Friday, July 17, 2015
Modern Times by Paul Johnson
I love historian Paul Johnson. He is probably the best living historian and his works are a joy to read. I had to put Modern Times on my list if I wanted to consider myself truly educated when it came to history. He is so delightful because, along with the facts, he gives his own commentary. I love that he has an opinion about what happened and why it happened. I love this 750+ page book, although I have to admit, it did take me forever to read!
He begins the book with the disconcerting notion Einstein had of relativity. Johnson believes that Einstein, Freud, Marx, and Darwin contributed much to the “principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history.” Primarily, their ideas served to sever society from “its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.” This led to a culture ready to destroy and then resurrect itself new and better. These philosophers “all conveyed the same message to the 1920s; the world was not what it seemed.”
At the same time, the Great War had dramatically changed the size and scope of governments around the world. The welfare state came into being and the states flexed their muscles when it came to critics like socialist Eugene Debs. “... private liberty and private property tended to stand or fall together.” It seemed in the 20th Century, they both began to fall.
The war ended with the Treaty of Versailles, which many then and now count as a failure. It enshrined the violent ethnic nationalism pushed by the intellectuals of the day, and “self-determinism” became the cry. Of course, this led to more violent nationalism as more minorities were being created.
Of this war, Johnson writes, “The disturbances in Europe and the world which followed the seismic shock of the Great War and its unsatisfactory peace were, in one sense, only to be expected. The old order had gone. Plainly it could not be fully restored, perhaps not restored at all. A new order would eventually take its place... There were... disquieting currents of thought which suggested the image of a world adrift, having left its moorings in the traditional law and morality.” The stage was set for calamities of the modern times. Even the atheist Nietzsche decried the death of God and foresaw the “Will to Power” that would replace Him.
At the end of the Great War, the Russian Revolution ushered the first of the despotic utopias. Lenin revived the idea of a savage national government which had been dying out in the previous century. His rise to power was copied by others throughout the years which followed. He aimed, “First to destroy all opposition outside the party; second, to place all power, including government in party hands; third, to destroy all opposition within the party; fourth, to concentrate all power in the party in himself and those had chose to associate with him.” Of course the “will to power” does not guarantee the ability to use that power effectively. Lenin was notoriously bad at running an economy. His only real strength was his ability to eliminate dissent.
Meanwhile, young Mussolini watched Lenin closely in a desire to emulate his successful revolution.
In Germany, the people chafed under what they saw as a despicable treaty drawn up in Versailles. They had been led to believe they had won the war, and could not understand what they perceived as punishing treatment. But the generals who helped start the war and were responsible for the loss knew the magnitude of their defeat. Nevertheless, the word Versailles was attached to the German leaders after the war as a swear word and led to great discontentment in the country. At the same time, the country was being split apart culturally between the more conservative east side and the avant garde west. Culture wars broke out and it seemed many on the cutting edge of non-traditionalism were Jews. The east and west had a radically different view of government as well. The east favored a much bigger government serving as both a nursemaid and sergeant-major. The west pulled from more liberal sources and wanted an open society free of the heavy hand of government. It was into this divide and acrimony that Hitler was able to rise to power.
Meanwhile, France, who tried to keep itself safe from Germany with military strength on its side of their shared border and complicated alliances with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia on the other side of Germany, was experiences its own existential crisis. Both the Jacobin and the anti-republican forces were hard pressed to conceive of any sacrifices they might make for their country.
To further muddle matters, the nations of Europe raced to see who could control the most colonies all over the world. Even though the colonies made little sense economically, they provided a symbolic notion of power. This meant the mother countries felt the need to defend them militarily and show them off as a sign of prestige despite the real drain on national resources.
On the other side of the world, Japan’s economy and population was growing by leaps and bounds despite being ruled by an insane god-king of a man. Their dominate religion, Shinto, was becoming more militaristic and supportive of a modern totalitarian state. And China had sunk into misery and lawlessness because of Dr. Sun’s search for utopia. Mao, waited in the wings with his own radical reforms.
Away from Europe and Asia, America was experiencing its own existential crisis. It saw itself as a beacon on a hill, “an innocent and quasi-Utopian refuge from the cumulative follies and wickedness of the corrupt world beyond her ocean-girded shores.” But how to preserve that? America’s intellectual critics began to tear at her from within. Progressives worked hard to change all that they disliked about America. They got the ill-fated Prohibition passed in a clumsy effort to homogenize a multi-ethnic society. In doing so, they helped create a society that easily flouted rules. Even the prosperity of the 20s, ushered in by Harding and Coolidge, men whose “philosophy appeared to possess a degree of concordance with the actual facts of life”, was reviled by the elite as “grossly materialistic, febrile, philistine, and at the same time insubstantial and ephemeral, unmerited by any solid human accomplishment.”
Then the crash hit. Johnson points out that under Harding and Coolidge, money was easy and tariffs high. This was politically easy and the normal procedure to this point. But the crash of ’29 revealed how little the men at the top knew how to manipulate an economy. Had Coolidge remained in power, the ’29 crash would have resembled the crash in ’21. With no government intervention, the market shook out the losers and righted itself. But Coolidge was not in charge. An engineer named Hoover had taken the helm and did exactly the wrong thing. He shut off the easy money and raised tariffs even higher. Without access to cheap money to offset the fees, the other nations retaliated by raising their own tariffs. This effectively sent The Depression to Europe as well. When Roosevelt came to power, he doubled-down on Hoover’s interventionist policies. (It is a myth that there was any daylight between the two men’s philosophies. They disliked each other, but they did not disagree.) A pliant press gave him raving reports.
In Russia, Stalin had successfully pushed out Lenin and risen to power. He took the reins at a moment in which the Soviet Union must push forward forcefully with socialist economic goals or revert to the more natural market forces. Stalin pushed forward. He used force to break the peasants and push ahead with his large-scale industrialization plans. It was called, “probably the most massive warlike operation ever conducted by a state against its own citizens.” Yet the outside world took very little notice. The decline of Christianity in the minds of Western intellectuals left a vacuum filled by secular superstition. Simply put, they wanted to believe the propaganda put forth by Stalin because leftism was their new religion.
With the Western world retreating into isolationism, Hitler’s Nazi party began to win at the ballot box. Both the right and the left in Germany underestimated his will to power and believed he could be a useful partner. Hitler rose to the Chancellery and ushered in a point of no return. He gained popularity by uniting a previously deeply divided nation. He offered stability to industry and the workers. He appealed to the morality of the people rooted in their Christian faith but perverted it by turning it towards the state and against the Jews.
So although two great powers, Russia and Germany, rested in the hands of tyrannical, murderous leaders, the world largely looked the other way. Hitler, however, was harder to ignore. Germany was closer to the West. Refugees from that country regularly came to America and found sympathetic audiences. While Russia was a socialist country and Western intellectuals dared not criticize a system so close to their hearts. Meanwhile, Japan was experience her own horrific circumstances, but unlike the totalitarian regimes of Germany, Russia and Italy, no one was in charge.
Soon Mussolini and Hitler collaborated together to fight a proxy war against Stalin in Spain. They agitated the right and left, the socialists and the republicans, in a series of violent skirmishes eventually resulting in a civil war. Franco eventually came to power and brought calm to the nation.
Johnson states, “This age of aggression was bound to end in a world war.” And that is exactly what we got. Hitler saw that Britain and France did not oppose his rearmament. His plan for world domination began with his Eastern borders. He did not believe France would come to the aid its allies. He marched first into Austria and then Czechoslovakia. After seeing the pathetic defense put up by the West, he decided to make a deal with Russia for Poland. However, he always intended to break this alliance when the time was right and attack Russia. He was saving the West for when he had defeated his East. These acts of aggression were not popular in Germany, but by then it didn’t matter. He rapidly changed from a demagogue seeking to woo the people to a militarist tyrant.
The West was paralyzed by their own internal convulsions and fear of Soviet Russia. Should they support Stalin, the devil they knew, or Hitler, the devil they didn’t? Once Hitler invaded Poland, the West woke up. Even though it would have made a lot more sense to defend Czechoslovakia, at this point, France felt compelled to act. It was easily defeated in Poland and then Hitler adjusted his plans and successfully attacked France. He had wanted to wait until after gaining control of Russia to avoid a two-front war but circumstances dictated “the ruthless application of force and terror.” He hoped that seeing France brought low would deter the English and lead to a settlement of terms wherein they agree to split up the world between them. That never happened. Franco declared neutrality after seeing that hostility Hitler had aroused in the British.
In the summer of 1941, Germany blindsided Russia with an attack. “Surveying this watershed year of 1941, from which mankind has descended into its present predicament, the historian cannot but be astounded by the decisive role of individual will. Hitler and Stalin played chess with humanity.” History is not a force and it does not have a trajectory. It is an accumulation of human choices and actions. These two men single-handedly destroyed Europe and took the world to war. “The accident of race made them opponents, and pitted their regimes against each other. But in essential respects they were fellow-ideologues, pursuing Utopias based on a fundamental division of mankind into elites and helots.” When the Soviets launched a counter-offensive on December 6, 1941, Hitler effectively lost control of the war and this signaled the beginning of the end.
But for America, it was the beginning. Japan had decided it needed to enter the war on the side of Germany in order to maintain access to raw materials and to counter British and American hegemony. They woke a sleeping giant, “hitherto rendered ineffectual by its remoteness, its racial diversity and its pusillanimous leadership.” A newly united America entered the war to win it. Johnson states, “America won the war essentially by harnessing capitalist methods to the unlimited production of firepower and mechanical manpower.” In fact, it was America’s superior technology in the form of a nuclear weapon that would end the war.
When peace finally came, Roosevelt, completely enamored of Stalin, alienated, circumvented, and ignored Churchill. And while Churchill managed to keep the communists out of the Mediterranean, he lost control in Eastern Europe, thanks to Roosevelt. By 1949, after Roosevelt’s death and once it was clear the Russians had nuclear technology as well, America’s policy became one of defense and containment. But it was too late. As Churchill said, an Iron Curtain had descended on a significant portion of the world. Even China had fallen under the totalitarian rule of the communist Mao. Soon we entered the proxy war in Korea “without a scintilla of moral justification or any evidence of popular support.” This would become the pattern through the rest of the 20th century. The Cold War had begun.
One bright spot occurred a year earlier. Long before the Cold War became a reality the west had been dealing with the troubled hot spot in the Middle East, Palestine. While the Jews had been promised a homeland in the Balfour Declaration, inked during WWI, the complicated politics of oil and terrorism caused Britain to renege. But the horrors suffered in the war and the resultant political capital of the Jews resulted in a very narrow window of opportunity. Johnson puts it this way, “Israel slipped into existence through a crack in the time continuum.”
Johnson spends a chapter recounting the history of colonialism and the failures of African in independence even after decolonization. It’s a sad and depressing chapter cataloguing horror after horror. It gives one little hope for the continent.
He moves on to the other areas of the globe that encompass half its population: China and India. Of Mao’s time in power, he states, “Hence Mao’s reign was a lurid melodrama, sometimes degenerating into farce but always, in the deepest sense, a tragedy: for what he caused to be enacted was not theatre but a gigantic series of experiments on hundreds of millions of real, living, suffering people.” In the late 70’s, after Mao’s death, China made moves to repudiate the highly corrupt era of Mao and move away somewhat from Stalinist past. Meanwhile in India, they were dealing with what the British had always had trouble with, “how to keep the peace among a vast and enormously diverse collection of peoples while preserving constitutional and legal safeguards?” They too, turned to the socialist utopia model making the situation worse. In the end, “Calcutta became the realized anti-Utopia of modern times, the city of shattered illusions, the dark not the light of Asia. It constituted an impressive warning that attempts to experiment on half the human race were more likely to produce Frankenstein monsters than social miracles.”
After WWII, Europe was marked by hopelessness and despair. Yet three men worked tirelessly to restore the once great continent. “Adenauer [Germany], de Gasperi [Italy], de Gaulle [France] were great survivors: men whose turn failed to come, might never have come, then did come by gift of catastrophe and in rich plentitude...Both [de Gasperi and Adenauer] were men from the borders, devout Catholics, anti-nationalists, men who revered the family as the social unit, hated the state (except as a minimal, regrettable necessity), and believed the most important characteristic of organized society to be the rule of law, which must reflect Natural Law, that is the ascendancy of absolute values.” As for de Gaulle, for transforming France into a modern, industrialized country, Johnson believes he deserves “to be considered the outstanding statesman of modern times.” Meanwhile, Britain had no such dynamic leader to chart a new course. Rather, their system was burdened with unions and “parliamentary syndicalism” which sunk Britain into an economic morass as the rest of Europe began to flourish.
Johnson refers to America’s behavior in the 60s and 70s as a “suicide attempt.” He goes back to Kennedy’s speech encouraging the defense of freedom saying America would, “‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and the success of liberty.’ That was an extraordinary guarantee; a blank cheque tossed at the world’s feet.” America had shifted from its isolationists tendencies to declaring itself the world’s savior.
Ironically the “over-education” of students almost pushed America over the cliff. One thinker, Joseph Schumpeter, had speculated that capitalism had within it the seeds of its own destruction. It had a “propensity to create, and then give full rein to, by virtue of its commitment to freedom, an ever-expanding class of intellectuals, who inevitable played a socially destructive role.” This unleashed the temptation the elite all have to experiment on humanity. These intellectuals and their progeny disrupted and almost destroyed a country built on liberty with their constant drumbeat of the sins of America and their progressive agenda. In conclusion, Johnson says, “The Vietnam War and its bitter sequel, the Great Society and its collapse, the Imperial Presidency and its demolition: these constituted, in combination, a suicide attempt by the super-power of the West.” What a sad commentary.
“The Collectivist Seventies” ushered in a time of worldwide chaos and malaise as well as an anti-America, anti-West animosity. “The synthetic anger of the UN was concentrated wholly on America, one of the chief victims, and by extension to the West as a whole. It is illuminating to trace the genesis of this assault. The original Marxist theses was that capitalism would collapse. That had not happened. The first fall-back position (Khrushchev’s) was that the ‘socialist bloc’ would overtake the West in living standards. That had not happened either. The second fall-back position, used from the early 1970s onwards, which was sold to the Third World and became UN orthodoxy, was that high Western living standards, far from being the consequence of a more efficient economic system, were the immoral wages of the deliberate and systematic impoverishment of the rest of the world.” He goes on to state, “The attacks on America during the 1970s were so venomous and for the most part so irrational as to merit the description of an international witch-hunt.” The daily criticism of her which poured forth from America’s media and elites gave the world plenty of fodder. This resulted in “the demoralization of America and... the steady expansion of Soviet power and influence.
“Yet with the 1980s, there came a great wind of change in the affairs of mankind which, gathering momentum throughout the decade and beyond into the 1990s, swept all before it and the left the global landscape transformed beyond recognition. The 1980s formed one of the watersheds of modern history. The spirit of democracy recovered its self-confidence and spread. The rule of law was re-established in large parts of the globe and international predation checked and punished.” Enter Margaret Thatcher, followed by Ronald Reagan who moved their respective countries and those they influenced away from Marxism and collectivism towards free-markets and free people.
In summarizing the modern times, Johnson poignantly asks, “What had gone wrong with humanity. Why had much of the twentieth century turned into an age of horror or, as some would say, evil? The social sciences, which claimed such questions as their province, could not provide the answer. Nor was this surprising: they were part, and a very important part, of the problem. Economics, sociology, psychology and other inexact sciences - scarcely sciences at all in the light of modern experience - had constructed the juggernaut of social engineering, which had crushed beneath it so many lives and so much wealth.” In trying to create Utopia, we created a horrific leviathan. We did that to ourselves. We allowed the elites to experiment with humanity and try to social engineer the perfect society. “The experiment had been tried in innumerable ways; and it had failed in nearly all of them. The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster. It had also proved itself the greatest killer of all time.”
The lesson is that there is no shortcut. Liberty and freedom must be allowed to work their good in society. We cannot force a good outcome by fiat. People must be allowed to fail or succeed as their talents, character, and luck would allow. But that is not the story of twentieth century.