Niall Ferguson Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The War of the World: Conversation with Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, Harvard University; October 19, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Mass Migrations and Social Dislocation

You touched just a moment ago on what you discovered with ethnic conflict, namely [that] there were trends toward assimilation of communities; for example, the Jewish community in Germany before the downfall came. So, let's go beyond that now, because what you're seeing as you look at ethnic conflict is a lot of movement of peoples in this area that you've identified. So, there are people moving, people falling under the rule of different empires. Talk a little about that, because [some of] these factors led to the disintegration which began to happen.

I wanted to write a book that had World War II at its core, and of course, that includes the Holocaust, but I realized I couldn't really explain those things if I didn't go right back to the beginning of the century and what I've called the first age of globalization. In the first age of globalization you get extraordinary mobility -- unprecedented mobility. People are moving in the millions around the world in a way that they never had before, and that includes enormous migrations from the Palev Settlement, as it was known, in Russian-controlled Eastern Europe, to which Jews had been confined under czarist rule, westwards not only to the United States but in many cases simply to Western or Central Europe. These mass migrations are fascinating, not least because they're part of an extraordinary period in economic prosperity, but they're also associated with a dissolution of traditional religious communities.

If you go back into the nineteenth century, certainly the mid-nineteenth century, religious communities are quite sealed off from one another. Decisions about marriage (which are for me a very, very important indicator) are quite strictly controlled. By 1900 these structures of commoner control of marital decisions are breaking down. In the big cities that interest me the most, these cosmopolitan cities, whether you're talking about Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, Hamburg, places where the great migrations lead people to, structures of religious observance are weakened because people are on the move, and also because they're meeting what we used to call "the other." They're meeting people from different communities, and human beings are all members of one species, all pretty much sexually compatible -- stuff happens. People start to make romantic decisions, sexual decisions, marital decisions beyond the control of their religious leaders, and that's really quite new.

So, you get from virtually nothing a sudden upsurge in rates of intermarriage in Central and East European cities. That was what I first started tracking, and I was stunned by what I found. I found that in the 1920s, in some cities -- Hamburg was the one I knew best -- one in every two marriages involving one, at least one, Jewish partner was mixed, and the rate was even higher in Trieste, it wasn't that far below in a city like Breslau, and the more I looked for this kind of data (which isn't very easy to find, I should say -- I was digging around in dusty old censuses trying to find out who married whom), the more amazed I was. In post-revolutionary Russia there was a huge upsurge in marriage between Jews and non-Jews. There [also] were a few countries where this didn't happen. In Poland, it didn't happen [nearly as] much.

So, I was left with a question in my mind, and the question was, "What went wrong?" What went wrong with this process of assimilation and integration, which in the 1920s made many German Jewish leaders think that their community was simply going to dissolve? I mean, there was going to be a dissolution of the "Jewish question" because everybody essentially was going to marry out. When you have that question being posed in the 1920s, how on earth do you get within a few short years to genocide? That's one of the central questions that the book asks.

A key element here is not only the movement of the Jews and other nationalities [westward], but [also] Germans moving east. You note that at a point the Jews and the Germans got along pretty well as they were dispersed in the east before the rise of the Nazis.

The region that I was most fascinated by is a crescent of territory that runs down from the Baltic Sea through Central and Eastern Europe into parts of Romania and then as far east as the River Volga, of German settlement, some of it dating back to medieval times, some of it as recent as the eighteenth century. In these areas beyond the borders of the Germany Bismarck created, Germans were very often a minority. They were often a dominant minority; they might be the landowners in the Baltic states or the prosperous farmers in Transylvania, but they were clearly a relative minority surrounded by various kinds of Slavic peasantry. Interestingly, in and around 1900, if you'd gone to somewhere like Chernovitz, a town I became fascinated by, Germans and Jews were in a sense partners, because they were both German-speaking and they were both minorities. You would tend to find the German Gentiles running the bureaucracy and the German Jews running the university, but they weren't deeply separated; in fact, they were a more or less inseparable social elite. That to me is fascinating, because those sorts of communities existed all over Eastern Europe.

Prague is another good example of it: a place that is essentially run by German speakers, many of them Jewish, in what you might call a Czech sea of peasantry. It's those places that go wrong: they're the ones that break down. Those relationships between the two minorities, the Jews on the one hand and the Germans on the other, those are the things that malfunction so disastrously in the 1930s and 1940s, and I wanted to try and explain that, because I don't think it's been explained before.

Let's talk about what some of the those factors were.

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