Of course, that depends on who “we” are considered to be. Kindness and gentleness might be easier to exercise in contemporary Sweden or Japan than in Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And evidence that there has been a “change in sensibilities”—and the evidence for this change is considerable4—is not necessarily evidence that violence itself has been diminishing (or, for that matter, increasing). However, what Pinker’s argument and the contrasting assessments of people who continue to regard our era as “the most bloody era of human history” have in common is an intense, almost obsessive interest in violence as a historical topic. History, as Jörg Baberowski reminds us, is “a science that gives answers to questions of the present,” not the past.5 We tend to view history in terms of current concerns and preoccupations, and ours center around violence.
In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling ona stage and slowly lowered into a fire … Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that con- clusion …Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler.3
Measuring Violence: Homicide
Spierenburg is of the opinion that, at least in Western countries, “the evidence really shows that we have become less violent, … and we know that they [murders] have declined very much in terms of rates per hundred thousand per year from the Middle Ages up to the present.”9
Most scholars working within this tradition [i.e., examining homicide with a primarily quantitative approach] consider the incidence of homicide as an indication for the level of violence in past societies. They follow criminological usage in taking as their measure the homicide rate, defined as the annual average of killings, over a specified period, per 100,000 population in a given area. A rise or a decline in this rate would mean that the society in question became respectively more or less violent.8
Pinker essentially offers the same argument: “Homicide is the crime of choice for measurers of violence because regardless of how people of a distant culture conceptualize crime, a dead body is hard to define away, and it always arouses curiosity about who or what produced it. Records of homicide are therefore a more reliable index of violence than records of robbery, rape, or assault, and they usually (though not always) correlate with them.”10 He refers, for example, to Manuel Eisner’s longitudinal estimates of homicide in England from the thirteenth through the twentieth centuries, based on coroners’ inquests, court cases, and local records, as well as to J. S. Cockburn’s “continuous data from the town [sic] of Kent between 1560 and 1985” to show that there was “a decline in annual homicide rates [that] is not small.”11 By combining data on “homicide rates in five Western European regions, 1300–2000,” Eisner shows—and Pinker cites—similar declines in homicides per 100,000 people per year.12 And when looking at what may be regarded as the most violent country in the contemporary West, Pinker notes that “the annual homicide rate in the United States at its recent worst—10.2 per 100,000 in 1980—was a quarter of the rate for Western Europe in 1450.”13
But was the same thing being counted in 1980 as in 1450? In order to draw conclusions from the data we have about homicide, we need to be clear about what is being counted, who is doing the counting, and what the purposes of the data are. Even where the counting exercise may seem to be straightforward, that is, with regard to what appears the most obvious indicator of violent crime, homicide, some skepticism may be in order. Thus, before jumping to the conclusion that a rise or fall in the number of murders reported over time in a particular jurisdiction necessarily reflects a rise or fall in the level of violence, it is worth considering how a corpse becomes a murder case.
Here research by Howard Taylor on murder in England and Wales during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries offers a revealing insight. Taylor observes that “the statistics of murder … for the period 1880 to 1966 kept to a cumulative average of 150 a year, … within a range of 20 percent either side of the average.”14 That is to say, over nearly nine decades, during which time the population of England and Wales roughly doubled,15 the numbers of (reported) murders in England and Wales remained more or less constant. While “the traditional literature has sought to explain this largely by arguing that there occurred an ‘English miracle’ when crime diminished as the population rose,” Taylor looked elsewhere, “arguing that the crime statistics largely reflected supply-side policies.”16 That is to say, the remarkable figures noted above reflected what was being counted as murder, and that was, in Taylor’s view, a function of the public prosecution budget. According to Taylor, “because the discovery of a suspicious death and its subsequent investigation and prosecution could make a large dent in a police authority budget, the chances were that it would not be prosecuted as a murder.”17
Obviously not all violent crime data may be affected in ways such as those stressed by Taylor, but doubts about the validity of prosecution statistics for the measurement of homicide are not exclusive to those for nineteenth-and twentieth-century England. For example, reflecting on homicide in early modern England, Spierenburg himself has stated baldly that “criminal prosecutions simply cannot be trusted as a source for the incidence of killing” and notes that “even more dramatic evidence comes from sixteenth-century Amsterdam,” concluding “that criminal prosecutions constitute an inferior source for the construction of homicide.”18
The problems posed by such data are not simply a consequence of the “inferior” quality of criminal prosecutions as a source for measuring trends in murder. There also is the problem that, due to advances in hygiene and medicine, people in developed countries are much less likely to die as a result of wounds, for example, from stabbings. The same violent physical act— thrusting a knife into another person—is far less likely to result in a death in, for example, twenty-first-century London than it was in fifteenth-century Florence. Roy Porter has observed that “early efforts to suture stab wounds, for example, resulted in a mortality of 50–60 percent, mostly due to infection, but by World War II, drawing on sulfa drugs and antibiotics, surgeons were able to open the heart without undue risk.”19
Measuring Violence: War
These improvements have dramatically affected deaths from military campaigns. Until relatively recently, the majority of the deaths of soldiers as a result of combat were of men who died later of their wounds rather than being killed quickly on the battlefield. For example, data relating to deaths of French soldiers during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars indicate that only a small proportion of the losses were of those who actually died in and during combat; many times more died subsequently from their wounds, while the majority—roughly two-thirds—died as a result of disease.20 “François Vigo-Roussillon noted in his campaign diary for 28 Germinal Year V [17 April 1797], after the battle of Neumarck, that ‘a large proportion of the wounded … perished in the woods because they were not evacuated and treated.’”21 During the Franco-Prussian War, “the French amputated some 13,200 limbs, with 10,000 gangrene and fever deaths—a mortality rate of 76 percent.”22 These soldiers’ present-day counterparts in the American armed forces who fought, for example, in Iraq and who were treated for wounds in well-equipped medical facilities very quickly after having been wounded, usually survived. Does that mean that the French Revolutionary Wars and the Franco-Prussian War were more violent than the American-led invasion of Iraq, where “far more soldiers are surviving even grievous injuries than in previous conflicts”23 and thus the proportion that died was far lower?
This transformation is not something that suddenly materialized during the last decade. Already by the eve of World War I, despite the increasing destructiveness of weaponry to the human body, medical care on the battlefield was becoming more effective. According to an article on “The Blessings of Science on the Battlefield” published in the Scientific American at the end of 1913: “Military surgery, indeed, appears … to have undergone what may fairly be called a revolution since, say, the war of 1870. And the sum total of results in the contest between the agencies of death and the agencies of life is, in regard to recoveries from wounds not instantaneously fatal, that the average number of deaths in 1870 has been reduced by one half.”24 The improvements continued over the twentieth century, and today the “blessings of science on the battlefield” have reached levels unimaginable a century ago. In a recent article in the British Medical Journal, on “Lessons from the Battlefield,” Anne Gulland observed that “a solider injured in Afghanistan or Iraq will get treatment that a pedestrian knocked down by a car on a high street in the United Kingdom could only dream of.”25
The revolutionary development of military medical care is reflected in the changing relationship between the numbers of dead and wounded. According to the United States Department of Defense, as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom there were 4,411 military deaths, of which 3,481 were soldiers killed in action and 930 (21.1%) died due to “nonhostile” causes.26 The ratio of dead to wounded for American forces was roughly 1:7.4 (or about 1:8.9, if one strips away the 19 percent killed by nonhostile causes such as motor vehicle accidents). By contrast, among the German armed forces during World War I, the ratio of dead to wounded was roughly 1:2.36.27 That is to say, the counterparts of many of those who a hundred years ago would have been counted among the dead more recently would have been among the wounded and would have survived their war. Another reflection of this transformation is the changing probability of a soldier dying in a particular conflict: even compared with America’s Vietnam War, during the Iraq War the chances of a US soldier dying declined by more than five times, while the proportion of dead to wounded declined by roughly two-thirds.28 The intensity of combat, and the relative levels of violence, therefore may not be reflected in the numbers of military dead that result, since so many soldiers in the late twentieth century survived wounds that would have killed their counterparts in earlier conflicts.
The wars fought by Western armies also have become less deadly for their soldiers because the proportion of military personnel involved directly in combat has fallen precipitously in recent decades. That is to say, as armies have become smaller (with the move away from large conscript armies and toward leaner, professional armed forces), a smaller proportion of those in uniform has been involved directly in the application of lethal violence. Logistics played an increasingly important role in war fighting over the twentieth century, with World War I marking a watershed as “the first true, modern war” in which millions of men had to be supplied with vast amounts of materiel, from ammunition to food.29 However, it was with the West’s wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that the application of violence became the task of a relatively small minority of soldiers at war. For example, according to a 2002 study of postcombat syndromes among British soldiers over the course of the twentieth century, “the proportion involved in actual fighting fell over time as the numbers in combat-support roles has risen … of the First World War pensioners 73.4% [had been in combat], of the Second World War sample 52%, while only 19.8% of the Gulf War sample had seen action.”30 It was estimated that during America’s Vietnam War, for every soldier in the field there were seven in support roles: “cooks, clerks, supply people, maintenance men, truck drivers, military policemen, entertainment personnel, headquarters’ staffs and men running PXs.”31 Whether this means that the Vietnam War—which claimed the lives of more than three million people altogether—was somehow less violent than previous wars is an open question.
Changing Sensibilities toward Violence
Constructing arguments, as Pinker does, based on long-term trends in violent crime (such as “the European homicide decline”32), or relative death tolls in wars,33 thus is less straightforward than often assumed. This is not to say that Pinker necessarily is wrong to posit a substantial decline in homicide over time in Europe, or that he is mistaken to point to a “historical myopia” that leads us to magnify the scale of events near to us and to lose sight of the toll of conflicts before the twentieth century—”the closer an era is to our vantage point in the present, the more details we can make out”34—which many readily assume was “the bloodiest in history.” He may well be right. Nevertheless, the use of quantitative evidence about “violence” or violent acts across the centuries to prove or disprove the point is fraught with difficulties, and consequently it may be better instead to examine what perhaps may be examined with greater certainty: changing and enhanced sensibilities toward violence. It is here, when he focuses on the “change in sensibilities,” that Pinker is on firmer ground.
In the developed, Western world at least, public attitudes toward violence have changed notably since the middle of the twentieth century. In the wake of World War I, the politics of violence and violent politics were accepted widely and even glorified. The 1914–1918 conflict had led to the destruction of communities, social structures, economic stability, and political frameworks. It not only precipitated revolution and revolutionary unrest but also eroded the normative constraints that had served increasingly to limit violence in public life during the nineteenth century. Welcoming the new world of violence precipitated by World War I, Ernst Jünger famously wrote: “This war is not the end but the beginning of violence. It is the forge in which the world will be hammered into new borders and new communities. New forms want to be filled with blood, and power will be wielded with a hard fist. The war is a great school, and the new man will bear our stamp.”35
On the other side of the political spectrum, both Italian fascism and German national socialism glorified violence and when in power made their violent ideologies real in campaigns of aggressive war and mass murder. Violence has long been regarded as “a fundamental ingredient,” “the actual substance” of Italian fascism.39 As Paul Corner has pointed out, “the politics of Fascism were always the politics of the bully; the Blackshirts never left anyone in doubt that violence against opponents was an acceptable method of action, a constituent part of Fascist ‘style,’ something frequently and proudly described as ‘exquisitely Fascist.’”40 German national socialism also glorified violence. Joseph Goebbels famously wrote in an account, first published in 1932 and reprinted many times subsequently, of the rise of the Nazi movement in Berlin, that the storm trooper “wants to fight, and he has a right to be led into battle. His existence only wins its justification by fighting.”41 But it was not just with the rise of the Hitler movement that violence became an accepted ingredient in German politics after World War I. Mark Jones has recently shown that the Weimar Republic was founded on violence, a process whereby “patterns of human behavior … allowed large sections of the German population to accept state-sponsored violence as a force for good.”42
torpedoed an established ethical system of norms—religion became a taboo, bourgeois legality despised, and standards of humanitarian (or, if one prefers, “chivalrous”) conduct of warfare scorned. In their place emerged not a new form of social justice but rather the sanctioning (in the name of social justice) of forms of violent behavior: the taking of hostages, summary executions, looting, the murder of prisoners. All this became routine.38
Politics conducted in a violent key found less resonance during the second half of the twentieth century. Public attitudes altered after World War II, which in this sense really was seen as the “war to end all wars.”43 The terrible shock of the extreme violence of and during World War II, often identified with the extremes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, led many people to draw back, in what might be seen as a profound case of buyer’s remorse. In states where political cultures had most embraced violence between the end of World War I and the aftermath of World War II, public attitudes subsequently changed remarkably. This change in attitudes after 1945 was particularly striking in Germany, where the aggressively violent and militaristic ideology of national socialism was succeeded during the second half of the twenti- eth century by an aversion to military service and a growing willingness to approve of conscientious objection.44 A similar transformation occurred in postsurrender Japan, in which “the single most popular catch phrase … was Heiwa Kokka Kensetsu: ‘Construct a Nation of Peace.’”45 In both countries the shift in sensibilities was accompanied by a deep sense, in the immediate aftermath of the war, of having been the victims of violence—in particular of the Allied bombing campaigns—rather than its perpetrators.
The reactions against military conflict form but a part of the remarkable growth in sensitivity toward violence in Western societies in recent decades. Whether one focuses on the diminishing willingness to accept violence in politics, the widespread concern at the bombing of civilian targets, the growing awareness of domestic violence and the conviction that it is a matter of public concern and to be prosecuted, the ever-widening definition of PTSD, or the recent upsurge in concern about and condemnation of sexual harassment and abuse, sensitivity toward violence appears to have grown in recent decades, at least in the developed, Western world. Whatever the causes of this cultural shift—the shock of the eruptions of extreme violence during the first half of the twentieth century, the unprecedented economic boom that the West enjoyed after World War II that gave people more to lose through violence and less to gain, the increasing stability of state structures and their capability to maintain civil peace, the increased presence of women in the public sphere, the distancing of civil society in the West from war and the military, or the ways in which violence is reported in the media—it seems clear that sensibilities have changed.46
The change in sensibilities appears to offer the best support for Pinker’s basic argument, in no case more clearly than with the heightened recognition of the serious nature of domestic and sexual violence. Domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape within marriage are no longer tolerated to the extent that they were in the past; this unwillingness to ignore or accept such violence may suggest that indeed we have become less violent. But given what we know about violence, for example, in the United States, where in 2010 the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which was based on over 16,000 interviews with both women and men, revealed that “nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3 percent) and 1 in 71 men (1.4 per cent) in the United States had been raped at some point in their lives,”47 we should be careful about asserting that greater concern about violent acts necessarily means that fewer such acts in fact are being committed and that therefore “we have been getting kinder and gentler.”
None of the processes sketched above necessarily is permanent or irreversible and in assessing them we need to be aware of short-term contingencies as well as of longer-term trends. Making his argument for a long-term decline in violence, Pinker refers repeatedly to Norbert Elias’s influential analysis of the “process of civilization.” However, Elias recognized that the civilization of which he wrote “is never completed and always endangered.”48 In this connection it is worth noting what Eric Monkonnen, a leading historian of violent crime, concluded in his last monograph, a perceptive quantitative study of murder in New York City: “We can learn something from the historical cycles in violence: as violent crime drifts downward now, we must be aware that in similar eras in the past, it always eventually turned upward again.”49 While Pinker is right to note the diminishing rates of violent crime reported in recent years, whether this and similar evidence actually establishes that as a species we really “have been getting kinder and gentler” is another matter. Perhaps it does; perhaps it does not. Whichever is the case, however, we should be grateful to Steven Pinker for placing the issue so forcefully into public debate.
Steven Pinker, “A History of Violence,” The New Republic, 19 March 2007,https:// newrepublic.com/article/64340/history-violence-were-getting-nicer-every-day (accessed 13 March 2018).
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (London: Allen Lane, 2011), xxi.
Pinker, “A History of Violence.”
Richard Bessel, Violence: A Modern Obsession (London: Simon … Schuster, 2015).
“… eine Wissenschaft, die Anworten auf die Fragen der Gegenwart gibt.” Interview published 21 May 2013 on YouTube, https://youtu.be/s2J77x3mFUs (accessed 13 March 2018).
In this context it is worth noting that different groups in different societies have different propensities to report incidents of violent assault. See, for example, the interesting recent study by Janne Kivivuori, “Understanding Trends in Personal Violence: Does Cultural Sensitivity Matter?,” Crime and Justice 43, no. 1 (2014): 322–324.
See Joanna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present (London: Virago Press, 2007), 307–328; Bessel, Violence, 175–183. It is worth noting in this context that among married women rape by husbands is many times more frequent than rape by strangers (Bourke, Rape, 320).
Pieter Spierenburg, “Faces of Violence: Homicide Trends and Cultural Meanings: Amsterdam, 1431–1816,” Journal of Social History 27, no. 4 (1994): 710–716, here 701.
Pieter Spierenburg, interviewed by Professor Rod Broadhurst of the ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences, published in ANU TV on 22 October 2014, accessed on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOTdu4TfGFc (accessed 13 March 2018).
Pinker, Better Angels, 62.
Howard Taylor, “Rationing Crime: The Political Economy of Criminal Statistics Since the 1850s,” The Economic History Review, n.s., 51, no. 3 (1998): 569–590, here 570.
His Majesty’s Stationery Office, Census of England and Wales 1921: Preliminary Report (London, 1921), 62, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10001043/cube/TOT_POP (accessed 13 March 2018).
Taylor, “Rationing Crime,” 570–571.
Spierenburg, “Faces of Violence,” 706.
Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 615.
See Marie-Cécile Thoral, From Valmy to Waterloo: France at War, 1792–1813 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 80–81. Thoral notes, “Losses in the 2nd Battalion of the Ille-et-Vilaine in 1793 were 18.3 percent, but only 4 percent actually died in combat” (80). Most of the French casualties died in hospital.
François Vigo-Roussillon, Journal de campagne, 1793–1837 (Paris: France-Empire, 1981), 51; quoted in Thoral, From Valmy to Waterloo, 81.
Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, 372.
Linda J. Bilmes, “Iraq’s 100-Year Mortgage,” Foreign Policy, no. 165 (March–April 2008): 84–85, here 84.
“The Blessings of Science on the Battlefield,” Scientific American 109, no. 25 (20 December 1913): 477–481, here 477.
Anne Gulland, “Lessons from the Battlefield,” British Medical Journal 336, no. 7653 (17 May 2008): 1098–1100, here 1098.
Using figures from Richard Bessel, Germany after the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 6.
Emily Buzzell and Samuel H. Preston, “Mortality of American Troops in the Iraq War,” Population and Development Review 33, no. 3 (2007): 555–566, here 557.
See Ian Brown, “Logistics,” in The Cambridge History of the First World War, vol. 2, The State, ed. Jay Winter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 218–219.
Edgar Jones, “Historical Approaches to Post-Combat Disorders,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 361, no. 1468 (29 April 2006): 533–542, here 541. The study cited is E. Jones et al., “Post-Combat Syndromes from the Boer War to the Gulf: A Cluster Analysis of their Nature and Attribution,” British Medical Journal 324, no. 7333 (2002): 321–324.
Robert J. Graham, “Vietnam: An Infantryman’s View of Our Failure,” Military Affairs 48, no. 3 (1984): 133–139, here 134.
Pinker, Better Angels, 60–64.
For example, the table on 195 of Better Angels.
Pinker, Better Angels, 193.
Ernst Jünger, Der Kampf als Inneres Erlebnis (Berlin: E. S.Mittler & Sohn, 1928), 70–71.
Michael Geyer, “War and the Context of General History in an Age of Total War: Comment on Peter Paret, ‘Justifying the Obligation of Military Service,’ and Michael Howard, ‘World War One: The Crisis in European History,’” Journal of Military History 57, no. 5 (1993): 145–163, here 159–160.
The reference to the Petrograd shootings is in Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931 (London: Allen Lane, 2014), For discussion of the brutal violence of the Civil War, see especially Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime 1919–1924 (London: Fontana Press, 1995), 3–140; and Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924 (London: Pimlico, 1997), 549–603. On the deportation of the Terek Cossaks, see Shane O’ Rourke, “Trial Run: The Deportation of the Terek Cossaks 1920,” in Removing Peoples: Forced Removal in the Modern World, ed. Richard Bessel and Claudia Haake (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 255–280.
Laura Engelstein, “Verhaltenswesen des Krieges in der Russischen Revolution: Zur moralischen Ökonomie der Gewalt,” in Zeitalter der Gewalt: Zur Geopolitik und Psychopolitik des Ersten Wetkriegs, ed. Michael Geyer, Helmut Lethen, and Lutz Musner (Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2015), 149–176, here 175.
Jens Petersen, “Violence in Italian Fascism, 1919–1925,” in Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineetenth-and Twentieth-Century Europe, ed. Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Gerhard Hirschfeld (London: Macmillan, 1982), 275. Petersen quotes L. Salvatorelli and G. Mira, Storia d’Italia nel periodo fascista (Turin: Einaudi, 1957), 168.
Paul Corner, “Italian Fascism: Whatever Happened to Dictatorship?,” The Journal of Modern History 74, no. 2 (2002): 325–351, here 331.
Joseph Goebbels, Kampf um Berlin (Munich: Eher, 1936), 30.
Mark Jones, Founding Weimar: Violence and the German Revolution of 1918–1919 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 3.
For this argument, see Richard Bessel, “The War to End All Wars: The Shock of Violence in 1945 and Its Aftermath in Germany,” in The No Man’s Land of Violence: Extreme Wars in the 20th Century, ed. Alf Lüdtke (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2006), 71–99.
Michael Geyer, “Cold War Angst: The Case of West-German Opposition to Rearmament and Nuclear Weapons,” in The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany, 1949–1968, ed. Hanna Schissler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 376–408; Richard Bessel, Nazism and War (New York: Random House, 2004), 199–201.
John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 176.
This argument is developed in detail in Bessel, Violence.
Michele C. Black, Kathleen C. Basile, Matthew J. Breiding, Sharon G. Smith, Mikel L. Walters, Melissa T. Merrick, Jieru Chen, and Mark R. Stevens, “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report” (Atlanta, 2011), 1–2, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf (accessed 13 March 2018).
Norbert Elias, “Zivilisation und Gewalt: Über das Staatsmonopol der körperlichen Gewalt und seine Durchbrechungen,” in Studien über die Deutschen: Machtkämpfe und Habitusentwicklung im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994), 225.
Eric H. Monkonnen, Murder in New York City (London: University of California Press, 2001), 181.