Lessons from the twentieth century for the twenty-first
It may be almost a quarter of a century since the twentieth century drew to a close and we crossed over into the then unknown frontier of the twenty first, though a careful examination of history reveals that many of the origins of today’s problems, from conflict in the Middle-East, to Russian and Chinese nationalism and the growing discontent surrounding the liberal order in which we live, can be traced back to the twentieth century and before. I was briefly drawn into this world when, wanting to take a break from studying for an intense microeconomics exam, I once again picked up John Merriman’s History of Modern Europe and started reading from where I’d left off, just at the start of the twentieth century before the Great War.
For many of us born in the wake of the new millennium or just before, the struggles and despairs of the forgotten generation seem completely alien. We are living at the End of History, a narrative that whilst recently undermined by the conflict in Ukraine and developments in China, still holds true for many. Yet if we are to avoid falling back into the trap of endless conflict and violence, it is essential that we understand what came before us. Here is what stood out to me the most whilst reading about the treacherous years of the first half of the twentieth century.
1. FRAGILITY OF OUR WORLD
Everything, absolutely everything, that surrounds both you and I is extremely fragile. The world in which we live rests not on the strong foundations of divine will or historical determinism, but rather on a fragile layer of chance and happenstance that have created the perfect social conditions for us to thrive. It is perhaps because we live it, because it is our reality and we can know no other, that the world around us seems so natural. It is tempting to think that we can live forever, that technology will somehow free us of the bounds of the human condition, or that our species has earned its right to domination through sheer evolutionary advantages. But in the same way that the coronavirus changed the world overnight and showed us the extremely precarious nature of our social existence, so too did the inhabitants of Western Europe learn of the precarity of our existence when a Global War erupted in the summer of 1914.
What had been anticipated by Wilhelm II as ‘a jolly little war’ would bring result in four cataclysmic years of struggle between competing world powers, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires on one side, and Britain, France, and Russia on the other. The war shattered all illusions that technology could free humanity and transformed the fruits of scientific progress into weapons of mass destruction. From automatic weapons, shells, and newly invented mustard gas, the full extent of technology’s destructive potential became clear as it was unleashed during the first world war. Whilst the 100 years following the Congress of Vienna had led some to believe that mankind had entered a new frontier of peace and stability, the First World War reminded us of the very real potential for violence that lays behind man.
Nowhere are the cataclysmic impacts of the Great War more evident than in works of Modernist literature and Dadaist art, a reflection of the absurdity of war and the fragility of the worlds in which we live. This sentiment never fully receded following the first World War, and the Great Depression only served to increase it.
Just as the political order that proceeded the Great War quickly fell apart, so too did the social order that for centuries had tied Britain and continental Europe together, a scene brilliantly depicted by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited through Charles Ryder who is commissioned to paint the large homes of aristocratic families before they are torn down due to the upkeep no longer affordable to these classes.
If the twentieth century is to serve as a reminder of one thing, it should be the extremely precarious nature of the world in which we live. The greatest danger posed by End of History thinking is that we forget what made the modern world possible, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, and robust property rights amongst others, and sweep these values aside in search for ever more progress. The result will not be progress, it will be the pulling down of the foundations which make modern civilisastion possible.
2. DESTRUCTIVENESS OF UTOPIANISM
If the world as our nineteenth century forebearers knew it fell to pieces in the early decades of the twentieth century, utopian thinking was the force that destroyed it.
Though utopianism did not originate in the twentieth century, there is perhaps no time period that better demonstrates the material effects of such thinking. Indeed, we can see the Great War as a conflict of utopian nationalist, religious and imperialist visions, where each state confronted another in its desire to forge a place in the world for its own people.
Though Wilson believed World War One to be the ‘War to End All Wars,’ this could never occur unless the utopian visions died alongside it. WW1 had the opposite effect. In Russia, the brutal Bolshevik regime slaughtered millions in the name of creating a communist utopia. Over 3.9 million Ukrainians were left to perish in the artificial famine inflicted on the Kulaks, and peasants who had once supported the Red Army at the start of the Russian Civil War had their land expropriated and their possessions withdrawn from them. A ‘dictatorship of the aristocracy’ was merely replaced by a ‘dictatorship of the State.’
In Germany, the belief that one man and the state could restore the nation’s greatness and create a Reich lasting for thousands of years resulted in the suffering and slaughtering of millions of people. Blinded by an ideology premised on utopian thinking, millions of Germans (and sympathisers from across Europe, each with their own utopian ideals) played a role in making this reality.
Looking back at the twentieth century, it is easy to see how the pursuit of one goal over all else led to so much destruction. Utopianism is premised on the idea that one or a group of minds can envisage and understand everything and work to construct this subjectively perfect reality. It is epistemological school of thought of Rationalism taken to its extreme, ignoring the inherent limitations of reason itself. The suffering caused when these ideas were implemented was thus understood not as a flaw in the nationalist and socialist utopian theories of the twentieth century, but as a feature. It was seen as simply the price to pay for achieving these goals.
What the events of the twentieth century show us is the destruction and damage that ensues from the flawed notion of purely rationalist thinking that underpins utopianism. Rationalism itself depends first on an examination of external empirical facts. To believe that these facts and the empirical effects of the application of these beliefs can be ignored once they have been examined for the first time is itself a contradiction. Yet that is exactly what occurred when in state after state, from Germany to Spain to the USSR, authoritarian rulers seized power and tried to impose utopian rule.
Flash forward to the twenty first century, and we see that little has changed. From Europe, which has seen grave violations of the rule of law in countries like Hungary and Poland in the name of ‘national sovereignty’, to China, where the Government continues to impose a strict zero-covid policy in spite of empirical evidence which has shown this cannot succeed, to the United States and Britain where there has been a dogmatic insistence on continuing to pursue the failed policy of drug prohibition, we can see that Utopian thinking continues to cloud our judgements in spite of empirical evidence pointing to the fact that this cannot work.
For change to be effective, it must occur in a gradual process that enables us to understand the effects and reassess our policies and aims. If the twentieth century has taught us one thing, it is that tossing aside all other values in the pursuit of a sole goal can never lead to stability or prosperity.
3. A LONGING FOR IDENTITY
Identity is key to understanding the conflict of the twentieth century. Identity is difficult to study — there can never be a fully objective way of understanding this inherently subjective phemomenon. We can, however, observe the outcomes that resulted from a struggle for identity.
In the past few centurie, there has been a massive transformation of identity from what one simply is, to what one chooses. In a world of rigid social class and religious norms, as was the case in Medieval Europe, one assumed the job of their father and religion permitted very little expression outside of a set of rigid norms. Identity was thus taken as given. Though as religious ideologies were slowly replaced by national and secular beliefs, the identity that one chooses for themselves has become a defining part of our lives.
Identity plays a large role in explaining why millions of young Brits and Germans and French soldiers enrolled for the war to fight for their nations. Whilst ideology played a role, very few people devote extensive time to the examination of their own beliefs. For most, ideology is therefore a mere extension of identity. Conscription too played an important role, but this ignores the fact that during the early days of the first and second World Wars, millions voluntarily enlisted to flight. The events of the twentieth century reveal the extensive roots of identity; of a desire to belong and participate in something greater than oneself.
And whilst identity itself is neither good or bad, the events of the twentieth century showed us the destructive potential of the negative definition of identity based on what one is not. Fascism itself is an extension of this — in the History of Modern Europe, Merriman notes that ‘fascism was less of an ideology per se than a violent plan of action with the aim of seizing power. Fascists most often defined themselves by denouncing what they were against, such as parliamentary democracy, rather than what they were for.’
This negative definition of identity most often leads to treacherous crimes against those seen as others. The same pattern occurs today: in the United States, Republicans and Democrats have cast aside what unites and instead has emerged a bitter conflict between two extremely polarised groups. In the name of denouncing communism, the United States during the McCarthy era cast aside the rule of law and interned thousands of Japanese Americans without trial during the Second World War. Racially discriminatory policies and controls on free speech have been imposed in the name of ‘antiracism’ and ‘antifascism.’
If we wish to construct more harmonious and prosperous societies, we must examine our values and understand the positive values that define us, rather than mere negative characteristics. This is especially important in today’s world, where social media and technology has left us more isolated than ever.