There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. –Elie Wiesel
The principle aim of intellectual history is to show how ideas have developed over time, and how they both arise out of, and actively shape, that development. Ideas are not mere superstructure, as Karl Marx supposed; they influence people, often profoundly, and that too is a part of history. We saw earlier how the histories of Vico, Voltaire, Gibbon, and Condorcet arose out of the Enlightenment, and how they contributed to the ideology of the French Revolution. We also saw how that legacy generated new kinds of historical thought: Liberalism in Tocqueville and Conservatism in Burckhardt; Historicism in Ranke and Hegel; Romanticism in Michelet and Nietzsche, and Positivism in Marx. As our story moves into the twentieth century, we are again compelled to discuss a tremendous political and social upheaval, for the years 1914–1945 saw a series of disasters such as the world had never known, and that very nearly ended civilization in Europe.
The crisis began in 1914, with the First World War, which emerged out of circumstances too complex to be addressed even cursorily here. In the barest possible terms, the war was a consequence of German unification in 1871, which made Germany the strongest power, by far, in Europe. This imbalance tempted German leaders to aim at European hegemony, and compelled France and Russia to ally against it out of mutual fear. Austrian rivalry with Russia in the Balkans drove it to seek alliance with Germany, while Britain and the Ottoman Empire, both of which tried hard to remain neutral, were compelled to choose opposite sides in the early months of the war. The United States joined much later, and only reluctantly. As all the world knows, the war was touched off by, (in Otto von Bismarck’s memorable phrase) “some damn fool thing in the Balkans,” which, for reasons which can never quite be satisfactorily explained, compelled Germany to invade France a few months later.
More important, for our purposes, is the experience of the war, and its consequences. It was by far the largest and most destructive war that had yet been fought in Europe, or probably anywhere else. It mobilized about seventy million soldiers, of whom more than nine million were killed, in addition to something like six million civilians. It was also the first instance of that characteristic scourge of the twentieth century, total war—which is to say, the mobilization of an entire society in an all-or-nothing struggle for national survival. Every aspect of life, civilian or military, became subordinate to the war effort, and no activity that tended toward victory was thought improper, up to and including the extermination of civilians. Soldiers themselves were spent like so much living ammunition, as charges across the “no man’s land” separating the trenches were bloodily repulsed time and again, only to be repeated a few hours, days, weeks, or months later. It was not uncommon for a single battle to see casualties in the neighborhood of a quarter-million men. News of these catastrophes was met, at home, with shocked disbelief, angry accusations of incompetence, and calls for renewed sacrifice. The high command would be shaken up, hundreds of thousands of additional recruits called up, taxes raised even higher, and the whole bloody, futile business repeated. Hideous new weapons, like poison gas and flame throwers, were developed to break the stalemate, as well as the first bombing planes and battle tanks. Toward the end of the war, a new breed of soldier was seen for the first time. These so-called “storm troopers,” described by Ernst Junger in his war journal The Storm of Steel, were tasked with the incredibly dangerous mission of sneaking across no man’s land, infiltrating the enemy trenches, and sewing enough panic and confusion that a large-scale offensive could be launched behind them. These “aristocrats of the trench” would be much-admired by later fascist ideologues.
So desperate was the struggle that the states on the losing side of it all, without exception, were overthrown. The German Empire, in particular, was abolished by its own high command in the closing days of the war, on the theory that a new (Weimar) Republic could get better terms from the allies than a monarchy, while the Russian Empire was overthrown by Communist insurgents and replaced by the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.
The peace that concluded the war was no less ruinous. Germany was saddled with massive reparations, forbidden to raise an army, and deprived of much of its territory. Since the treaty specifically condemned Germany as the aggressor, and laid on it the sole responsibility for the war, it had the effect of uniting the entire German public in opposition to what they regarded as a draconian and hypocritical peace. In that sense, the war did not end in 1918—it was simply continued through other means. Worse, the Germans knew how close they had come to winning. They actually had won in the East, and imposed their own draconian peace on Russia. The cost of peace, the new Bolshevik government learned, was about half of Russia’s European provinces. If they had only been able to stalemate in the West, Germans were fully aware, they would have finished the war with enough territory to make them a super-power in the twentieth century. As it happened, since all of this territory was German, and not Russian, when they lost the war, the allies were able to completely redraw the map of Eastern Europe. They used the opportunity to create a dozen or more new ethnic states, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, whose weakness and inexperience tempted Germany and Russia alike with the prospect of easy conquests. Thus both Germany and Russia had good reason, as they would soon have the means, to contest the Versailles settlement.
The 1920s were largely prosperous in Western Europe and in America, though Germany and Russia faced serious political instability in the first half of the decade. However, a combination of stock market speculation, disastrous fiscal policy, and nonsensically circular war loan repayment plans, brought on the worst economic disaster of industrial history: the Great Depression. As banks closed, firms went under, and unemployment pushed into the double digits, an increasingly angry, confused, and desperate public clamored for protection. Writers like John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Arthur Koestler protested the suffering they saw around them. In one particularly egregious instance, which seemed to underline the insanity of the times, American farmers soaked huge piles of fruits and vegetables with kerosene and burned it rather than sell it at a loss, while, at the same time, people in the cities were standing in huge bread lines, and many could not afford to eat with any regularity at all. As the crisis persisted, it became more and more difficult to argue that the market was the best guarantee of prosperity. In democratic countries, charismatic leaders, such as Franklin Roosevelt in the United States, David Lloyd George in Britain, and Edouard Daladier in France, provided the protection that people demanded by expanding the welfare state, raising taxes and tariffs, and engaging in massive government expenditure. In other countries, democratic governments were overthrown entirely—in Italy by Benito Mussolini, in Germany by Adolf Hitler, and in Spain by Francisco Franco. Meanwhile in Russia—which had never had a democracy to speak of—Stalin consolidated his power in a series of bloody purges of the Communist party. The effectiveness of these measures varied from country to country, but they were everywhere corrosive to core principles of liberalism, including the right of individuals to express their political opinions without fear of intimidation or harassment, to be secure in their property, and in general to pursue their own good in their own way.
By the late 1930s, it had become a common (though by no means universal) feeling that democratic governments could not cope with this unprecedented crisis. The countries that did cope with it most effectively—Japan, Germany, Russia—were, as a rule, dictatorships, where huge sections of the economy had been effectively nationalized. Russia, in particular, looked attractive by contrast. Its five year plans were rapidly transforming what had been a backward and overwhelmingly rural economy into an industrial powerhouse, it was based on an explicitly anti-capitalist ideology, and it had full employment and robust public services. The crimes of the Stalin regime, by contrast, were little known, and those that were known were often glossed over as necessary evils. It was not until the 1950s, when Soviet tanks crushed a democratic uprising in Hungary, that the monstrousness of the Soviet regime became too obvious for any informed observer to deny, though, of course, many people did recognize it much earlier than that. Some bolder spirits, on the other hand, declared that the entire notion of human rights, individual freedom, and limited government, was simply mistaken, and that totalitarianism pointed the way toward the scientifically managed, technocratic society of the future. These were, in short, dark times for democracy.
The Weimar Republic—the first real democracy that Germany had ever had—was particularly hard hit. As the bottom fell out of the economy, and Germans had to endure, for the second time in about a decade, hyper-inflation, double-digit unemployment, and a real fear of (and, often actual) hunger and homelessness, many people turned to the Communist Party, which had said all along that capitalism was doomed to failure. Others, long opposed to Communist ideology, and fearing for their property, their freedom, and their lives in the event of a Communist revolution, turned to a radical, anti-Semitic demagogue who promised to make Germany great again. While the parliamentary parties debated the finer points of the law in the Reichstag, Hitler hypnotized huge crowds with his message of national renewal, and denounced Communism as a Jewish conspiracy. Who could doubt his sincerity? He was, after all, a combat veteran who had been wounded during the war, and had gone to prison once already for his political convictions. On any given night his S.A. bully boys could be seen getting into fist fights with rival Communist gangs. In short, a large part of Hitler’s appeal was that he made other politicians look weak and indecisive. “In this time of crisis,” his message went, “Germany needs a doer, not a talker.”
What he planned to do, as he explained very clearly in his 1924 manifesto, was to expand, either through diplomacy or force, the then-current borders of Germany to include all German-speaking central Europe; to then invade the Soviet Union, exterminate its population, and extend Germany’s borders to somewhere near Afghanistan; and, finally, to send out colonists to settle and exploit that land, on the theory that the rising population of this vastly extended Reich would guarantee its superpower status, without which no nation could be assured of survival. In order to accomplish all of this, he had to secure three preliminary objectives: build a powerful army; strike a bargain with France and Britain, or else attack and destroy them; and get rid of all “undesirables” within Germany itself, so that the army (which had never, he believed, really been defeated in the First World War) could not be “stabbed in the back” a second time.
These undesirables included, very prominently, the Jews, since in Hitler’s mind Jews were the archetypal race-enemy of the pure Aryan volk, and in any case a Jew was a communist and a communist a Jew, from which it followed that a war against the Soviet Union was a war against the Jews, and every German Jew was therefore an enemy agent. His hit list also included vocal dissenters such as actual Communists and Jehova’s Witnesses, as well as people whom he simply did not like, on account of his eugenic fantasies, such as cripples, the mentally ill, gypsies, “wreckers,” homosexuals, and also people from every walk of life who simply opposed Nazi policies, told one subversive joke too many, or happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such enemies of the people would have to go. Hitler’s goal, in all this, was to create an idealized version of the type of society he had known as a young man during the First World War—a completely militarized, egalitarian meritocracy, where the only virtues that mattered were the military ones, where the individual counted for nothing, and where everyone was united in the common effort of an all-or-nothing struggle. In the meantime, a new generation was growing up—one that had not experienced the first war, but who understood all too well that their country was in crisis, and who were ready to answer Hitler’s call for unity, sacrifice, and brotherhood.
Where Stalin’s foreign policy was cautious to a fault, Hitler’s was one gamble after another. As long as he could persuade Britain and France that he genuinely desired peace, they bent over backward to keep him happy, and let him annex one territory after another. They believed, as most people did after the first war, that the disaster had been caused by the cynical calculus of Realpolitik, and that, if the great powers had just taken the time to talk it out, it could have been averted. They were determined not to repeat those mistakes. Hitler, however, had drawn the opposite conclusion—that the problem was not too much, but too little, ruthlessness. Whatever else happened, no one would be able to accuse him of repeating that mistake.
All the world knows how the German armies went from victory to victory in the early days of the war, until they were checked by the freezing Russian winter, and also at Stalingrad and Normandy, then driven back toward their own country, and finally crushed between the Soviet and American armies. We also know how the Nazis deported millions of people to their concentration camps in Poland, where they were variously used as slave labor, subjected to hideous medical experiments, or simply murdered en masse. Although our story has purposefully ignored the Pacific, which saw more than its share of horrors as well, we must not conclude without mentioning the first use of atomic weapons, which were to loom so large throughout the rest of the twentieth century. The European theater of the war alone killed something like fifty million people, and was without question the most devastating conflict the world has yet seen. Standing amidst the smoking ruins of a once-great civilization, an educated European might well wonder how it had ever come to this.
The following period, sometimes called “the short twentieth century,” (1917–1991) was characterized by two persistent conflicts: that between the United States and the Soviet Union (“the cold war”), and that between the former subjects of Europe’s colonial empires, who saw the war as an opportunity to at last rid themselves of foreign domination. For thinking people generally, and for intellectuals specifically, it has been an obligation to come to grips with the challenge of these events, either as they were actually experienced, or as they have been remembered. Thus the defense of freedom from totalitarianism, of truth from demagoguery and propaganda, of science from spurious claims to appropriate it in the service of ideology, and of ethnic, political, and religious minorities from state persecution, of life itself from nuclear weapons, and, above all, of the ethical individual in the face of all these threats, have all been, in one way or another, central concerns of the twentieth century. Self-evident as these concerns may seem to us, who have grown up with them, they are in fact the product of a specific series of events, between the years 1914 and 1945. As we have seen, an earlier age had quite different concerns, as, we may be sure, another one will after us will. The ethical landscape, like the intellectual, is forever shifting beneath our feet, in dialogue and in tension with the real decisions of individual human actors. I hope these themes, so characteristic of the twentieth century, as well as our own, will become more apparent as we examine, in the next group of articles, the ways that a new group of historians struggled to come to terms with the past.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.