Tragedy of the 20th C.

Morgan Meis, at The Smart Set, discusses Niall Ferguson’s documentary, War of the World, aired on PBS over three weeks in late June and early July:

Ferguson’s unconventional arguments strike me as a sign of a greater attitudinal shift happening now in the early part of the 21st century. The assumptions of the century past don’t seem so obvious anymore. We’re more inclined to look backward in dispassion and perhaps a little melancholy. The German critic Walter Benjamin once came up with a startling image he called the Angel of History. Here’s the passage:

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

We are starting to be able to see the 20th century as that catastrophe, that pile of wreckage linking our most recent past to all the other centuries that have piled up man’s folly. Surely it is the only thing we’ve got and there is a strange beauty to the wreckage. But it becomes impossible to look back at the 20th century without a sense of tragedy.

It is only fitting, then, that WWII should become a centerpiece of contention. WWII has always been the success story of the 20th century, the war that everyone can feel good about even while recognizing its terrible costs. Suddenly, though, it is possible to wonder whether such a horrific orgy of destruction could ever be called “good.” Even the once unchallengeable claim that it was “The Necessary War” has recently come under fire. Patrick Buchanan — hardly a marginal figure — has recently come out with a book called Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. Buchanan comes to many of the same conclusions about the Allies’ responsibility for the war as the Left pacifist Nicholson Baker does in his recent book Human Smoke. (I wrote specifically about Nicholson’s book in these pages a short time ago.) Buchanan writes:

“Victory at all costs” proved costly indeed. Yet, horrendous as the cost was, it had to be paid. So we are told. For Hitler, as Henderson wrote, was out to “rule the earth.” But if he was out to rule the earth, and war was the only way to stop him, we must ask: Where did Hitler declare his determination to destroy the British Empire and “rule the earth”? How was a nation of Germany’s modest size and population to conquer the world? Was there no way to contain Hitler but declare a war in which, as Chamberlain told Joe Kennedy, millions must die?

The fact that we have three analysts — Ferguson, Buchanan, and Baker — coming from such different political standpoints and all raising such similar questions about the hitherto almost universal opinions about WWII is telling. Once again, at the beginning of a new century we are looking forward to a new era with as much uncertainty as ever. The concrete truths we stood upon to survey the world just a few years ago suddenly melt beneath our feet. The cost of historical understanding comes at the expense of surety.

In the last episode of The War of the World documentary (covered in the epilogue of the book) Ferguson makes the point that the second half of the 20th century wasn’t much less bloody than the first half. The areas of conflict simply shifted from Europe to the Third World. Ferguson closes with the following thought:

[W]e remain our own worst enemies. We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one—the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so negate our common humanity. They are forces that stir within us still.

It is a strange conclusion for Ferguson to draw when he has spent so much time showing us the overwhelming force of history as against the relatively pathetic human attempts to consciously control it. The more realistic conclusion to be drawn is that historical understanding works only in one direction: backward. Like Benjamin’s angel of history, we only get to view the catastrophe once it has already happened. In that sense, our knowledge is frustratingly impotent. The 20th century found its own special and remarkable ways to be the bloody mess that it was. There is little reason not to assume that the 21st century, too, will add to the carnage of history. A new perspective on the 20th century merely confirms our essential uncertainty. But as an old man once mentioned after visiting the Oracle at Delphi, there is wisdom in knowing how much you don’t know. 

Read the whole thing

One point of major disagreement:  there is nothing inevitable or “beyond us” about historical understanding, and an understanding of the world today is not beyond us either.  There are powerful forces waging war in our world, but they are not absolutely beyond human control.  There are people today, as there were people, “yesterday”, who see and understand the depth and range of the many powers that operate against progress and peace.  I remain hopeful that, one day, there will be enough such people to change the future.  Though it is getting awfully late in the day.