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Are Societies 'Bulging' With Young Men More Prone To War? A U.S. History Case Study

Slavery and states' rights are what most say sparked the Civil War. Now a German scholar cites "youth bulge" demographic theory, which ascribes outbreaks of violence to the preponderance of young men in society.

Chinese soldiers in Shanghai (Jonathan Kos-Read)
Chinese soldiers in Shanghai (Jonathan Kos-Read)
Berthold Seewald

The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 is one of the best-researched conflicts in history. It holds an unrivaled page in American history, not least because the United States of America that rose from the ashes of history's first "total war" was destined to grow into the global force we know today.

The Civil War's implications have interested countless thinkers, as the U.S. that emerged as a single power from the four-year war with its 600,000 casualties would revolutionize the planet's political and economic systems. And now, in time for the 150th anniversary of the war, a researcher has stepped forward claiming to have finally found "the real reason" for the cause of the war.

The origin of the conflict between the northern and southern states is routinely ascribed to economic, political and social forces – "but hardly ever to demographic ones' says sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn, Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences at the University of Bremen.

Heinsohn is a leading proponent of the "youth bulge" demographic theory, with the "bulge" referring to the bottom part of the age pyramid containing ages 0 to 25. If there are too many young males in the group the tendency will be towards violence.

"They will beg for bread, and kill for status and power," says Heinsohn who sees confirmation of the theory today in large parts of the developing world. And in the American Civil War, as well.

When families bleed out

In an article on John Brown that he wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Heinsohn talks about how the fanatical abolitionist attacked a Harper's Ferry arsenal in 1859 so he could arm a slave uprising. Brown would wind up killed along with two of his sons in the attack. Six of his 20 children would later fight in the Civil War. Says Heinsohn, it was only when more and more families had been "bled down" to their last one or two sons that their focus switched from waging battle to fighting for the few lucrative positions the society seemed to offer.

Heinsohn goes on to ask how the foremost U.S. Civil War historian, James M. McPherson, could claim that slavery was the cause of the war when the overwhelming majority of soldiers from the southern states didn't own any? And why didn't the Lincoln administration, which was so generous with blood, show a similar financial generosity and simply pay off the few slave holders?

Abraham Lincoln, the executor of nothing more and nothing less than demographic impulses? Anyone who could believe that is thinking unhistorically. Lincoln, like all others concerned, thought it would be a brief-lived showdown, and that mobilizing a few thousand militiamen would suffice. The war only turned into a blood orgy in 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg when the ultimate outcome – victory for the North -- was already written on the wall.

But these are details. Heinsohn's argument is built on sand, and he apparently doesn't understand the highly complex studies he takes bits and pieces of to flesh it out with. Neither McPherson nor similar-minded historians saw "the" reason for the war in slavery – rather, they saw slavery as a symbol that divided a nation.

Iraq's aimless male youth

The real issue was power. Since the revolution against the British, power had rested in the hands of the slave-owning planter aristocracy in the South, which also imprinted its culture on the nation. But then the North began to get the upper hand economically, and the Republican Party was founded – and its members, according to German historian Michael Hochgeschwender, "wanted to stop not only the spread of slavery but prevent the South from increasing its economic and political power."

Because -- as opposed to today's Iraq and its disaffected young men that Heinsohn brings into the picture -- in the United States of 1860 there was abundant land and a plethora of opportunities. The problem was that the North was not prepared to accept, along with the spread of slavery into the new territories in the West, the hegemony of a dying economic and political class that had a very different culture from its own Yankee entrepreneurs.

Even for southerners who owned no slaves, the slavery system represented a "lifestyle" or the identity of the South. Southern patriotism was based on the rights of individual states, not directives from Washington. Pride, honor, community, and love of country can constitute reasons for people to go to war. And the unbridled capitalism of the North, which had a population of 23 million at the start of the war, drove large parts of American society in a direction that the agrarian south could only understand as a "revolution" that threatened to devour it.

Again: wars have complex origins. And, in the U.S. Civil War, demographics were one of them. No serious historian has ever questioned that. But that has little or nothing to do with youth bulge. The North – not least because it attracted immigrants – had experienced huge population growth that put it in a position to gather large armies and fleets that in the end brought the South to its knees.

The South, whose secession had triggered the war, did not have such resources. Nine million whites lived in the South, and 3.5 million blacks. From the beginning, the Confederates had too few men and too few arms – setting a bad precedent for the fight for lucrative positions in the post-war period.

None of this is meant to deny that, in our era, the millions of young men without jobs, partners or perspectives in China and India -- the results of one-child policies or traditional birth control -- don't add up to a demographic time bomb. A surplus of knights in the Middle Ages exploded into the Crusades. However, the youth bulges in Asia haven't yet manifested as Heinsohnian "demographic weapons." So the bulge-brings-war argument is still little more than theory.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Jonathan Kos-Read

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