Notes on the Twentieth Century

It was the bloodiest ever, but still some surprising good has come out of it

THE fate of the twentieth century was largely forged in the West. It may be the last century for which this will hold true. Inventions have changed our ways of doing most things, but the greatest changes have taken place in our way of looking at ourselves and at life. I want to focus on that, on the human condition, and on the Western world.
I have lived through most of this century and I have traveled to the four corners of the globe. I do not think I am stuck in a white U.S.-European viewpoint: I know how it feels to be an underdog. I have been in various jails as a political protester, and during those five medieval years when the Germans occupied the country of my youth, Holland, and most of Europe, I was a fugitive and a "terrorist."

In the Western world the century began with great expectations. The early years became known as La Belle Epoque, and if one focused on New York's Park Avenue and London's Mayfair and the 8th and 16th arrondissements of Paris, one found indeed a unique concentration of chic women and dashing men in private mansions and Delahaye convertibles, all in an atmosphere of total self-assurance. None of them doubted that they represented a progress that was to continue from strength to strength. The white race took it for granted then that it was meant to rule the earth; the rest of the world, Kipling's lesser breeds, largely took the whites at their own evaluation and timetable. In E. M. Forster's A Passage to India the Indian doctor Aziz tells his English friend, "If it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you." Twenty-five years after those words were written, the British Raj was gone.

It was a time in the West when violent death had become rare. Train wrecks and conflagrations and the sinking of the Titanic stood out shockingly and became engraved in national memories. It was a time filled with whispering about sex and about syphilis, which was the AIDS of those days but which few newspapers cared to mention. Eugenics was one of the century's prescriptions for progress: it worked well for horses and dogs, and professor Cesare Lambroso, of Turin, could already tell from a child's ears and skull whether he would turn out a criminal. A lessening of nationalism would end the wild military spending. "The coming nationality will be essentially a matter of education and economics," the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced in 1910.

Neither the earth nor even the sun was in the center of the universe anymore, but as Queen Victoria's chaplain, Charles Kingsley, had earlier written, "The railroad, Cunard's liners, and the electric telegraph are ... signs that we are, on some points at least, in harmony with the universe; that there is a mighty spirit working among us ... the ordering and creating God." Men and women, more than ever before or since, felt at home on earth and in control of their destiny. The natural demons of the past had been banished by reason and electricity, and the human demons of the new century were still hidden.

We do not need to be jealous of all this certainty. It masked another world, of exploitation, racism, colonialism, class arrogance. Coolies had to tap rubber for fifty centimes a day, miners had to breathe coal dust and gases until their lungs were used up, chimney sweeps died before they were eighteen, housemaids were fitting subjects for seduction jokes -- all this injury and insult to maintain the civilized society that knew how to appreciate an entrechat royal, a new tenor, a new school of painting. And thus many people became enemies of the world they lived in. They, too, believed in the historical certainty of progress, but they felt it would enter on its proper path only after a great revolutionary turnabout.

In Le Destin du siècle (1931) the French historian Jean-Richard Bloch called Napoleon "the first modern man." The modern age, he said, was defined by its unlimitedness, its concept of power without religious or moral counterweight. Napoleon was its isolated first modern practitioner, and Nietzsche (who died in 1900) was its first prophet: the idea was in the air by then, but he put it into words. Presently -- to be precise, in 1914 -- the Western world would start sailing under that flag. Fate, destiny, tragedy, all became "politics," thus destroying a belief in the sense of history, in justice ultimately governing human affairs.


THE last white war: in 1895 Winston Churchill traveled to Cuba, where the Spanish were fighting the Cuban insurgents. He wrote that he just had to witness this, because it would be the last war ever in which whites fought whites. (The mistake of seeing contemporary events loom so large is a great stumbling block for futurists.) Churchill needn't have fretted himself. He got the greatest white-on-white war ever at his doorstep on the sunny Saturday of August 1, 1914, when the German infantry crossed the border of Luxembourg. That day we entered the modern age, and war became its expression.

By 1914 the concept of warfare, in Europe as in the United States, was quite positive, perhaps more positive than it had been since the heyday of the Roman Empire. Jules Verne, the futurist writer, predicting a warless century ahead, had a twentieth-century man say, "Our bellicose notions are fading away, and with them our honorable ideas." Lack of fear and a peculiar idea of manly honor had become political qualifications, meant to prove that the ruling classes and the white race itself were willing to pay the price for their right to run the world.
Foolish bellicosityA handful of officers commanding native troops could keep vast colonial possessions in bondage because they were, supposedly, always ready to die, whereas the native populations weren't even ready to kill. In that 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica a British officer wrote in the article "Egypt" that the Egyptian peasant would make an admirable soldier "if he only wished to kill someone." Professional soldiers held civilians in contempt, and to them the nonwhite races were civilians twice over. It never dawned on them that it isn't race but cause that makes people soldierly or not.

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In