Summer 2006

Expansion, Confrontation, Containment: An Interview with Reviel Netz

How barbed wire secured the modern world

Jeffrey Kastner, Sina Najafi, and Reviel Netz

While many tools of war embody the violence for which they were intended in their very physical forms, few materials evoke the dangers and desperation of modern military conflict as vividly as barbed wire. Some precursors were invented in France and the US in the 1860s, but the history of barbed wire began in earnest in 1874, when an Illinois farmer named Joseph F. Glidden took out a series of US 
patents on his design for the material. Production in America’s northern industrial centers grew rapidly in the late-nineteenth century as this “devil’s rope,” as it was colloquially called, became the preferred method of delimiting territory in the open spaces of the nation’s Great Plains—270 tons were manufactured in the US in the year following Glidden’s patent; by the end of the century, production had increased to some 135,000 tons a year. As the volume of barbed wire grew, its uses diversified—its extraordinary trajectory during the first half of the 1900s would see it spread from the cattle ranges of Texas to the world’s battlefields, and eventually to the catastrophic precincts of the Soviet gulag and Nazi concentration camps.

In his recent book, Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), Stanford University professor Reviel Netz charts the evolution of barbed wire from its agricultural beginnings to its military and political apotheoses. A cost-effective, eminently uncomplicated, and remarkably successful instrument for the exercise of depersonalized control over large-scale space and movement—both of animals and of humans—barbed wire has a central role in modern history, writes Netz, “due to the simple and unchanging equation of flesh and iron.” Ubiquitous at once as materiel and metaphor, barbed wire is for Netz a symbol for both the ingenuity, and the cruelty, of the modern age. Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi spoke to Netz by phone at his office in Palo Alto, California.

Cabinet: Most of your research seems to involve the history of mathematics. How did you come to write about barbed wire?

Reviel Netz: I was living in England and was offered a job at Stanford, 
so I began reading about western American history. And at the same time I happened to be re-reading Solzhenitsyn. 
I was struck by the fact that barbed wire was invented in 
the American West—and it quickly became clear that to answer the question of how barbed wire made the transition 
from there to the Soviet gulag, one needed to understand global history, to understand biology, agriculture, the 
history of warfare, modern political history. I also had this realization that there is a vivid continuity between the 
violence that people mete out to animals and the violence that people mete out to other people—this was a fundamental gestalt shift for me, seeing history as being made of one piece, not humans and animals on one hand, and humans and humans on the other, but that we’re all in it together in some sense. 

Let’s return to this original moment, to the invention of barbed wire. Although there were a few early patents taken out in France for something quite like barbed wire, such as the “metallic thorn” wire patented by Louis Jannin in 1865, the story of barbed wire is generally agreed to have begun in DeKalb, Illinois. It’s 1873 and a farmer named Joseph Glidden goes to a county fair where he sees an invention being displayed by a local cattleman, Henry Rose. 

Yes, Rose has a cow that tends to break through fences—he calls her “breachy”—and what he uses is a kind of collar with nails on it that he attaches in such a way that when the cow gets into tight spaces, the nails scratch against the skin and make it unpleasant for her. Rose realized that he could put the barbs on the fence itself—it wasn’t a very sophisticated tool that he showed at the fair, basically just a piece of board with some nails on it. But Glidden’s observation was that one could attach those barbs to a wire and this way could save on wood, because they didn’t have much wood out on the plains and it was too expensive to import. This concept also grew out of the longstanding practice of 
planting hedges with sharp thorns that deterred animals from approaching them—again, this was something that people had tried to bring to the plains, but the distances were too great for hedges to be effective. So the need for a kind of fence in a place where wood was scarce, and for a thorny hedge where one could not be grown, both also coincide with the rise of industrialized iron production—and all this came together at that moment in the invention of barbed wire.

This is a watershed moment in many ways, particularly in 
the kinds of politics and economics of space that will be so central to the rise of modernity.

Absolutely. Barbed wire starts from the range experience with animals, where the cattle of the American West did actually “range” over an entire area. And they are gradually fenced in until the entire animal industry moves to a ranch model where animals are no longer fenced out of an agricultural field, but fenced in within an area defined for them. And this is a general historical trajectory we see in the uses of barbed wire in many aspects of modernity—that it starts out defining areas from which someone is to be excluded, until finally you remove the excluded one into his or her 
own reservation, so to speak, the excluded finally being 
limited to a very small space.

With the rise of new manufacturing technologies, barbed wire very quickly comes to be produced in the centers of American industrial production—indeed, it becomes one of the ways that the American West is secured as an outlet for the economies of the Northeast, which is where barbed wire is actually produced. This was also true for the cows themselves, of course, which would have been directly or indirectly controlled by loans coming out of the banking centers of the Northeast. So we can see an entire system of control developing: just as the cows are literally controlled by the barbed wire surrounding them, there is this more abstract system of control reaching out to the American West from the centers of capitalist power.

These themes are part of a kind of archeology of globalization, which is sometimes erroneously seen as a phenomenon of the 1990s. The history of globalization is in a sense as long as the history of the human race, but there is a central transition taking place in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the rise of the telegraph, the rise of the railroad, the rise of barbed wire: all tools that allow control over mass scale, away from the centers, which is the fundamental structure of globalization. At the time we called it imperialism, but now we call it globalization. We understand it better in these terms because imperialism is not the point, conquest is not the point—the point is control, the point is connectivity. This is what happens over the last century-and-a-half and barbed wire is a central tool, and a central metaphor, for this development.

In the early days of barbed wire, what was the rhetoric that its inventors used to promote their product?

You can see a very rapid transition in terms of rhetoric as soon as barbed wire makes its very quick and successful reach into wider areas. It starts out in a very limited, very specified domain—as a tool of the American West, the American plains. Texas is where it takes root, though it was, as you say, invented in Illinois. It first comes out of the ruggedness of the frontier experience, and there is an explicit rhetoric of violence and power around it—it’s powerful, simple, it can exercise control—and it very quickly wins over the West and begins to be sold everywhere, on the Eastern seaboard and in Europe and its colonies. It’s patented by Glidden in 1874, and by the late 1870s it’s already a global phenomenon.

And now, because it’s becoming so much more visible, the rhetoric around it changes. It’s one thing to use it on the open plains, but another if you’re going to put it in, say, Connecticut—people there actually debated it quite seriously at the time, and the legislature tried to stop its introduction into the state because people said it was too ugly, too dangerous, and it was going to harm animals. And so there the rhetoric became one of subtle control—it’s only going to scratch the animals a little, just enough to control them. In fact, the two rhetorics still survive. There is, on the one hand, a fascination with barbed wire as a tool of explicit violence, and, on the other, the idea of barbed wire as a tool of progress that signifies ever subtler control of animals and better accommodation of humans and animals. 

Advertisement for Silver Pine Healing Oil, ca. 1880–1890. Animal injury constituted a major element in the early debates around barbed wire.

You’ve spoken about this rapid expansion of barbed wire across the globe within a decade of its invention. And only a decade after that, we see a rapid shift in its use, as well—a move from this agricultural and economic implementation to a confrontational, military one. And the signal moment of this in the history you sketch is the Boer War in the final years of the nineteenth century. Why is this an important moment?

The type of huge capitalist control of which only America in the late-nineteenth century is really capable creates a steep decline in price. Barbed wire is ultimately a very simple tool—nothing more than cut iron put together, the kind of thing where you can very quickly develop economies of scale and production. And while it isn’t much in terms of total output—of course, machinery uses much more iron and steel—in terms of profit, it’s one of the things that really drives the iron and steel industry, just because it’s so easy to make. So barbed wire becomes very cheap by the end of the nineteenth century. This is important because it’s now widely available and you can easily get large quantities of it, and so you can experiment with it. And such experiments occur in the Boer War in both the military and the civil realm.

The Boer War is a war between two entire cultures, between the British and the Boers of South Africa. The Boers tried to preserve their civilization, which had its own unpleasant aspects such as racism and xenophobia which one should not gloss over. But certainly they appear as the weak side in this confrontation, where essentially Britain tries to gain control over the gold of South Africa, naturally out of the hands of the Boers. And this confrontation very quickly becomes a confrontation with an entire nation and the Boers rise up in guerilla war against the British. On the one hand, you’ve got Boer men in the field, mounted on horses in small bands of sharpshooters, and quite efficiently attacking the British with classic guerilla warfare tactics. On the other hand, there are the women and children staying home and supplying the men on a clandestine basis. And the British did what armies fighting against guerilla forces usually end up doing—they fought the entire nation indiscriminately. The Boer villages are burnt down to remove the bases and the families become refugees and are removed to camps. The British want to give these sites a neutral name, so they call them “concentration camps,” and this is how that term is introduced.

The Boers supply themselves by horse, the British 
by railroad—thus it turns out to be very important to gain and maintain control over the railroads. To do this, the 
British take to constructing long lines of fortified barbed wire along the rail system of South Africa. So curiously enough, just as the concentration camp is given its name, it is also constituted in the form we’re familiar with in the twentieth century—the British need to set up quick structures to keep people in and they have this perfect material that’s already on hand. And so you have barbed wire 
settlements created for the first time, and called concentration camps for the first time, in the Boer War.

Now there are concentration camps for the civilian population and enormous barbed wire fortifications to protect the railroad and something funny is happening. Because the railroads crisscross the entire South African landscape, the outcome of protecting the system that way is that, in fact, it’s not just fencing the Boers out of the railroads, it’s also fencing the Boer warriors in within the pockets created by the pattern of the rails. And then they began what was called “the drive”—the British hunting the Boers exactly as the Boers themselves used to hunt animals, against barbed wire lines, with essentially columns of soldiers wiping out the guerilla forces from those quadrants created between the lines of barbed wire fortification.

And this dual role—in both civilian control and military 
strategy—continues to be refined in World War I.

Yes, and they will go hand in hand from this point forward. Barbed wire becomes the standard tool for the quick concentration of people at a time of war, starting with prisoners of war, but also with enemy populations that must be interned because there is a war and they might turn against you. At the same time, there is a growing realization that barbed wire is very effective in preventing soldiers from crossing the battlefield and is being used now together with trenches and with the evolving machine gun. This is something experimented with very extensively in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and, of course, this entire strategy comes to dominate Europe in World War I, where indeed barbed wire returned with a vengeance and came to define spaces in ways that are even more radical than in the American West. From now on, it’s going to stay a fixture of Europe for the next thirty years—people are going to stop each other and intern each other using barbed wire. 

When you write about the evolving uses of barbed wire in World War I, you also mention the development of the tank, which was in many respects a direct response to the use of this trio of obstacles—the barbed wire, the trench, and the machine gun. The tank also ironically came out of the same American rural, agricultural context as barbed wire, emerging from the technology of the farm tractor.

In North America, where you have mass production of agriculture, you need to think of new ways to control space in an economical way. And tractors were coming into use at the beginning of twentieth century as especially American agriculture had the need for more powerful tools to plow ever larger fields, where horses were no longer sufficient. The tractor becomes cheaper and cheaper to produce and eventually people realized they could adapt this farm tool that crosses any field, just as horses used to, to the battlefield, where the horse is now forbidden because the field has been strewn with material that was invented explicitly to prevent the movement of animals.

Was the barbed wire used in World War I essentially the same barbed wire that Glidden made? Or were there attempts to improve it along the way?

There are always different kinds of barbed wire and constant tinkering with it. The two main questions are how sharp and long the barbs are and what their density is. The sharper, longer, and denser they are, the more vicious they are, in the technical language of barbed wire design. You can follow a certain historical process. Barbed wire was invented as part of the violence of the American West; it’s vicious because people needed a certain violence to control their animals. When cows become used to it, you don’t need it to be as violent, because they’re now afraid of it—after all, ranchers and farmers don’t want to actually injure their animals—so barbed wire becomes less vicious as its use becomes more widespread. Then in World War I, there’s the rapid transformation toward maximum viciousness again. The barbed wire used in the field for military purposes in World War I is the most vicious ever produced: very sharp, very long, and very, very dense. It’s very different from the barbed wire that 
we’re familiar with—it’s really just one barb after another, there’s nowhere to hold onto without barbs, and the soldiers keep complaining about getting cut while they’re 
laying it out. 

Belzec, the first specially designated Nazi death camp, was gradually built from February 1942 onwards. Measuring only 265 yards by 275 yards, two rectangular areas were eventually carved out with the aid of barbed wire for accommodation and extermination. Reproduced from Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1999).

You note the standardization of barbed wire production and use during World War I. What happens in the years after the war?

Barbed wire essentially undergoes a transformation into a tool of political policy, in which the idea of containment we first see with civilian populations in the Boer War reaches its apotheosis. In Russia, it comes out of their prisoner-of-war policy. During war, things happen suddenly and you can’t anticipate them—you have to improvise. And the prisoner-of-war problem then is how to improvise ways to deal with unanticipated groups of people. The Russians, among other nations, had a lot of prisoners-of-war, and so they put them in barbed wire concentration camps—it’s a tool that you can easily put up and that had become a natural thing to do.

So in Russia, World War I evolves into a civil war. However there’s a twist to it—in this war, the enemy is invisible in a sense. The enemy doesn’t come from an enemy nation, it doesn’t have a passport. This is a society, then, that always lives inside its paranoia of an enemy within, one that needs to be excluded: it lives with this exercise of looking out for the enemy, of reaching out for the enemy. And the war never ends: the mentality that was in place first in World War I and then in the civil war becomes part of the Soviet mentality. In the 1920s, even when the civil war is over, they’re still talking of fronts, new battles, enemies. And when they decide to renew the war for Communism, together with war come prisoners, concentration camps, and barbed wire. So by the late 1920s, with the start of collectivization, the Soviet planners explicitly see the need to build up concentration camps. And these quickly become huge projects—by the early 1930s, there are already millions of Soviet people interned inside barbed wire.

And in World War II? 

Barbed wire becomes simply ubiquitous. To give a poignant example: In 1939, when World War II started, the French have to do something about their potential enemy population, so they do the normal thing—they send people to barbed wire concentration camps. And who is this enemy population? It is refugees, primarily from Germany and Austria. And so in the fall of 1939, the French are involved in the paradoxical exercise of taking quite a few thousand Jews who fled Hitler and putting them in concentration camps. In the summer of 1940, these refugees remain in concentration camps, because they are still viewed as potential enemies by their new occupiers, either by the Vichy or directly by the Germans. And then in 1942, those people are sent to Auschwitz to be killed there. You can follow an entire 
trajectory of people from the fall of 1939, Jewish refugees from Germany and France going through several camps over several years, until they reach the ultimate camp of Auschwitz, always within barbed wire yet within very 
different contexts.

A staged photograph depicting Nebraskan fence-cutters “taking the law into their own hands.” There were frequent clashes between the proponents of open range and the advocates of barbed wire.

Of course the Nazis, like the Russians, also have an internal enemy, one without a passport—although the 
Germans do actually stamp Jewish passports and eventually will stamp Jews themselves and, indeed, will brand them in the concentration camps, in another echo of the animal industry. But the Nazis need to get people out of a space, to remove people, and it must be understood that when you hear about schemes to send the Jews to Madagascar, etc., this is not just mad talk, this is not just a smokescreen. This is the way they think—in terms of exclusion, in terms of defining space. And this then, by the same logic we have seen elsewhere, leads to narrower and narrower spaces, until the natural conclusion arises in the Final Solution that this space of control and exclusion, always defined by barbed wire, must become a space of elimination.

This interview is published as part of Cabinet’s contribution to documenta 12 magazines, a collective worldwide editorial project linking over seventy print and online periodicals, as well as other media. See for more information on documenta 12 and this project.

Reviel Netz is professor at Stanford University, with appointments in the departments of Classics, History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Philosophy, and History. His many publications range widely, from the history of human cognition to poetry in his native language, Hebrew. His co-authored book (with William Noel), The Archimedes Codex: Uncovering the Secrets of Archimedes’ Palimpsest, is forthcoming next year from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based writer and senior editor of Cabinet.

Sina Najafi is editor-in-chief of Cabinet.

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