- A Political History of the World: Three Thousand Years of War and Peace by Jonathan Holslag
Albert Einstein allegedly stated that 'peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding', whereas Albert Camus was of the opinion that 'peace is the only battle worth waging'. Indeed, it is unlikely that many people would object to these opinions. To the large majority of the world's population, peace is all that is wanted, and justifiably so. Yet, throughout its history, mankind has known more years of war than peace. How is this to be explained? What causes wars to erupt time and time again and why don't peace treaties last long, despite all their good intentions, especially after devastating wars like the First and Second World War?
Those and other questions are dealt with superbly by Jonathan Holslag in his extensive and well-written A Political History of the World: Three Thousand Years of War and Peace. The author, who teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels, Belgium, indeed takes a global sweep, covering the whole globe from the start of the first empires to our present day. His book reads almost like a thriller, and as a reader you do not want to put it down.
Holslag succeeds in doing this by showing a great mastery of the existing literature (he does not claim to provide new primary sources) and by daring to take a provocative stance. For example, when he writes of the battle of Thermopylae (480 b.c.), often seen as one of the turning points in Western history, he states: 'Despite the favourable geographical conditions, the Greek army led by King Leonidas and a small unit of Spartan spearmen could delay the Persian troops for only three days' (p. 133).
The author points to a number of paradoxes when explaining why war has been more prevalent than peace. One of them is that 'the pursuit of security caused so much misery […] any firm distinction between defensive and offensive wars could seldom be made' (p. 50). This did not only apply to the ancient empires of Egypt, Assyria or China, but also to more recent times, for example during the Cold War. Holslag does a great job in showing these continuities in human history, also with regard to peace conferences. For example, he states that 'between 750 and 500, the ideal throughout the Eastern Hemisphere may have been harmony, but the overwhelming reality remained anarchy' (p. 125). This would basically remain the same until deep into the twentieth century. [End Page 643]
Moreover, what hardly changed throughout history was the fact that those who suffered the most were ordinary men, women and children. As an illustration Holslag shows that Rome paid an immense price for its victory in the Second Punic War, losing almost 100,000 soldiers. The city itself was 'a beleaguered city of lice-infested apartment blocks, claustrophobic backstreets, and filthy slums; a city afflicted by famine and torn by the loss of loved ones' (p. 191). Little has changed in the respect of suffering; one only needs to think of the Second World War, the Vietnam War or more recently Iraq and Syria.
Images of paradise, either religious or more earthly (and Holslag's emphasis is understandably on the latter, at least when he describes how contemporaries saw it), persisted despite all the carnage. Around 400 c.e., Holslag writes, 'the dream of men living in harmony with nature had hardly changed' (p. 243). Unfortunately, those visions did not reflect reality: war and suffering remained the dominant feature of most of the people on earth, no continent or region excepted. The Mongol invasions caused immense carnage, for example. Holslag states that tens of millions of people were killed. From the point of view of world history, equally important in the long term was 'the fact that the great upsurge of Chinese cosmopolitism under the Song – one of the most outward-looking of Chinese dynasties – had been cut off at the...