Tag Archives: Fascism

Empowering and Sustaining Fascism

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David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini:
The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

      Italy’s fascist government, led by Benito Mussolini between 1922 and 1943, was the 20th century’s first to be characterized as “totalitarian.” By some accounts, Mussolini himself coined the term and boastfully applied it to his insurgent regime.  That regime came to power in 1922, after Mussolini and a small band of activists from the unruly Fascist party engineered the famous March on Rome in October 1922, which resulted in Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister in Italy’s constitutional monarchy.  Once in power, the charismatic Mussolini, a master of crowd manipulation known as the Duce, eliminated his political opposition and dropped all pretensions of democratic governance in favor of one-man rule. He recklessly took Italy into World War II on Hitler’s side, was deposed by fellow Fascists in 1943 prior to Italy’s surrender to the Allies, and was executed by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.

     In The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, David Kertzer reveals the surprising extent to which the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church empowered and sustained fascism in Italy.  Mussolini had his counterpart in Pope Pius XI, appointed head of the Catholic Church in 1922, the same year Mussolini came to power. Pius XI remained pope until his death in February 1939, months before the outbreak of World War II in September of that year.  Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, shines the historian’s spotlight on the improbable but mutually beneficial alliance between Mussolini and Pius XI.

     The Vatican under Pius XI considered Mussolini and his Fascist party to be the only force that could preserve order in Italy and serve as a bulwark against Russian inspired socialism, which the Vatican considered an existential threat to itself and the church. The Vatican benefitted from the explicitly anti-democratic Fascist regime’s measures to reinstate the church’s privileged position within Italian society.  Its support in turn played a major role in legitimizing Mussolini’s fascist regime, allowing the Duce to cast himself as Italy’s “champion of law and order and national pride” (p.26).  Mussolini and Pius XI “came to be disillusioned by the other,” Kertzer concludes, “yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end” (p.407).

      Kertzer’s story has two general parts. In the first, he explains how Mussolini and Pius XI pieced together in 1929 what are known as the “Lateran Accords,” agreements that reversed the strict separation between church and state that had existed since Italian unification in 1861 and had been arguably the most salient characteristic of Italy’s constitutional monarchy. The second involves Hitler’s intrusion into the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship after he was appointed Germany’s chancellor in 1933, with devastating effects for Italy’s small Jewish population.

   Mussolini and Pius XI met only once. Their relationship was conducted primarily through intermediaries, who form an indispensable component of Kertzer’s story.  Most noteworthy among them was Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XI’s Secretary of State and the pope’s principal deputy in 1930 before being named Pope himself, Pius XII, when Pius XI died in 1939.  Kertzer begins and ends with an account of how Pacelli and like-minded subordinates conspired with Mussolini’s spies within the Vatican to prevent dissemination of the dying Pius XI’s most important final work, an undelivered papal speech condemning racism, persecution of the Jews, and Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany. The undelivered speech was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords and would have marked an irreversible rupture to the improbable alliance between the Vatican and Mussolini’s fascist government.

* * *

     Mussolini, born in 1883 as the son of a small-town blacksmith, started his political career as a socialist and adhered to the strong anti-clerical positions that characterized early 20th century Italian socialism.  As a young rabble-rouser, Mussolini was “part left-wing wild man and part Don Juan” who “always seemed to know how to become the center of attention . . . [H]e was someone you would rather have on your side than against you” (p.21).  More opportunist than ideologue, Mussolini broke with socialism sometime after World War I erupted in 1914. In a transformation that his former socialist colleagues viewed as “inexplicable and traitorous,” Mussolini “kept the revolutionary’s disdain for parliamentary democracy and fascination with the possibilities of violent action” but “jettisoned much of the rest of Marxist ideology” (p.22).

     The period after World War I was a time of great unrest in Italy, when a violent revolution similar to the one that had recently toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia seemed imminent. The chaos surrounding the end of the war created an opportunity for Mussolini. He had “always committed, above all, to himself and to a belief in his own ability to rise to the top. Now he began to see a new path that could allow him to realize those dreams” (p.22). That path involved presenting himself as the protector of the Catholic faith. In his first speech to parliament in late 1922, without any previous consultation with Vatican authorities, the irreligious Mussolini pledged that Fascism would restore Christianity in Italy by building a “Catholic state befitting a Catholic nation” (p.27).

     Mussolini’s protagonist throughout Kertzer’s story, Pius XI, was born Achille Ratti in 1857, twenty-six years before Mussolini.  Ratti seemingly came out of nowhere to become the head of the Catholic Church in 1922.  For most of his career, he had worked as a librarian, in the Vatican and elsewhere. But Pope Benedict XV unexpectedly sent Ratti to Poland in 1918 as his emissary to the heavily Catholic country, where he witnessed the invasion of the Red Army in the wake of the Russian revolution and developed a “lifelong loathing of Communism” (p.xxii).  Ratti then became a cardinal and was a surprising choice for the prestigious position of Archbishop of Milan.  He had barely begun that position when Benedict XV died. After 14 ballots, Ratti was elected pope in February 1922.

     Once in office, Pius XI assumed a manner that was imperious even by the standards of popes.  Compared to his predecessors, Pius XI was “cold and curt” (p.85) and “lacked any hint of diplomatic skills” (p.85).  He insisted that his own brother address him as “Holy Father.”  He had a proclivity for longwinded speeches and frequent outbursts of a volatile temper.  He was a detail oriented, hands on manager who sought to be informed and involved in even the most minor of Vatican administrative matters.  His love of order and deep sense of obedience to authority “set the tone for his reign” (p.39). His commands were to be followed “sooner than immediately,” he liked to say (p.39).

      Pius XI denounced the French Revolution as the “origin of much evil, spreading harmful notions of the ‘rights of man’” (p.84).  He contested the secular, modernist notion that in turning away from the Church, society was advancing; rather society was lapsing back into a “state of barbarism” (p.49). The pope’s vision of the role for the Vatican in society was at heart “medieval” (p.49), Kertzer contends.

     Although Pius XI and Mussolini seemed to have little in common, Kertzer notes that the two men were nonetheless alike in many ways. “Both could have no real friends, for friendship implied equality. Both insisted on being obeyed, and those around them quaked at the thought of saying anything that would displease them” (p.68). The two men also shared important values. “Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat. Both thought Italy was mired in a crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation.” (p.48). Like Mussolini, Pius XI believed that Italy needed a “strong man to lead it, free from the cacophony of multiparty bickering” (p.29).

     Never under any illusion that Mussolini personally embraced Catholic values or cared for anything other than his own aggrandizement, Pius XI nonetheless was willing to test Mussolini’s apparent commitment to restore church influence in Italy.  Mussolini moved quickly to make good on his promises to the Vatican. By the end of 1922, he had ordered crucifixes to be placed in every classroom, courtroom, and hospital in the country. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He required that the Catholic religion be taught in elementary schools and showered the Church with money to restore churches damaged during World War I and to subsidize Church-run schools abroad.

      Through a tendentious back and forth process that lasted four years and forms the heart of this book, Mussolini and Pius XI negotiated the Lateran Accords, signed in 1929. The accords, which included a declaration that Catholicism was “the only religion of the State,” ended the official hostility between the Vatican and the Italian state that had existed since Italy’s the unification in 1861.  The Italian state for the first time officially recognized the Vatican as a sovereign entity, with the government having no right to interfere in internal Vatican affairs.  In exchange for the Vatican’s withdrawal of all claims to territory lost at the time of unification, Italy further agreed to pay the Vatican the equivalent of roughly one billion present day US dollars.

      The historic accords offered Mussolini the opportunity to “solidify support for his regime in a way that was otherwise unimaginable” (p.99).  Pius XI saw the accords as a means of reinstating what had been lost in the 1860s with Italian unification, a “hierarchical, authoritarian society run according to Church principles” (p.110). Newspapers throughout the country hailed the accords, emphasizing that they “could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and Fascism, had made it possible” (p.111).  Yet, neither Mussolini nor Pius XI was fully satisfied with the accords. The pope “would not be happy unless he could get Mussolini to respect what he regarded as the Church’s divinely ordained prerogatives.  Mussolini was willing to give the pope what he wanted as long as it did not conflict with his dictatorship and his own dreams of glory” (p.122).

     In the aftermath of the accords, Mussolini became a hero to Catholics in Italy and throughout the world and his popularity reached unimagined heights.  With no significant opposition, his craving for adulation grew and his feeling of self-importance “knew no bounds. His trust in his instincts had grown to the point where he seemed to believe the pope was not the only one in the Eternal City who was infallible” (p.240), Kertzer wryly observes. But as Mussolini’s popularity in Italy soared, Hitler came to power in nearby Germany early in 1933. The latter portion of Kertzer’s book, focused on a three-way Hitler-Mussolini-Pius XI relationship, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism throughout Italy and within the Vatican itself.

* * *

     Hitler had been attracted to Mussolini and the way he ruled Italy from as early as the 1922 March on Rome, and Mussolini sensed that when Hitler came to power in 1933, he had a potentially valuable ally with whom he had much in common. Pius XI, by contrast, abhorred from the beginning Hitler’s hostility to Christianity and his treatment of German Catholics. He viewed Nazism as a pagan movement based on tribal nationalism that was contrary to the Church’s belief in the universality of humankind. But Pius XI initially found little that was objectionable in the new German government’s approach to what was then euphemistically termed the “Jewish question.” Pius XI’s views of world Jewry were in line with thinking that was widely prevalent across Europe in the early decades of the 20th century: Jews were “Christ killers” bent upon destroying Christianity; and Jewish influence was behind both the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the amoral, godless capitalism centered in the United States.

     Prior to the Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, Mussolini’s views on Jews had been more liberal than those of the Pope. He did not regard Italy’s small Jewish population as a threat to the Italian state.  After Hitler made a triumphal trip to Italy in 1938, however, Mussolini pushed through a series of “racial laws” which in many senses mirrored measures Hitler was taking in Germany to resolve the “Jewish question.” The racial laws defined the “Jewish race” to include those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. They excluded Jews from the civil service and revoked the citizenship of foreign-born Jews who had become citizens after 1919.  All Jews who were not citizens were ordered to leave the country within six months.  All Jewish teachers, from elementary school through university, were fired.

     In a second wave of racial laws, Italian Jews were expelled from the Fascist Party; banned from the military; and barred from owning or directing businesses having more than a hundred employees, or from owning more than fifty hectares of land.  In pursuing the racial laws, Mussolini had obviously fallen under the sway of Hitler. Yet, Kertzer refrains from probing  the motivations behind Mussolini’s thorough and sudden embrace of Nazi approaches to the “Jewish question,” noting simply that Mussolini was “eager to impress the Nazi leadership and undoubtedly thought nothing would please it more than taking aim at Italy’s Jews” (p.293).

     The racial laws were presented to the Italian public as a reinstatement of traditional Catholic teachings on the Jews.  Pius XI and the Vatican initially criticized only their application to Jews who had converted to Catholicism.  Neither the Pope nor anyone else in the Vatican “ever voiced any opposition to the great bulk of the racial laws, aimed at stripping Jews of their rights as Italian citizens” (p.345).  Yet, as his health deteriorated and war appeared ever more imminent in Europe in late 1938 and early 1939, Pius XI began to see the racial laws and the treatment of Jews in Italy and Germany as anathema to Christian teaching.

     Kertzer’s story ends where it begins, with Pius XI near death and seeking to deliver a speech condemning unequivocally Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, racism and the persecution of the Jews on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Lateran Accords.  The speech would have marked the definitive break between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  During Pius XI’s final days, Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope, worked feverishly with other Vatican subordinates to preclude Pius XI from delivering the speech. After the pope’s death, at Mussolini’s urging, they sought to destroy all remaining copies of the undelivered speech.

     Their efforts were almost fully successful. The words the pope had “so painstakingly prepared in the last days of his life would never be seen as long as Pacelli lived” (p.373).  The speech did not become public until 1958, when Pius XII’s successor, John Paul XXIII, in one of his first acts as pope, ordered release of excerpts.  But passages most critical of Mussolini and the Fascist regime were deleted from the released text, “presumably to protect Pacelli, suspected of having buried the speech in order not to offend Mussolini or Hitler” (p.373).  The full text did not become available until 2006, when the Vatican opened its archives on Pius XI.

* * *

     Kertzer’s suspenseful account of Pius XI’s undelivered speech demonstrates his flair for capturing the palace and bureaucratic intrigue that underlay both sides of the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship.  This flair for intrigue, in evidence throughout the book, coupled with his colorful portraits of Mussolini and Pius XI, render Kerzter’s work highly entertaining as well as crucially informative. Although his work is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of Mussolini’s regime, his emphasis upon how the Vatican abetted the regime during Pius XI’s papacy constitutes an invaluable addition to our understanding of the nature of the Fascist state and twentieth century totalitarianism under Mussolini.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 11, 2016

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Filed under European History, History, Italian History

Lenin’s Century

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Vladmir Tismaneanu, The Devil in History:
Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century 

             The sub-title of this book should be a tip off that Valdimir Tismaneanu is wrestling with arguably the most critical question in 20th century European history: how did so much of the continent, where the Enlightenment two centuries previously had provided the blueprint for democratic governance based on religious tolerance and respect for individual rights, stray so far from the Enlightenment’s ideals? In The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, Tismaneanu locates the answer in 20th century communism, from its inception quite simply a “criminal system” (p.69), he writes. Tismaneanu’s searing critique hones in on the impact of Bolshevik and Leninist thinking throughout the 20th century, and describes the rethinking that went on in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when most of the countries of the former Communist bloc committed themselves to democratic governance.

            A professor of political theory at the University of Maryland and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, Tismaneanu is a native of Romania brought up under the odious regime of Nicolae Ceaușecu, and thus knows more than a thing or two about how totalitarian governments operate. Tismaneanu indicates in his Forward that he was born after World War II to “revolutionary parents who had embraced anti-Fascist Communist values” (p.ix). His father fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, losing an arm, while his mother served as a nurse in that conflict. At age 14, Tismaneanu started to think about the implications of communism after a chance reading of a clandestine copy of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

            The book’s cover contains an ingenious photo of Stalin and Hitler staring at one another. If you’re talking about the devil in history, you’ve got to start with these two guys, right? Actually, an argument could be made that neither should be on the cover. Despite its sub-title, the book is only secondarily about Fascism and Nazism, emphasizing primarily how, despite ideological differences, they were influenced by the communist model. Moreover, it would have made way more sense to put Vladimir Lenin on the cover rather than Stalin. Stalin in Tismaneanu’s analysis was a ruthless implementer who “carried to an extreme Lenin’s intolerant logic” (p.230). But Lenin was the devil in 20th century European history – “the twentieth century was Lenin’s century” (p.90).

* * *

            Tismaneanu describes Leninism (or Bolshevism; Tismaneanu uses these terms inter-changeably) as a “self-styled synthesis between Marxian revolutionary doctrine and Russian tradition of nihilistic repudiation of the status quo” (p.90). If there had been no Lenin, he goes on to contend, “there would have been no totalitarianism – at least not in its Stalinist version. The October 1917 Bolshevik putsch . . . was “the event that irreversibly changed the course of Western civilization and world history” (p.92). Thanks to Lenin, a “new type of politics emerged in the twentieth century, one based on elitism, fanaticism, [and] unflinching commitment to the sacred cause” (p.90). Leninism was “inherently inimical to political liberties. It is not an accidental deviation from the democratic project but its logical, direct and unequivocal antithesis” (p.120).

            Leninism was rooted in Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and progress. Leninists “knew how to pose as the heir to the Enlightenment, and many were duped by this rationalistic and humanistic pretense” (p.46). But Leninism was equally rooted in Marx’s theories of transformation and the Russian anarchistic revolutionary tradition, with its “utilitarian nihilism and a quasi-religious socialist vision of the transformation of mankind” (p.112), a tradition which Steven Marks described in How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December. Lenin took Marx’s broad theories and emphasized the “organizational element as fundamental to the success of revolutionary action” (p.97). Leninism was precisely the type of utopianism which Isaiah Berlin abhorred, sanctifying “ultimate ends, and thus the creation of an amoral universe in which the most terrible crimes could be justified in the name of a radiant future” (p.70). More than a revolutionary response to the inequities of the Tsarist state and the injustices of capitalism, Leninism was an “experiment in ideologically driven, unbounded social engineering” (p.30). Never was a political doctrine “so ambitious, never a revolutionary project so much imbued with a sense of prophetic mission and charismatically heroic predestination” than Leninism (p.90), Tismaneanu concludes.

            Lenin’s diabolical influence extended to both Hitler and Mussolini. In times of moral and cultural disarray, Tismaneanu argues, Communism and Fascism can “merge into a baroque synthesis. Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment had had its own irreducible attributes, but they shared a number of phobias, obsessions, and resentments that could generate toxic alliances, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939” (p.x). The party played a different role under the two regimes. Under Communism the party leader incarnated the wisdom of the party, whereas under Fascism and Nazism the party was entirely secondary to the leader as the charismatic center of power. Fascism and Nazism also lacked the recurring party purges and show trials of the ruling elite as a “mechanism of mobilization, integration, and scapegoating” that characterized Communist regimes (p.53). Nonetheless, the ideologies of Communism and Fascism held in common a “belief in the plasticity of human nature and the possibility of transforming it in accordance with a utopian blueprint” (p.162). Both “identified with the revolution as an irreversible moment breaking with the past and creating a totally new world” (p.118). The two movements were alike in being “essentially and unflinchingly opposed to democratic values, institutions and practices” (p.21) – the “antithesis of the Western humanist legacy” (p.62).

            By the end of Khrushchev’s rule in the fall of 1964, both in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it was clear that reform within party-defined boundaries had “ceased to be a viable option”( p.136). Tismaneanu sees 1968 as a pivotal year, during which Eastern Europe saw an “explosion of post-revolutionary skepticism,” setting in motion forces that led to the “gradual decomposition of the Communist regimes” (p.142). Futile attempts to find ways of reforming Communism from within were replaced by an emphasis upon human dignity and the inviolability of human rights. The soul of Communism died in Prague in August 1968, Tismaneanu concludes. From that year onward, Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a spent force, with stagnation and immobility becoming its main characteristics.

          If the Communist soul died in 1968, its emaciated body survived until 1989. The changes which Europe underwent that year start with Mikhail Gorbachev. Tismaneanu regards Gorbachev as a “genuine Marxist revisionist, who, while paying lip service to Lenin’s iconic figure, moved away from Bolshevism as a political culture based on fanaticism, sectarianism, and volunteerism toward a self-styled version of Marxist revisionism” (p.145-46). Gorbachev tried to offer “antidotes to the rampant pathologies of cynicism, corruption and cronyism,” but was “utterly confused as to how to bring about political pluralism while sustaining state socialism” (p.153). Gorbachev’s version of Marxist revisionism was directly inspired by Eduard Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism, but he was “unable to fully abandon the outworked Leninist model, desperately searching for ‘socialism with a human face,’ torn between nostalgia for old ideals and the tragic awareness of their hollowness” (p.153). Neither a neo-Menshevik nor a Western-style Social Democrat, Gorbachev remains the “last and most influential of those East European Leninist leaders who tried to humanize an inherently inhuman system” (p.153).

            Twenty-five years after the changes of 1989-91, pluralism seems to have settled solidly throughout the former Eastern European Communist bloc, Tismaneanu argues, with democratic practices widely recognized, accepted and practiced. The revolutions of 1989-91 dealt a mortal blow to the “ideological pretense according to which human life can be structured in accordance with scientific designs proposed by a general staff of revolutionary doctrinaires” (p.171). Tismaneanu emphasizes the centrality of civil society to the success of the 1989 transformation, replacing the existing political, social, and economic system with one “founded on the ideals of democratic citizenship and human rights” (p.223). The core value restored, cherished and promoted by the revolutions of 1989 was “common sense. The revolutionaries believed in civility, decency, and humanity, and they succeeded in rehabilitating these values” (p.223). In so doing, they also managed to bring about the “rebirth of citizenship, a category abolished by both Communism and Fascism,” which also involved “re-empowering the truth” (p.221). What we have learned from 1989, Tismaneanu concludes, represents an “unquestionable argument in favor of the values that we consider essential and exemplary for democracy today” (p.221).

             Still, Tismaneanu cautions, a “residual Bolshevism” (p.114) lingers in the formerly Communist world, certainly in Russia and many of the states of the former Soviet Union. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has instituted a regime euphemistically termed “managed democracy,” an “increasingly aggressive version of neo-Stalinist and neo-imperialist restoration” (p.218). But even in Eastern Europe, the “utopian reservoir of humanity has not been completely exhausted: refurbished ideologies have resurfaced, among them populism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism of different shades” (p.164-65). Communism’s demise has given rise to “disenchantment, dispirited political cultures, the rise of new collectivisms, marginalization of former heroes, and the return of former Communists” (p.194). In brief, the “battle for the soul of man after Communism has not ended” (p.205).

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            As perceptive as Tismaneanu’s insights are, as critical as his subject matter is, a few caveats are in order before you rush out and plunk down something like $20 for the paperback edition of his book. Tismaneanu’s prose is often dense, bordering on turgid. It is riddled with sentences such as: “The disintegration of the Stalinist gnosis as a key self-sufficient system of authoritarian norms and quasi-mystical precepts impelled revisionist intellectuals toward the construction of what Kolakowski called an agnostic Marxism, actually a quixotic attempt to salvage the humanistic kernel of the doctrine lest the whole Marxist utopia fall apart” (p.177); and “The theoretical manifestations of these undercurrents provided a new semantic horizon, the coalescence of a new emotional and intellectual infrastructure that was translated into a resurgence of repressed philosophical topics, above all humanism as a privileged metaphysical concern” (p.134).

           To be sure, the nuances of Marxist thinking and applications of Communist theories do not always lend themselves to crackling prose. Further, English is not Tismaneanu’s native language, and he has my full admiration for establishing a distinguished career and earning numerous academic distinctions in an acquired rather than native language. This is by itself a remarkable achievement. But some writers achieve genuine fluency and elegance writing in an acquired language. Valdimir Zubok, whose book Zhivago’s Children I reviewed here in November 2012, is one example. Tismaneanu is not there yet (incidentally, Tismaneanu frequently cites Zubok’s work).

            Further, Tismaneanu over-relies on quotations from other works. For example, the following string of quotations is contained entirely on a single page, page 103:

. . .as A.E. Rees showed. . .To paraphrase Eugen Weber. . .as the Catholic intellectual Adolf Keller wrote. . . as sociologist Michael Mann underlines. . . As Lesek Kolakowski puts it. . .. Paul Berman explains . . .

           There is of course nothing wrong with one author occasionally quoting another’s work – it is way better than using another’s words without quoting the other writer. The over-reliance on quotations is a common characteristic of too many college term papers and university dissertations. An author writing for general readers should be providing primarily his or her own thoughts, not those of other writers.

* * *

            Born and raised in a particularly virulent form of Communism in Romania, Vladimir Tismaneanu has a wealth of insight to offer readers on the implications of that and other repressive systems of government. But this book, while treating an enticing and still-critical subject, is unlikely to gain the affection of most general readers.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 21, 2015

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Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union, Uncategorized

Grotesquely Unthinkable

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Tony Judt, with Timothy Synder,
Thinking the Twentieth Century

           Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, Tony Judt became what I term colloquially my “main man.” I tried to read everything Judt wrote. I was smitten by the enormous insight he brought to the subjects that most interested me – 20th century France and 20th European history and political theory. His best known work is a magisterial text about Europe since World War II, entitled simply “Postwar.” But his background also fascinated me. A near contemporary, born in 1948 in Great Britain of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Judt was raised in South London, educated at Kings College, Cambridge, with formative years in Israel, France and California, before he wound up teaching at New York University. He also had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage. All of the above is written in the past tense, as Judt succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in August 2010, at the age of 62. “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is likely the last book to bear Judt’s name as an author. An “Afterword” is eerily dated July 5, 2010, slightly over a month prior to his death.

           But “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is no conventional book. Rather, it is an extended series of conversations between Judt and Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Twenty years younger than Judt, Snyder is the author of “Bloodlands,” a highly-acclaimed chronicle of mass killings in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Judt notes in his afterward that Snyder is one of the first Americans to rise to prominence as an historian of Eastern Europe. Previously, most distinguished Eastern European historians were refugees from that part of the world. Snyder interjects himself into the discussion, but is more like an interviewer, or at least close to it. His portion of the conversation is plainly overshadowed by that of Judt, almost certainly deliberately so.

           The two scholars range widely but, as the title suggests, their focus is what to make of the murderous 20th century in Europe. Their reflections center on Europe’s multiple 20th century ordeals, including two devastating world wars, the rise and fall of authoritarian ideologies – communism, fascism, Nazism – and, above all, the Holocaust, the still unfathomable destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Interspersed with the authors’ conversations on these ponderous themes are Judt’s touching and poignant personal reminiscences of aspects of his life. Judt undoubtedly knew that this was likely among his last opportunities to speak publicly about himself and the ideas he cared about.

           The reason for the title Judt and Synder chose for their book does not become clear until about the half way point, where they indicate that thinking the 20th century requires a capacity to set aside traditional Enlightenment notions like the primacy of reason and the inevitability of progress. In their place, we must imagine conspiracies, plots and the “grotesquely unthinkable,” and treat them as real (p.194). They cite Koestler, Orwell and Kakfa as among the few thinkers who were “able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent” (p.194). To be able to think the twentieth century in this way, Judt says:

was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries. For the same reason, many people reassured themselves that the Holocaust could not be happening, simply because it made no sense. . . [I]t made no sense for the [non Jewish] Germans. . .Since they wanted to win their war surely the Nazis would exploit the Jews, rather than kill them at great expense. This application to human behavior of a perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus, self-evident to men raised in the nineteenth century, simply did not work in the twentieth (p.194).

           The Holocaust thus hovers over the European 20th century, it hovers over this book, and it hovered over Judt as a Jew. The “Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he says. But as he grew older, he found it intruding, “inevitably, and with ever greater force” (p.12). For Judt, thinking Europe’s 20th century unavoidably requires trying to account in some manner for the Holocaust, an exercise for which our normal processes of reasoning and empirically based critical thinking are likely to prove insufficient.

           Judt’s insights into the 20th century’s totalitarian impulses –fascism, Nazism and communism — by themselves, make the book worth reading. Communists and fascists after 1917 shared, Judt contends, a “profound attraction to mortal struggle and its beneficial social or aesthetic outcomes” (p.102), along with distaste for modernist culture — both were “extraordinarily wary of innovation or imagination” (p.165). In Italy, fascism was not so much a doctrine as a “symptomatic political style” (p.65), which appealed by its contrast to liberal bourgeois democracy. Fascists don’t have concepts like leftists, he asserts. Rather, they have “attitudes. . . distinctive responses to war, depression and backwardness” (p.159). Without the threat of Bolshevikism, there would have been “far less space for fascists to offer themselves as a guarantee of traditional order” (p.163).

          Judt also argues that Nazism differed from Fascism in that it was purely German, based upon a “set of claims which made Germans unique,” whereas there was an outward looking side of fascism, in which fascist intellectuals often believed that they were “espousing universal truths and categories” (p.104). In some senses, fascism captured the early 20th century notion of distinctly European values:

The European idea, as we tend to forget, was then a right-wing idea. It was counter to Bolshevism, obviously, but also to Americanization, to the coming of industrial America with its ‘materialist values’ and its heartless and ostensibly Jewish-dominated finance capitalism (p.177).

           Judt saw no serious prospect for contemporary fascism. With the “coming of television (and a fortitori the internet), the masses disaggregate into ever-smaller units. Consequently, for all its demagogic and populist appeal, traditional fascism has been handicapped: the one thing that fascists do supremely well – transforming angry minorities into large groups, and large groups into crowds – is now extra ordinarily difficult to accomplish” (p.166).

            Judt considered the 20th century’s struggles — between democracy and fascism, communism and capitalism, freedom and totalitarianism — as, at bottom, “implicit or explicit debates over the rise of the state. What sort of state did free people want? What are they willing to pay for it and what purposes did they wish it to serve?” (p.386). Judt found his own answers in the rise of social democracies in much of Northern and Western Europe — democratic governments which tax at relatively high rates, provide significant welfare benefits, embrace capitalism and maintain free but extensively regulated markets, while respecting individual rights and the rule of law (my definition, not Judt’s). For Judt, social democracies refute the hypothesis of the economist Friedrich Hayek, who argued in his famous 1944 work, “The Road to Serfdom,” that any attempt to intervene in the natural processes of the free market is “guaranteed to produce authoritarian political outcomes” (p.343). Judt contends that European social democracies are “among the wealthiest societies in the world today, and not one of them has moved remotely in the direction of anything resembling a return to the German-style authoritarianism that Hayek saw as the price they would pay for handing initiative to the state” (p.383; Hayek, it’s worth pointing out, retains significant appeal in conservative and Republican circles in the United States).

           Interspersed with these macro-reflections on 20th century Europe are Judt’s micro-reflections on his personal life, his academic wanderings, and his two failed marriages — he gets in some digs against his ex-spouses, for instance. The macro and micro come together as he describes the movement of his own intellectual center of gravity from France and Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Particularly through two key Polish thinkers, Leszak Kolakowski and Jan Gross, Eastern Europe in the 1980s offered Judt a “fresh start” (p.207). Kolakowski was expelled from Warsaw University in 1968 for the flagrantly heretical view that Marxism itself, not simply the way it was practiced in Soviet regimes, was “bereft of political prospects or moral value” (p.197), a view which Judt ultimately adopted as his own. Gross was a contemporary of Judt. The two met in the mid-1980s when both were teaching in the United States. Through Gross, Eastern Europe began to offer Judt “an alternative social life” at a time of “renewed and redirected intellectual existence” (p.201). At the apex of Judt’s career, Eastern Europe “ceased to be just a place; its history was now for me a direct and personal frame of reference” (p.204).

           Judt made his reputation through studies addressing the very French notion of a “public intellectual,” a macro, big picture thinker who analyzes and comments upon public affairs, while standing outside of official structures (again, my definition, not Judt’s). One of his first works to gain widespread public attention, “The Burden of Responsibility,” was a treatment of three French intellectuals, Léon Blum, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, whom he describes as “genuinely independent thinkers in a time and a place where being independent placed you in real danger, as well as consigning you to the margins of your community and to the disdain of your fellow intellectuals” (p.330).

           Thus, it was ironic that Judt became, during his time in New York, somewhat of an American public intellectual of the type he had written about. Judt contended that “no scholar, historian or anyone else is – merely by being a scholar – ethically excused from their own circumstances. We are also participants in our own time and place and cannot retreat from it” (p.285). After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Judt became “increasingly and polemically engaged in American public affairs” (p.286), in particular as a vociferous and highly-visible critic of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war and Israel’s Palestinian policies.

           This dialogue between two exceptionally sharp minds has a rambling quality. Like good dinner table conversation, the two shift ground frequently and often suddenly, and themes do not always follow one another with Cartesian or other logic. But having a last look into Tony Judt’s prodigious mind is an opportunity to be seized. We may not see such nimble and versatile thinking on Europe’s grotesquely unthinkable 20th century any time soon.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
July 30, 2013

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Filed under European History, Intellectual History