Saturday, January 7, 2012

Twenty Years Hence

Someone asked me the other day if I had an opinion as to how the world would look in twenty years' time. Well, in my last post I wrote about the enormous difficulty of making predictions for the coming year, never mind twenty years. But let me offer a historical analogy.

Between the years 1933-1945 the world slipped into a sort of black hole of barbarism and destruction, the likes of which had never before (or since) been experienced. This period saw hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Nanjing butchered to death by Japanese forces; tens of thousands of civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki vaporized by American atomic bombs; hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Tokyo and Dresden burnt to death by American and British bombers; a million inhabitants of Leningrad starved to death by the German army; the same fate befell three million Russian Prisoners of War under the gaze of the German army; the city of Warsaw destroyed, block by block, by German forces;  nearly six million Jews from all over the continent brought by train to death camps in Poland and Belarus to be murdered by the SS; 14 million defenseless and unarmed civilians murdered by the German and Soviet governments in an area of Eastern Europe named by Yale Professor Timothy Snyder as “The Bloodlands” (Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York, Basic Books, 2010). In the final years of this period the German government brought murder to a frenzied pace never before equaled.
The German government was, obviously, that of the Nazi Party.  It is worth pointing out that the Nazis won just 2.6% of the national vote in the 1928 elections.  Two years later they won over 30%. Their incredible gain in just two years almost defies belief and was, in 1928, expected or predicted by no one.  It is the eruption of the totally unforeseen that often has the greatest consequences.

The consequences of 1933-1945 were great: the emergence of the USA as a global superpower, the onset of the Cold War, the creation of the United Nations, the strengthening of Chinese communism, the beginning of the end of the European colonial empires. The period that began in 1933 was one of great destruction in itself and we still live with its momentous consequences today.
The innocence of 1913

So, for our analogy, let us step back twenty years before the period that I have described above, which brings us to 1913. Let us suppose we can ask someone in 1913 to forecast what the world will look like twenty years hence, in 1933. Is it likely that they will answer “The world will be at the dawn of a period of destruction the likes of which have never before been experienced and the consequences of which will be the emergence of USA….etc”?  Somehow I doubt it, not least because Nazism had yet to be invented and there had never been a communist revolution. 1913 lacked both a Nazi and a Communist government.

For the most part Europeans were still supremely confident in 1913. Literacy and standards of living were rising, , pensions and social welfare were becoming common, the power of steam and electricity had been conquered and the automobile invented, scientists were revealing the secrets of the atom, a communications revolution was taking place involving photography, film, telegraphy, radio and the telephone, industrialization was bringing creature comforts to the ordinary citizen, international trade had been liberalized, the British and French colonial Empires covered most of the world and were still growing, the British navy still ruled the waves, the German Empire was young and vibrant, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires were centuries old but still expanding. For the most part the western world was incredibly optimistic, present trends were positive and few could argue against a positive prognosis regarding the coming twenty years.

Of course there were some clouds on the horizon and there were a few dissenting voices, though they were tagged “pessimists”. A small cohort of young intellectuals had become enamoured by the pessimistic philosophy of Nietzsche. In Vienna, Freud was exposing the irrational roots of the human condition.  An increasing number of British policy makers were worried about the aims and objectives of Germany; some were worried about the “Yellow Peril”, though they referred to China, not Japan who was a British ally. Science fiction writer H. G. Wells wrote a novel involving destruction raining down from the air (the airplane had just been invented ten years earlier).

A year later there was a world war.  Not the war that anyone was expecting, a “home by Christmas war”.  History had taught Europeans that wars between industrialized nations promised to be brutal but blessedly short.  Alas, as is so often the case, history taught the wrong lessons (or half wrong in this case). No one in 1913 had expected the type of war that they got.  But far worse was to come.

Twenty years on from 1933 and two new phenomena are in power: the Nazi and Communist single party states. Stalin has already unleashed a politically motivated famine in Ukraine that will kill over three million peasants; Hitler is taking his first cautious steps that will lead to the Holocaust. The stage is set, the clock is ticking. Millions of ordinary, innocent people in Poland and Belarus are about to experience an unimaginable and totally unpredictable savagery, carried out by the German and Soviet governments.  Europe’s Jews are on a precipice of a hard to imagine genocide, created and orchestrated by Germany but a true Pan-European undertaking, with the collaboration of French police, Dutch train drivers, Latvian nationalists, Polish informers, Ukrainian guards. Japan has already commenced the destruction of China.

None of this was inevitable.  None was the simple result of long-term trends. Human agency played the crucial role along each step of the way. Decisions were taken by individuals and groups, circumstances were fluid and changing, opportunities arose and were taken, ignored or were missed, misunderstandings arose and persisted. It was the complex interplay of thousands of personal and non-personal factors that led to the twelve years of destruction and its global and persistent consequences.
Of course we have to prepare for the future.  But convincing ourselves that we know what to expect is the worst possible way of doing this. Accepting the humbling state of uncertainty is far more realistic, and offers protection from the rantings of demagogues. We cannot expect the citizen of 1913 to have foreseen what was in store. Why should we expect anything else of ourselves?


  1. excellent post, history can be a very useful guide if we're prepared to read it carefully...

  2. Thanks for your comment J. I think the crucial word is "carefully".

  3. I think you are spot on for the Edwardian period, expanded to 1900-mid 1914 for the purposes of this discussion. While there was still grinding poverty and exploitation of the workers for many people, on the whole it seemed to be a peaceful and optimistic period. And you are right to focus on advances in education, social welfare, science, transport, communications and entertainment. Amazing progress!

    If I had been alive at that time, I would have been thinking how lucky we humans were to have progressed that far. And how peace should reign for ever.

  4. I agree Hels, few, if any, could have been aware of what lay ahead.

  5. I especially liked the part where, during your history lesson, you said "Alas, as is so often the case, history taught the wrong lessons."

    What am I supposed to think now!?

    1. That there are various lessons to be taken from history, right lessons and wrong lessons, and we have no mechanism in place to distinguish one from the other (until it is too late). Ironically, that is what history has taught me, so I might be totally wrong!