Some things just can’t be improved upon. Paul Johnson’s, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties, is one of those things… It is without question the best history book I have ever read… both content wise and stylistically. It reads like a novel. This blog offers some quotes from the book with no comments as the quotes are so poignant in their own right that I have nothing to add. I recently picked up Johnson’s, Jesus: A Biography From A Believer… looking forward to reading this one.
It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who had first announced that human beings could be transformed for the better by the political process, and that the agency of change, the creator of what he termed the ‘new man’, would be the state… in the 20th century his theory was finally put to the test, on a colossal scale, and tested to destruction.
By the 1990s state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of some 125 million people during the century.
By the last decade of the century, some lessons had plainly been learned. But it was not yet clear whether the underlying evils which had made possible its catastrophic failures and tragedies — the rise of moral relativism, the decline of personal responsibility, the repudiation of Judeo-Christian values, not least the arrogant belief that men and women could solve all the mysteries of the universe by their own unaided intellects — were in the process of being eradicated. On that would depend the chances of the 21st century becoming, by contrast, an age of hope for mankind.
“All the horrors of the age were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them. The mighty educated States involved conceived – not without reason – that their very existence was at stake. Neither peoples nor rules drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the van in terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she has assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals – often of a greater scale and of longer duration… When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civlized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves; and they were of doubtful utility.”
Winston Churchill, on the horrors of WW1
Nietzsche saw God not as an invention but as a casualty, and his demise was in some important sense an historical event, which would have dramatic consequences. He wrote in 1886: “The greatest event of recent times – that ‘God is dead’, that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable – is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.” Among the advanced races, the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum has been filled.
Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the ‘Will to Power’, which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behavior than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. Those who had once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And, above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance.
I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.
Viktor Frankl, “The Doctor and the Soul”
The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike.
CS Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism”