Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thinking About the Twentieth Century

I have proved by my life that I am more competent than the dwarfs, my predecessors, who bought this country to destruction.” 

                                 Adolf Hitler, 1938

The mass-murdering, war-ravaged twentieth century now rapidly recedes in its temporal distance from present times.  Those salient moments and events that are destined to be the era’s distinctive historical moments occupy the living memories of a daily diminishing few individuals.  The World War I veterans are all dead. The youngest soldiers who fought in World War II still alive are in their 80s. They are a fading, frail handful. The shots from Lee Harvey Oswald’s thirteen dollar Mannlicher-Carcano at the motorcade in Dallas, Texas that slew President Kennedy and wounded  Governor Connelly were fired nearly a half century ago. A minority now of Americans can recall that dark and horrible day.  The adolescent experience and perspectives of American university students are largely shaped and informed by the “big” events of the early, media-soaked twenty-first century – 9-11, the great recession of 2008, and the election of the first black American to the Presidency, Barack Obama.
  Relatively soon the twentieth century will be a fully completed historical epoch with all the living witnesses extinct. The vast recorded documentation, however, will remain. It will be the material culled by historians to catalogue the horrors, build their own interpretive narratives, recalculate the numbers of millions of victims, and contemplate the careers of the criminal-despots who made destitution and death the order of the day for millions across the globe. 
            The twentieth century as a historical tableau offers considerable advantages over previous periods. The extensive multi-media documentation that now exists and the tools of contemporary information technology are so much more powerful in compiling, analyzing, storing, and rapidly retrieving and delivering material from the source documentation.
            The twentieth century dawned with an abundance of optimism and confidence. Quickly it descended into chaos. August 1914 began an unfathomable, titanic conflagration.  The war, blundered into by the diplomats of the great empires, smashed a self-confident, world-dominating European civilization into pieces. It ended with millions of dead and crippled young soldiers, dismantled empires, hungry and disillusioned people and ravaged economies.  The conclusion was a mere interlude. The Great War would soon become the first World War.  No one had anticipated the magnitude of the death and destruction.
World War I also spawned two virulent ideologies. It brought to the world stage and gave vast power to some of the most brutal and despicable men who have ever walked the earth. To contemplate fully the volume of misery they created and the vast range of their destruction and to comprehend the meaning of it would test the powers of a God.  
These ideologies and the recollection of the men of great resentment who crafted and unleashed them still inflame the polemics of contemporary political debate. Their legacies and memories continue to haunt us.  Nazism and Communism were as the French historian François Furet observed, “children of World War I.” [Francois Furet, Passing of an Illusion: the Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, Chicago, 1999, 19] 
The  seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in the world’s largest country in October 1917 stunned the outside world and immediately aroused fear and loathing. Then there followed violent opposition and reaction.  Winston Churchill, wrote David Lloyd George, then British Prime Minister, “had no doubt a genuine distaste for Communism. He was horrified, as we all were, at the savage murder of the Czar, the Czarina and their helpless children.”[David Lloyd George, Memoirs of the Peace Conference, New Haven 1937, Volume I, page 214]  The anti-Communism of Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, makes that of Joseph McCarthy, decades later seem restrained. He rounded up 10,000 “Reds” in the U.S. whom he then attempted to deport.  The Bolsheviks were “maggots” on the carcass of Russia, as one of the generals of the German High Command remarked when negotiating with Leon Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk.
The world, really, had never seen anything quite like the Bolsheviks with their sheer audacity, their messianic sense of entitlement to power, fanaticism and enmity for the old order.   “The urgency of Bolshevism created an urgency for anti-bolshevism,” wrote Furet.  [Furet, The Passing of an Illusion, 23] Indeed, these Russian Communists openly and vehemently proclaimed their intentions to take their “revolution” to the rest of the world. The captains of industry were put on notice.  Capitalism was rotten they confidently affirmed and ready to be toppled.  Russia was merely the beginning, the “weak link” in the capitalist chain. The vast ambitions, fanatical determination and ruthless methods of history’s first successful Communist revolutionaries could not help but provoke an extreme reaction and a counterbalancing fanatical opposition.  Fanatics – people who need people.  They always find each other.  They feed off of each other.
Nazism, the other virulent post-World War I ideology, was cobbled out of the festering resentment of German humiliation and defeat by embittered, disillusioned German war veterans – from generals to corporals – who sincerely believed that they had been “stabbed in the back” by German Jews and Socialists.   It was richly and intensely anti-Bolshevik even as the National Socialists imitated and admired the methods and resolve of the Russian Communists.   The Communists and the Nazi’s studied and learned from each other.  Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives impressed the always observant and calculating Stalin and perhaps provided the model for his own carefully orchestrated purges of his old Bolshevik colleagues in the wake of the Sergei Kirov murder in December 1934.  Hitler was able to take care of business with his old close associate, Ernst Röhm, and selected other inter-party rivals in the SA. Neither Stalin nor Hitler had the slightest qualms over disposing of close friends and working partners if they suddenly became suspect or obstacles to their ambition.  Neither Hitler nor Stalin ever let a crisis go to waste. 
 Communists and Nazis fed off of and stoked the violent fanaticism of one another.  Nazis and Communists fought each other, at times collaborated with each other, and copiously imitated each other.  They claimed, as Furet points out, the same enemy – bourgeois democratic liberalism – that they disparaged for different reasons. Fascism and Bolshevism were: interdependent, were mutually declared enemies, were colluding enemies, had the same enemy, rejecting that enemy for different reasons but with equal radicality.  [Furet, Passing of an Illusion, 24]
It is worth stressing that the Fascist dictators in the 1930s learned a great deal from the Bolshevik chiefs. Stalin and Lenin were role models and mentors for Mussolini and Hitler.  The historian, Stanley Payne, observed and noted the four major precedents set by the Bolsheviks that the Fascists took over: a massive manipulation of crowds with extreme and irresponsible demagoguery based upon sweeping falsehoods; a rejection of all political alternatives; a one-party dictatorship with control of all institutions; and a dictatorship based upon total opportunism. [Stanley G. Payne,  “Soviet Anti-Fascism: Theory and Practice, 1921-1945” in Totalitarian  Movements and Political Religions, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn 2003), pp. 1-62, p. 2-3, italics added]   Over the course of time Nazis and Communists became increasingly indistinguishable from each other in their affinity for violence, disdain for the rule of law, the unscrupulousness of their methods and the cruel and brutal conduct administered to those they perceived as their opposition.      
Nazis and Communists organized, carried out and ideologically rationalized extensive programs of slave labor, expropriation of private property, forced deportations of entire peoples, genocide and mass murder. They physically destroyed their political opposition.  Against their own populations they practiced a pitiless terror.  Unrestrained by custom or law, they conducted mass shootings of innocent people, and bundled millions of people including women, children, the old and infirmed into concentration camps and forcefully extracted whatever labor they could from those whom they did not immediately kill. 
The twentieth century was an orgy of mass murder, human experimentation by monsters with vast power, guided by poisonous ideology.  The twenty-first century promises to be no different.

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