NATO’S Demographer

In the NLR, Goran Therborn reviews Gunnar Heinsohn’s Söhne und Weltmacht (Sons and World Power):

Gunnar Heinsohn’s Söhne und Weltmacht—‘Sons and World Power’—was first published in 2003, and has been through ten editions since then (no English translation has yet appeared). Heinsohn has been hailed by Peter Sloterdijk as the originator of a new field, ‘Demographic Materialism’. Born in 1943, Heinsohn has recently retired from the chair of Sociology at Bremen, where he also directed a European Institute of Genocide Research. He has picked Lesefrüchte far and wide, thanks to a very agile mind, often short-circuited by grandiose intellectual ambitions. His early works include a theory of family law, co-authored with Rolf Knieper in 1974, and a theory of kindergartens and teaching through play, in 1975. He first became known, or notorious, in 1979, with a very idiosyncratic interpretation of Western European demographic history, Menschenproduktion—‘the production of humans’. In the 1980s, following in the footsteps of another agile mind gone astray, the psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky, Heinsohn turned his attention to the ancient world, re-shuffling the established histories of Egypt and Israel to give the latter chronological precedence. In 1996 he published, with Otto Steiger, a work on the ‘unsolved enigmas of economics’, Eigentum, Zins und Geld—property, interest and money.

But it was in 2003 that Heinsohn hit the mediatic jackpot, with the book currently under review. A work of popular demography, Söhne und Weltmacht’s rapid ascent to best-seller status in Germany was no doubt helped by its subtitle: ‘Terror in the Rise and Fall of Nations’. Heinsohn here is a man with a political-demographic message, coming again from the right. Bluntly put, he wants to warn us that there are too many angry young men outside the Euro-American world today—above all, too many Muslim young men. It is well known, of course, that world data on age cohorts reveal a higher proportion of the young—a ‘youth bulge’—in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, relative to overall population, in contrast to the higher proportion of the ‘working-age’ population in East Asia and Latin America, or the ‘age bulge’ of Japan and Europe. Heinsohn’s contribution has been to interpret this as one of the principal threats to the West in the first quarter of the 21st century. As he generously acknowledges, Heinsohn picked up this notion from the us Defense Intelligence Agency. Clinton’s dia Director, Lt-Gen Patrick Hughes, had described the ‘youth-bulge phenomenon’ as a ‘global threat to us interests’ and ‘historically, a key factor in instability’ as early as 1997. But like a good Teutonic theorist, Heinsohn saw how to embellish the threadbare empiricism of American military bureaucracy with a world-historical idea: ‘Surplus young men’—the German word is überzähligen, over-numerous—‘almost always lead to expanding bloodshed, and to the creation or destruction of empires.’