All 26 entries tagged War

View all 97 entries tagged War on Warwick Blogs | View entries tagged War at Technorati | There are no images tagged War on this blog

August 26, 2016

The Cold War: Bridge of Spies, and Other Lost Chances for Peace

Writing about web page

Were there missed opportunities to unwind the tensions of the Cold War? This question was raised by my holiday reading: Bridge of Spies, by Giles Whittell. The book was published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster. (Since then Steven Spielberg has made a film with the same title. The relationship between the book and the film is currently in dispute. The book is great. I'm told the film is decent, but I haven't seen it yet; my remarks are based entirely on the book.)

The book tells the stories that came together in a prisoner exchange across the Gleinicke Bridge that joined East and West Berlin on 10 February 1962. For present purposes, the story that matters is that of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 (spy plane) pilot, shot down over the Urals on 1 May 1960. After parachuting to safety, Powers was captured, put on trial, and imprisoned. The author links this moment to a missed chance for peace in the Cold War. His argument goes like this.

In the 1950s, there was a Soviet-American race to develop long-range nuclear missiles. Both sides had atomic weapons that could be delivered by planes, but planes were slow and could be intercepted. Ballistic missiles would take nuclear attack and counter-attack to a new level: fast and certain. The arms race was becoming more dangerous.

In point of fact, however, in the late 1950s neither side actually had a reliable long-range missile. Rocket science meant filling a giant tube with an oxidizer and an oxidant and setting them on fire in the hope that they would burn smoothly, not just blow up. Mostly they blew up.

There was one difference between the two sides. The American failures were public. The Soviet failures were hidden from view. They were concealed by two things. One was intense secrecy. The other was a veneer of success. As far as both the American and the Soviet publics were concerned, the Soviets were winning the space race. They were first with a space rocket, first with an orbiting satellite (the famous sputnik), and first with a dog in a spaceship, all in 1957. Judged on that basis, the Soviet missile programme was more advanced. In 1958 and 1959 the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made several claims of a successful, large-scale Soviet missile programme that strongly reinforced this impression.

Only one of these claims is reported in Bridge of Spies, but they are collated in a declassified CIA report dated 21 January 1960as follows. In November 1958, Khrushchev announced that Soviet intercontinental missile production was set up and ready to go. In January 1959 he repeated this announcement, referring specifically to “serial” production, implying large numbers. In November of the same year, he told journalists: “In one year, 250 missiles with hydrogen warheads came off the assembly line in the factory we visited.” (But he did not state that they were intercontinental missiles.) And, in January 1960, he announced a substantial cutback of Soviet conventional forces, offering as the public justification: “We already have so many nuclear weapons … and the necessary rockets … that … we would be able literally to wipe the country or countries which attack us off the face of the earth” (my emphasis).

(More famously, but less precisely, at a reception held in November 1956, Khrushchev had told the assembled NATO ambassadors: "We will bury you," using the Russian verb for interment of the dead.)

During 1958 and 1959 the Americans who took Khrushchev seriously raised the alarm: there was a "missile gap," they claimed, that US President Eisenhower had allowed to grow from complacency and lack of effort. Eisenhower tried to manage his critics by looking for independent evidence of the true size of the Soviet missile programme. The evidence would come from a secret CIA operation, a squadron of camera-laden spy planes overflying Soviet territory at super-high altitudes, above the reach of Soviet air defences.

In reality, Khrushchev was bluffing America over his WMD programme—a risky activity, as Saddam Hussein would later discover. The huge Soviet space rocket that was lifting satellites into orbit was completely unsuitable for a surprise nuclear attack, as Whittell explains: it "took days to fuel and was impossible to hide." Meanwhile, Khrushchev’s bluff was going wrong: it was stirring the United States into a military-industrial mobilization. If that worked, the Soviet Union would have no choice but to turn the bluff into reality. For the Soviet economy, only a fraction the size of the far wealthier United States, that looked ruinously expensive.

By 1960, therefore, Khrushchev was regretting his bluff. In January he announced a major cutback of conventional forces—justifying it by claims of Soviet nuclear strength. According to Bridge of Spies, moreover, he was preparing a daring initiative to end the missile race—a chance for peace in the gloom of the Cold War. In return for American restraint, he would offer to bargain away something that he didn't actually have: a successful Soviet missile programme. If the Americans would agree not to build missiles, the Soviet side would agree to stand down Khrushchev’s missiles. Without missiles, the balance of terror would recede, and the world would be spared the pointless expenditure of trillions of dollars on nuclear overkill.

What could go wrong? While Khrushchev was forming his plan, the Americans were trying to uncover the truth—and they were beginning to succeed. The CIA spy planes had found most of the Soviet potential manufacturing, test, and launch sites, and there was no sign of hundreds of missiles. Still, the picture remained worryingly incomplete, and the U-2 programme continued.

Then, disaster struck. On May Day, 1960, while Khrushchev reviewed the annual military parade in Red Square, a new Soviet anti-air missile shot down the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers. Khrushchev made a huge public fuss. A planned East-West summit was cancelled. There was no Soviet arms control initiative. The missile race went on, and led quickly to the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. This came in 1962 with Khrushchev’s attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.

So, Whittell suggests, the chance for peace was lost. But I began to wonder. My first question was: if a chance was lost, who lost it? That is, who should have behaved differently? Whittel does not criticize the actions of Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, who is portrayed as seeking peace. Nor does he question the decisions made by Eisenhower, the American leader, who resisted the escalation of tensions, and looked to the CIA and its U-2 programme for supportive evidence. As for Powers, he was just a soldier.

Those whom Bridge of Spies holds accountable are the American promoters of the “missile gap” theory: the profit-seeking entrepreneurs (Thomas Lanphier), position-seeking politicians (Allen Dulles and Stuart Symington), and headline-seeking journalists (Joseph Alsop and Frank Gibney) of the US military-industrial complex. Also, let’s not forget the US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who campaigned successfully in 1960 on closing the “missile gap.”

Still, one wonders: how should these people have behaved differently? In hindsight they were wrong, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially for historians. At the time, however, how should they have known that Khrushchev lied? The Soviet Union was then, as before and afterwards, shrouded by the most intense secrecy the world had ever known. Why, and what did the secrecy conceal? Eisenhower’s intuition was that Khrushchev’s claims were a bluff, but he did not know for sure; that’s why he approved the U-2 spy plane programme. Dulles, Symington, and the others did not know for sure either, but at least they had evidence on their side in the public claims of the Soviet leader himself.

Was there really a lost chance for peace in 1960? As I asked myself this question, I stumbled on a second “lost chance.” This one, from 1953, is claimed by Sheila Fitzpatrick, writing in The Guardian on 18 August 2016. Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s great experts on Stalin’s Russia, was reviewing The Last Days of Stalin, by Joshua Rubinstein, published this year by Yale University Press. This is a book I haven’t read, so my comments are based entirely on Fitzpatrick’s review.

As Fitzpatrick points out, after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Soviet leaders who succeeded him allowed many reforms to go ahead. Within their country they quickly curtailed Stalin’s last purges, and they went on to the phased release of millions from forced labour and resettlement. (I wrote about these changes in my own book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.) In Korea, the new leaders allowed ceasefire talks to resume, bringing a speedy end to that bloody conflict.

Could there have been more? Soviet leaders, Fitzpatrick writes, “wanted to signal their interest in easing cold war tensions …. in the crucial months between Stalin’s death in March and the Berlin uprising in June of 1953, the US missed a great opportunity to meet the new Soviet leaders halfway.” She quotes Rubinstein’s verdict: “Soviet and Western governments could not overcome the decades of distrust that divided them.” That suggests equal blame for missing the chance on both sides.

Fitzpatrick answers back: this is too even-handed. Khrushchev looked for an opening. Churchill was ready for a summit. Eisenhower resisted, believing that this might be the time to call on the Soviet people to rise up against their oppressors. Whispering in Eisenhower’s ear was the older Dulles brother, John Foster Dulles, who believed that, eight years after World War II, the Soviet Union presented “the most terrible and fundamental” threat to Western civilization in a thousand years. Responsibility for the missed opportunity to unwind the Cold War in 1953 lies, Fitzpatrick concludes, “squarely with the US.”

So, the hypothesis: two lost chances to scale back the Cold War, one in 1953, the other in 1960.

After much reflection I’m not convinced. Here are my reasons. First reason: pay attention to the inherent fragility of the two Soviet peace initiatives. They were so brittle and insubstantial that, if one obstacle had not broken them, another surely would have. Consider 1953, when a new Soviet leadership wanted briefly to open up to the West. The window opened in March, when Stalin died, but it closed again in June. Why so brief an opportunity? Because, at the first signs of domestic relaxation, thousands of East Germans turned out into the streets to demand the resignation of the communist government. The uprising was promptly suppressed by tanks and guns. Hundreds of people were killed, then or later.

From that moment it was clear that the goals of Stalin’s successors had not changed: to hold power at all costs and spread their system of rule wherever possible. They differed from Stalin only in their preferences over means: “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.” Did they really want peace? Not deeply enough to respond peaceably to their own people if there were unintended consequences.

The chance for peace in 1960 was fragile too. It was fragile for two reasons: the Soviet commitment to missile negotiations was only skin-deep, and it was based on a lie. Khrushchev wanted an agreement with the Americans, but how deeply did he really want it? The shootdown of Francis Gary Powers did not stop him from seeking one. The world knew nothing about the U-2 programme until the Soviets publicized it. If they had really wanted a disarmament summit, they could simply have kept the news to themselves. They had the means, after all, in the world’s most effective censorship.

You could say that the Western Cold Warriors, uncomfortable with Eisenhower’s restraint, did not help because they put pressure on Eisenhower, and this put pressure on Khrushchev, which played into the hands of the Soviet military leaders who were already uncomfortable with Khrushchev’s conventional arms cuts. (I’m writing about the Soviet military as though they were a faction, although there is no real evidence that such a faction existed.) But in fact the Soviet side was collectively to blame for all the circumstances in which this game was played out. The Soviet missile men were to blame for a failing programme that threaten to impoverish the country. And Khrushchev was to blame for lying about the programme’s success. If he hadn’t made exaggerated claims, the “missile gap” would never have existed.

Now my second reason: when communist leaders came to the West with peace initiatives, they generally had a vastly inflated belief in their own credibility. They never really got how most Westerners saw them. (But it’s true that Western sympathizers with communism shared the same blinkers.) Within their own countries these leaders, Khrushchev included, were responsible for terrible crimes of commission, arresting and killing millions, and also crimes of omission, allowing millions to die of famine. Afterwards they regretted this, and they made partial, semi-secret admissions, not of personal guilt, but of a few collective errors. Instead of resigning and allowing judicial scrutiny to take its course, their next move was to carry on as normal: So we made some mistakes. We fixed them. What’s done is past. Everything is all right now! Move on. But the world remembered.

In foreign policy, the communist leaders had occupied Poland and the Baltic countries, blanketed them with the same secrecy and censorship that they operated at home, eradicated their national institutions, exterminated their national elites, imposed new regimes, staked out new borders, and defended them with the threat of overwhelming conventional and nuclear force. Because this turned out to be quite expensive, they thought they could then turn on a sixpence and say to the West: lower your guard, because that was then, and now we want peace and friendship. And Western leaders were expected to lower their guard on the word of practised killers who concealed their own weapons under a veil that could be penetrated only by a spy plane at 90,000 feet.

The first and only communist leader to get this was Mikhail Gorbachev. He puzzled over the Soviet Union’s inability to reach new agreements with the West over arms control. Shortly after taking office, on his road to Damascus, in 1986 or thereabouts, he reached an astonishing, shattering conclusion: They don’t trust us because they think we’re liars! And they’re right: we are liars! We can only be credible partners in negotiation if we learn to be open about everything and tell the truth! (Which turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. I wrote part of this story here.)

So my conclusion on the lost chances to end the Cold War is pessimistic. I don’t see real missed opportunities in either 1953 or 1960. On a more optimistic note, there was usually scope for both sides to gain from arms control, and negotiations were generally better than fighting. The important arms treaties would come. But their negotiation required more mutual trust than was available in 1953, and more mutual openness than was available in 1960.

March 21, 2016

How We Paid for Spitfires

Writing about web page

On 5 March we marked the eightieth anniversary of the 1936 maiden flight of the Supermarine Spitfire, a fighter airplane that played a decisive role in Britain's air defence in World War II. The British affection for the Spitfire is partly for its role in our history, and partly for its elegant design. Like thousands of other boys of the 1950s (and no doubt a few girls, but this was the 1950s), I made up model aircraft from plastic construction kits. I think my first was the even more beautiful Hawker Hunter. The Spitfire was perhaps my second, and always my favourite.

A few days ago the BBC journalist Greig Watson wrote some engaging pieces on the Spitfire's anniversary, here and here. The second of these describes the Spitfire Fighter Fund, through which the public was invited to contribute to their cost. While he was preparing this piece, Greig wrote to me:

Clearly pilots were not sat around waiting for a cheque to arrive so they could purchase a new plane – so could it be argued the funds were just a publicity stunt which made no difference to the number of Spitfire in the air? Or were they in fact effective?

In his article Greig quotes me briefly – right at the bottom, if you struggle to find the place. Here's the full reply that I sent him.

From 1940 onwards, Britain had a command economy. The market economy was restricted to the sidelines: those foodstuffs that were unrationed, and the black market. For most things the government set targets and priorities, decided how money would be spent, and on what, and how much of nearly everything would be produced. That included Spitfires. Only after ensuring the supply of Spitfires did the government worry about how to pay for them. Quite right, too, that’s what you do in an existential struggle. That’s not to say they did not care how it was paid for. They did care. But still, it was a secondary care, one that came after working out how many ships and planes we should make.

From this perspective, Spitfire funds were like today’s “sponsor a panda” and “buy a metre of rainforest” appeals. In any immediate sense these make no difference to the number of pandas or the amount of rainforest. They do put money into the hands of campaigning organizations and charities. We trust them to make a difference, and we get some small satisfaction from the cloak of sponsorship.

What difference did Spitfire funds make? They did not make any difference to the number of Spitfires, because for most of the war Spitfires were a top government priority (along with ships and other planes). If you run out of money, it’s not the top priority that is at risk. It’s the bottom priority that is most likely to be neglected.

What would have happened without Spitfire funds? Two scenarios.

  • Scenario 1: with less money coming in, the government might have economized on the bottom priority, which could have been, say, the rehousing of bomb victims. So more civilians would have been homeless and morale on the home front might have been that bit lower.
  • Scenario 2: the government might have spent the money on the war anyway, by printing it, so more money would have been in circulation in the economy. Since most goods were rationed, the extra money might have found its way into the black market, raising prices for under-the-counter food. Because of this, some army battalion quartermaster would have been tempted to sell army rations on the black market, so more soldiers would have gone hungry and morale on the fighting front would have been that bit lower.

Thus, Spitfire funds did not pay for Spitfires, but they were still an essential part of the war effort. Without them the war would eventually have gone less well in one aspect or another. There would have been a cost.

According to Greig Watson, the total subscribed by the public was £13m. This would have covered only a small fraction of the Spitfires produced in wartime. (The total number of Spitfires produced up to 1948 was just over 20,000. Their average unit cost lay somewhere between the £13,000 of an early batch sold to Estonia in 1939 and the notional £5,000 set by the Spitfire funds appeal.) The rest was paid out of general taxation and government borrowing, both of which reached large fractions of national income.

December 03, 2015

Whose Blood, Whose Hands?

Writing about web page

Yesterday the House of Commons voted to extend the zone of British combat operations from Iraq to Syria. The debate--I watched some of it--was prolonged, intense, and mostly respectful. This morning I woke to find the tag #bloodonyourhands trending on facebook and twitter, as opponents of the decision rallied against the Labour MPs who swung the decision.

This made me think of a short piece I wrote after 9/11, at the beginning of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Called "Lives Lost and Lives Saved in the War Against Terrorism," it tried to address the issues that will quickly arise once more as RAF missions make their mark on the territory now occupied by the "Islamic State." Its message seems as apposite now as it was then. Dated 2 January 2002, it belongs to the era before I had a blog, so I'll reproduce it below. If you prefer to see the original, you'll find it here.

A first unofficial summary of innocent civilian deaths resulting from American bombing in Afghanistan, just published, estimates their number at approximately 3,800. Coincidentally the official estimate of deaths in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center has just fallen below 3,000. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these figures will stand the test of time. Taking into account the 800 or so deaths at the Pentagon, the total of September 11 victims now stands at the same level as the number of victims of the American response. How should they affect our view of the war against terrorism?

Some will argue from such figures that the war should now stop, or should never have been begun. The action against the World Trade Center was a terrible crime. But if the counter–action has now taken as many lives as the action that prompted it, how can more be justified? Surely the counter–action should now come to an end, whether or not it should have been begun in the first place.

Such thoughts are rightly troubling, but need to be put into perspective by considering the purpose of warfare that they imply. The argument that the war should now stop, since it has cost as many lives as the cause of the war, implies that a purpose of the war was to take a life for a life, in other words to exact Old–Testament retribution. It implies that, as long as the victims of American bombing were outnumbered by the dead of Manhattan, a continuation of the war was justified; now that the piles of corpses on each side are evenly balanced, the war should stop. If revenge is a bad reason for making war, then the war should never have been begun.

A specific historical parallel is to be found in World War II. Germany began the bombing of British cities in 1940, and German bombing eventually took 60,000 British civilian lives. The subsequent Allied bombing of German cities took 300,000 German lives — five times as many. Following the same lines of thinking as for the war in Afghanistan, it may be asked whether the taking of life by Allied bombing in World War II was either disproportionate or morally wrong in itself.

Another purpose of warfare may be not to take lives but to save lives; killing may not be an end in itself but a means to this end. What was missed from the calculations above was the lives saved as a result of military action. For example the Allied bombing of German cities, although both bloody and in some respects misjudged, forced Hitler to devote extraordinary resources to air defence. By 1944 one third of German war production took the form of anti–aircraft guns and interceptor aircraft that were necessitated purely by the Allied bombing campaign. Thus, even though Allied bombing reduced the total of German war production by much less than anticipated, it profoundly affected its composition. It greatly reduced the supply of weapons to the German forces on the front line of battle, with the result that the Red Army in the East and the Allied invasion forces in the west had a much easier time of it. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Allied lives were saved.

In a wider context it may be seen that many lives were lost in World War II so that other lives could be saved. How many lives were lost in total? The war gave rise to approximately 55 million premature deaths, of whom 20 millions were soldiers leaving 35 million civilian victims. Of the latter 32 millions were on the Allied side, mainly in Russia, China, Poland, and Yugoslavia, and 3 millions were on the Axis side, mainly in Germany. How many lives were saved? These are not exactly known but probably also numbered millions. Hitler’s plans for a colonial empire in the East envisaged an immediate reduction of the population just in the part of Russia to be occupied by 40 millions through starvation and resettlement. If the Thousand–Year Reich had been established throughout Europe, an endless flow of additional deaths would have resulted from Nazi occupation plans that combined economic exploitation with selective murder based on ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation.

In the same way the war against terrorism has taken many lives, many of them civilian. However, if western inaction permitted terrorist organisations such as al–Qaeda to continue to flourish, other innocent lives would certainly be lost in the future as a result. In this context the idea of going to war to save lives sometimes goes under the heading of defending the “right to life”. If we did not go to war in defence of the right to life some people would presumably die as a result and many more would live in fear, so the lives saved by going to war measure the value of defending this right.

Accounting for lives lost and lives saved in this way gives rise to three moral problems. First, the lives saved by military action are uncertain and anonymous. Lives saved are just statistics. In contrast every life lost is a precious individual who is personally identifiable, for whom friends and communities grieve, and whose families can hire lawyers. The lives saved are just as real but no one person whose life has been saved is individually identified. As a result there is no elected representative, victims’ lobby, or publicity agent to speak for them. For the same reason it can rarely be established that more lives were saved than were actually lost. For example, it is possible that a failure to resist Hitler would have cost more than the 55 million lives lost in World War II, but it cannot be proved. The same must be true of a failure to resist Osama bin Laden.

A second problem is that military action destroys many lives without apparent justification. In war it is usually difficult or impossible to show that it was necessary to take any one individual’s life in order to save another. Wars are intrinsically fraught with mistakes and opportunistic actions. The people making the combat decisions are always trying at the same time to serve the interests of the war effort and their own self–interest, which means their careers, their pockets, or their own survival. They make stressful decisions based on incomplete information while tired, hungry, or frightened. These decisions have lethal consequences for others as well as sometimes for themselves. This means that many lives are lost for reasons that not immediately connected with ultimately attainment of the war’s objectives. In a statistical sense all the deaths are a necessary accompaniment to the conduct of a war, yet many individuals die for no better reason than that a soldier blinked, jumped, or looked for excitement or a medal.

A third problem is that balancing lives saved against lives lost creates injustice. The lives lost and saved belong to different people. Two groups of innocent people are involved. The first group is of those whose lives are saved by military action. The second group is of those whose lives are taken by it. At first sight this is a problem familiar to economics. There are many situations in which a particular change, for example, in technology or social organisation leaves some people with a gain and others with a loss. If the gains outweigh the losses it is possible, at least in principle, to organise government taxes and benefits so that the winners compensate the losers out of their gains and still have something left over: everyone is better off as a result. In the case of war the group that lives gains at the expense of the group that dies. However, no compensation is possible.

It is sometimes suggested, incidentally, that the unfairness is still more grotesque when conditions of life are taken into account. For example the war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of some of the poorest people on earth in order to defend the lives of some of the richest. In my opinion, however, this is a red herring: the unfairness would not be less if rich people were being killed to save poor people.

The unfairness involved in who lives and who dies may also be seen in terms of another familiar economic problem: a conflict between equity and efficiency. It was deeply unfair that innocent people in Afghanistan with very little to start with should have been faced with the destruction of what little they had, including even their lives, just because a foreign terrorist organisation had made an evil pact with their unpopular rulers and settled among them. However, it was efficient to offer the Afghans powerful incentives to get rid of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and the incentives had to be negative ones. The ability of the United States to offer positive inducements was limited while the Taliban remained in power, and besides the wisdom of rewarding those whose rulers behave badly may be doubted in terms of the precedent it may create. Probably negative sanctions enforced by external military intervention were the only way of ensuring that the Afghans themselves would destroy the Taliban regime.

In short, the logic of military action requires us to trade some people’s lives against others’. For those who are willing to do so, the war against terrorism may be justified if it will have saved more lives than it takes away. This seems possible given what we know now about the ambitions of Osama bin Laden, although it cannot be known for sure. Sceptics may retort that much of what we know now about the plans of al–Qaeda was not known on September 12 and cannot be used to justify decisions taken then. The same was also true in World War II: that war was not waged to prevent or punish Hitler’s plans for ethnic cleansing in eastern Europe, since he set about them only during the war and took considerable care to keep them secret. But that’s what history’s like: most of the time, most of us live it blindly, and we find out what it was all about only after the event.

November 02, 2015

The Great War: the Value of Remembering it As it Really Was

Writing about web page

In the spring of 2013, the British government was considering how the nation should remember the centenary of the Great War. At that time Jeremy Corbyn made some remarks on the subject, and in April the Communist Party uploaded them to Youtube. His words would no doubt have lingered in obscurity, were it not that in September this year the same Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain's Labour Party. This weekend his remarks of more than two years ago were brought under critical scrutiny. What attracted the ire of the Sunday columnists was the following words:

Keir Hardie ... was a great opponent of the first world war and next year the government is apparenlty proposing to spend shedloads of money commemorating the first world war. I'm not quite sure what there is to commemorate other than the mass slaughter of millions of young men and women, mainly men, on the western front and all the other places.

As an economic historian I was more interested in what came next:

And it was a war of the declining empires, and anyone who's read or even dipped into Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century, written post-world war, that presaged the whole first world war as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets and that's essentially what the first world war was.

My notes. "The declining empires": I'm not sure what that can mean, for in 1914 the major empires were surely at their highest moment. "Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century." This is most likely a reference to J. A. Hobson work on "imperialism." Hobson (1902) argued that the capitalist industrial economies of the time suffered from underconsumption, because the big companies were raising productivity while pushing down wages. As a result, there was not enough purchasing power to buy all the output, which was accumulating as surplus capital. Faced with too much capital, Hobson argued, the capitalists solved the problem by exporting it to poorer countries. Having done that, they needed to protect their investments by bringing the poorer countries under colonial administration. So, this was a a theory of imperialism. Being published in 1902, Hobson's book was not "written post-world war" because the world war was yet to come. And it did not presage the coming war "as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets"; that idea came along later, when the war was already in progress, and belongs to Lenin (1916). While Hobson did not predict the Great War, he did draw a clear link from imperialism to nationalism, and he opposed the war when it came.

How does the Hobson-Lenin view of the Great War stand up today? Not well. Here are two problems:

Problem #1. The surplus of capital does not explain imperialism. In the words of Gareth Austin (2014: 309):

the major outflows of capital from the leading imperial powers, Britain and France, went not to their new colonies but to countries which were either the more autonomous of their existing colonies (such as Australia) or were former colonies (the United States), former colonies of another European country (as with Argentina), or had never been colonized (Russia). Decisively, several of the expansionist imperial powers of the period were themselves net importers of capital: the United States, Japan, Portugal, and Italy.

Problem #2. The protection of business interests abroad does not explain the outbreak of the Great War. Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig (2004) reviewed the evidence, country by country. In every case, including specifically Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, they found that the business constituency was excluded from the decisions that led to war. Had the business leaders been consulted, they would have opposed war. (This would also have been true in Russia, a case that Hamilton and Herwig do not consider.) They conclude (p. 247):

Economic leaders were not present in decision-making circles in July 1914. And, just as important, their urgent demands to avoid war were given no serious attention. It is an unexpected lesson because many intellectuals give much emphasis to the power of big business. The logic is easy: industrialists and bankers have immense resources; anxious and deferential politicians, supposedly, must respond to their demands. But the realities were quite different. At one point a German banker, Arthur von Gwinner, “had the audacity to point out Germany’s dire financial straits” to Wilhelm II. The monarch’s reply: “That makes no difference to me.”

In remembering the Great War, we should be careful to remember it as it really was. War did not break out in 1914, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to think, because of a money-making war machine, or because commercial interests were manipulating politics behind the scenes.

The Great War broke out because secretive, unaccountable rulers in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg decided on it (I wrote about this in more detail in Harrison 2014). They feared the consequences but decided on war regardless because they believed the national interest would be better served by risking it in aggression than by remaining at peace. They believed this based on a nationalist, militarist, and aristocratic view of the national interest, in which profit and commercial advantage played no role. They decided on war in July 1914, and not in any previous crisis, because in previous crises they had been divided. They came together in July 1914 because this was a moment when Anglo-French deterrence failed, and this reduced their fear of the consequences of aggression below some critical threshold.

Thus two deeper causes lay behind the Great War. One was the ability of autocratic rulers to plan aggressive war in secret, ignoring public opinion, or taking it into account only to manipulate it. The other was the failure of the democracies to deter the aggressors. These lessons are still of value today. But to value such lessons you first need a desire to learn about what actually happened. And a political leader who bases his entire understanding of the Great War on a book published in 1902 seems to have missed that desire to learn.


  • Austin, Gareth. 2014. "Capitalism and the Colonies." In The Cambridge History of Capitalism, vol. 2: 301-347. Edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hamilton, Richard F., and Holger H. Herwig. 2004. "On the Origins of the Catastrophe." In Decisions for war, 1914–1917, pp 225–252. Edited by Hamilton and Herwig. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2014. "Myths of the Great War." CAGE Working Paper no. 188. University of Warwick, Department of Economics. Available at
  • Hobson, J. A. 1902. Imperialism: A Study. New York. Available online.
  • Lenin, V. I. 1916. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Petrograd. Available online.

September 02, 2015

World War II: China's Losses in a Grim Perspective

Writing about web page

Today is the seventieth anniversary of Japan's surrender in 1945, marking the end of World War II. It seems timely to give some thought to the impact of Japan's war on China. Where does World War II rank in the disasters that befell China in the twentieth century?

Japan attacked China twice, the first time in 1931 by occupying Manchuria (the modern provinces of Heilongjian, Jilin, and Liaoning), the second time in 1937 by launching all-out war to conquer China and turn the whole country into a Japanese colony. For this reason, 1937 is usually taken as the outbreak of World War II in Asia.

In 1946 China's Nationalists estimated China's war deaths from 1937 to 1945 at 12.8 million (the figure is given by Sally Paine, The Wars for Asia, Cambridge University Press 2012, p. 214). Since China's total population was around 500 million at that time, the loss was enough to slow the population's natural increase, although not to reverse it.

For China, however, World War II was nested in another war, the Civil War of the Nationalists against the Communists. This war began in 1927 and continued until the Communist victory in 1949. The intensity of the Civil War was highly variable. During much of World War II, for example, the Nationalists were fighting the Japanese while the Communists sat it out, protected by secret agreements between the Soviet and Japanese governments. Then, after Japan's defeat, the Civil War resumed. There are no firm figures for China's total of war deaths over the 22 years from 1927 to 1949, that is, in the Civil War, the loss of Manchuria, and World War II, but 20 million is a not unreasonable number.

Once World War II was over, most economies recovered quickly. That's roughly what you'd expect when war demands are relaxed, peacetime social norms and legal guarantees are restored, and trade is allowed to recover. China's postwar recovery could not begin until 1949. In the 1950s China's economic recovery was rapid at first.

In 1958, however, China's Communist Party led by Mao Zedong accelerated national economic mobilization into a vast "Great Leap Forward," which forced the farmers into people's communes and set out to industrialize the country overnight. The outcome was a famine that, according to Yang Jisheng's Tombstone (Allen Lane 2012: chapter 11), killed around 36 million people in three years. Losing 12 million people a year for three years was more than enough to offset the population's natural increase, causing the population to decline absolutely.

So there it is. World War II cost China around 12.8 million lives over eight years -- between one fifth and one quarter of all premature deaths in the war worldwide. This was a shocking outcome and a terrible tragedy. But compared with the Great Leap Forward, which took 36 million lives in 3 years, it is not even close.

In every year between 1959 and 1961 China lost as many people as in all the years of World War II. The famine caused by its own government in peacetime was worse than the war against Japan.

May 08, 2015

Violent Borders: Will There be Another Great War?

Writing about web page

This column first appeared (in Russian) in the opinion section of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel, on 8 May 2015.

This week we remember the worst war in history. But we remember the war differently. Russians remember the war that began in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Most other Europeans (including Poles and many Ukrainians) remember the war that began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union joined to destroy Poland. The Americans remember the war that began in December 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Chinese remember the onset of Japan’s all-out war at the Marco Polo Bridge in 1937.

Many separate wars came together to make World War II. All of them were fought over territory. These wars began because various rulers did not accept the borders that existed and they did not accept the existence of the independent states on their borders. They used violence to change borders and destroy neighbouring states. When they did this, they justified their violence based on the memory of past wars and grandiose concepts of national unification and international justice.

Will there be another Great War? We should hope not, because another Great War would be fought with nuclear weapons and would kill tens or hundreds of millions of people.

A reason to be hopeful is that war is never unavoidable. War is a choice made by people, not a result of impersonal forces that we cannot control. Most differences between countries can be negotiated without fighting. However, claims on territory and threats to national survival are the most difficult demands to negotiate, and this is why they easily lead to violence.

In today’s world there are several places where border conflicts could provide the spark for a wider war. Most obvious is the Middle Eastern and North African region. Small wars have raged there in the recent past and several are raging there now. Israel’s existence has been contested since 1948. The borders of Libya, Iraq, and Syria are being redrawn by force. Access to nuclear weapons is currently restricted to Israel, but could spread and probably is spreading as I write.

But the whole of the Middle East and North Africa includes only 350 million people. More than twice as many people, 750 million, live in Europe. There is war in Europe because Russia has unilaterally seized the territory of Crimea and is fuelling conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The effects have spread beyond Ukraine. Russian actions have raised tension with all the bordering states that have Russian speaking minorities, including some that are NATO members. Russia is rearming and mobilizing its military forces. Russian administration spokesmen speak freely of nuclear alerts and nuclear threats.

Looking to the future, we should all worry about East Asia, home to 1.5 billion people. There China is building national power through economic growth and rearmament. China is also redrawing the map of the South China Sea, and this is leading to border disputes with Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Given China’s size and Japan’s low military profile, the only counterweight to Chinese expansion is the U.S. Navy, and this increases the scope for a future nuclear confrontation. While Japan keeps a low profile is low, its relations with China are poisoned by nationalist reinterpretations of World War II on both sides.

In all of these regions there are territorial claims and disputed borders, with the potential to draw in nuclear powers on both sides of the conflict.

Can we learn from our past wars so as to avoid the future wars that we fear? Yes. The first lesson of a thousand years of European history is the value of stable borders. Eurasia stretches for ten thousand miles without natural frontiers. When states formed in Eurasia they had no clear territorial limits, and they fought each other continuously for territory.

The idea of sovereign states that respect others’ borders and leave each other in peace is usually identified with the Peace of Westphalia (1648). But in 1648 this idea was only a theory. The practice of mutually assured borders is much more recent. The European Union is a practical embodiment of mutually assured borders; this is reflected in the fact that France and Germany no longer fight each other and the smaller states around them also live in peace.

Russia has always been at the focus of European wars. The Correlates of War dataset on Militarized Interstate Disputes counts 3,168 conflicts from 1870 to 2001 that involved displays or uses of force among pairs of countries. The same dataset also registers the country that originated each disputes. Over 131 years Russia (the USSR from 1917 to 1991) originated 219 disputes, more than any other country. Note that this is not about capitalism versus communism; Russia's leading position was the same both before and after the Revolution. The United States came only in second place, initiating 161 conflicts. Other leading contenders were China (third with 151), the UK (fourth with 119), Iran (fifth with 112), and Germany (sixth with 102).

How did Russia come to occupy this leading position? Russia is immense, and size predisposes a country to throw its weight around. Russia has a long border with many neighbours, giving many opportunities for conflicts to arise. And authoritarian states are less restrained than democracies in deciding over war and peace. Russia's political system has always been authoritarian, except for a few years before and after the end of communism, when Russia's borders were able to change peacefully.

Russians have suffered terribly from the territorial disputes of past centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia's new borders were drawn for the most part peacefully. This was a tremendously hopeful omen for Russia's future. Particularly important were the assurances given to Ukraine in 1994: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and in return the US, UK, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine's borders. The promise was that Europe would no longer suffer from territorial wars. Instead, Europe’s borders could be used for peaceful trade and tourism.

Russia, of all countries, has most to lose from returning Europe to the poisoned era of conflicted borders and perpetual insecurity. The best way for Russians to commemorate the end of World War II is to return to the rule of law for resolving its dispute with Ukraine. In questions of borders and territorial claims the rule of law should have priority over all other considerations, including ethnic solidarity, the rights of self-determination, and the political flavour of this or that government. That is the most fitting tribute to the memory of the tens of millions of war dead.

January 01, 2015

The Soviet Military–Industrial Complex: New Year Insights from Dexter and Rodionov

Writing about web page

Today sees a new version of the Dexter-Rodionov guide to The Factories, Research and Design Establishments of the Soviet Defence Industry. This is the sixteenth edition; the very first (in which I was co-author) appeared in January 1999. In that time the datset has grown from just over 2,000 entries to nearly 30,000, and the detail from around 100kb to more than 10Mb.

From the start this was a curiosity-driven project. The Soviet military-industrial complex was veiled in secrecy for decades. In 1992 the former Soviet archives were opened up for independent research. Google's Ngram viewer lets you see how the subject broke out into the light of day. The chart shows the relative frequency of the phrase "советский военно-промышленный комплекс" (Soviet military-industrial complex) in Russian-language publications from 1917 to 2010. A few of these would have occurred in items published in Russian outside the Soviet Union; I suspect that explains the first observations from the 1970s and early 1980s.

What were the factories that made Soviet weapons and military equipment? How many and how important were they? Where were they? When were they built? How specialized were they, and how self-sufficient? We just wanted to know.

My co-author of the time, Nikolai Simonov, was showing me some of the lists of secret ("numbered") defence factories in the 1920s and 1930s that he had found in the archives. I knew that Julian Cooper at Birmingham had his own files. We were soon joined by Keith Dexter, an authority on Soviet aviation. We put together what we had and the result was the first edition of the present guide. If you are at all interested in the history of exactly how and when the Soviet defence industry was made secret, I still recommend that you read Julian Cooper's introduction to this first edition.

Soon after that, Keith drew in Ivan Rodionov, another aviation expert, and so it became the Dexter-Rodionov guide.

What's new in version 16, apart from additional detail? The cover page carries the chart below, which shows the growing number of Soviet enterprises engaged in defence production from 1917 through 1991, distributed among the major production branches.

The number of Soviet defence plants, 1917-1991

Here are my takeaways (thanks to Dexter and Rodionov for drawing my attention to some of these):

  • The breakneck pace of Stalin's rearmament from the mid-1930s is clearly visible. It culminated in the war, and the first spike which is recorded in 1944).
  • Also visible is the more moderate but sustained growth of defence plants after the war, including the rapid surpassing of the wartime peak.
  • There is a second spike in the number of defence plants in 1964. This was the year in which Khrushchev was outmanoeuvred and replaced by Brezhnev. It suggests an economic issue in the power struggle: was Khrushchev trying to build up defence production at a pace that others considered to be infeasible?
  • The changing composition of the defence sector has two striking aspects. One is the vast growth of radioelectronic establishments. By the end, this sector alone accounted for half of the entire Soviet defence industry.
  • The other aspect is the tremendous stability of the traditional sectors: armament, armour, and shipbuilding. It would not come as any surprise to a student of the Soviet economy to learn that they could create new sectors (like the nuclear industry or radioelectronics) but even if they wanted they couldn't close the old ones down.

Finally, the chart shows us that by the end there were just over 5,000 plants engaged in defence production. How many is that? In 1987 (according to the Soviet statistical handbook of that year) there were more than half a million state-owned establishments of all kinds in the Soviet economy. So, we are looking at no more than one per cent of the total, and one per cent does not seem like a lot. The explanation is that most defence plants were relatively large. Their share in the whole economy, measured by capital assets or production, was many times greater than their share in the number of plants.

As for the share of defence production in the whole Soviet economy, we are still a long way from being able to pin that down. For any other country the most obvious way to do it would be to work from the expenditure side, by comparing the size of the Soviet military budget with the size of the economy, as opposed to working from the production side, which raises a lot of complicated issues about plant specialization and intermediate production. Alas, in the Soviet case it is no less of a problem to work from the expenditure side, because Soviet defence expenditures were also highly secret. Here I mean true military expenditures, not the officially published figures which were as phoney as a three-dollar bill. In fact, the real figures were so secret that by the end nobody knew what they were! And i mean nobody, literally; I wrote about it here.

The Soviet military-industrial complex continues to throw up many challenges for historical research. The Dexter-Rodionov guide is a terrific place to start looking for both questions and answers.

December 22, 2014

The Meaning of Christmas, 1914: When Peace Broke Out

Writing about web page

At Christmas 1914 up to 100,000 troops on the Western front took part in unofficial truces. They left the opposing trenches and exchanged greetings, cigarettes, food, and drink. Most famously, some of them may have played football.

Christmas Truce 1914

The moment was captured by Bruce Bairnsfather (1917); thanks to Major and Mrs Holt, Bairnsfather's biographers, for permission to reproduce this image.

The Christmas truce of 1915 is often considered to be something rather unique. In fact, as the sociologist Tony Ashworth (1980) showed, it was a special case of a wider pattern. The Christmas truce was special because there was open fraternization. The wider phenomenon was simply a tendency for the soldiers on both sides, left to themselves, to bring down the level of conflict and hostility. They did this spontaneously, without calculation, using coded signals that did not need to be translated into words or confirmed by shaking hands. The signals were the dawn volley, aimed far above the enemy's heads, or the tea-time shell that always fell wide of the mark. These were signals of a lack of hostility that the receiving soldiers could easily come to recognize, predict, and reciprocate.

In this way the soldiers on each side would learn to collude with the enemy to avoid direct clashes and minimize the danger on both sides.

Ashworth called this pattern of behaviour "live-and-let-live." Live-and-let-live was observed in all periods of the war; the Christmas truce of 1914 was unusual only in that the men's desire to avoid outright hostilities was expressed openly. But it did not need to be expressed openly to persist. Live-and-let-live could develop without any explicit communication.

The crucial condition for live-and-let-live to develop was that the men were left alone for long enough to learn its language. But military commanders learned not to leave their men alone. They learned to intervene in the game of live-and-let-live and to disrupt it by teaching their men another language, the language of hostility. In between the great offensives, the soldiers learned the language of hostility in night raids. Night raiding involved crossing to the enemy trenches under cover of darkness to surprise, kill, destroy, steal, and kidnap. Night raids were dangerous, caused losses to both sides, stimulated the desire for revenge, and engendered persistent mutual hostility.

For all the same reasons, night raids were universally detested. The British and French officers approached this problem differently. The result was a kind of field experiment in different types of motivation. The French officers asked for volunteers and used positive incentives and rewards to encourage participation. In contrast, the British officers used direct orders that required all troops to take part in rotation.

The result, according to Ashworth, was that in the French army night raiding was generally regarded as exceptional service, demanding special recognition. In the British army, on the other hand, night raiding was seen as one of the regular duties of front line service. Because of this, the British were able to carry out the policy of night raiding at a higher level than the French in 1915 and subsequent years. In the British sector there was more hostility and live-and-let-live was cut off at the root. Armed with superior motivation, the British troops then showed greater commitment in both minor and major offensives.

In contrast, Ashworth argued, French morale declined to the point where, in 1917, faced with orders to go once more into battle, half the regiments in the French army experienced mutinies. Ashworth supported his argument with a striking fact: On the German side of the French sector in 1917 there was no awareness that the troops in the opposing trenches were refusing orders to attack. This can only mean that the German soldiers had become completely habituated to the French passivity and so saw no change in the behaviour of the French soldiers.

Could the Christmas truce have ended the war before it had barely begun? Was it a lost chance to avert the premature deaths of tens of millions of people? It is a tempting thought, but we are bound to conclude that there are several reasons why this could not have been the outcome.

Live-and-let-live was surely facilitated by trench warfare, when large numbers of soldiers faced each other for long periods across static lines, and could learn to reciprocate each others' behaviour. But static warfare was temporary. The war began with movement, and by the time it ended the ability of the troops to move had been restored by new weapons and technologies.

If the war had ended on the Western front in December 1914, it would have left Germany in possession of a large slide of eastern France. The French leaders would surely have resumed the war at some point for this reason.

If the war was not quickly restarted in the West, Germany's leaders had another war to fight in the East, a war on Russia that in their strategic vision was more vital to Germany's interests than the war on France. The Germans would surely have exploited a truce in the West to pursued the war in the East with redoubled energy.

In fact the political leaders and military commanders were able quickly to overcome the natural tendency to live and let live and so return to the war. They were learning rapidly how to mobilize their nations around national identity, how to use their economies to deploy and arm millions of young men for combat, and how to organize those young men into fighting organizations that would attack and defend in together in large-scale operations, regardless of victory and defeat.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is testimony to the intense desire of most young men not to die and not to kill. It is also evidence of the growing aversion to extreme violence that writers such as Steven Pinker (2011) have identified over thousands of years of human history. It reproaches the rulers of 1914 that condemned Europe to thirty years of mass warfare. But it did not and could not overcome the political calculations that led to war at that time.

In 2014 the Kremlin's political calculations have led to war in Ukraine. Russian leaders seem to have no qualms when they threaten to widen the use of force in Europe by means of rapid rearmament, large-scale miltary exercises, and continuous probing of NATO air and sea defences, and by talking up the use of nuclear weapons.

From one end of Europe to the other today there is ample evidence of the innate desire of ordinary people to live and let live. But live-and-let-live does not offer a solution to the problem of authoritarian rulers that make their war plans in secret, free of moral and political restraints.


  • Ashworth, Tony. 1980. Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live system. London: Macmillan.
  • Bairnsfather, Bruce. 1917. Fragments from France. New York and London: The Knickerbocker Press.
  • Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. London: Allen Lane.

December 13, 2014

Was the Soviet 1923 Male Birth Cohort Doomed by World War II?

Writing about web page

Tim Harford's BBC Radio programme "More or Less" asked me to comment on a claim that is widely repeated on the internet, for example on Buzzfeed:

Almost 80% of the males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 did not survive World War II.

My answer

Here's the numbers I worked from on the programme(in thousands, rounded to the nearest hundred thousand). Each of the lines is sourced below.

  • Males born in the Soviet Union in 1923: 3,400
  • Infant (0-1) mortality: 800
  • Childhood (1-18) mortality, famine, and terror: 800
  • Surviving to 1941: 1,800
  • Wartime mortality: 700
  • Surviving to 1946: 1,100

My comment

The Buzzfeed claim is overstated, although not by a wide margin. Around two thirds (more exactly, 68%) of the original 1923 male birth cohort did not survive World War II. But the war is not the most important reason for the poor survival rate; almost half of them died before the war broke out.

The babies of 1923 were born at an awful time and faced a dismal future. The country they were born in was poor and violent. Between 1914 and 1921 their families had endured seven years of war and civil war, immediately followed by a major famine. Their society lacked modern sanitation, immunization programmes, and antibiotics. Rates of infant mortality and childhood mortality were shockingly high. Moreover, violence and famine were not a thing of the past. The 1923 cohort would be aged nine in the first year of the next major famine (1932) and fourteen in the year of Stalin's Great Terror (1937). They turned eighteen just as Germany attacked their country (1941).

The German invasion of 1941 was a deep national trauma. The young men born in 1923 were inexperienced conscripts for an army that was repeatedly shocked, taken by surprise, encircled, and pulverized. It suffered terrible losses. In the first six months, three million troops were killed or taken prisoner, and most of those taken prisoner did not survive. If they survived that, they faced more years of battlefield attrition or else and exhaustion on the home front. In all the Soviet Union suffered around 25 million war deaths, plus or minus a million (Harrison 2003). Red Army deaths alone were 8.7 million.

The overall mortality of the Soviet 1923 male birth cohort can be distributed over four stages of life. Around 800 thousand died in their first year. These died of birth defects, disease, accidents, abuse, and neglect. Another 800 thousand died between the ages of 1 and 18 from a range of causes that included those just mentioned and extended beyond them to famine and political violence. Then, from age 18 to 22, another 700 thousand were carried off in the war. That left just over a million to live on into middle and old age.

It may be surprising that war was not the major cause of premature death up to 1946 for the young men born in 1923. But in this there should be two harsh reminders. The first reminder is that nature is wasteful: everywhere until very recently only a minority of babies survived to adulthood, even in peacetime. This was still the situation for the Soviet Union in 1923. The second reminder is that 700,000 wartime deaths from a single birth cohort of young men is still a shocking figure. It is, for example, more than twice the total number of British military and civilian casualties in World War II.

My working

I took the data from Andreev, Darskii, and Khar'kova (1993). These three Russian demographers reworked the Soviet census and registration records immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the archives for independent research. Everyone abbreviates the reference to ADK so I will too. ADK (p. 118) give the total of births in the Soviet Union in 1923 as 6,523 thousand. Assuming a normal male/female split of 107/100, male births were 3,372 thousand. This is the size of the 1923 male cohort that we have to reckon with.

ADK do not give exact figures for the numbers of the 1923 male cohort surviving to 1941 and 1946, but you can read them off a chart (p. 79) as approximately 2 million and 1.2 million, implying 800 thousand wartime deaths. For our purpose, however, these figures require adjustment for border changes. In 1946 Soviet borders were wider than in 1923. In 1939/40 the Soviet Union expanded to absorb the Baltics, eastern Poland, and some other territories. Because of this the population was boosted (p. 118 again) from 168.5 to 188.8 million, or about 12 percent). So we need to multiply by 168.5/188.8 to take the 1923 male birth cohort as reported in 1946 back to the original borders of 1923. This gives survivors to 1941 as 1,785 thousand, wartime deaths as 714 thousand, and 1,071 thousand survivors to 1946.

A cross-check

If these figures are right, two thirds (rather than 80 per cent) of the original 1923 male birth cohort were dead by the end of World War II. But the war was not the largest cause of death, for nearly half of them were dead by 1941, before the war broke out. How reasonable is that?

There are two factors that explain heavy peacetime mortality. First, infant mortality: ADK give infant mortality in 1923 (p. 135) as 229 per thousand (with 220 as a lower bound and 238 as an upper bound). Applying their central estimate gives 770 thousand deaths in the first year of life, leaving 2,600 thousand survivors to 1924.

Second, childhood mortality, famine, and violence. For consistency with 1,785 survivors in 1941, we obtain deaths over the period from 1924 to 1941 as a residual, and the number of these is found to be 814 thousand, which is a larger number than the number of deaths in the first year of life. Is that reasonable? Elsewhere (pp. 19, 20. 35), ADK give survival tables for male newborns based on the three interwar censuses, from which it is clear that male child mortality over 1 to 3 years was never much less than over 0 to 1. Taking into account famine, terror, etc., a figure for 1-18 mortality that slightly exceeds 0-1 mortality is plausible.

Soviet demography is not an exact science. All these figures are more fuzzy than might appear at first sight -- one reason my opening summary rounds everything to the nearest hundred thousand. On the same programme you can hear Mike Haynes (he and I reach similar conclusions) reminding listeners that the error margin on Soviet war deaths, plus or minus one million, is another number that is greater than the number of British war deaths. The one thing that saves us from complete confusion is that demographic accounts have to be consistent, both internally and externally. The requirement of consistency helps us to judge that some claims are reasonable and others are ruled out.


  • Andreev, E. M., L. E. Darskii, and T. L. Kharkova. 1993. Naselenie Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1922-1991. Moscow: Nauka.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2003. Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: Comment. Europe-Asia Studies 55:6, pp. 939-44.

September 03, 2014

From Donetsk to Danzig

Writing about web page

Having absorbed Austria and sliced up Czechoslovakia, Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. On 3 September, that is, 75 years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany. At that moment everyone knew it was serious. Probably no one imagined that the war already in progress would take the lives of 55 million people before it was over. We know it now. With another war under way in Europe, it's a frightening thought.

Yesterday I wrote:

What keeps me awake at night is the thought that lukewarm NATO support for Ukrainian resistance might encourage Putin to try to change the facts on the ground quickly and irrevocably by means of a sudden all-out war.

Here's why I'm not sleeping well:

More than likely, Putin is rethinking his options.

  • His original plan may have been to create frozen conflicts on Ukraine's borders, with the aim of destabilizing and neutralizing a potentially hostile power. These would be similar to the conflicts that Russia has established with Georgia and Moldova.
  • Russia's ability to freeze a conflict relies, however, on the adversary's limited capacity to resist. Unlike Georgia and Moldova, Ukraine is resisting strongly. Because of this, the conflict is staying hot. Russia is having to commit increasing resources into the conflict. Perhaps more importantly, Russia's costs are also increasing in its diplomatic and economic relations with the West.
  • NATO's response was divided and unenthusiastic at first, but may become stronger and more unified as NATO's East European members become more vocal.

These are the reasons why Putin may start to think that a short decisive war would serve his purposes better than a drawn out conflict that remains unresolved.

What does this mean for us?

In September 1939 Danzig (today Gdansk) was the first city to fall to Hitler's Eastern advance (which he had choreographed beforehand with Stalin). At that time, Europeans asked themselves: Why die for Danzig? On the 75th anniversary of these events, Polish scholars have appealed to the West not to make the same mistake as in 1939: to think that we can save our own skins by ignoring aggression.

Just to be sure you understand, I'm not advocating dying for either Danzig or Donetsk. I'm saying that if we do not want to die for Donetsk we must act urgently to stop Putin short of all-out war.

What does that mean? Here are four measures that conclude the Polish declaration:

1. French President François Hollande and his government are tempted to make a step that will be even worse than France’s passivity in 1939. In the coming weeks, as the only European country, they actually plan to help the aggressor by selling Putin’s Russia brand-new huge Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. France has teamed up with Russia on this issue in 2010 and already then the project triggered numerous protests. Previous French President Nicolas Sarkozy would as a rule dismiss them because, after all, “the Cold War was over." But now a Hot War has started in Ukraine and there is no reason why France should still want to implement the old agreement. Already several politicians suggested that it should sell the two ships to NATO or the EU. If President Hollande does not change his views soon, European citizens should force him to change them with a campaign boycotting French products. For in line with its great tradition France must remain true to the idea of European freedom!

2. The Federal Republic of Germany began its journey of increasing dependence on Russian gas as early as around 1982. Already then Polish intellectuals including Czesław Miłosz and Leszek Kołakowski warned against building new pipelines to transport Russian gas and called them “instruments for future blackmail of Europe”. The same warnings came from two successive Polish presidents, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Lech Kaczyński. But German politicians, whether because of the German guilt complex or because they believed in the “Russian economic miracle” and hoped to benefit from it personally, have held cooperation with the Russian authorities in very high esteem. And thus, perhaps unwittingly, they were perpetuating the unfortunate German tradition of treating Russia as their only partner in Eastern Europe. In recent years, companies belonging to the Russian state and its oligarchs have been putting down ever deeper roots in the German economy, from the energy sector through the world of football to the tourist industry. Germany should contain this kind of entanglement because it always leads to political dependence.

3. All European citizens and every European country should take part in campaigns aimed to help alleviate the threat hanging over Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the eastern regions of the country and Crimea are in need of humanitarian aid. The Ukrainian economy is bled out as a result of many years of damaging gas-supply contracts signed with the Russian monopolist, Gazprom, who ordered Ukraine - one of the least affluent buyers of its gas - to pay the highest price for it. The Ukrainian economy urgently needs help. It needs new partners and new investments. Ukrainian cultural, media and civic initiatives – truly fabulous and very much alive – also need partnerships and support.

4. For many years the European Union has been giving Ukraine to understand that it will never become an EU member and that any support coming to it from the EU will be only symbolic. The Eastern Partnership policy of the European Union has changed little in this area as in practice it turned out to be only a meaningless substitute. Suddenly, however, the issue has gained its own momentum, thanks largely to the unwavering stand of the Ukrainian democrats. For the first time in history, citizens of a country were dying from bullets with the European flag in hand. If Europe does not act in solidarity with the Ukrainians now it will mean that it no longer believes in the values of the Revolution of 1789 – the values of freedom and brotherhood.

For a longer list of possible measures see Ten (Un)Easy Steps to Save Ukraine by Konstyantyn Fedorenko and Andreas Umland.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

Economics Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

Mark talks about why and how he blogs on Warwick’s Knowledge Centre.

Search this blog

Blog archive



Most recent comments

  • John: As a citizen, I agree. As a social scientist, I can't help but note the following. In the long… by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • While candidates belong to parties when they run for office something changes when they attain offic… by John C. Andrews Jr on this entry
  • A correction: I wrote above that "hundreds" were killed when Soviet troops crushed the East German u… by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • Hi, Mark, lots of Hoover connections on this topic, the Donovan papers are in the archives, Abel's l… by Elena S. Danielson on this entry
  • My mother sometimes asks me this question – how did we pay for the war? The answer is we didn't pay … by Hugo Evans on this entry
RSS2.0 Atom
Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder