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What Have We Learned, If Anything?

The twentieth century is hardly behind us but already its quarrels and its achievements, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory. In the West we have made haste to dispense whenever possible with the economic, intellectual, and institutional baggage of the twentieth century and encouraged others to do likewise. In the wake of 1989, with boundless confidence and insufficient reflection, we put the twentieth century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market.

The belief that that was then and this is now embraced much more than just the defunct dogmas andinstitutions of cold war–era communism. During the Nineties, and again in the wake of September 11, 2001, I was struck more than once by a perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion. We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us. Ours, we assert, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The recent past is the hardest to know and understand. Moreover, the world really has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1989 and such transformations are always unsettling for those who remember how things were before. In the decades following the French Revolution, the douceur de vivre of the vanished ancien régime was much regretted by older commentators. A century later, evocations and memoirs of pre–Word War I Europe typically depicted (and still depict) a lost civilization, a world whose illusions had quite literally been blown apart: “Never such innocence again.”1

But there is a difference. Contemporaries might have regretted the world before the French Revolution. But they had not forgotten it. For much of the nineteenth century Europeans remained obsessed with the causes and meaning of the upheavals that began in 1789. The political and philosophical debates of the Enlightenment had not been consumed in the fires of revolution. On the contrary, the Revolution and its consequences were widely attributed to that same Enlightenment which thus emerged—for friend and foe alike—as the acknowledged source of the political dogmas and social programs of the century that followed.

In a similar vein, while everyone after 1918 agreed that things would never be the same again, the particular shape that a postwar world should take was everywhere conceived and contested in the long shadow of nineteenth-century experience and thought. Neoclassical economics, liberalism, Marxism (and its Communist stepchild), “revolution,” the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, imperialism, and “industrialism”—the building blocks of the twentieth-century political world—were all nineteenth-century artifacts. Even those who, along with Virginia Woolf, believed that “on or about December 1910, human character changed”—that the cultural upheaval of Europe’s fin de siècle had utterly transformed the terms of intellectual exchange—nonetheless devoted a surprising amount of energy to shadowboxing with their predecessors.2 The past hung heavy across the present.

Today, in contrast, we wear the last century rather lightly. To be sure, we have memorialized it everywhere: shrines, inscriptions, “heritage sites,” even historical theme parks are all public reminders of “the Past.” But the twentieth century that we have chosen to commemorate is curiously out of focus. The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory are either avowedly nostalgo-triumphalist—praising famous men and celebrating famous victories—or else, and increasingly, they are opportunities for the recollection of selective suffering.

The twentieth century is thus on the path to becoming a moral memory palace: a pedagogically serviceable Chamber of Historical Horrors whose way stations are labeled “Munich” or “Pearl Harbor,” “Auschwitz” or “Gulag,” “Armenia” or “Bosnia” or “Rwanda”; with “9/11” as a sort of supererogatory coda, a bloody postscript for those who would forget the lessons of the century or who failed to learn them. The problem with this lapidary representation of the last century as a uniquely horrible time from which we have now, thankfully, emerged is not the description—it was in many ways a truly awful era, an age of brutality and mass suffering perhaps unequaled in the historical record. The problem is the message: that all of that is now behind us, that its meaning is clear, and that we may now advance—unencumbered by past errors—into a different and better era.

But such official commemoration does not enhance our appreciation and awareness of the past. It serves as a substitute, a surrogate. Instead of teaching history we walk children through museums and memorials. Worse still, we encourage them to see the past—and its lessons—through the vector of their ancestors’ suffering. Today, the “common” interpretation of the recent past is thus composed of the manifold fragments of separate pasts, each of them (Jewish, Polish, Serb, Armenian, German, Asian-American, Palestinian, Irish, homosexual…) marked by its own distinctive and assertive victimhood.

The resulting mosaic does not bind us to a shared past, it separates us from it. Whatever the shortcomings of the national narratives once taught in school, however selective their focus and instrumental their message, they had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience. Traditional history, as taught to generations of schoolchildren and college students, gave the present a meaning by reference to the past: today’s names, places, inscriptions, ideas, and allusions could be slotted into a memorized narrative of yesterday. In our time, however, this process has gone into reverse. The past now acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting present concerns.

This disconcertingly alien character of the past is doubtless in part the result of the sheer speed of contemporary change. “Globalization” really has churned up people’s lives in ways that their parents or grandparents would be hard put to imagine. Much of what had for decades, even centuries, seemed familiar and permanent is now passing rapidly into oblivion. The past, it seems, really is another country: they did things differently there.

The expansion of communication offers a case in point. Until the last decades of the twentieth century most people in the world had limited access to information; but—thanks to national education, state-controlled radio and television, and a common print culture—within any one state or nation or community people were all likely to know many of the same things. Today, the opposite applies. Most people in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa have access to a near infinity of data. But in the absence of any common culture beyond a small elite, and not always even there, the fragmented information and ideas that people select or encounter are determined by a multiplicity of tastes, affinities, and interests. As the years pass, each one of us has less in common with the fast-multiplying worlds of our contemporaries, not to speak of the world of our forebears.

All of this is surely true—and it has disturbing implications for the future of democratic governance. Nevertheless, disruptive change, even global transformation, is not in itself unprecedented. The economic “globalization” of the late nineteenth century was no less turbulent, except that its implications were initially felt and understood by far fewer people. What is significant about the present age of transformations is the unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not merely the practices of the past but their very memory. A world just recently lost is already half forgotten.

What, then, is it that we have misplaced in our haste to put the twentieth century behind us? In the US, at least, we have forgotten the meaning of war. There is a reason for this. In much of continental Europe, Asia, and Africa the twentieth century was experienced as a cycle of wars. War in the last century signified invasion, occupation, displacement, deprivation, destruction, and mass murder. Countries that lost wars often lost population, territory, resources, security, and independence. But even those countries that emerged formally victorious had comparable experiences and usually remembered war much as the losers did. Italy after World War I, China after World War II, and France after both wars might be cases in point: all were “winners” and all were devastated. And then there are those countries that won a war but “lost the peace,” squandering the opportunities afforded them by their victory. The Western Allies at Versailles and Israel in the decades following its June 1967 victory remain the most telling examples.

Moreover, war in the twentieth century frequently meant civil war: often under the cover of occupation or “liberation.” Civil war played a significant role in the widespread “ethnic cleansing” and forced population transfers of the twentieth century, from India and Turkey to Spain and Yugoslavia. Like foreign occupation, civil war is one of the terrible “shared” memories of the past hundred years. In many countries “putting the past behind us”—i.e., agreeing to overcome or forget (or deny) a recent memory of internecine conflict and intercommunal violence—has been a primary goal of postwar governments: sometimes achieved, sometimes overachieved.

War was not just a catastrophe in its own right; it brought other horrors in its wake. World War I led to an unprecedented militarization of society, the worship of violence, and a cult of death that long outlasted the war itself and prepared the ground for the political disasters that followed. States and societies seized during and after World War II by Hitler or Stalin (or by both, in sequence) experienced not just occupation and exploitation but degradation and corrosion of the laws and norms of civil society. The very structures of civilized life—regulations, laws, teachers, policemen, judges—disappeared or else took on sinister significance: far from guaranteeing security, the state itself became the leading source of insecurity. Reciprocity and trust, whether in neighbors, colleagues, community, or leaders, collapsed. Behavior that would be aberrant in conventional circumstances—theft, dishonesty, dissemblance, indifference to the misfortune of others, and the opportunistic exploitation of their suffering—became not just normal but sometimes the only way to save your family and yourself. Dissent or opposition was stifled by universal fear.

War, in short, prompted behavior that would have been unthinkable as well as dysfunctional in peacetime. It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War—total war—has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902. Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either communism or fascism would have seized hold of modern states. Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust. Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot. As for the brutalizing effect of war on ordinary soldiers themselves, this of course has been copiously documented.3

  1. 1

    Never such innocence,

    Never before or since,

    As changed itself to past

    Without a word—the men

    Leaving the gardens tidy,

    The thousands of marriages

    Lasting a little while longer:

    Never such innocence again.

    —Philip Larkin, MCMXIV

  2. 2

    See, for example, Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, first published in 1918.

  3. 3

    See Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941–1944, edited by Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1995). Many German soldiers on the eastern front and in Yugoslavia recorded their worst crimes for the delectation of family and friends. The American prison guards in Abu Ghraib are their lineal descendants.

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