Small corners of a century's killing fields

Humanity - Challenge to Civilization - Reflections on a Ravaged Century

January 21, 2000

As the new year's analysis of the 20th century begins, Susan Carruthers is critical of a trio of history books aimed at a general readership.

Poised as we are on the millennial cusp, our urge to probe the justexpired century for meanings and lessons seems irresistible. Big books are called for. The 20th century demands an autopsy before its particular malaise eludes us, and a new millennium's resolutions must be fashioned on the basis of what the entrails reveal. It is a seasonal pursuit open to all comers - too momentous a business to be left to professional historians alone, as both Robert Conquest and Jonathan Glover explicitly insist. Moreover, the rumination game is of sufficient general interest that all three authors under review eschew the practices of the academy and wilfully position themselves above and beyond it, with varying degrees of disdain for immured inhabitants of ivory towers - the sometime villains of the century.

For the 20th century's ills, it seems, all sprang from ideas. "The huge catastrophes of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts" - so Conquest commences, with the bombast that characterises his volume as a whole. The "certain thoughts" in question, it will surprise no one familiar with his previous works on the Soviet Union, are utopian "all-explanatory theories", purporting to offer society all-encompassing solutions, and trampling over individuals in the vain attempt to remake the world in their theory's image.

The chief culprits of this "mind slaughter"? Marxists. Indeed, Conquest dedicates 200 pages to reflections on the evils of Marxism and Soviet communism, and the perils of the totalitarian mindset with its self-professed monopoly over truth and ruthless elevation of ends over means. How, he repeatedly and insistently demands, could seemingly intelligent people let themselves fall pray to "mental delusions" so contrary to the pluralist tradition of "the Anglo-Celtic culture"?

This idée fixe with communism lends the book a curiously time-warped air. With its perverse insistence that the marxisante mindset remains a clear and present danger, and that probing its pathology is the most urgent task posed by the outgoing century, Conquest's reflections read like a product of the high cold war.

One might almost imagine that the embattled author had been frozen in the early 1980s and thawed in the late 1990s without a well-defined role, keen to insert himself into the historical record before the moment is lost. Forrest Gump-like, he is forever popping up - hitherto unnoticed - at critical junctures. The "present author" wrote speeches for Margaret Thatcher (the hidden hand behind her "first Iron Lady speech"). He pre-empted Ronald Reagan's triumphant foreign policy in an article penned in 1979. And he later advised the same president against unleashing the phrase "evil empire" (not because he disagreed but because Reagan's critics might wrongly charge him with having launched a "crusade").

If only Conquest had settled upon writing a memoir. As it is, the book's ostensibly exegetic purpose appears an increasingly flimsy cover for a self-indulgent and incoherent diatribe. In the final third, he takes unfocused aim at a variety of targets. The "feministical" arrangements in the United States armed forces (women, he misleadingly insists, "integrated" into infantry units) come under fire, as do believers in the "Europe idea" and environmental "activists". But the most intemperate attack is reserved for academics: the "intelligentry". University faculty, after all, were the chief victims and perpetrators of "mind slaughter", many of whom show signs of continuing addiction to dogma, since no one has yet seen fit to establish "Marxists Anonymous", as Conquest proposes.

And where the salvoes of the right are generally directed at postmodernists for the radical relativism that would render them incapable of labelling any idea "rogue", Conquest manages to find even "deconstruction-type thought" guilty of totalitarian tendencies. Not only are its adherents "narrow, reductive, dogmatic" but they "form sects and work together, even if not in a technically conspiratorial way, to take over or at least permeate university departments". Positivists are not much better, since the "most damaging element in the study of humanity is the view that it can be done with the rigour of the true sciences". Who, then, is to educate young minds in the habits of openness and critical rigour?

For one who rails against rigidity of thought, Conquest demonstrates a remarkable imperviousness to debate. His own habits of thought are exempted from self-reflexive scrutiny. He himself, clearly, is possessed of an idea, and is sufficiently certain of its rightness, and of his like-minded readers' sweet reasonableness, that he dispenses altogether with standard scholarly apparatus and procedures. (Fifty pages of footnotes, he chides the potential sceptic, can be found in his other volumes, after all.) Conquest's evidence, where his assertions are substantiated at all, is frequently anecdotal: the insistent "I was there" supplementing the excerpted testimony of others. Thus the author's own self-evident "reason" acts as his witnesses' bona fides . Eager to savour his post facto triumph over those who besmirched him as a "cold warrior", he insists that "the documents" have proved him right - so indisputably right that he need not even cite them.

Conquest is at pains to disavow that he is an ideologue. Ideology is invariably what the other - wrong-headed - dogmatist possesses. Presumably belief in free-market economics and in global expansion of "the democratic culture" is simply common sense. Invoking a "western culture" that has "always implied the absence of absolutes, disbelief in perfect political wisdom, in readily predicted futures", he disowns those strands of thought and practice that fail to fit. Serious distortions inevitably ensue. Conjuring a century in which only one "ism" seriously contended for supremacy - the "alien" genus Marx spawned - Conquest has little to say of Nazism, the implication being that National Socialism can be treated as a perversion of the left, and thus dismissed from sustained attention in its own right. The "ism" whose name Conquest dare not speak, however, is precisely the one that has indeed trampled the century, quite contrary to his insistence that "ideologies proper have suffered material and intellectual defeat". It is called liberalism.

Like Conquest, Jonathan Glover conceives his audience in essentially his own image: "concerned" westerners, albeit those largely unversed in 20th-century history and untutored in moral philosophy. A specialist in medical ethics, he embarks on the grandiose project of writing a "moral history of the century" with all the gusto of an amateur. Distressed by the "relative isolation" of much English-language writing on ethics from "the events of this violent century", and propelled by ten years' reading and reflection, Glover is at root concerned with the question of evil, and its avoidance. "Since I first heard about the Nazi genocide, I have wondered how people could bring themselves to commit such acts," he muses by way of preface.

He both needs and finds lessons in a century whose exceptionalism is taken as read, and whose particular evils he enumerates in sombre succession: from August 1914 to the Holocaust, Hiroshima to the gulag, Cambodia's killing fields opening to those of Rwanda and Bosnia. For Glover, aberrant psychology has also been the century's bane. His villains may be summarised as belief and tribalism- those habits of thought and patterns of identification that intermittently overwhelm the "moral resources" he assumes are intrinsic to "human nature".

Believing the species to be essentially good, Glover necessarily conceives whatever overrides individual moral identity as a series of "traps". Men are thus trapped into the enactment of violence against others by "beliefs" (ideology) and "tribalism" (nationalism). Once ensnared, they often, by processes of dissociation, avoid any sense of individual responsibility for their inhumane behaviour.

As this bald summary may suggest, Glover's interrogation of the century's atrocities from his psychological perspective offers limited conclusions. Moreover, the combination of reasoning and description is presented in prose of mesmeric flatness, quite unequal to the scope of his ambition "to replace the thin, mechanical psychology of the Enlightenment with something more complex, something closer to reality". Thus, of former Yugoslavia, he writes: "Tribal conflicts rarely just 'break out'. Hostility is inflamed by the nationalist rhetoric of politicians. Other groups then feel threatened and react with their own defensive nationalism. Then, in psychologically deeper ways, the rival groups become mutually trapped by their responses to each other. This is how Yugoslavia fell apart."

Even assuming a sharper mind, liberal psychologising of this kind seems ultimately misplaced, able to offer only rather banal speculations on the roots of inhumanity and glib suggestions as to how we should invigorate our moral resources. Eager to chide politicians and statespersons for "sleepwalking" through the century's "big decisions" - most notably the bombing of Hiroshima - Glover has a keen eye for the baleful lapses in others' "moral identity". But perhaps the failing of empathetic imagination is his too? And not just his, but that of many concerned western liberals, those who presume to speak for humanity as a whole and in doing so assume a universal morality without recognising the historically, culturally and ideologically

contingent nature of such categories. After all, no matter how frequently Glover pauses to ponder "might I not have been a Nazi too?", the century's atrocities he identifies (mass deaths as a result of war, genocide and internecine strife) require that it is always someone else whose moral failings are at issue.

No one doubts that millions of human lives were lost in the 20th century through war and genocide, facilitated by uniquely destructive industrial modes of killing (though events in Rwanda in 1994 attest that the century's mass slaughter has not invariably depended on the psychological "distancing" enabled by modern technology). But to highlight these visible victims of cruel and unusual violence is in this case - and all too frequently in interrogations of the century's particular awfulness - to ignore the invisible millions, the many more who have died untimely, undignified deaths in less spectacular circumstances, through lack of food, shelter or medicine. In short, killed by poverty.

Concentrating on the aberrant psychology of those "entrapped" in war or forced to participate in genocide, Glover lacks any profound sense of pervasive socioeconomic forces and structures, and consequently can evade the ways in which his and our complicity in grossly inequitable global modes of production and consumption render us morally tainted.

It is, after all, relatively easy to ask "would I have stood by and let Jews die in Nazi Germany?", a counterfactual from which one can wriggle away, mouthing "I am not the kind of person who supports mass murder" (who is?). How much harder to ponder how one is able, with perhaps few and infrequent pangs of bad conscience, to inhabit a world so skewed towards the interests of a portion of "humanity" at the expense of the disadvantaged majority. And, of course, probing the century's unique atrocities, rather than its everyday inequities, permits both easier "lessons" and greater optimism. We should, Glover concludes, work for the creation of a "world policeman". We should exhibit scepticism towards totalitarian beliefs. And we must avoid the perils of tribalism by exposing the foundational myths upon which tribes are constructed.

Martin Gilbert's enterprise, by contrast, is altogether averse to the drawing of lessons. Indeed, it is contrary to most forms of historical enterprise insofar as it lacks any real explanatory ambition. Though the jacket proclaims him "the undisputed master of narrative history", the third and final volume of his history of the century is, as reviewers of its previous parts have already remarked, less a history than an almanac. It is a year-by-year round-up of events, the prose equivalent of Pathe's newsreel highlights from particular years available on video.

With chronology the sole organising principle, chapters and years neatly mapping one another, there is little the chronicler can do other than summarise annual headlines, recounting events and persons "whose names bestrode the pages of the newspapers and whose images filled the television screens for their brief period of achievement or notoriety".

The unfolding of any coherent narrative is lost in the process of fragmentation by year and the search for a measure of geographic inclusiveness. Patterns and meanings are lost in the dizzying kaleidoscope, as the century's protagonists strut and fret on a global stage. What Gilbert offers then is a somewhat more portable Keesing's Contemporary Archives - a miniature clippings library between two sturdy covers.

One suspects that most readers use such a book in much the way that they might mail- order an old newspaper from a privately meaningful year, to map political history on to their own personal histories. As a vehicle for understanding the century, however, such an approach is irretrievably flawed and unsatisfactory for more than dipping and reference. While it might serve the interests of "general knowledge", this book certainly fails to satisfy any more rigorous criteria.

All three books under review raise questions about history written for a general readership. Collectively they are suggestive of a significant schism between books aimed squarely at the interested public and academic history. Clearly Conquest, Glover and Gilbert neither seek nor will they find a place in university syllabuses of the 21st century. But it is their books, along with volumes such as Joanna Bourke's An Intimate History of Killing , that have earned much media attention, generated significant sales and won places in broadsheet lists of critical choices for the year.

Undoubtedly a considerable market exists for historical scholarship, but it is being offered work that frequently abjures the scholarly pursuit of history, while its serious practitioners are rarely promoted so assertively. Conquest may bemoan "ignorance of history" as "one of the most negative attributes of modern man", but anti-historical polemic is most certainly not the antidote. Popular enthusiasm for history is regrettably ill served by these volumes.

Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international relations, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

Author - Jonathan Glover
ISBN - 0 224 05240 3
Publisher - Cape
Price - £18.99
Pages - 464

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs