Before 1914, virtually the only quantities measured in millions, outside astronomy, were populations of countries and the data of production, commerce and finance. Since 1914 we have become used to measuring the numbers of victims in such magnitudes: the casualties of even localised wars (Spain, Korea, Vietnam) – larger ones are measured in tens of millions – the numbers of those driven into forced migration or exile (Greeks, Germans, refugees in the Indian subcontinent, kulaks), even the number massacred in genocide (Armenians, Jews), not to mention those killed by famine or epidemics. Since such human magnitudes escape precise recording or elude the grasp of the human mind, they are hotly debated. But the debates are about millions more or less. Nor are these astronomic figures to be entirely explained, and still less justified, by the rapid growth of the world population in our century. Most of them occurred in areas which were not growing all that fast.
Hecatombs on this scale were beyond the range of imagination in the 19th century, and those which actually occurred took place in the world of backwardness or barbarism outside the range of progress and "modern civilisation", and were surely destined to retreat in the face of universal, if uneven, advance. The atrocities of Congo and Amazon, modest in scale by modern standards, so shocked the Age of Empire – witness Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness – just because they appeared as regressions of civilised men into savagery. The state of affairs to which we have become accustomed, in which torture has once again become part of police methods in countries priding themselves on their record of civility, would not merely have profoundly repelled political opinion, but would have been, justifiably, regarded as a relapse into barbarism, which went against every observable historical trend of development since the mid-18th century.
After 1914 mass catastrophe, and increasingly the methods of barbarism, became an integral and expected part of the civilised world, so much so that it masked the continued and striking advances of technology and the human capacity to produce, and even the undeniable improvements in human social organisation in many parts of the world, until these became quite impossible to overlook during the huge forward leap of the world economy in the third quarter of the 20th century. In terms of the material improvement of the lot of humanity, not to mention of the human understanding and control over nature, the case for seeing the history of the 20th century as progress is actually more compelling than it was in the 19th. For even as Europeans died and fled in their millions, the survivors were becoming more numerous, taller, healthier, longer-lived. And most of them lived better. But the reasons why we have got out of the habit of thinking of our history as progress are obvious. For even when 20th-century progress is most undeniable, prediction suggests not a continued ascent, but the possibility, perhaps even the imminence, of some catastrophe: another and more lethal world war, an ecological disaster, a technology whose triumphs may make the world uninhabitable by the human species, or whatever current shape the nightmare may take. We have been taught by the experience of our century to live in the expectation of apocalypse.
The Age of Empire by Eric Hobsbawm