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November 02, 2015

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

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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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.

September 02, 2014

Is Crimea Russia's Payback for Kosovo?

Follow-up to The Carswell Effect: Dishonour and War from Mark Harrison's blog

A few days ago I wrote about how Europe is facing the threat of all-out war in Ukraine, but Britain's foreign policy is being disabled by anti-immigration gestures. There was one response -- Yes! I have a reader! -- which I thought was outstanding, and I'm going to write a whole blog about it. This contribution, by an author with the username Blisset, stood out for its dry humour, and also because it got so many things wrong in so few words. Here it is in full:

Wasn’t Serbia/Yugoslavia dismembered thanks to an invasion of USA and UK and allied forces after months of bombing by the USA and UK and allied forces on the Serbian/Yugoslavian capital?

If that happened 15 years ago, wouldn’t that be a strong, authoritative legal precedent for the USA, the UK and their allies to start bombing Moscow and invading the Russian Federation to give back the Crimea to Ukraine? :-)

Now I'll break it down into three parts. Here's the first part.

Wasn’t Serbia/Yugoslavia dismembered thanks to an invasion of USA and UK and allied forces after months of bombing by the USA and UK and allied forces on the Serbian/Yugoslavian capital?

No. Here's why not.

  • “Serbia/Yugoslavia": This term is misleading. Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 1992. Serbia (strictly, Serbia and Montenegro) claimed to be the successor state to Yugoslavia, but without securing international recognition. So, not “Serbia/Yugoslavia,” just Serbia.
  • "Dismembered": In 1992 Yugoslavia fell apart without any external intervention. In 2006 Montenegro left Serbia of its own accord. The only external force that was involved was the force that removed the province of Kosovo from Serbian control in 1999; Kosovo became independent, however, only under UN administration in 2008.
  • "Thanks to an invasion." None of these territories was invaded from outside the former Yugoslav Republic. The Kosovo war ended with the entry of peacekeeping troops into Kosovo, provided by NATO under UN authority. That wasn't an invasion.
  • "Months of bombing": The NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 followed many years of restriction of Kosovo’s autonomy and repression of Kosovan ethnicity, culminating in open conflict and a Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. By the time the bombing started, half the province’s two-million population were refugees, hundreds of thousands having fled to Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia.

Now the second part:

If that happened 15 years ago, wouldn’t that be a strong, authoritative legal precedent for the USA, the UK and their allies to start bombing Moscow and invading the Russian Federation to give back the Crimea to Ukraine?

No. Here's why not.

  • "Legal precedent": Russia now claims Kosovo as a precedent for Crimea, but at the same time Russia continues to withhold recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Evidently, Russia does not see Kosovo as a lawful precedent. Rather, it considers that Kosovo provided grounds for retaliation, or tit-for-tat.
  • Kosovo/Crimea: But Crimea is not a parallel to Kosovo. NATO intervened in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing of the population, not to transfer its territory to Albania, the regional neighbour claiming ethnic affinity with the oppressed majority in Kosovo. Ethnic cleansing was not under way in Crimea or any other part of Ukraine before the Russian intervention. All opinion polls carried out before the Russian intervention showed large majorities in every province of Ukraine and amongst every ethnic group in favour of Ukrainian sovereignty and integrity.
  • Casus belli: Yes, unprovoked aggression and the seizure of territory by armed force are generally recognized as grounds for war, and the crime against Ukraine is particularly heinous given that at Budapest in 1994 Russia gave a solemn promise to uphold Ukraine’s frontiers. In that setting Ukraine would be justified in a proportionate military response. But let’s be realistic here, because there is a limit even to my sense of humour: Russia is a nuclear power, whereas Ukraine is not, having given up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest agreement that Russia signed. In any case, on a scale from zero (complete passivity) to 10 (invading Russia) the NATO response is currently registering something around 1 (targeted and financial sanctions). No one is thinking about bombing Moscow any time soon.
  • Invading Russia: It seems odd to worry about invading Russia when the problem is that Russia has invaded Ukraine. But I do not want invading Russia on anyone's agenda. I have friends in Moscow and Kiev and loved ones here who are of military service age. I don't seek conflict or advocate confrontation of any kind except that which will lessen the danger of a worse conflict in the future. 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.

Third part:


Hahaha! You were joking all along. But I wasn't laughing. Here's why not.

  • Gesture politics comes in more than one form. I started from the danger of anti-immigration gestures, like Douglas Carswell's (he's the MP that defected from the Tories to UKIP). But anti-Americanism can be just as misleading. Underlying your response are two basic ideas. One is that Americans have sometimes behaved badly, so if America is for something, it must be bad for us. Free trade? Exploitation, obviously. Democracy? Hypocrisy. Another is the idea that America is all-powerful, so small countries are of no account. Yugoslavia fell apart? America did it. Ukrainians want to join Europe? America made them.
  • Such ideas arise naturally in the cultures of former great powers such as ours, formed by rivalry with America. They find a less tolerant climate in Europe's smaller democracies. Look at the revealed preferences of the smaller countries that emerged from Soviet domination in the 1990s. To the extent that they became democracies, smaller European countries from the Baltic to the Balkans got away from Russian influence as quickly as they possibly could. They turned to the West. They could not join the EU and NATO fast enough. But joining the EU turned out to be time-consuming and laborious, so they joined NATO first.
  • NATO did not make them join. They chose to do it. Having done it, they show few signs of regret today. There's a lesson in that somewhere.

August 29, 2014

The Carswell Effect: Dishonour and War

Writing about web page

Yesterday called for a grand gesture. Russia finally admitted its troops were engaged on Ukrainian territory. They were there only by accident, it was claimed, or on holiday. Russia's committee of soldiers' mothers told a different story. The truth of Russia's aggression is more and more beyond denial.

Thus, yesterday certainly called for a grand gesture. The gesture that we got, in contrast, was contemptible: the defection of the MP Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives to the UK Independence Party. This gesture was accorded much importance, "one of the biggest political surprises for years" according to Andrew Pierce in the Daily Mail, and casting Cameron's leadership of the Tory Party into fresh crisis according to Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.

As Pierce notes, Cameron once wrote off UKIP as "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists." I have no view on whether or not Carswell is a closet racist. He is an odd libertarian. He promotes the freedom to associate and to compete, but for natives only; foreigners should not apply. On the other two counts UKIP's latest acquisition hardly proves Cameron wrong.

Carswell himself is of little importance. The importance of the gesture is to illustrate how Britain's foreign policy has been undermined by anti-immigration politics. We have become a country that resolves every foreign issue on the basis of three simple questions. These foreigners: Do we know them? If so, do we like them? And might they want to come here to live? And if we do not know them, or know them and do not like them, and if we believe they might want to come here and live among us, then pull up the drawbridge. Perhaps they will go away.

Because of this, we have lost our influence in Europe. We are rapidly losing any serious foreign policy. The world is, unfortunately, a complicated place. For the Carswells it is just too complicated, so they give up any atttempt to understand it or influence it. Instead they ask themselves the simpler question: Do we like foreigners? No, on the whole, they answer, and that decides everything.

The Carswell effect is this. Europe is in the middle of its most serious crisis since Stalin's blockade of Berlin in 1948. And Britain's attention is focused on this silly man. For the Carswells of our time Russia's dismemberment of Ukraine in 2014, as Neville Chamberlain described Germany's descent on Czechoslovakia in 1938, is "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Faced with the choice between resistance and dishonour, the Carswells choose dishonour.

In advocating resistance I do not advocate war; rather I would like us to avoid it. We are a million miles away from NATO troops becoming involved in Ukraine -- and Putin knows it. He expected, with much foundation, that the West would largely acquiesce in his dismemberment of Ukraine. That is why he has been willing to take such apparently risky steps: he did not think they were truly risky. The Western response must disabuse him, by sending substantial economic and military aid to Ukraine. Determined Western resistance now will curb his appetite for risk in future. A "fortress England" approach will only encourage him in further aggression.

But to reach that point, we ourselves must first see beyond the Carswell effect. We need to refocus on the world and our place in it. What should Britain stand for? What should Europe stand for? Eastern Europe and Ukraine have many brave people who see Europe, and the idea of Europe, as a beacon of human rights and democracy. If we betray them (Winston Churchill once said) we will have dishonour, and we will have war.

August 08, 2014

Was Europe really ready for World War I?

Writing about web page

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How prepared were the Great Powers for war in 1914? Too often, this question has been answered by pointing to expectations of a short war, and to muddle and inefficiency in its opening stages. The realities are that most informed people had realistic expectations, and that muddle and inefficiency are intrinsic to war.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who masterminded Prussia’s victory over France in 1870, wrote the words often paraphrased as, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” His son commanded the German army as World War I broke out.

In fact, the degree of preparedness of the Great Powers for war in 1914 has as many layers as an onion. Here are four.

Did political leaders expect war?

In various ways the war was anticipated, planned, and even welcomed. War was planned in Berlin and Vienna. It was welcomed in St Petersburg, and to some extent in Paris.

Anticipation of the war was widespread among national political elites. The element of surprise was greatest for the mass of people who were uninformed in every country. For the leaders there were differing degrees and kinds of anticipation, but one feature of the prewar period was that all the Great Powers had shared knowledge of each others’ war plans. The sharing arose partly through espionage, partly through intentional diplomacy.

This led to a situation where, on one side, all the leaders understood the potential for specific conflicts to trigger a general European war. This is one reason why Britain tried hard to mediate in the July 1914 crisis. These efforts were unsuccessful because others were willing to take the risk of a wider war or even intended to bring it about.

On the other side, it is true, some particular aspect of the coming conflict was salient to each national elite. Thus, for Austria the enemy was Serbia; for Germany the enemy was Russia; for Russia, the enemy was Austria. For Britain the priority was to save France. For France, the priority was to save itself and avenge 1870. In every country, in the end, these aims took precedence over war avoidance.

Did the leaders understand what was coming?

Yes, although not fully. Too much has been made of the idea that everyone expected a short, victorious war. This expectation was widespread only among ordinary people who had no influence on decision making. German war plans were for a short, victorious campaign but even their authors understood they represented an outrageous gamble. The idea of a short war was a hope, not a calculation.

Signs of an understanding that the war might drag out and that victory could turn to ashes are everywhere in the decisions and documentation of the time. They are represented in the German decisions to respect Dutch neutrality, leaving Dutch ports open to neutral trade, and to attack British shipping. These made no sense unless the war was drawn out. They are explicit in the diaries of leaders on all sides (including the younger Moltke’s). Who could forget British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey’s words on the eve of war:

The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.

Did the people understand?

If not at first, they quickly adjusted. In every country national feeling swung quickly behind the war effort, with only small and isolated minorities opposed. In fact, without this, it would be impossible to explain how any country could have supported the devastating casualties and huge economic burdens of the war for years on end. Only during 1917 did clear signs of social strain begin to emerge in most of the countries that were at war.

Public support for the war was to a considerable extent spontaneous, but its mobilisation was also managed. Notably, German leaders knew they would strike first in the coming war, and a major pre-war concern was to ensure the German public would perceive their country as acting to defend itself against Russian aggression.

Were the soldiers equipped for what came next?

No. In the early stages of the conflict, three kinds of troops went on the offensive: infantry, gunners, and railway and horse troops for supply. They faced rifles, guns, and static machine guns. It soon became apparent that infantrymen had no offensive equipment that could answer the gunfire of a positional defence.

The infantry had rifles that they could fire standing up (making them vulnerable) or lying down (so they could not move). They could not fire and move at the same time. The gunners behind them could try to suppress the defending fire, but they often failed because gunfire was inaccurate and insufficiently heavy. This is why attacking infantry so often walked forward to their deaths.

The volume of munitions required to advance was so great that the supply troops could not bring it to the front when the front was moving, and the Great Powers’ economies lacked the industrial capacity to produce it. Having traditionally relied on its Navy for defence, Britain was more unprepared than most.

Three things eventually restored the ability of the infantry to fire and move. New offensive infantry equipment was developed, such as automatic weapons, rifle grenades and trench mortars. The volume and accuracy of artillery munitions increased enormously. Assault vehicles and aircraft were used in combat for the first time.

All these relied on a colossal mobilisation of productive capacity, which was more successful in Britain than in any other country. These developments explain why the last year of World War I begins to look like the coming years of World War II, with breakthroughs, mobile warfare, and heavier casualties on both sides than those resulting from trench warfare.

Mark Harrison writes about economics, public policy, and international affairs. He is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick. He is also a research fellow of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

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