder rate of 15 per 100,000 between 1948 and 1952, or even Philadelphia’s homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 over the same four years.

It hardly helps Given’s case that his arithmetic is incorrect. If the population of Bristol was 17,000 in 1248—his own figure—the five homicides he cites from the 1248 Eyre Court make for an annual homicide rate of 1.4 homicides per 100,000, and not 4 homicides per 100,000. The eleven homicides reported in the 1227 Eyre court record would make for an annual homicide rate of 3.8 homicides per 100,000, if they spanned twenty years; but since the 1227 Eyre court records homicides only up to 1227, the reader, consulting Given’s treatise, cannot know how many years were at issue before the previous Eyre court.

There were six, as it happened; but the 1221 Eyre court, the subject of a famous study by Frederic Maitland, was held in the county of Gloucestershire, and not in the city of Bristol. About the reliability of the rolls, Maitland very sensibly remarked that

as to the amount of crime that there has been very accurate statistics must not be expected, for it is clear that the same case is sometimes presented by more than one jury, and there are other obvious difficulties in the way of a precise computation.47

In Table 1 of his dissertation, Given lists seven Eyre court records, together with their archival location. Eyre courts were held in London in 1244 and again in 1276, a lapse of 32 years. But, oddly enough, Given asserts that only 24 years elapsed between the Eyre court of 1276 and the previous Eyre court. In recording the number of homicides, Given sets H = 145, so that H/P = 15 per 100,000, but this figure is correct only if the time elapsed since the previous Eyre court is understood to be 24 years and not 32 years. If the latter, then H/P = 11 per 100,000, a difference of almost one third.

In fact, an Eyre court was held in London in 1251. Given thus counted homicides between 1276 and 1244, but estimated homicides for the period between 1251 and 1276. Is the difference statistically significant? We have no idea.

Records for the Eyre court of 1251 have disappeared.

Medieval Primitives

The thesis that thirteenth- and fourteenth-century homicide rates were 30 times higher than contemporary rates owes much to the correlative conviction that men and women of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were emotionally labile, quick to anger, childish, and for this reason, since they were adults with weapons, prone to violence.48

Medieval court records and chronicles exert a lurid fascination on otherwise sober historians. Criminologists are worse. They cannot leave the stuff alone.

Symonet Spinelli, Agnes his mistress and Geoffrey Bereman were together in Geoffrey’s house when a quarrel broke out among them; Symonet left the house and returned later the same day with Richard Russel his servant to the house of Godfrey le Gorger, where he found Geoffrey; a quarrel arose and Richard and Symonet killed Geoffrey.49

That was bad luck, Geoffrey.

The story, Eisner goes on to say, “is typical of the situational structure of lethal violence in thirteenth century London—a disagreement, a quarrel leading to a fight, and a fight resulting in a death.”50

If the story is typical of the situational structure of lethal violence in thirteenth-century London, it is also typical of the situational structure of lethal violence in the contemporary United States.

At random:

  • A south Florida man charged with murdering his girlfriend admitted to disemboweling her with his bare hands after she twice cried out her ex-husband’s name during sex, police said.
  • A Christian rapper fatally struck a Washington D.C. area man in his car after an argument about a music deal. A Maryland district judge denied bail Monday for Ryan Anthony Salandy, 22, on his first-degree murder charge in the death of Willian McDaniel, 21.
  • According to a Laramie Police Department affidavit, a fight took place at a party on the 700 block of North Seventh Street where Williams admitted to punching Joe McGowan once. Friends of Joe McGowan took him to Ivinson Memorial Hospital with severe head trauma after they found him lying in the gutter unconscious. Joe McGowan was taken to Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colorado, where he died from his injuries around 2 p.m. Nov. 1.

These crimes are typical of the crime of manslaughter, circumstances that would be evident to criminologists and historians alike were they to spend more time by the lamp reading the Daily Mail, the Daily News, or the National Enquirer.

Or The Evening Whirl, which is little known at Harvard or at Oxford, but very well known in St. Louis. “We are among the most savage and brutal people on the face of the earth,” the newspaper’s editor, Anthony Sanders observed, apparently with professional satisfaction. “We are killing people indiscriminately. It doesn’t always have to be gang or drug related. There are people just going off and killing people. That happens all over the country.”

A Methodological Mistake

Running a hand the size and shape of a butcher’s block through his iron-gray hair, a grizzled old homicide detective named MacPinker reflects on a persistent methodological mistake in the analysis of homicide statistics.

“Nothing,” he says heavily “declines from anything.”

“I don’t know, Chief,” his assistant MacShermer remarks, “up there homicides are way down.”

It is MacPinker who has a point. A difference in homicides is no very good evidence of a decline in homicides. The population of Akron, Ohio is 200,000. Its homicide rate is 11.6 per 100,000. The population of Minneapolis, Minnesota is 400,000. Its homicide rate is 2.5 per 100,000. Homicide rates in Minneapolis have not plummeted from their Akron level. Nor have they declined, dropped off, trended downward, or been diminished.

A lighthouse in Italy, as Albertus Magnus remarked, does not affect a lighthouse in England.

No recourse to some mythical improvement in self-control is required to explain what does not exist, the more so since the explanations that result are circular.

“So tell me, MacShermer, why do you figure homicides are way down?”

“The way I figure it, Chief, I figure the lowlifes are getting hold of themselves, working for Google and all.”

“Sort of like lowlife self-control. What do you see, you figure the lowlifes are getting control of themselves?”

“Well, the homicides are way down, Chief.”

All that one can say is that homicide rates in Akron and Minneapolis are different.

But so are homicide rates in thirteenth- and twentieth-century Oxford.

That is the end of it.

“I’m too old for this job,” the Chief remarks. “Been at it too long.”

The Inception of War

To anyone concerned to argue that things are getting better, the thesis that the violence of the twentieth century owes as much to chance as anything else is reassuring. The work of the English statistician Lewis Fry Richardson is, in this regard, an unexpected gift.51 Richardson studied the inception of war from 1820 to 1950 and concluded that the resulting series followed a Poisson distribution:

PrX,λ=λke-λk! .

In this formula, X denotes a random variable, and λ, the mean rate at which events occur.

The Poisson belongs to the broad and noble class of probability distributions, one that includes the binomial and normal distributions. When the probability Pr of an event is small, and the number of trials k large, the Poisson approximates the binomial distribution. The abridgment of possibilities assimilates the Poisson distribution to processes as random, and as pointless, as coin flipping. If the outbreak of war follows a Poisson distribution, the most that one can say of the twentieth century is that these things happen.

Too bad.

The Poisson distribution distributes; it is what distributions do. It does not count. The expression Pr(X=k;λt), by way of an improvement, designates the probability that X counts the number of events expected to arrive, or occur, during fixed intervals of time.


PX=k;λt=e-λtλtkk! ,

the probability that up to the interval t—days, weeks, hours, years—precisely k events will have occurred—one war, two wars, many wars, as a warlike chieftain might say with a grunt of satisfaction.

The Poisson was promoted to prominence when Ladislaus Bortkiewicz used it with remarkable success to explain the distribution of fatal horse kicks in the Prussian cavalry. Up went the horse, down went the cavalryman, the industrious Bortkiewicz adding his tick of doom to the statistical record.

A data series is one thing. It is a finite numerical record. A Poisson distribution is another thing. It is an abstract function f(X, λ). Matching the data to the distribution is the statistician’s business.

A Poisson process is otherwise. It is a mathematical description of some undertaking in the world, a connection to the place where things happen.

Suppose that H(t) designates the number of events occurring in the interval [0, t], when H(t) = 0.

A process is Poisson if

  1. the number of events in disjoint time periods is independent;
  2. for δt, the probability of a single event is

    Pr [H(t + δt) − H(t) = 1] = λδt + o(δt),

    where o(δt) tends to zero as δt goes to infinity; and
  3. the probability that two or more events occur in the same small time period is

    Pr [A(t + δt) − A(t) ≥ 2] = o(δt).

The relationship between a Poisson process and a Poisson distribution is straightforward:

  1. If P is a Poisson process, then P satisfies a Poisson distribution.

The converse to I. is of greater interest than I. because it suggests an inference from a Poisson distribution to its source.

  1. If P satisfies a Poisson distribution, then P is a Poisson process.

As one might expect, II. is untrue logically, untrue mathematically, often untrue in fact, and untrue all around.52

Randomness Self-Applied

Whatever the definition of a Poisson process—and there are many in the literature—nothing would seem less appropriate to the study of historical events. In a homogeneous Poisson process, the rate parameter, λ, is fixed from the first, and it does not change. The forces and influences governing a Poisson process, William Feller observed, must “remain absolutely unchanged,” as the process plays out, remote and inflexible as the rotation of the moon.53

If the world of war is governed by a homogeneous Poisson process, things could not be getting better, gentler, or kinder. To someone proposing to ease the scourge of war, this will seem a depressing prospect, and for anyone, like Pinker, proposing that the scourge of war has been eased, a daunting problem. Pinker’s dialectical adroitness, it is satisfying to recount, is appropriate to this circumstance. Wars may, indeed, be random in nature, he argues, and thus governed by a Poisson process, but the Poisson rate parameter may itself be changing as a dilute solution of Swedish socialism spreads through human affairs.

The result is an inhomogeneous Poisson process; and if λ is itself changing stochastically, a Cox process.

It is an argument that cannot be faulted, if only because it is without interest. If the argument is without interest, it is also without relevance, because it removes the claim that wars are random events from rational assessment. Any finite set of data points can be approximated by some Cox process. A political scientist determined to argue that wars are not governed by a Poisson process, and a political scientist determined to argue that they are, may meet on the best of terms.

Why did we ever fight?


Two events A and B are independent if Pr(A&B) = Pr(A) × Pr(B). Returning to the cannon’s mouth, a position that in his great textbook he adopts whenever he makes use of the English language, Feller remarks that so far as Poisson processes go,

the probability of any particular event is the same for all time intervals of length t, independent of where this interval is situated and of the past history of the system.54

But a particular event can no more take place at two different times than in two different places. As he so often does, Feller gets it right when he gets it wrong. A Poisson process demands a ruthless subordination of events to their number, and within a given count (one war, two wars, many wars), wars are indistinguishable, like bosons in Bose–Einstein statistics. Given a warlike series, the probability that some war or other will break out is everywhere the same, regardless of which temporal interval is which. This is not entirely a plausible assumption. It implies that the probability that combat might begin on the day that it has ceased is the same as the probability that combat might cease on the day that it began.

So long as men have memories, nothing done in the present can ever be independent of the past. Men are haunted by memory and desire; influence seeps down through history, a viscous, lava-like flow.

If this account does not suggest a series of independent events, neither does it much suggest a series of independent events. An event, if the concept is to have any content, must be found within some definite region of space and time; and for this reason, events belong to the class of countable things. How many wars were fought during the inter-war years? And fought where? The Russian Civil War was fought from the Baltic in the north to Odessa in the south, and from the Urals in the east to the gates of Warsaw in the west. It had no sharp temporal boundaries, sputtering to begin with, guttering to end with.

How many events did it encompass?

The Russian historian interested in the long sweep of history may justifiably count the Russian Civil War as a single event; and the Polish historian, too; but the events that they are counting had different spatial and temporal boundaries. They cannot be the same. The question how many admits of no rational answer because the count is entirely determined by context; it is determined locally; and, beyond the descriptive concerns of various historians, it is unstable.

Richardson understood these points perfectly. In considering the question of just when wars break out, he remarked, in a phrase of great power, that thinginess fails.55

It does. It is a pity that Richardson did not complete his observation. Wars are not things.

The First World War

“Every instant,” Pinker writes, “Mars, the god of war, rolls his iron dice, and if they turn up snake eyes he sends a pair of nations to war.”56

Does he? And do they go when they are sent?

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

In August of 1914, the European political order that had since the Congress of Vienna seemed stable and robust was, as events revealed, neither stable nor robust. European powers had in the nineteenth century gone to war in the Crimea, Sardinia, Denmark, Austria, France, and in the Caucuses, and they had confronted, or contained, revolutions in 1830, 1848, 1871, and in 1905, but, as blood dries quickly, they had learned little from their mistakes, and the balance of power, in which so many of their suave diplomats had vested their faith, had served only to persuade European statesmen that their complicated and shifting system of alliances, no matter how many times they had failed to preserve the peace, would in the future prevent them from being again at war.

On 28th June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Sarajevo. Their assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was an ardent Serbian nationalist, provoked that so many notional Serbians should be national Bosnians. Their murder was as much an accident as an act of fate, the Archduke and his wife losing both their way and their lives owing to the incompetence of their chauffeur.58

Bad luck.

In Austria, General Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the chief of staff, was determined to make war on Serbia, but incapable of making it alone, he endeavored to elicit the support, or encourage the acquiescence, of Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister.59 He need not have exerted himself. The door that he thought to push was open. Berchtold had often been thought weak by the Austrian military. Now he was seized by a sense of resoluteness. He came to life; he commenced to breathe fire.

Having secured one another's assent with gratifying ease, Conrad and Berchtold required the approval, or, at least, the indifference, of Count István Tisza, the prime minister of Hungary. Tisza had few illusions about peace, but many reservations about war. At the very least, Tisza believed, it would be necessary to enlist the monarchy’s friends before engaging her enemies.

Serbia did not stand naked in the international arena. Russia had, since 1909, extended her the shield of stolid Slavic solidarity. Suspicion was current in Austria that the Russian minister in Serbia, Nicholas Hartwig, had had a hand in inflaming the passions of men who needed very little encouragement to become as violent as they were already vicious.60 Hartwig died of a sudden heart attack four days after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, circumstances that the Serbians assigned publically to Austrian perfidy, and the Austrians privately to God’s mercy.

France had determined that it would be far better that Germany and Russia should fight one another than that France should fight either; it sought to make solid an alliance that for separate reasons each party found as useful as it was unnatural. France was, moreover, Serbia’s international creditor, and so scrupled at compromising a state eager to borrow money and willing to repay it.

The Austro–Hungarian monarchy had, in the summer of 1914, a friend in Imperial Germany. It was imperative to appeal tenderly to the sense of brüderschaft that bound Austria to Germany by language, custom, and treaty.61

German thinking was obvious. A sharp sudden Austrian blow might well catch Serbia’s allies unprepared to take action, and, if delivered smartly enough, unwilling to take revenge. A delay would allow Russia to recall that, having concluded an alliance with France, she had previously concluded an agreement with Great Britain, and was thus in the attractive position of being able to recall one lover while being fondled by another.

Count Alexander Hoyos of the Ballhausplatz, Austria’s foreign office, was dispatched to Berlin and charged with assuring German officials62 that, their suspicions of habitual Austrian schlamperei notwithstanding, this time the Austrians meant what they said when they said they meant business.63

The German military had seen no action in Europe in more than 30 years: a deficiency it was eager to make good, if not by winning a war, then at least by waging one. The German foreign minister, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who like Berchtold was eager to appear resolute before his military, gave his assent to Austrian action without asking overmuch what form it might take or when it might take form.

Hoyos left Berlin with what he had come to fetch, and that was a blank check.64

Count Tisza suggested to Conrad and Berchtold that before it be confronted with a military strike, Serbia be presented with a diplomatic ultimatum, one that should it be accepted would avert the need for military action and that, should it be rejected, would justify it.

The Austrian ultimatum was delivered to Serbian officials late on 23rd July, almost a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. European diplomats had by then resigned themselves to his absence; the European public, to his loss. The ultimatum made no demands that the Serbian government could not evade with ease or ignore with impunity. A few members of prime minister Nikola Păsić’s government thought to accept the Austrian ultimatum without demurral, until Count Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, encouraged them peevishly to scruple at one or two Austrian demands.65

The response the Serbians finally offered the Austrians on 25th July was as incompetent as the ultimatum that the Austrians had presented the Serbians. Having agreed to eight of the ten Austrian demands, Serbian officials hoped that Austria would overlook the other two and regard its note as a gesture of compliance. On noting that the Serbians had rejected two of its ten demands, the Austrians discounted the other eight and regarded the Serbian note as a gesture of defiance.

Russia had during the same week begun what it called partial mobilization, a charade designed to persuade the Germans that, despite the fact that the Russian state was sopping wet, it was unacquainted with water. No one was fooled, least of all the Germans. The Russian military, as shortsighted as it was overconfident, began to preen itself in the glow of its imagined victories.

On 23rd July, Raymond Poincaré, the president of the French Republic, and his foreign minister, René Viviani, had found themselves in St. Petersburg on a state visit, one lasting until 26th July.66 They were thus in St. Petersburg as Austria and Serbia handed matches to each other under circumstances that made it likely that one of them would be lit. The exchange between French and Russian officials was obviously of importance, but there is little in the documentary record of either state that affords the historian a sure sense of what took place when private meetings were held. Poincaré offered the Russians little by way of public substance, but after every one of his speeches, he was gratified to imagine, their souls had felt him like the thunder’s roll. In reviewing his ally’s troops, he was pleased to think there were so many of them. Viviani was out of sorts during what was in every respect a state visit, and he discharged some obligations while appearing ill and avoided others by appearing green. He seems, in fact, to have suffered a nervous breakdown, and was seen muttering incomprehensibly to himself.

A strange omen.

Although nominally an autocratic ruler, the Czar found himself unable to resist the swell of military enthusiasm, and, alternately hectored or cajoled by his advisors, agreed to actions that he could not control.

It was not in Vienna but in Berlin that a window briefly opened and was as quickly shut. Kaiser Wilhelm II was known to his critics, and appreciated at his court, as a statesmen who under ordinary circumstances tended to be bombastic to the point of moral witlessness. Serbian officials had managed to answer the Austrian ultimatum within the 48 hours given them as a deadline, and so required one-seventh the time to express their regret at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as the Austrians had required to express their indignation.

On reading the Serbian reply to Austria, the German Kaiser was not only moderate but perceptive, seeing at once that, if properly understood, it removed the causes of war by offering Austria what it most required, and that was a salve to its honor. Of all the political sentiments, a sense of injured dignity is the most difficult to assuage, and Germany was faced with a diplomatic imbroglio requiring great skill if it was to persuade the Austrians to allow their dignity to be soothed by appearances instead of being jeopardized by force. German statesmen, the Kaiser included, briefly contemplated the absurdity of defending a cause in Austria that the Serbians had apparently ceded, but no one within the German foreign office had the nerve or the resoluteness to force the Austrians to back away from a conflict that the Germans had themselves carelessly encouraged. Until the very moment that Austria declared war on Serbia, Hollweg had conveyed to the Kaiser the impression that the crisis that he had done so much to inflame, he could manage to deflame, but his idea of fire control had all along been to encourage the Austrians in their convictions while suggesting to the Kaiser that he was discouraging them in their resolutions.

Austria declared war on Serbia on 28th July 1914.67 It was a declaration that conveyed menace but that did not express force. The Austrian army, Conrad explained patiently to his colleagues, would require a further two weeks to gather itself, and could not take the field before 12th August. Why, during the previous four weeks, it had not prepared itself at all, his colleagues did not ask, and Conrad did not say. Austria’s declaration of war allowed Serbia to conduct its own mobilization in almost perfect tranquility and when later in August, Austrian troops invaded Serbia, they were shocked that Serbian troops were well-entrenched and willing to defend what Austrian officials considered a terrorist state and Serbian officials a site of national redemption.

With the Austrian declaration of war, the Kaiser was at last parted from his illusions.

On 30th July, the Czar issued and then cancelled and then reissued an order for general mobilization. Showing every indication that they did not quite know what they were doing, or why they were doing it, German officials demanded that the Russian mobilization be reversed. France ordered its own forces to a general mobilization on 1st August 1914. Germany, its ultimatum having been ignored, declared war on Russia on the same day, and promptly dispatched its troops toward its western border on the grounds that turning them to face their enemies would be an inconvenience.

Having throughout the spring and early summer of 1914 been occupied by the Irish question, the British Foreign Office discovered at the end of July and the beginning of August that they really might leave Ireland to the Irish. At the beginning of August, Great Britain’s foreign minister, Edward Grey, sent three badly-structured signals to the European diplomatic community, and when no one could make sense of them, determined that he could not make sense of them either.68 Britain determined to go to war ostensibly to protect Belgium neutrality, a tactful expression of the British unwillingness to accept German supremacy.69

The European state system began to smolder ominously.

By early August of 1914, Europe was either in flames, or about to be so.

The Cause of War

For more than a century, historians have endeavored to discover the causes of the First World War.70 No event in world history has been studied with more effort and less effect. The spark was, after all, there in plain sight: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914.

That the First World War was a tragedy, no one doubts, but that it was caused by a nineteen-year-old nincompoop, no one can abide.

It is too much.

A cause is one thing. There it is. It is the cause. What of the historical conditions, circumstances and forces that made it possible, history’s hidden hand? In a bleak little book devoted to the moral history of the twentieth century, Jonathan Glover abbreviates an account that historians had already amplified.71 European statesmen, and especially their foreign ministers, were crushed by a sense of their own impotence. Their intentions were ambiguously expressed. Mobilization, once it had begun in Germany and Russia, could not be easily reversed. The German railway schedule was inflexible.72 An arms race prevailed between Great Britain and Imperial Germany. And thereafter Glover’s list becomes progressively more general until it includes nationalism, social Darwinism, national honor, and something so simple as the fact that, while they were taut with apprehensive dreads, European statesmen lacked the imagination, or did not conceive the desire, to ask themselves why they were doing what they did.73

None of this very much suggests a god of war rolling his iron dice, the first step, one presumes, before shaking his iron balls. The events of July 1914 proceeded as they did, but how did randomness enter into European affairs? The scientific model has no very general categories to offer the historian beyond randomness and determinism, and because neither is of the slightest pertinence in asking about the origins of the First World War, neither is of the slightest value in answering the question of how it began.

Various causal chains in history can be of exceeding subtlety, so much so that they defeat any common concept of causality. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a part of a transitive chain in which one thing led to another; but whatever the chain, it could not have been extensional, and if it could not have been extensional, how could it have been causal? Described as an assassination, the killing of Franz Ferdinand was nothing less than a cause of war, but described as a killing, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was nothing more than a cause for concern.

Yet the two events were identical.

History is like that.

The men who made the First World War, or who allowed it to be made, were mediocrities, a conceptual category far more relevant to the initiation of hostilities in August 1914 than any concept drawn from the theory of probability. Grey had read classics at Oxford, but unlike Asquith, who had, at least, obtained a classical scholarship to Balliol, he was able, given the demand to translate from the Greek and Latin on sight, to progress no further than a few spastic barks. He wisely concluded his education in another field of study.74 Berchtold was charming, but feckless; if his policies led to the destruction of the empire that he was charged with defending, he would remain, he remarked to an acquaintance, an aristocrat after he ceased to be an Austrian. It did not occur to him that he would remain neither.75 Hollweg was by nature saturnine, and during the spring and summer of 1914, he was apprehensive about his wife’s health, and then saddened by her death. Like Berchtold, he wished to appear militant to his military, when at a distance of more than a century, it is obvious that he wished to appear manly.76 Sergei Sazonov had acquired influence as Pyotr Stolypin’s brother-in-law, and in his access to power, he had been pushed from below as well as pulled from above; push and pull, then as now, comprising the two forces most important in diplomatic advancement. Having the Czar’s ear and thereafter his confidence, Sazonov was in his element, but he had set himself the difficult task of advancing Russia’s interests in the Balkans while at the same time assuaging Austro–Hungarian anxieties about the Balkans.

A more adroit diplomat might have achieved both aims, and a more forthright diplomat just one of them. Sazonov was able to achieve neither.77

In striking a metaphor, no man is under oath, but if the god of war was busy throwing down his iron dice in July 1914, it was not with any notable effect. European statesmen did it to themselves, and they did it by themselves.

Richardson persuaded several generations of political scientists that his was a scientific attitude toward war. The research that has resulted has the very great merit of having occupied many political scientists in an undertaking that is as innocent as it is irrelevant. Nothing has been discovered about the onset and seriousness of war that was previously hidden from common sense.

Men go to war when they think that they can get away with murder.

Great Crimes

Di, talem terris avertite pestem!78

The twentieth century is terrible because, terrible though its warfare has been, it has not been its warfare that has been most terrible. Its crimes have been far worse. “In a single year,” Karl Schlögel remarked in writing about the Great Terror, “some 2 million people were arrested, approaching 700,000 were murdered and almost 1.3 million were deported to camps and labor colonies.”79 What makes the Great Terror terrible, Schlögel correctly observed, “is not merely the number of its victims,” but the ambitions of the state that undertook their destruction. The Great Terror was intended to reduce one sixth of the world’s population to a state of gibbering hysteria. In this, it was successful. As extermination is the essence of Nazism as an ideology, terror is the essence of Stalinism as a civilization. Of all the terrible facts that we might know about the times in which we live, these are the most terrible: That in the twentieth century, death and terror proved perfectly adequate principles of political organization; and that no body of sentiment or ideology derived from enlightenment humanism or religious doctrine impeded for a moment their development.80

All formulas were tried to still
The scratching on the window-sill,
All bolts of custom made secure
Against the pressure on the door,
But up the staircase of events
Carrying his special instruments,
To every bedside all the same
The dreadful figure swiftly came.81

By 1945, German history had run its course.82 Alone, broken, and unloved, the Soviet Union lumbered into oblivion in 1989. But in a real sense the German and Soviet states disappeared from the face of the earth only because they had annihilated one another.

In the face of its crimes, what can one say about the twentieth century beyond what Elias Canetti said: “It is a mark of fundamental human decency to feel ashamed of living in the twentieth century.”83

What one is not prepared to say, and still less to encounter, largely because it is, at once, absurd and obscene,84 is the view that the great crimes of the twentieth century were, all things considered, not so bad. This is the view that Pinker defends. The crimes of the twentieth century were not among the greatest of crimes because other crimes were greater. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker offers a list of the worst atrocities in human history.85 His source is Matthew White, a librarian with a morbid interest in atrocities and a marked talent for publicity. Among his notable contributions is a self-published pamphlet, “Smart-Ass Instructions for Life.” His meisterwerk is entitled The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, a catalog of catastrophes that errs chiefly in not including the title among them. White has deduced his conclusions by an assiduous survey of secondary sources each citing the other for authority.

The greatest of the great atrocities, White argues, is the An Lushan revolt in eighth-century China. Thirty-five million Chinese lost their lives. This is the figure cited originally on White’s website, but on more diligent reflection, White revised thirty-five to thirteen million, almost a threefold reduction. This might have suggested to a more scrupulous scholar than Pinker that White is a fruitcake—the perfect truth, as it happens.

Whatever the truth, it is incontestable that the times were bitter.

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the End of Days. But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.86

An Argument Gone Bad

Two statistics are now on crime’s table: H1/P1 and H2/P2. What follows is an obvious algebraic statement:

If H1/P1 ≈ H2/P2 and β(P1) = P2 then H2 = β(H1).

A law of fractions, this implication has no empirical content beyond the most general. True everywhere, it is of no particular interest anywhere.

Suppose as a matter of fact that P2 = β(P1), and that H1/P1 ≈ H2/P2. The expected number of homicides ξ(H2) in P2 is ξ(H2) = β(H1).

The conveyance from H1/P1 ≈ H2/P2 and P2 = β(P1) to ξ(H2) is an example of what criminologists call homicidal projection. It cannot be sufficiently stressed, because it is never sufficiently noticed, that homicidal projection embodies an empirical prediction. It is, after all, a measure of the expected number of homicides.

Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust; whatever else it might have been, the Holocaust embodied the crime of homicide. The world population in 1940 stood at roughly two billion; the world’s population in 1300, at roughly one hundred million.

What follows is an argument gone bad.

  1. H1/P1 ≈ H2/P2
  2. β(P1) = P2

Both 1 and 2 are unspecified but empirical claims: they might be false.

3 follows by homicidal projection:

  1. ξ(H2) = β(H1).

And 4 by instantiation in 1:

  1. 6,000,000/2,000,000,000 ≈ H2/100,000,000


  1. H2 = 300,000.

Had the Holocaust taken place in 1300, it would have claimed 300,000 lives.

With equal justice, one might argue that, had the Holocaust taken place in 1300,

  1. H2 = 6,000,000,

on the grounds that a massacre of 300,000 Jews in 1300, whatever else it might have been, would not have been the Holocaust.

Whereupon it would follow that 1 and so 5 are false by contraposition.

Either H2 = 6,000,000 or H2 = 300,000. Which is it to be?

There is no way of telling: evidence, if any were needed, that homicidal projection is intrinsically unstable.

In assessing the An Lushan revolt, Pinker accepts the figure of thirty-six million dead. Thirty-six million dead in the eighth century, he argues, is comparable to 429 million dead in the mid-twentieth century. No wonder he is persuaded that the An Lushan revolt could “hold its head high amidst twentieth century atrocities.”87

Calculations are straightforward.

  1. H1/W1 ≈ H2/W2,

where H1 designates death tolls in the An Lushan rebellion, and H2 refers to presumptive death tolls had the An Lushan rebellion taken place in the mid-twentieth century. W1 and W2 are eighth-century and mid-twentieth-century population totals.

Following White (blindly, as it happens), Pinker assumes that

  1. H1/W1 = 1/6,

whereupon there is

  1. H2 = 429,000,000,

by homicidal projection.

Another argument of comparable validity—which is to say none—is equally possible.


  1. H1/W1 ≈ H2/W2,

as before, but where W1 designates the population of the Tang empire, and not the world population in the eighth century AD.

  1. H1/W1 = 2/3,


  1. H2 ≈ 1,300,000,000,

or roughly 1.3 billion twentieth-century deaths by homicidal projection, a figure that gives an entirely unintended meaning to the phrase mass atrocity.

It would make sense to compute deaths by genocide by appealing to the world’s population as a reference class only if there were some rational way of undertaking homicidal projection.

There is none.

In going from 8 to 9, Pinker has projected homicides forward.

But not in going from 8 to 12.

Why is that?

Homicidal projection is unstable because it is unavoidably counterfactual. That the An Lushan revolt killed thirty-five million people is, or may be, a fact; that the An Lushan would have killed 429 million people in the twentieth century is not. The Holocaust, the Atlantic slave trade, and the An Lushan revolt are not bosons. They cannot be projected into the past or into the future. They are what they are. But without homicidal projection, we are left with what we always knew. The An Lushan revolt killed, or may have killed thirty-five million Chinese; and the Holocaust most certainly killed six million Jews.

Both were terrible.

The coordination of crime over centuries requires some consideration of their natural reference classes. “For comparisons across vast ranges of times and places (such as comparison of the atrocities of the 20th century with those of earlier centuries),” Pinker writes, “I generally use the population of the entire world at the time.”88 This view is rational; but it is not reasonable.89 The Holocaust did not take place in Latin America, and any attempt to diminish its scope by augmenting its reference class with millions of Latin Americans would be to offer an entirely spurious sense that risks in the twentieth century were randomly distributed.90

A correlative error at once follows, this one closer to frank fallacy. “If the population grows,” Pinker affirms,

so does the potential number of murderers and despots and rapists and sadists. So if the absolute number of victims of violence stays the same or even increases, while the proportion decreases, something important must have changed to allow all those extra people to grow up free of violence.91

Nothing of the sort is true in the case of homicides; and nothing of the sort is true in the case of atrocities either. The supposition is backwards. The correct question is rather what changed in Nazi Germany, or Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia to allow crimes never before seen to take place there?

If the question is obvious, so, too, the answer.

We have no idea.

The Bleed-Through

In contemplating the twentieth century, contemporary criminologists enjoy or, at any rate, evince, a sense of optimism somewhat at odds with their immersion in the inky details of their professional calling—murder, after all.

My god, man, it was safe to walk the streets of London in 1950.

It was. A Londoner chosen at random was more likely to perish from eating English food than at the hands of English thugs. Given the choice, he might have preferred the latter. London in 1950, Eisner argued, “may serve as a benchmark for the lowest level of interpersonal lethal violence as yet attained in any known Western society.”92 The words interpersonal lethal violence are like cotton wool in being useful without being clearly defined. What Eisner had in mind is murder; and what he observed was that, for a time in London, there was not much of it going around: the homicide rate stood at 1 in 100,000.

Whereupon that sense of optimism.

Homicide rates throughout western Europe and the United States have, it is true, undertaken an embarrassing reversal since the 1960s, when the fabled civilizing process seems to have encountered its potent twin, the decivilizing process, but those low London homicide rates serve to show just how low things can really get.

They can go very low. And this, too, is a reason for optimism. Given the correlative assumption that the homicide rate is a quantifiable indicator of the degree of violence in a particular period, criminologists might be forgiven a sense of giddiness.

Historians of the twentieth century, like anyone with his eyes open, might wonder about interpersonal lethal violence elsewhere in Europe just a few years earlier. From Eisner’s buoyant “long term declining trend in homicide rates,” one would expect the data to reflect a series of homicide rates converging to H/P ≈ 1/100,000.

In Kiev, Amsterdam, Westerbork, Salonika, Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Sobibor, Krakow, Lachwa, Zazlaw, Potulice, Soldau, Stutthof, Lublin, Kelice, Wilnow, Bedzin, Bialystock, Nowogrodek, Ponary, or Warsaw, another picture emerges, one in which homicide rates converge to 1.

During the German occupation of France, the French police deported 50,000 Jews from Paris to their deaths.93 La rafle is today well-remembered in French political history, but la rafle was one among les rafles. Let me see. The population of Paris in 1940 stood at P ≈ 1,000,000. Neglecting entirely the ordinary Parisian murder in which a drunken sot at last settled the score with his nagging wife, H/P ≈ 1,250/100,000 per annum.94

The presumptive homicide rate in Oxford in 1343 was 121/100,000. In the middle of the morally improved twentieth century, Parisian homicide rates were ten times higher than they were in the mid-fourteenth century. Among Jews in Paris lacking French citizenship, they were far, far worse.

The population of European Jewry in 1939 was roughly nine million. Of these, six million were murdered, making for a homicide rate H/P ≈ 66,000/100,000, or 14,000/100,000 per annum for each of the four years between 1941 and 1945.

This is lower than the homicide rate in various cities, but much higher than the overall European homicide rate; and the overall European homicide rate is higher than the European homicide rate in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

What of Lachwa? Zazlaw? Potulice? Soldau? Stutthof? Salonika? Amsterdam? or Budapest?—cities or villages where the homicide rate, when measured against their Jewish populations, converged mercilessly to 1?

Should their dead not be included in European homicide figures?

Are they not dead?

Were they not murdered?

Criminologists understand as well as the next man that terrible crimes took place in the twentieth century. They are simply disposed to ignore them in their calculations. Homicide is one thing, genocide, another.95 Their business is the first; let others deal with the second. The distinction is entirely artificial. Homicide is murder, and genocide, mass murder. When the statistics pertaining to mass murder in the twentieth century are acknowledged, they bleed through every calculation, forming a ghastly but ineradicable spike—somewhat like a Dirac function, in fact—in the otherwise humdrum human record of murders undertaken in some sordid hotel room or in the alleyway behind the Bannhof or in a field of winter wheat.

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.96

A destructive dilemma now presents itself. If mass murders are not included in the homicide rate for the twentieth century, then the homicide rate is no very good measure of violence; if they are included, then the homicide rate does not indicate a long-term declining trend in violence. It indicates the opposite.

However the academic world is divided, the twentieth century has achieved a terrible form of immortality. “It is in the very nature of things human,” Hannah Arendt observed, “that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.”97 No matter how remote, great crimes have a living power to influence the future. Tradition and taboo are unavailing.98 “No punishment,” Arendt wrote, “has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes.” On the contrary, “whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.”99

It is in this sense that the twentieth century, having introduced into human history crimes never before imagined, or if imagined, never before undertaken, is immortal, and will, like the crucifixion, remain a permanent part of the human present.

It is simply there, an obelisk in human history: black, forbidding, irremovable, and inexpugnable.


  1. Paulus Orosius, Seven Books Against the Pagans (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010). 
  2. If the twentieth century seems short, the nineteenth century seems long. See David Blackbourn, The Long Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). 
  3. Anna Akhmatova, Plantain; quoted in Bernard Wasserstein, Barbarism and Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 793. 
  4. Milton Leitenberg, Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century (Cornell University Peace Study Program, Occasional Papers, No. 29, 2003).

    If some of the great crimes of the twentieth century are well known, not all of its great crimes are known well. The Chinese civil war, took place from 1927 to 1936, and, after an interregnum in which those belligerents who had previously fought one another found reason to fight the Japanese, resumed with undiminished industry in 1945; it caused millions of deaths, no party to the conflict much burdened by the blood that they had shed, or wasted. John King Fairbank, China: A New History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) offers no death tolls, an omission that would be unthinkable in the case of the Holocaust. See Benjamin Valentino, Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005). Valentino estimated that the Chinese Civil War resulted in the death of between 1.8 million and 3.5 million people between 1927 and 1949. A generation of scholars has made the great Ukrainian famine of 1932 to 1935, if not well known, then, at least, known well, but the earlier Soviet famine of 1921, has slipped out of the stream of memory, and the Soviet famine of 1947 in which, at least, one million Soviet citizens starved to death is neither well known nor known well. See Michael Ellman ‘Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932–1933 Revisited,’ Europe-Asia Studies 59, No. 4 (2007): 663–93 together with Michael Ellman, ‘The 1947 Soviet Famine and the Entitlement Approach to Famines,’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 224, No. 5 (2000): 610, n. 3. Ellman estimates over a million excess deaths in the third Soviet famine of 1947. The Federal Republic of Germany has been willing to acknowledge the crimes of its predecessor; but in east Prussia, the Red Army in its revenge destroyed a society fully as old and as rooted in the European experience as the Jewish society of eastern Europe. Thereafter between twelve and fifteen million ethnic Germans were expelled from their homes, properties and lives and over the course of the two years between 1945 and 1947 sent into exile in the withered German state in which they had never lived and to which they were bound only by the decayed tie of the German language. This is not known well at all. See R.M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013) or Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans 1944-1950 (New York: St. Martins Press, 1993). Yet the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from eastern and central Europe bears comparison to the partition of India and dwarfs completely all population expulsions in the middle east. Hans Graf von Lehndorff’s Ostpreußisches Tagebuch: Aufzeichnungen eines Arztes aus den Jahren 1945 – 1947 (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997), offers an account combining a certain moral shortsightedness and a biting sense of loss:
    Was ist das eigentlich, so fragte ich mich, was wir hier erleben? Hat das noch etwas mit natürlicher Wildheit zu tun oder mit Rache? Mit Rache vielleicht, aber in einem anderen Sinn. Rächt sich hier nicht in einer und derselben Person das Geschöpf am Menschen, das Fleisch am Geist, den amn ihm aufgezwungen hat? Woher kommen diese Typen, Menschen wie wir, im Banne von Trieben, die zu ihrer äußeren Erscheinung in einem grauenvollen Mißverhältnis stehen? Welch ein Bemühen, das Chaos zur Schau tragen! ... Das hat nichts mit Rußland zu tun, nichts mit einem bestimmten Volk oder einer Rasse - das ist der Mensch ohne Gott, die Fratze des Menschen.” Banne von Trieben, die zu ihrer äußeren Erscheinung in einem grauenvollen Mißverhältnis stehen? Welch ein Bemühen, das Chaos zur Schau tragen! ... Das hat nichts mit Rußland zu tun, nichts mit einem bestimmten Volk oder einer Rasse - das ist der Mensch ohne Gott, die Fratze des Menschen.
    Von Lehndorff’s appeal to the absence of God was never made, a sympathetic reader is bound to observe, when the German army was advancing into Russia. Perhaps, revenge had something to do with the fate of the east Prussians and ethnic Germans after all. What de Zayas calls the terrible revenge lacks for a common name and a place in the standard histories of the twentieth century. 
  5. A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 255. 
  6. Stefan Zweig is an example. See Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von Gestern (Leck: Claussen & Bosse, 1992); Jean-Michel Palmier, Weimar in Exile: The Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America (London: Verso, 2006). The destruction of German culture—how does that figure in an assessment of twentieth century violence and according to what metric? 
  7. Thomas Macaulay, “A Review of Southey’s Colloquies,” Edinburgh Review, 1830, reprinted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: W.H. Norton & Company, 1962), 1,620–25. 
  8. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1931), 12. 
  9. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1931), 13. See Adrian Wilson and Timothy Ashplant, “Whig History and Present-Centered History,” The Historical Journal 31, No. 1 (1988): 1–16; and William Cronon, “Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History,” Perspectives on History 50, no. 6 (2012): 5.

    The Whig historians comprise a group that, according to Michael Bentley, includes William Stubbs, James Froude, Edward Freeman, John Richard Green, William Lecky, Lord John Dalberg-Acton, John Seeley, Samuel Gardiner, Charles Firth, George Macaulay Trevelyan, and John Bagnell Bury. See Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1999), 64–65. 
  10. According to widespread popular belief
    …the period of European history known as the Middle Ages or medieval period (roughly the years 450–1450) was a time of barbarism, ignorance, and superstition. The epithet “Dark Ages” often applied to it nicely captures this opinion. As for the ills that threatened literacy, learning, and especially science during the Middle Ages, blame is most often laid at the feet of the Christian church, which is alleged to have placed religious authority above personal experience and rational activity, thereby snuffing out the faint sparks of scientific and other forms of intellectual creativity that had survived the barbarian invasions of late antiquity.
    David Lindberg, “The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor,” in When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 7. 
  11. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2011), xix. Pinker’s book contains a great many secondary theses about animal and women’s rights, child rearing, bullying, slavery, torture, and psychology; they are fatuous without in any way being interesting. 
  12. Timothy Snyder is an example. A fine historian, Snyder suspects that something is wrong. He is unable to say what it is. Timothy Snyder, “War No More: Why the World Has Become More Peaceful,” Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2012. 
  13. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2011), xx–xxi. 
  14. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 228–347. 
  15. Both Guy de Maupassant and Leonardo Sciascia are uncommonly adept at depicting an atmosphere of suggested or implicit violence. Maupassant’s Histoire Corse is a brilliant example; so is Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl
  16. Gerd Schwerhoff, “Criminalized Violence and the Process of Civilization: A Reappraisal,” in Crime, History & Societies 6, no. 2 (2002): 103. 
  17. The website of Germany’s Bundeskriminalamt. Great pains have been taken to make it comprehensive, user-friendly, entirely unthreatening, and so, faintly comical. 
  18. Karl Schlögel, Moscow 1937, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2012) answers every question about the great terror except why it occurred. 
  19. David Shearer, “Crime and social disorder in Stalin's Russia: A reassessment of the Great Retreat and the origins of mass repression,” Cahiers du monde russe : Russie, Empire russe, Union soviétique, États indépendants Année 1998 39, No. 1 (1998): 119–48.

    In his 1936 report to the Sovnarkom, Genrikh Iagoda, the head of the NKVD, “boasted that there were fewer murders in the whole of the USSR in 1935 than in the city of Chicago.” Iagoda’s report is cited in David Shearer, “Social disorder, mass repression, and the NKVD during the 1930s,” Cahiers du monde russe: La police politique en Union soviétique, 1918–1953. If true—who knows?—would it follow that Moscow was less violent than Chicago?

    In his note, “Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments,” (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 54, No. 7, 2002, 1151–1172) Michael Ellman remarks that in 1937–1938, the NKVD shot 850,000 victims out of hand under the notorious Section 58 of the penal code; he estimates the actual number of deaths in detention at 200,000, but the actual number of excess non-article 58 deaths at 5,000. The ratio of one million to five thousand offers some idea of the proportional significance of ordinary crime in the Soviet scheme of things in the mid-1930s. 
  20. Fahui Wang and Van O’Brien, “Constructing Geographic Areas for Analysis of Homicide in Small Populations: Testing Herding-Culture-of-Honor Proposition,” in Geographic Information Systems and Crime Analysis, ed. Fahui Wang (Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing, 2005), 84–101. 
  21. Quoted in Fahui Wang and Van O’Brien, “Constructing Geographic Areas for Analysis of Homicide in Small Populations: Testing Herding-Culture-of-Honor Proposition,” in Geographic Information Systems and Crime Analysis, ed. Fahui Wang (Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing, 2005), 84–101. 
  22. Hans Reichenbach, The Theory of Probability (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1949), 374. 
  23. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 83. 
  24. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 85. Pinker is writing about the Christian middle ages, a period not ordinarily known for its sexual exuberance. “[I]t is part of the essence of humans to be ashamed of their nakedness,” Hans-Peter Dürr observes quite correctly, “however this nakedness may be defined historically.” Hans-Peter Dürr, Nacktheit und Scham (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988), 12. See also Oliver König, Nacktheit und Moral, Zur sozialen Normierung der Nacktheit (Wiesbaden: Herbst, 1990). 
  25. No forks? Really? See Pasquale Marchese, L'invenzione della forchetta (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 1989). 
  26. Lawrence Stone, “Interpersonal Violence in English Society 1300–1980,” Past & Present, 101 (1983): 22–33. Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present Revisited (London: Routledge, 1987) contains Stone’s observations about these topics, many of them in conflict, most of them trite.

    See also James Sharpe, “The History of Violence in England: Some Observations,” Past & Present 108 (1986): 206–15. To Stone, Sharpe credits the thesis that “deep changes in society are indicated by variations in the homicide rate,” (at 206). That variations in the homicide rate represent a change in society is trivially true. But that variations in the homicide rate represent something deeper than themselves is not obviously true at all.

    See also J. S. Cockburn, “Patterns of Violence in English Society: Homicide in Kent 1560–1985,” Past & Present 130 (1991): 70–106.

    In Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present Revisited (London: Routledge, 1987), 82, Stone remarks that
    historians can no longer get away with saying “more,” “less,” “growing,” “declining,” all of which logically imply numerical comparisons, without ever stating explicitly the statistical basis for their assertions.
    Sure they can. 
  27. For an historian such as Lawrence Stone to regard with satisfaction a decline in homicide within the context of the twentieth century rather suggests a physician remarking to a patient suffering from a terminal disease that at least his impetigo is improved. 
  28. Ted Gurr, “Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence,” in Crime and Justice, Volume 3: An Annual Review of Research, eds. Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 295–353. 
  29. James Given, Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century England (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1977). 
  30. Carl Hammer, “Patterns of Homicide in a Medieval University Town: Fourteenth-Century Oxford,” Past and Present 78, No. 1 (1978), 3–23. 
  31. Ted Gurr, “Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence,” in Crime and Justice, Volume 3: An Annual Review of Research, eds. Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 295. 
  32. Ted Gurr, “Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence,” in Crime and Justice, Volume 3: An Annual Review of Research, eds. Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 313. 
  33. Manuel Eisner, “Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime,” Crime and Justice 30 (2003): 83–142. In a more recent paper entitled “From Swords to Words: Does Macro-Level Change in Self-Control Predict Long-Term Variations in Levels of Homicide?” Crime and Justice 43 (2014): 65–134, Eisner offered an endorsement of Norbert Elias’ theory that variations in homicide rates are tied to improvement in self-control. In his favor, I should add that his endorsement is hardly a masterpiece of enthusiasm. 
  34. Carl Hammer, “Patterns of Homicide in a Medieval University Town: Fourteenth-Century Oxford,” Past and Present 78, No. 1 (1978), 7; see also n. 3. 
  35. Michael Shermer is an example. Called upon to review The Better Angels of Our Nature in the American Scholar (Autumn, 2011), he thought to entitled his review, “Getting Better all the Time.” Were Pinker to assert that San Pedro Sula now embodied the lowest homicide rate in the western hemisphere, when, in fact, the reverse is true, Shermer would at once commence to acquire conversational Spanish. 
  36. Carl Hammer, “Patterns of Homicide in a Medieval University Town: Fourteenth-Century Oxford,” Past and Present 78, No. 1 (1978), 12, 13. 
  37. Ted Gurr, “Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence,” in Crime and Justice, Volume 3: An Annual Review of Research, eds. Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 307. 
  38. Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present Revisited (London: Routledge, 1987), 30. 
  39. For an initial review of Given, see Thomas Green, “Review of Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century England, by J. B. Given,” Speculum 54, No. 1 (1979): 137–40. For later comments, see Pieter Spierenburg, A History of Murder (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

    Adrian Jobson, ed., English Government in the Thirteenth Century (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2004) is valuable for an account of C.A.F. Meekings’ archival research, which was incomplete at the time that Given undertook his research. 
  40. For Sutherland’s mature appreciation of the Eyre courts, see Donald Sutherland, “The Brotherhood and the Rivalry of English Lawyers in the General Eyres,” American Journal of Legal History 31, No. 1 (1987): 1–8; and “Introduction,” in The London Eyre of 1244, eds. Helena Chew and Martin Weinbaum (London: London Record Society, 1970), ix–xxxii. 
  41. Introduction,” in The London Eyre of 1276, ed. Martin Weinbaum (London: London Record Society, 1976), xi–xl. 
  42. Josiah Cox Russell, British Medieval Population (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1948). 
  43. Rodney Hilton, A Medieval Society: The West Midlands at the End of the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). 
  44. Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England, 1225–1360 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). For a review of Prestwich’s book, see Lorraine Attreed, “Review of Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England, 1225–1360,” Speculum 81, No. 4 (2006): 1,243–45. 
  45. Henry Summerson, “Peacekeepers and Lawbreakers in London, 1276–1321,” in Thirteenth Century England XII, Proceedings of the Gregynog Conference, 2007, eds. Janet Burton et al. (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2009), 107–22. 
  46. Ted Gurr, “Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence,” in Crime and Justice, Volume 3: An Annual Review of Research, eds. Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 305 citing James Given, Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century England (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1977), 13. 
  47. Frederic Maitland, Pleas of the Crown for the County of Gloucester Before the Abbot of Reading and His Fellows (London: Forgotten Books, 2013), 36. “Any one who is willing to take a little trouble,” Maitland remarked, “and to remember that the scribes were listening to English and thinking in English, will find the Latin of these rolls easy enough.” (at 29). Maitland then demonstrates in precise textual detail that nothing of the sort is true. 
  48. Warren Brown is an example. “I too am drawn to medieval violence,” Brown remarks sheepishly at the beginning of his book, Violence in Medieval Europe. No kidding. Warren Brown, Violence in Medieval Europe (New York: Pearson Education, 2011), 1. 
  49. Manuel Eisner, “Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime,” Crime and Justice 30 (2003): 83. 
  50. Manuel Eisner, “Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime,” Crime and Justice 30 (2003): 84. 
  51. Lewis Richardson, Statistics of Deadly Quarrels (Chicago: Boxwood Press, 1960). 
  52. Henk Houweling and Jan Kuné, “Do Outbreaks of War Follow a Poisson-Process?” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 28, No. 1 (1984): 51–61. The authors make the same point. 
  53. William Feller, The Theory of Probability and its Applications, Vol. 1 (New York: John Wiley, 1950), 365. 
  54. William Feller, The Theory of Probability and its Applications, Vol. 1 (New York: John Wiley, 1950), 365. 
  55. Lewis Fry Richardson, Statistics of Deadly Quarrels (Pittsburgh: Boxwood Press, 1960), 35. 
  56. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London, Penguin Books, 2011), 248. 
  57. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, Act III Scene 1, 52–54.&nnbsp;
  58. With the publication of Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914–1918 (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1961), the German historian Fritz Fischer affirmed, or admitted, that the primary responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War rested with Imperial Germany. It would seem that a warlike government had long harbored warlike intentions and very often conveyed warlike sentiments. Who knew? The very great virtue of Fischer’s work was that it rested on an examination of German archives from 1870 to 1914 unprecedented in its thoroughness. In many respects, Fischer’s discussion of the First World War reprises Luigi Albertini's The Origins of the War of 1914, translated and edited by Isabella M. Massey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), but first published in Italian in the 1930s, a matchless work of diplomatic history. Albertini was the last major historian of the First World War in a position to interview some of its leading figures.

    Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction. Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (New York: Cornell University Press, 2004) has recently endorsed and extended Fischer’s thesis. She has come somewhat late to the understanding that the Germany Imperial army was committed to, and as often celebrated for, the principle of Vernichtungskrieg. Better late than never. See Gilli Vardi “Book Review: Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction. Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany,” in University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History 10 (2006).

    Imperial Germany did not lack for military men prepared to be bloodthirsty in print and in practice. The most conspicuous example was General Friedrich Bernhardi, whose Deutschland und der Nächste Krieg, published in 1911, celebrated war as a Darwinian imperative. Bernhardi was an exceptionally able general and a man of outstanding courage. His book is repulsive.

    A counter-current in scholarly opinion has, it goes without saying, already formed itself, one that assigns some responsibility for the outbreak of war to every party and all of it to none. See Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Harper Collins, 2013), and Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War (New York: Basic Books, 2013). Neither writer, it is satisfying to observe, has a good thing to say about Serbia or the Serbians. Whatever the revisions in prospect, Niall Ferguson has already taken revising one step beyond revolting. It remains for him only to argue that, in 1914, Belgium violated German neutrality. In his extended essay, “Germany and the Origins of the First World War: New Perspectives,” The Historical Journal 35, No. 3 (September 1992): 725–52, Ferguson argued that Imperial Germany was steadily and systematically falling behind other powers in the resources it could devote to its military. Ferguson has amplified this thesis in a popular book, The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 2000). In Ferguson’s view, it was England that bore primary responsibility for the outbreak of war, and the world would have been far better off had Germany prevailed on the battlefield and then been left in tranquility to administer a new German empire. Considering the empire that the Germans did administer, this is a thesis that does not immediately commend itself as self-evident.

    Still other historians have thought to ask whether the First World War was inevitable, or even probable. See Holger Afflerbach & David Stevenson, An Improbable War?: The Outbreak of World War I and European Political Culture before 1914 (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007). Contributors agree that just possibly the war was improbable, probable, likely, unlikely, nearly inevitable, or not inevitable at all. It is owing only to God’s grace that not one of them thought to invoke the now mythical Black Swan to explain events. 
  59. When the war came, Conrad discovered the very considerable difference between calling for and using arms. Conrad’s memoirs, Aus Meiner Dienstzeit, published in four volumes by Rikola–Verlag, 1921–1925, succeed in conveying the impression that their author was in every respect rather dim. 
  60. Men such as Voja Tankositch, one of the founding members of the Black Hand, or Dragutin Dimitrijević, known generally as Apsis (the bull), the head of Serbian military intelligence and the leader of the Black Hand. Although both men were thugs, Apsis was said (on the strength of no discernible evidence) to be cunning. He was in any event not cunning enough to avoid his own execution. 
  61. Austria and Germany had signed a Joint Memorandum on 24th September 1879, and a treaty on 7th October. The treaty was conceived as an alliance of “peace and mutual defense.” A. F. Pribram, Die politischen Geheimverträge Österreich – Ungarns, 1879–1914, Vol. I (Vienna, 1920) 25–31. 
  62. The so-called Matscheko memorandum, written in the early spring of 1914, and which had nothing to do with Serbia and everything to do with Romania. Berchtold persuaded Franz Joseph I to compose a handgeschriebene letter to Wilhelm II, remarking on what both men must have known in their bones: that an attack on one monarch was an attack on them all. To this, Berchtold added his own Denkschrift, closing with a melodramatic assurance that the Austrian eagle was determined to tear the net in which it was being enveloped. This image, since it called on a bird to raise a claw above its head, was, perhaps, not inspired in conception. McMeekin assigns to Tisza the inspiration for the memorandum. Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 95. There is no evidence that this is so. Clark refers to the Matscheko memorandum as a paranoid document, one characteristic of fin de siècle Vienna. The memorandum was composed fourteen years after the century ended and as events would promptly reveal, it contained nothing that indicated paranoia. Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Harper Collins, 2013), 115. A. J. P. Taylor refers to Matscheko's memorandum as if it had been written by Berchtold—his memorandum—but neglects to provide a cross-reference. A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848–1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 521. It cannot be said that this document has inspired the most impeccable scholarship. John Leslie’s essay, “The Antecedents of Austria-Hungary’s War Aims,” in Archiv und Forschung: Das Haus-, Hof-, und Staatsarchiv in seiner Bedeutung für die Geschichte Österreichs und Europas, eds. Elisabeth Springer and Leopold Kammerhofer (Wien: 1993), is, at least, accurate in assigning the right authors to the right documents. 
  63. The words Morgen, Morgen, nur nicht Heute are regarded as an admonition in Germany, but an encouragement in Austria. 
  64. See Szögyéni to Berchtold, Österreich-Ungarns Aussenpolitik, vol. 8, doc. 10076, 320. 
  65. The 5th and the 6th, as it happens, which seemed to compromise Serbian sovereignty by demanding foreign representatives, Austrians, in fact, on any Serbian committee charged with investigating the assassination. The sovereignty of the Serbian state was said to be sacred by both English and French foreign offices, a gesture of diplomatic piousness entirely at odds with its true nature as an interlocking series of terrorist cells. 
  66. The Franco–Russian alliance dated to 1891. It was the military convention between France and Russia of August 1892 from which the French took comfort. “If France is attacked by Germany,” its first article read, “Russian shall employ her available forces to fight Germany.” See Documents Diplomatiques, L’alliance Franco-Russe (Paris, 1918), 92, and A. F. Pribram, Die politischen Geheimverträge Österreich – Ungarns, 1879–1914, Vol. I (Vienna, 1920), 25–31, n. 40. On its acceptance by the Russian minister of foreign affairs and the French ambassador to Russia in 1893, the convention acquired the force of a treaty. 
  67. Historians once content to blame Imperial Germany for the outbreak of war have recently turned their attention gratefully to Austria. See Richard Evans, “The Habsburg Monarchy and the Coming of War,” in The Coming of the First World War, eds. Richard Evans & Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); F. R. Bridge, The Habsburg Monarchy: Among the Great Powers, 1815–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); Graydon Tunstall, Jr., “Austria-Hungary,” in The Origins of World War I, eds. Richard Hamilton & Holger Herwig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Alma Hanning, “Die Balkanpolitik Österreich-Ungarns,” in Der Erste Weltkrieg auf dem Balkan: Perspektiven der Forschung, ed. Jürgen Angelow (Berlin: Bebra Wissenschaft, 2011). All that can justifiably be said is that Austrian policy was remarkably inept, but not that it was unjustified. Events in July of 1914 did not improve the luster of any diplomatic service.

    For details, see Ludwig Bittner and Hans Übersberger, eds., Österreich-Ungarns Aussenpolitik von der bosnischen Krise 1908 bis zum Kriegsausbruch 1914, 8 Vols., Vienna 1930, Vol. 8, No. 9918, 189–93. Many of these documents are online at The World War I Document Archive (editor, Richard Hacken, 2010. Brigham Young University Library, 15 May 2010). 
  68. On this point, see Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 404. Throughout the July crisis, both Grey and prime minister Herbert Asquith attempted to parse the distinction between an alliance and an entente with France down to the molecular level. In his autobiography, The Genesis of War (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1923), 99, Asquith remarks favorably of his policies that they preserved a studied indecisiveness in statecraft. Given the confusion between an entente, which is by nature vague, and an alliance, which is not, the English would not know whether they were to go to war until they went to war. Why anyone should think this a good thing is a matter about which Asquith never inquires. 
  69. For Britain’s obligations to Russia, see George Gooch and Harold Temperley, eds., British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914, 11 Vols. (London, 1926). These agreements were not treaties, and concerned Persia, the Persian Straits, and Afghanistan. 
  70. The larger issue that occupied Princip and his collaborators was the annexation in 1908 of Bosnia and Herzogovina by Austria, thus bringing a great many Serbs under Austro-Hungarian rule. The annexation ratified in formal terms the Austrian domination of Bosnia and Herzogovina that had been a simple fact of life since the Congress of Berlin. 
  71. Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 177–99. 
  72. A point emphatically denied by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August (London: MacMillan, 1962), 80. Tuchman cites General von Staab, chief of the German Railway Division, but does not specify a source. She was, perhaps, referring to Hermann von Staabs, Aufmarsch nach zwei Fronten : auf Grund der Operationspläne von 1870-1914 (Berlin: E.S. Mittler, 1925). 
  73. The diplomatic record indicates that every foreign office was aware of the threat of a general European conflict. What none quite realized was its likely magnitude, another matter entirely. The truth was not very long delayed. In a bitter note to Italian representatives and foreign governments, Baron Sidney Sonnino, the Italian minister for foreign affairs, wrote of Italian efforts to “to spare Europe from a vast conflict certain to drench the continent with blood and to reduce it to ruin beyond the conception of human imagination.” The date, however, is May 23, 1915, and while the Italian Foreign Office may well have made efforts to spare the continent from war, Italian diplomats writing before 1914 expressed no real anxieties about the possibility that war would drench the continent in blood, or in anything else. Reprinted in James Brown Scott, ed., Diplomatic Documents relating to the Outbreak of the European War (New York: 1916). Italy had been formally allied to Germany and Austria and was determined not to join either the Allied or the Axis powers in combat until it could determine the side likely to prevail. It is a policy that even today inspires admiration. 
  74. Jurisprudence, as it happens, a discipline in which he achieved a Third on his examinations. 
  75. Berchtold’s reputation for diffidence was unfair. In May 1913, the Austrian foreign office, under his instructions, issued an ultimatum to Montenegro, demanding the withdrawal of Montenegrin forces from Albania, a state newly created by the great power conference of 1912; and in October 1913, Berchtold, on witnessing great power indifference to Serbian incursions in Albania, acted unilaterally to force a Serbian withdrawal. Berchtold had taken office in 1912. See Hugo Hantsch, Leopold Graf Berchthold: Grandseigneur und Staatsmann (Verlag Styria, 1963). The greater part of this book comprises a record of Berchtold’s speeches, notes, memoranda and letters. Curiously enough, it appears to be the only widely available biography of Berchtold in any European language. 
  76. “Well tell me, at least,” Prince von Bülow asked of Bethmann Holweg, “how it all happened.” Bethmann raised his arms. “If only I knew,” he said. Prince von Bülow, Memoirs of Prince von Bulow: The World War and Germany’s Collapse, 1909–1919 (1932), 145. Von Bülow was Bethmann’s predecessor as Chancellor. Von Bülow’s memoirs were published in German under the title, Denkwürdigkeiten (Berlin: Verlag Ullstein, 1930), a word conveying a normative aspect absent from the English. 
  77. 13 years after the outbreak of the First World War, Sazonov published his memoirs in Paris, Les annés fatales (Paris: Payot, 1927). They express the sentiment expressed by almost all memoirs about the First World War, and that is bafflement that such a thing should have happened. Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis, a masterpiece on any reading, is the exception. 
  78. Virgil, The Æneid
  79. Karl Schlögel, Moscow 1937, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity, 2012), 1. 
  80. Writing in the Nation of December 2013, Vivian Gornick remarked of the Nazis:
    What they never reduced their interest in, however, was the application of what [Primo] Levi called “useless violence.” … Why? is the question that the 24-year-old Primo—a child of the Enlightenment, committed to the rule of reason [emphasis added]—kept asking himself.
    This is a very characteristic remark. It suggests that like Levi, Gornick, on considering the category of useless violence, could conclude only that the Nazis were not children of the Enlightenment and were not committed to the rule of reason. So much the worse for them. Why not, one is tempted to ask, so much the worse for the Enlightenment and the rules of reason? Vivian Gornick, “Without Respite,” The Nation, November 25, 2013. 
  81. W. H. Auden, New Year Letter
  82. A. J. P. Taylor, The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History since 1815 (London: Routledge, 1945), 268. These are the concluding words of his book. 
  83. Quoted in Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2013), 408. 
  84. This is a question that Pinker himself raises; needless to say, he resolves the issue in his favor. 
  85. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 235–236. 
  86. Yang Gufei, “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow.” 
  87. A sense for the tone appropriate to his subject is not among Pinker’s stylistic accomplishments. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 234. 
  88. See Pinker’s website. In a late breaking addition to his site, Pinker asks, but does not answer, the obvious question whether violence has increased morbidly since the publication of his book. The question goes unanswered because the link is broken: all things considered, a good thing. 
  89. Alan Hájek, “The Reference Class Problem is Your Problem Too,” Synthese 156 (2007): 563–85. Hájek’s paper is, except for its conclusions, correct in its diagnoses. 
  90. The underlying issue of statistical homogeneity is by no means trivial. See Vladislav Shvyrkov and Arch David III, “The Homogeneity Problem in Statistics,” Quality and Quantity 21, No. 1 (1987): 21–36. 
  91. Steven Pinker, “Frequently Asked Questions.” 
  92. Manuel Eisner, “Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime,” Crime and Justice 30 (2003): 106. 
  93. Jacques Semelin, writing in Persécutions et entraides dans la France occupée (Paris: Édition du Seuil, 2013), remarks with some satisfaction that
    puisque environ trois cent trente mille juifs vivaient alors dans notre pays, cela signifie que 75% d’entre eux ont pu échapper à l’extermination. Pour les juifs français, cette proportion avoisine les 90%.
    A comparison to Belgium and Holland is the source of additional satisfaction: Par comparaison, la Belgique n’a compté que 55% de survivants et les Pays-Bas 20%. Semelin is very largely correct. Semelin’s observation is also compatible with the fact that among les juifs non-français, death tolls approached 100%. 
  94. The French Wikipedia page is of an extraordinarily high quality, and contains an exhaustive list of French references. It could only have been written by a senior scholar in the Centre national de la recherché scientifique. Unlike the Germans, the French have not felt themselves abject in virtue of their role in the Holocaust, but if not abashed, then, at least, embarrassed. And for obvious reasons.
    The foreign Jews and immigrants were abandoned, and an effort was made to protect the native Jews. To some extent that strategy met with success. By giving up a part, most of the whole was saved.
    Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Vol. II. (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), 609. The site Anonymes, Justes et persécutés durant la période nazie dans les communes de France contains an exhaustive account of Jewish deportations organized by departments throughout France. It is organized according to French principles of internet design, which is to say, it is virtually unreadable. 
  95. “Most criminologists don’t consider themselves competent,” Manuel Eisner writes, “to analyze these kinds of levels of killings, believing that genocides and civil wars are something entirely different from criminal homicide, and better analyzed by sociologists or political scientists.” Manuel Eisner, “What Causes Large-Scale Variation in Homicide Rates?” Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge (Working Paper, July 2012): 6.

    In a footnote reflecting on just this issue, Given remarks that “[t]wentieth century Europeans seldom murder their fellow citizens; but in the course of two major wars in this century, they have systematically slaughtered several million people.” If twentieth century Europeans have systematically slaughtered several million people, then plainly they have often murdered their fellow citizens. A very great proportion of those murdered were not murdered during warfare; and far more than “several million people” were murdered. One is grateful that, at least, Given recognized that homicide statistics as criminologists understand them reflect little of twentieth century violence. James Given, Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century England (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1977), 72. 
  96. Genesis 4:7. 
  97. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 273. 
  98. “Whatever is the cause of human corruption,” Dr. Johnson observed, “men are evidently and confessedly so corrupt, that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes.” James Boswell, Life of Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1904), 1190. 
  99. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 273. 

David Berlinski is an American writer.

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