Arnold Toynbee's Theory of War Cycles

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Joshua Goldstein:

"Toynbee (1954 9:322) structures the past five centuries around the same timing that Wright and Dehio followed. He builds from Wright's "more severe" war concentrations (every other long wave)41a roughly 115-year cycle of war and peace (table 5.2). The three regular modern cycles are dated 1568-1672, 1672-1792, and 1792-1914 (p. 255). Each cycle begins with a general war and is followed by a "breathing space", "supplementary wars," and, finally, a general peace. Toynbee's (p. 255) dating of "general war" periods corresponds with Dehio's "drives for world domination": the first of these, in 1568-1609, corresponds with Philip II's wars and the defeat of the Spanish armada by Britain. Toynbee's second cycle begins with general war in 1672-1713, corresponding with Louis XIV's drive for supremacy.43His third general war period, 1792-1815, corresponds with the Napoleonic challenge. And the fourth cycle begins with general war in 1914-18.45 Toynbee sees similar patterns in each of the four cycles. In each, a centrally located Continental power, "with sally-ports opening into the back-yards of the countries that were... the stakes of contention," strives aggressively to break out of encirclement. This role, corresponding with Dehio's Continental powers, was played successively by the Spanish Hapsburg monarchy, by France (twice), and by Germany. Like Dehio, Toynbee suggests that by 1952 the Soviet Union had inherited the role (p. 258).

Toynbee notes the correspondence of his war-and-peace cycle with the long wave (pp. 254, 287). Whereas Kondratieff claimed that long waves cause the cyclical recurrence of war, Toynbee takes the opposite position: The apparitions of economic `long waves' might not be hallucinations but might be economic reflections of political realities that had already been `a going concern' in the Modem Western World for some three hundred years before the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain (p. 235). This argument resembles that of the war school of the long wave debate.

Toynbee explains the war-and-peace cycle as a result of a "Generation Cycle in the transmission of a social heritage":

- "The survivors of a generation that has been of military age during a bout of war will be shy, for the rest of their lives, of bringing a repetition of this tragic experience either upon themselves or upon their children, and... therefore the psychological resistance of any move towards the breaking of a peace... is likely to be prohibitively strong until a new generation... has had time to grow up and to come into power. On the same showing, a bout of war, once precipitated, is likely to persist until the peace-bred generation that has light-heartedly run into war has been replaced, in its turn, by a war-worn generation. Thus Toynbee explains the alternation of war and peace periods along the long wave "as effects of the periodic breach that is made in the continuity of a social tradition every time that an experience has to be transmitted by the generation that has experienced it in its own life to a generation that has merely learnt of it at second hand " (p. 322)."

This generation cycle theory47derives from that of Wright (see above), but whereas it explains Wright's 50-year war cycle plausibly, it does not account for the 115-year cycle that

Toynbee builds out of the "more severe" war periods. The longer cycle, Toynbee argues, could arise from a "concatenation of four generations" needed to erase the memory of general war sufficiently for a new generation to "have the heart to re-perform the tragedy on a grand scale" even though two generations would suffice to "give the next generation the nerve to embark on supplementary wars of limited scope" (p. 326). If this explanation is accepted, however, the case of World War II, which Toynbee includes with "supplementary wars," becomes particularly problematical. "The structural novelty of the fourth cycle was... the portentous one of capping one general war with another one of still greater severity, atrocity, and inconclusiveness, instead of following it up with a burst of milder, but nevertheless more conclusive, supplementary wars" (p. 254).

This irregularity undermines the generation cycle theory of war fluctuations: "If it normally requires two or three inter-generational caesuras to nerve a society to plunge into a general war again, the reduplication of a general war after a single caesura is manifestly something contrary to Human Nature" (p. 326). At least it is contrary to Toynbee's theory. Two other "peace researchers" following in Wright's tradition in this period are relevant to Toynbee's generation cycle theory. The first is Pitirim Sorokin. The theme that grandchildren reflect values of their grandparents runs "like a red thread" through Sorokin's writings, Mensch (1979:5) observes. Sorokin (1957:561), however, does not find the evidence of war cycles convincing. "No regular periodicity is noticeable" in war and peace periods. "Instead, we find an enormous variety of rhythms. After prolonged wars several times there occur long periods of peace, but not always." Sorokin dismisses Quincy Wright's 50-year war cycles as unproven and unprovable and likewise refutes the possibility of war cycles in a study of 2150 years of Chinese history (pp. 561--63).

The generation cycle, according to Sorokin, would not give rise to a war cycle because, in fact, "periods of peace as long as one quarter of a century have been exceedingly rare," so that "almost every generation (25 to 30 years) in the past, with very few exceptions, has been a witness of, or an actor in, war phenomena" (p. 559).

The work of Lewis F. Richardson (1960b) would seem to be more supportive of Toynbee's approach. Richardson finds that the frequency of retaliatory wars drops off in the years following a war (as "forgiving and forgetting" takes place) but picks up again after thirty years. Richardson speculates that "the generation who had not fought in the earlier war, but who were brought up on tales about its romance, heroism, and about the wickedness of the enemy, became influential from 30 to 60 years after the war ended and so delayed the process of forgetting and forgiving" (p. 200). Richardson himself does not, however, subscribe to a cyclical (or a secular trend) theory of war, finding war distributions to be more of a "random scatter" (p. 136).


Note 41: " Toynbee describes long waves in war as having an average span of 57.66 years. (He really does state their periodicity to two decimal points, which is to say within four days!) By comparison, Toynbee finds war-and-peace intervals in combined Hellenic, Western, and Chinese history averaging 44.76 years in length (p. 287)."