An Invitation to Sharp Intellectual Debate
The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age
By John Lukacs
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields
Review Author: Gordon C. Zahn
This survey of the recent historical period is perceptive, analytical, and — as some historians will note with professional disapproval — opinionated, enough so to be described by one unfriendly reviewer as “windy and bombastic.” To me, this academic “blemish” actually adds to the book’s value as social and cultural history by making it enjoyable reading as well. My general agreement with the author’s interpretations may account for this more positive assessment, but I suspect that even readers who differ with its message will find pleasure in the sharp intellectual debate into which they will be forced. Lukacs makes no secret of the fact that the “intrusion” of his value judgments is neither accidental nor unintended. At times one can almost hear him pounding the table to score a point. Fervor and commitment, even “bombast” when appropriate, deserve a place in academic style and content.
Readers of the NOR are already aware that our agreement derives from a shared opposition to the excesses of nationalism, “the most powerful political force in the world,” as Lukacs puts it. Theoretical differences in emphasis and focus strengthen rather than weaken that opposition. His dominant concern as a historian is tracing the origin and development of nationalism in its various manifestations and tallying its awesome human costs over the course of world history; mine, as sociologist, concentrates more on how it translates into private values, beliefs, and sentiments that find expression in, possibly even determine, destructive behavior patterns of individuals, groups, and social institutions (the economy, education, even religion).
His comparative analysis of nationalism’s Nazi and Soviet manifestations predictably (and justifiably) puts major emphasis upon the personalities of Hitler and Stalin. However, one senses occasional overtones, probably unintended, of the largely discredited “Great (in this context, Ignoble?) Man” approach to historical events. These could detract from attention to the social conditions and emotional climate that the sociological approach stresses in accounting for the mass support that ultimately creates and sustains dictators. Lukacs, to his credit, effects a merger of the two approaches in his discussion of “populist nationalism,” the particularly virulent version characteristic of our “modern” age. Though the point is not developed in full detail, he finds indications of the virus in latter-day America. One need but consider the self-justified “little” wars of the Reagan/Bush era (Grenada and Panama), the national euphoria following victory in the somewhat “bigger” (but still unequally matched) Gulf War, and the boastful pride taken in the status of being the only remaining “superpower” along with the willingness to covertly (and sometimes not so covertly) use that power to manipulate the U.N. when American interests seem threatened. One might consider, too, the part played by appeals to nationalistic emotions in the campaigns of all major candidates in the recent 1992 presidential election. Perhaps most troubling was the “Perot phenomenon” and the memories it stirred of an earlier time when a political neophyte, armed with little more than a rousing patriotic slogan and a bestseller book, became a major player virtually overnight.
Perot is no Hitler. If nothing else, he lacks Hitler’s charisma and, considering his “in/out/back in/(and now on hold)” behavior, fanatical commitment. But Hitler was no Hitler either when he first emerged from Munich’s Buergerbrauekeller. It was not until he struck the right note of national regeneration that he touched off a sudden outburst of mass adulation and support. The real danger, it is well to remember, lies as much in the Following as in the Leader. The intensity and suddenness of the response to Perot and his “United We Stand America” slogan should cause us concern as a possible foreshadowing of our vulnerability to the mass appeal of nationalism.
Lukacs laments the lack of a “first rate book about the history of nationalism.” His country-by-country review of 20th-century examples — how they relate to each other and their contribution to the murderous struggles taking place today — helps fill that void. Of particular value is his chapter defining and clarifying the terms “nationalism,” “nationality,” “nativism,” “national feeling,” “national churches,” and “national religion.” I confess to some discomfort with the concept underlying the book’s title and especially the author’s daring, even audacious, departure from the standard designation of a “century” as a 100-year block of time. To Lukacs the 20th century consisted — the past tense is intended — of the 75 years between the assassination of the Austrian Archduke at Sarajevo which sparked World War I and the dissolution of the USSR. Other “centuries” varied too: 99 years, 126 years, 101 years, etc. His intent — namely, to stress the importance of recognizing and separating historically diverse periods by defining events — is valid and challenging, but, for this reader at least, does not succeed. (Indeed, it might be premature to speak of “end,” with shots ringing out again in Sarajevo; the world might yet suffer a “rerun” or even a “sequel” before the 20th century has finally run its course.)
“Age” would better serve the author’s desire to identify distinctive periods of world history, though I find his use of the customary division into Ancient, Medieval, and Modern inadequate. What we classify as Medieval — the crossbow and the catapult, let us say — was state-of-the-art “modern” in its time, just as the Baths of Caracalla were to its patrons of the Ancient Age. Also, since he sees the Modern Age coming to an end, he is unclear on what is to follow (other than that he is already pessimistic about its probable characteristics). Are we to assume it will be called Post Modern (and what after that)?
Perhaps there is a need for practitioners of the humanities and social sciences to develop period designations of generally accepted exactness similar to those employed by geologists and archeologists. Instead of centuries of variable duration, the term “Age” is more appropriate. Thus, Lukacs’s abridged 20th century could be the Age of Unbridled Nationalism — to be followed by (he does use the term) the Age of the New Barbarism. But these are quibbles.
On a more positive note, mention must be made of his insertions of more personal material: journal entries describing travels, reflections upon early experiences, memories of special friends and events bearing on some observation being made which provide the reader with valuable insights that otherwise would have been missed. His account of a visit to St. Radegund and the grave of Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian Catholic peasant beheaded in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi armed forces, held special meaning for me. I was privileged to “discover” this martyr in 1956 while doing research in Germany. My book, published several years later, brought his story to a wider audience so that today he is being promoted for canonization. Lukacs notes that Hitler “breathed a new spirit into nationalism, inflating it into a populist nationalism that was strong enough to inspire some people even today,” and then concludes, “But Jaegerstaetter’s solitary witness was more than the martyrdom of an opponent of a tyrant and of its government. It was the living proof that religious faith and that kind of nationalism were incompatible — which is why his spiritual inspiration survived and will survive Hitler’s.”
Unfortunately, the hold of that nationalism has not been broken completely. Though the canonization cause has passed the preliminary stage, there are obstacles to overcome. Bishops have expressed fears that “extreme pacifists” might exploit Franz’s elevation to sainthood, or that honoring him for refusal to support a particular war he believed unjust will alienate others who “did their duty” and drive them from the Church. This is no idle fear. Five years ago, the Bishop of Linz became the object of telephoned and written protests for marking Franz’s 80th birthday with Solemn Vespers in the cathedral. Critical letters appeared in the press, one ending, “Lasst Jaegerstaetter in Ruhe bleiben. Er hat sein Schicksal verdient.” The first part (“Let Jaegerstaetter rest in peace”) presents no problem, but there are two possible translations for the second: “He has gone to his reward,” or, more likely, “He got what he deserved.”
The Austrian hierarchy endorsed Catholic participation in Hitler’s wars; today members of that hierarchy (different individuals involved now, of course) seem worried about the potential impact of sainthood for someone who paid with his life for refusing to do the same. Jaegerstaetter’s inspiration may have survived Hitler’s, but whether it has survived (or will still survive) the nationalism that taints Christianity — and not only in Austria — remains, alas, an unanswered question.
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