The argument put forward by Steven Pinker that violence has been in decline and that “we have been getting kinder and gentler” rests to a considerable degree upon data concerning violent events, in particular homicide and deaths on the battlefield. In discussing such data for the modern period, this article questions their reliability and, in particular, their comparability over time. Pinker’s argument may be stronger with respect to a growing public sensitivity toward many forms of violence, not least sexual violence, for which there is considerable evidence. However, the relationship between changing public sensibilities and changing levels of actual violent acts remains difficult to determine.
Richard Bessel is Professor Emeritus of Twentieth-Century History at the University of York. He works on the social and political history of modern Germany, the aftermath of the two world wars, and the history of violence. His most recent books are Germany 1945: From War to Peace (New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 2009), Violence: A Modern Obsession (New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 2015), and (edited, with Dorothee Wierling) Inside World War One? The First World War and Its Witnesses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).