barbarism and civilization


After his famous ‘Age of . . .’ trilogy on the 19th century, E. J. Hobsbawm published a coda (best-selling but in my view much less satisfactory) on the history of the 20th century. It begins with a bleak page of epigraphs, among others from Isaiah Berlin — ‘the most terrible century in Western history,’ William Golding — ‘the most violent century in human history,’ and René Dumont — ‘I see it only as a century of massacre and war.’ This theme of ‘mankind’s worst century’ has become something of a cliché, and deserves closer examination, not least because it almost implies that the horrors of the age were natural catastrophes, like hurricanes or epidemics.

If you blink, then a perfectly obvious case can be made that the 20th century was far and away the best in human history. Any horrors it endured came not from evolutionary change but from unnatural aberrations, in the form of what men did to one another in the name of ideologies. Bernard Wasserstein takes the title of his excellent new book from Walter Benjamin: ‘There is no document of civilisation that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.’ This is a nice line, but it deserves the examiner’s ‘Discuss’. For much of European history, the Whig view — onward and upward — did not seem absurd, and that was never less so than 100 years ago, in that golden age so memorably apostrophised by Keynes. What any historian thus has to address is why Europe relapsed so terrifyingly into catastrophic war, despotism and mass murder.

more from The Spectator here.