A History of the World from the 1920s to the year 2000
Paul Johnson (Phoenix, 1999)
Citizens, our nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Nothing in it will resemble ancient history. Today’s fears will all have been abolished — war and conquest, the clash of armed nations, the course of civilization dependent on royal marriages, the birth of hereditary tyrannies, nations partitioned by a congress or the collapse of a dynasty, religions beating their heads together like rams in the wilderness of the infinite. Men will no longer fear famine or exploitation, prostitution from want, destitution born of unemployment — or the scaffold, or the sword, or any other malice of chance in the tangle of events. Once might almost say, indeed, that there will be no more events. Men will be happy.
— Enjolras on the barricade;
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.
Under the Wormwood Star bitter rivers flowed.
Man in the fields gathered bitter bread.
No sign of the divine care shone in the heavens.
The century wanted homage from the dead.
They traced their origin to the dinosaur
And took their deftness from the lemur’s paw.
Above the cities of their thinking lichen,
Flights of pterodactyls proclaimed the law.
They tied the hands of man with barbed wire.
And dug shallow graves at the edge of the wood.
There would be no truth in his last testament.
They wanted him anonymous for good.
The planetary empire was at hand.
They said what was speech and what was listening.
The ash had hardly cooled after the great fire
When Diocletian’s Rome again stood glistening.
– Czeslaw Milosz, “The Wormwood Star”.
My purpose in reading this book was to try to fill the many holes in my knowledge of twentieth-century history. In my reading or conversation it happens too often that I am left scratching my head over an historical reference which it is assumed I will know. I had many questions going in: How exactly was Trotsky related to Lenin and Stalin? What was the Tet Offensive? How did Communism arise in China? Why was the Spanish civil war fought? Who was Charles de Gaulle? What was Japan’s strategy at Pearl Harbor? And so on. On balance, this was a good book to read, since Johnson addressed all of these questions.
He covers a lot of ground. The book claims to be a world history, and it is. We get European and American history, as you would expect, but also African (especially the rise of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of European colonies), Indian, Chinese, Japanese, South American, and, of course, Russian. The sheer amount of information he piles onto the reader is impressive and exhausting, but he shapes it into a natural master narrative: the rise of totalitarianism, its persistence and consequent threat to the free democracies, and its collapse and happy ruin. His interests are primarily political, military, and economic, but he is also at pains to examine the effect of personalities on history. A theme of the book is that history is not inevitable or deterministic, but contingent upon the specific actions of powerful figures. He draws attention to numerous occasions in which the personalities of political leaders, their friendships, or their peculiar interests had major consequences for policy and action. He has a mildly polemical purpose in doing so — to contradict the Marxist theory of history — but that is fine.
No history of the twentieth century can overlook the fact that it was the most brutal and bloody that the world has ever known. Johnson cites a figure that I have seen before: state action was responsible for the deaths of about 135 million people. This happened all over the globe, especially as a result of the two world wars and, later, the policies of the Communist states. Johnson attributes this unprecedented slaughter to the rise of moral relativism. This may not be the most profound attribution, but it is reasonable enough to suppose that it is at least a relevant factor. Relativism influenced not just the bad guys, but infected the free democracies as well. Johnson points to the British policy in World War II, when planning bombing runs over Germany, which stated that “the civilian population around the target areas must be made to feel the weight of the war”. Johnson comments:
The policy, initiated by Churchill, approved in cabinet, endorsed by parliament and, so far as can be judged, enthusiastically backed by the bulk of the British people — thus fulfilling all the conditions of the process of consent in a democracy under law — marked a critical stage in the moral declension of humanity in our times.
An earlier mark of decline was the readiness of Western intellectuals to heap praise on Communism. I was frankly astonished to read the kinds of things that were said. George Bernard Shaw said of the Soviet prison system that one who entered as a criminal would consistently come out as a reformed, law-abiding citizen “but for the difficulty of inducing him to come out at all. As far as I could make out they could stay as long as they liked.” H.G. Wells said of Stalin that he had “never met a man more candid, fair and honest. . . no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him.” Joseph E. Davis, the American ambassador to Russia (!), described Stalin this way: “His brown eye is exceedingly wise and gentle. A child would like to sit on his lap and a dog would sidle up to him.” Pablo Neruda called him “a good-natured man of principle”. Even if we grant that the full horror of what was playing out in Russia was not completely evident, such comments give one pause. Who talks this way about any head of state, much less a dictator?
Johnson originally published this book in 1983. When a new edition was issued in 1999, he added a lengthy final chapter to bring the narrative up to date, and, happily, he was able to give the story a very different ending. This chapter he entitled “The Recovery of Freedom”, and it relates the events behind the collapse of the Soviet system. This happened during my own lifetime — I was about fifteen years old — but at the time I didn’t really understand what was going on, much less what was at stake. It was good to have the story retold with all the background as context. In Johnson’s judgement the main factors in the collapse were the native weakness, both economic and political, of the Communist regimes, and a renewed confidence in the West under the bold leadership of certain figures, notably Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II.
As the millennium rolled up, the world looked a much safer and more stable place than it had twenty years before, but there were clouds on the horizon. Johnson saw looming threats in advances in genetic engineering and, with considerable prescience, in a resurgence of Islamic terrorism.
This was an enjoyable book that will serve as a convenient handbook the next time a historical allusion puzzles me. It is the second of Johnson’s books that I have read, the other being his History of Christianity. If anyone would care to recommend another of his many books, I would appreciate it.