The Long View: Staring into Chaos

You can't get a much better summary of the strengths of the early metahistorians than this:

They suggest that basic science will be exhausted, though applied science will still have possibilities. They all expect that the vital elements in society will be increasingly religious, though a fossil secular cultural establishment may continue to exist. They anticipate some sort of universal government. As Spengler and Toynbee (though not Sorokin) might have put it, the decline-and-fall has already happened. All that remains is to work out the implications.

Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization
by B.G. Brander
Spence Publishing Company, 1998
418 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 0-965-3208-5-5


One of the ways this fin-de-siecle differs from the last time around is that you hear much less about "decline" and "degeneration." The idea of "organic" cultural decline, so common in the last few decades of the 19th century and widely discussed into the second half of the 20th, is simply alien to the postmodern worldview. B.G. Brander, a former writer for National Geographic and sometime reporter for the World Vision Global relief agency, has performed a useful service of recollection by providing this handy summary of the major "pessimist" philosophies of history of the last century or so. Besides, some of the metahistorians he discusses got just enough right about the 20th century to suggest they may be worth listening to regarding the 21st.

Brander gives accounts of the philosophies of the lesser metahistorians, such as Ernst von Lasaulx, Henry and Brooks Adams, Nikolai Danilevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev and Walter Schubart, as well as highlighting the prophetic utterances of people like Albert Schweitzer and Jakob Burckhardt, who are not normally remembered for their dark forebodings about the future. Most of these people shared the intuition, not at all uncommon in the late 19th century, that the Western world had entered a new "Hellenistic" age, and that the twentieth century was going to see a recurrence of the less pleasant aspects of Hellenism. These would include such things as demagogic tyrannies, ferocious warfare and a relaxation of traditional restraints in art and personal life. Nietzsche had said as much, of course, and anyone who entered the 20th century with this modest insight would not have been greatly surprised. Brander's primary concern, however, is the metahistorians who turned this notion into works of historical speculation as elaborate as grand operas: Oswald Spengler in "The Decline of the West," Arnold Toynbee in "A Study of History" and Pitirim Sorokin in "Social and Cultural Dynamics."

Though the mention of "The Decline of the West" still gives some people fits, no one can deny that the book has legs. Only two volumes long, it is the shortest of the three great metahistories, and it has been continually in print since the first volume appeared in 1918. Bombastic, deterministic, in some ways pig-ignorant of the civilizations it purports to cover (Spengler seems to have known nearly nothing about Chinese history after the third century AD), the fact remains that Spengler sometimes hit the nail on the head. The parallels he drew between the political history of the later West and that of Greco-Roman civilization are really quite acute. So is the book's analysis of the culture-specific aspects of modern and Greek mathematics. If Brander does Spengler a disservice, it is in repeating just what Spengler says, rather than trying to update it.

In its heyday (roughly 1948 to 1960), "A Study of History" was a much bigger phenomenon than "The Decline of the West" ever was. Weighing in at 12 volumes, the "Study" was certainly physically larger. It was published over three decades, and Brander asserts that it was the largest book of the 20th century. Toynbee drew many of the parallels that Spengler did, but with more qualifications and far more information. Toynbee's study was friendly to the role of religion in history and (especially in condensed versions) more fun to read than Fernand Braudel. Its notoriety, though, was largely the work of Henry Luce of Time magazine, who saw to it that his publishing empire touted the "Study" as the court philosophy of the American Century. Perhaps for that reason, we may have to await the recurrence of a cultural climate like that of the 1950s for Toynbee to make a comeback.

"Social and Cultural Dynamics" is the odd one in this group. Four volumes long, it was widely discussed when it began to appear in the late 1950s, but it never had the hold on the public imagination that the other metahistories had. Partly this was because Sorokin cheated: the book is based on an ocean of quantitative research, and its appendices are formidable. Sorokin eschewed the use of the familiar term "civilization." He spoke of "cultural supersystems," and he modestly concentrated his attention on those that had arisen in the West. Sorokin's system of three recurrent kinds of cultural epochs, "ideational," "integral" and "sensate," don't fit in any obvious way into conventional periodizations of history. The work describes historical "transitions" rather than melodramatic decline-and-falls. Still, the level of detachment and the attempt at empiricism that characterize Sorokin's great work may be an advantage some day, should metahistories come back into fashion.

Brander concludes with a section which tries to assess the continuing relevance of the grand metahistorians for the future, as seen from the end of the 20th century. This is harder than it sounds. Although Toynbee liked to refer to the year 2000 as the date by which this or that was bound to happen, the fact is that the turn of the millennium played no special role in any of their systems. (Spengler, who wrote long before the Cold War, may be the least dated now that it is over.) Still, there do seem to be some common themes in the expectations of these voices from the first half of the 20th century for the 21st:

They suggest that basic science will be exhausted, though applied science will still have possibilities. They all expect that the vital elements in society will be increasingly religious, though a fossil secular cultural establishment may continue to exist. They anticipate some sort of universal government. As Spengler and Toynbee (though not Sorokin) might have put it, the decline-and-fall has already happened. All that remains is to work out the implications.


A much shorter version of this review appeared in the December 1998 issue of First Things magazine.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages

Ignore doomsday at your peril.

Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages
by Eugen Weber
Harvard University Press, 2000
294 pages, US$16.95 (Paperback)
ISBN 0-674-00395-0


The University of Toronto asked Eugen Weber, the noted emeritus professor of modern European history at UCLA, to give the 1999 Barbara Frum Lecture on the topic of “fins de siècle.” This seemed reasonable enough, what with the end of the 20th century coming up and the fact that he had already written a book entitled “Fin de Siècle.” We must imagine his horror, however, as his preparation for the lecture revealed the matter did not allow of pluralization. There was only one fin de siècle, something that happened at the end of the nineteenth century and mostly in France. Western society had rarely taken much notice of century years before the 18th century. Even the kinds of millennial excitement that attended the ends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were different from each other. The apocalyptic atmosphere at end of the 19th century was, to a large degree, an aspect of the period’s famous “decadence.” There was probably at least as much decadence in the colloquial sense during the 1990s as during 1880s. Back in the Paris of the real fin de siècle, however, decadence was high theory. 

Happily freed of the media myth that all dates ending in “00” have incited millennium-mad masses to howl at the moon, Dr. Weber went on to produce this very engaging survey of the chief apocalyptic themes in Western history. I have never seen it done better. The author is particularly successful in demonstrating the continuing importance of millennialism for the study of intellectual history. Apocalyptic thinking is obviously relevant to an understanding of John of Leiden and the Reverend Jim Jones. It is also, however, just as necessary for a full understanding of Isaac Newton and Joseph Priestley, or even of Balzac. Eschatological scenarios informed the decisions of the participants in the English Civil War. They may also, more debatably, have had a hand in deciding that the First World War started when and how it did. The widespread opinion of the middle 20th century that millennialism was a historical curiosity has been pretty thoroughly refuted. We ignore Doomsday at out great peril.

Though the presentation in “Apocalypses” is roughly chronological, the author realizes that there can be no “history” of millennialism. The world seems likely to end in somewhat different ways to the people of different cultural periods, despite much continuity of language, and even of systematic eschatological theology. However, every period does seem to have a characteristic millennialism of some sort. Also, the persistence of detail is striking, all the more so because the specifics of the apocalyptic scenarios flip back and forth between natural and supernatural. For instance, the Book of Revelation is full of things that fall from the sky, notably the star “Wormwood” (Rev. 8: 10,11). This was a ludicrous notion in the Aristotelian physics of the first century, of course, and probably a bit of an embarrassment for Christian apologists. In contrast, the idea that the world may be in imminent peril of asteroidal impact was common by the end of the 20th century, due in large part to the dramatic Alvarez hypothesis about the Cretaceous die-off. Long before the dinosaur fashion, however, 20th century millenarians had appropriated pretty much the same idea as a gloss on the scriptural text. Now Weber tells us that, in 1773, a lecture to the Academy of Sciences in Paris on the menace of cometary flybys occasioned civil disorder. In a way, this continuity is comforting.

Readers generally familiar with the history of apocalyptic thinking in English-speaking countries will find “Apocalypses” particularly valuable for its attention to the francophone world. This is one of those books that reminded me of the full extent of my ignorance. I had imagined that Jansenists, members of a rigorous but condemned Catholic sect that had attracted minds on the order of Pascal’s, were essentially Calvinists without the whimsy. Only now do I learn about their ecstatic and visionary side, and how their long persecution drove them to view themselves as an elect living at the close of the age. I had been aware that the Métis rebellions in nineteenth-century Canada had an eschatological element, even a specifically Catholic eschatological dimension. A feature that you could not have made up, however, was the belief of the Métis leader, Louis Riel, that the Vatican would move to Canada. Last but not least, we are also treated to a summary of the French fin de siècle, with its colorful combination of Satanists, popular science, eschatological communism and Restoration-minded monarchists. What had our own etiolated flutters about the Y2K bug to offer in comparison?

Since the territory covered in this book is beyond anyone’s expertise, there are nits to pick. For instance, the authors says about the eschatology of St. Augustine of Hippo: “Since Christ’s coming, regeneration no longer depended on cosmic revolution or explosive revolution, but on individual effort to salvation; not on divine destruction, but on human decisions and effort.” While this summary is not entirely wrong, we should remember that Augustine is the father, not just of progress, but also of predestination. (This is not a coincidence.) To take an issue of social history, it is hard to see how, after reviewing all the odd dates that have excited millennial attention these last 2000 years (1260, 1484, 1844), the author can still link millennialism with the rise of numeracy. If anything, it’s dates like 1900 and 2000 that are the no-brainers, and they fell in literate centuries. These, however, are small matters that simply reflect the opinions found in the secondary sources from which a survey like this is necessarily written.

Just as “Apocalypses” does not purport to be a comprehensive history of millennialism, it also does not attempt to formulate a general theory about it. Weber is duly suspicious of the assumption by E.J. Hobsbawm and Norman Cohn that millenarian revolutionaries are really social revolutionaries suffering from false consciousness. The phenomena associated with millennial ideas are just too various for such an explanation to work, even as an approximation. Weber is obviously impressed, not just by the persistence of millennial thinking, but also by its uncanny, well, prescience. The age did not end with the planetary alignment of 1484, for instance, but the unity of the West did shortly thereafter, just at the moment when the horizons of the known world were exploding. He remarks about the flurry of Marian apparitions that occurred in the early 20th century (for some reason he calls them “Marial apparitions”) that the fire-and-brimstone prophecies they produced were “right on target.” St. Augustine may have been right when he said that signs of the end are present in every age. It is also true to say that those who pursue the millennium are not necessarily following a chimera.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Demoralization of Society from Victorian Times to Modern Values

This book is probably best read in productive counter-point to Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms. It is not possible to understand the modern world without understanding both genetics and moral reform. Victorian England was the product of at least 1500 years of selection that made the most prudent, hard-working, and law-abiding population on the face of the Earth. However, there is enough slack in the leash biology keeps on culture to allow an oscillation between Regency dissipation, to Victorian prudery, back to yobs, within the space of 200 years. There is no known genetic mechanism that would allow that much change in that time span, so that leaves other causes. Since I haven't completed the demonstrative regress, I cannot claim that the moral revolution of the Victorians was the exclusive cause of the change for the better in the nineteenth century. However, I can claim it to be plausible to be one of the causes.

We do have the Victorians to thank for changing caritas from love in general into alms for the poor. In their eminent practicality and domesticity, the more rarefied meaning was lost, or perhaps discarded. We probably also owe our notion of progress in the Anglosphere to the Victorians. Progressive politics as such was a late Victorian/Edwardian thing, but the ball got rolling much, much earlier than that. 

One of the big differences between the attitude of the early Victorians and anyone who self-described as a "Progressive" at the time, is how they saw the poor. The attitude of the earlier Victorians is echoed in C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. In a passage describing the difference between a trendy English textbook of the day and what Lewis chose to call the Tao [Natural Law was too Romish]

If they embark on this course the difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely "conditions." The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them this or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.

The progressive era was also the era of eugenics. Lewis was astute to notice that the attitudes of his social betters tended to see the poor as livestock. It isn't an accident that eugenics and evolutionary theory grew up together among country gentlemen who bred animals for sport.

The other aspect of decadent Victorianism that largely goes unsaid here was the occult revival. John was familiar with this, as a student of the occult. I do think I detect something of this in the last lines of John's essay, but this a topic for another time.

The Demoralization of Society From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Alfred A. Knopf,1995
ISBN 0-679-43817-3


Nietzsche's Victory


Educated people in England and America around the year 1900 believed in social progress because they had experienced it. In England, where our statistics are best, crime and illegitimacy rates at the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 had fallen by about half from their mid-nineteenth century high. Public drunkenness became rare and alcoholism ceased to be an accepted fact of private life. Literacy became nearly universal, sanitation and diet improved at every level of society. People put great effort into staying clean, and governments built infrastructure that enormously increased the availability of water to common people. Wages nearly doubled in a generation. The entire adult male population was enfranchised. Married women gained control over their own property. All this happened while large towns became sprawling cities and severe financial panics periodically shook the economy. (The term "depression" is a later American euphemism).

This level of civilization was maintained through the first half of the twentieth century, through two world wars. Then, in the 1950s, the statistical indices of social pathology began to creep upwards. In the 1960s, they vastly accelerated. By 1990, crime rates were ten times their nineteenth century high, illegitimacy over four times. (Remember, these former highs had been reached in the most Dickensian years of the Industrial Revolution.) Additionally, in some ways the population was getting appreciably stupider and sicker. As the century neared its end, it had become fashionable to belittle the idea of progress. No wonder.

So what happened? That's the question that Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of the City University of New York (and wife of neoconservative scholar Irving Kristol) tries to answer in this brief and very readable overview of social history. There is no attempt here to turn the Victorian era into paradise lost. Victorian women may not have been the silent slaves depicted in feminist mythology, but they were sufficiently dissatisfied with their lot that they collectively exerted themselves for almost a century to widen their public role. Society was riddled with class and racial prejudices that most people today would find gruesome. (Curiously, the word "imperialism" does not even appear in the index, though the book treats mostly of England in the last fifty years of the nineteenth century.) Though working people were not as poor as they used to be, they still worked appalling hours for wages not far above subsistence levels. The Victorians were even more familiar with poverty, ignorance and disease than we are. The difference is that they believed these things could be greatly mitigated. Their belief was not irrational; they really knew how to do it.

If you need an example of a society in a state of moral and social collapse, you might do worse than to study England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Cities were growing in an almost unregulated fashion as the impoverished peasantry were driven off the land. The capital was intermittently in the hands of a mob bent on revolution. Crime was so common that the hundreds of capital offenses on the books were no longer considered sufficient deterrent, so the transportation of criminals to Australia was begun. The national government was corrupt to a degree that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed. Parliament was the tool of aristocratic factions. The aristocracy itself was violent, promiscuous and ruthless. The Church of England, though blessed with a few great apologists, served mostly as a source of undemanding careers for less gifted younger sons. The country was obviously in a chaotic condition, but its rulers had no plans to put it back in order, or even any clear idea of what was wrong. Though hardly unprejudiced observers, the American Founding Fathers tended to assume that the British Empire was about to go the way of the later Roman Empire.

It was not the rulers of Britain who saved the nation, but the pious middle class. Led most famously by John Wesley and his Methodists, the English evangelicals and nonconformists (i.e., people belonging to non-Anglican protestant churches) began a program of moral reform that, within a century, had transformed society almost as much as technology had transformed the economy. It was a moral revival. Its mechanism was the dissemination of virtues in churches, in schools, and, where applicable, whenever the state met the citizenry. The revival was a long march through all the institutions of the nation. It took four generations, and it was one of the most successful social enterprises in the history of the world.

This work was not accomplished through social bureaucracies; for the most part, they did not exist until the end of the period. The Victorian era (which for many purposes began before Victoria's actual accession to the throne in 1837) was the great age of private philanthropy. Though philanthropy did involve large financial donations, to a large extent it was a hands-on affair. University graduates and professional people established and worked in settlement houses in poor neighborhoods. They taught adult education classes and provided free health care. Successful businessmen undertook surveys of health and poverty at their own expense. Using skills learned in the business world, they invented empirical social science. More to the point, they were able to craft proposals for reform that could be understood by other practical men in government.

The state helped where it could, for good or ill. The workhouse system under the Poor Laws, which in principle required unemployed able-bodied people to live in a workhouse, was leniently applied in practice. It was cheaper to support the indigent if they lived on their own. However, the system helped to stigmatize poverty, even poverty through ill-fortune. Particularly in the final decades of the century, a series of remarkably strict antipornography laws were passed. The state became concerned with discouraging abortion and contraception (some feminists supported these policies, some opposed them). The state served to promote private morality best, perhaps, through the example of the royal family. Though George III had been popular, neither George IV nor William IV had been especially well-liked, for good reason. In contrast, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, surrounded by their innumerable children, were the very picture of domestic bliss. The wealthy and powerful often led the sort of irregular lives that the wealthy and powerful sometimes do. However, they were at pains to maintain the appearance of propriety. Any history of high society from the period is replete with sham marriages and shocking discoveries found posthumously in the personal diaries of eminent Victorians renowned in life for their moral rectitude. This was not hypocrisy, in the sense that naughty Victorians were pretending to standards in which they did not believe. They did believe in them; they just were unable to live up to them. Their pious impostures, however, gave many lesser contemporaries the strength to succeed where prominent persons failed.

Lists of the "Victorian Virtues" have multiplied since that day in the 1983 when a reporter was so ill-advised as to suggest to Margaret Thatcher that her social ideals were merely Victorian. She immediately took the offensive in the cause of the Victorians, one that this review, perhaps, is continuing. The virtues the Victorians cherished were "domestic" in the general sense of personal, practical, humble. While they were consistent with the noble virtues expounded by Aristotle and the theological virtues as summarized by St. Paul or St. Thomas, they were the versions of these ideals which would appeal to people who had to work for a living. Aristotle endorsed wisdom, justice, magnanimity, temperance and courage. The Victorians, more prosaically, were interested in diligence, cleanliness, honesty, sobriety, civic pride. "Charity" ceased to mean love and came to mean the dutiful support of the deserving poor.

Victorian attitudes toward sex varied, though Ms. Himmelfarb is careful to debunk some of the extreme anecdotes on the subject as later satires. (Victorian matrons did not really put little skirts around the bottoms of their pianos to cover the legs. I, for one, am disappointed.) On the other hand, the Victorians did bowdlerize Shakespeare so that salacious passages might not offend innocent eyes. (Thomas Bowdler was the ingenious publisher who gave us this eponymous verb.) They did the same to Gibbon in order to expunge the impieties from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." However, throughout the period, they never lost sight of the virtue of chastity itself. It was a positive good, not simply the failure to commit evil.

Victorian virtues were also domestic in the specific sense of being centered on the home and the family. "Respectability" was something that Victorians worried about, particularly the working class. It meant that husbands worked as much as they could, and then they came home and gave their paypackets to their wives, who might then give them some spending money. It meant that the mothers of large families kept her children clean and sent them to school. In a world without washing machines or food that could be stored for more than a few days, this was no small proposition. Perhaps a quarter of Victorian women worked for wages, either at home or in commercial settings. This was "respectable" because it was necessary, but it was not regarded as a good in itself. Women of the professional and upper classes often had what amounted to demanding careers, but these were likely to be volunteer positions in charitable or social service enterprises.

I suspect that Ms. Himmelfarb underestimates the rates of marital breakup and illegitimacy before the nineteenth century and into its first half. She argues, on the basis of selected statistics from parish registers, they such things were rare going back to Tudor times. As Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" explains, "marriage" in the early years of the century was still a surprisingly slippery notion. Only marriages before a Anglican clergyman were automatically valid. People married in a Baptist chapel might not bother with a license. There was also the ancient and amiable institution of the "common law" marriage. (In common law marriages, the state usually takes no notice of the arrangement until one partner dies and the other claims the departed's property.) There were also popular customs, a sort of common law divorce, for ending these unions. The most picturesque of these was the public "wife sale." (The portrayal in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is misleading, since these performances were not open auctions.) A full legal divorce in England literally took an act of parliament, but some large percentage of the married population was not "married" in way of which the law took cognizance. The regularization of marriage and divorce laws in England must therefore be included among the century's reforms. It was made easier to get married, and control over marital disputes was removed from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. Popular behavior gradually conformed to the law. The early Victorians, particularly the common people, were rather lax about these matters. The latter ones were not, and divorce was rare.

The Victorians did not exactly invent childhood, but they made it a special stage of life. They created the peculiar culture of children, the literature and the clothes and the toy industry. It was Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic who gave us Christmas trees and "The Night Before Christmas." Maybe more important, they gave us universal compulsory education and the first restrictions on child labor. School became the career of Victorian children, in principle of the children of all ranks. When marriage laws were amended, one of the principle goals was the protection and support of children. Producing children and raising them were unambiguously the chief priorities of both sexes and of all classes. Only at the very end of the period did serious people begin to suggest that maybe career or eugenic factors should play a role in these matters.

Nietzsche did not cause the end of the Victorian era. He was early read and appreciated by people like Shaw, of course, but the fin de siecle had interests other than the German philosopher's aesthetic nihilism. However, he understood what was happening, and what was going to happen, better than anyone else. God had died for a growing fraction of the intellectual class of the West sometime in the middle of the 19th century. Without a theological grounding, he realized, virtues would become "values," social conventions that could be debated and modified as convenience suggested. Nietzsche had only contempt for his contemporaries' comfortable assumption that society would go on much as it had, except that people would no longer go to church. The moral system of Western civilization is founded on Judaism and Christianity. Once this foundation was removed, the superstructure would start to crumble. Although it was not until the 1960s that the effects would be felt on a popular level in the English-speaking world, the moral imagination of the West was becoming visibly unhinged in Nietzsche's lifetime.

The moral revival had succeeded because it was not original. The working classes and the rural poor did not have a system of morality different from that of the reforming middle class. The virtues the reformers sought to encourage were principles that just about everyone acknowledged. There were rare exceptions, such as the Poor Laws turning poverty into a near crime, that could be characterized as social engineering. Even in those cases, however, the state cannot be accused of trying to make up a virtue out of whole cloth. In the second half of the century, in contrast, that is precisely what the increasingly secular intellectual class tried to do. The aesthetes, for instance, tried to develop an ethics of art-for-art's-sake. While the actual art produced by the self-conscious "decadents" of the end of the century is an acquired taste, it was in fact during this period that art became a substitute for religion for many people. Other late Victorian reformers began to promote more intrusive measures to improve public health or fix the economy. Even when some of these measures were plausible ideas, like the total prohibition of alcohol, they were not to most people self-evident moral principles. The new reformers, however, continued to press them with the self-assurance of their pre-Darwinian forebears. They became moralists who had forgotten what morality looked like.

This era also saw the appearance of eugenics, originally one of the enthusiasms of the Fabian socialists. Earlier Victorian social reformers had looked out on the drunken and dirty laboring classes and seen fellow creatures who needed to be lifted from their deplorable state. The term "patronizing" does not quite do justice to this attitude, but at least it was an attitude of one human being regarding another. The Fabians, on the other hand, such as G. B. Shaw and Beatrice Webb, began to regard their countrymen as cattle in need of an intelligent breeding program. The attitude did not change even when their interest in eugenics wavered; thirty years later these people were also enthusiastic supporters for totalitarian experiments on the continent. Shaw and the Webbs (Beatrice and her co-author husband Sidney) were conspicuous for their support of the Soviet Union during the worst phases of Stalin's regime. (Shaw, by the way, was not as ignorant of what was happening in the Soviet Union as he pretended in public.)

The problem with these opinion-maker enthusiasms is not that they are necessarily wicked, though many of them are. The problem is that they are constructs, something that someone made up. They cannot form the basis of a social consensus, because they are alien to all but their makers. Even when, as in totalitarian societies, they can be imposed by the police, the police themselves are likely to lose interest in them after a while. What happened in the twentieth century was that the opinion-makers continued the cottage industry of value-making which the decadent Victorians had founded. They busied themselves concocting what were, in effect, exotic poisons in the arts and politics and the principles of personal relations. For the first half of the twentieth century, the major institutions of society continued along the vector which the Victorian moral revival had imparted. Teachers knew how to teach, the police knew how to keep the streets safe. For that matter, the Post Office knew how to deliver the mail. However, these funds of institutional wisdom were scarcely inexhaustible. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was obvious that some novel thinking was needed about everything from race relations to the control of industrial pollution. So society applied to the opinion-makers for guidance. And the injection of the poisons began.

Today, we live in a time that bears comparison to the eighteenth century. We have a fatuously self-confident upper class, the New Class of information manipulators, who have forgotten the moral law. We have an increasingly feral underclass who have never heard of it. We also have a very lively sense that something is radically wrong. Many people these days look to the Victorian moral revival as a model for us to follow. If the Victorians were able to reconstruct their society, surely we can engineer a revival of our own?

What happened once can happen again, and certainly not all the cultural indices are falling these days. However, we have to remember that the Victorian moral revival was a side-effect of a popular religious movement. Though the political and economic powers of the time frequently manipulated it, they did not originate it or control it. How could they? No one could have conceived where it would lead. The problem with what many people believe to be the incipient moral revival of America is that we are still playing by Nietzsche's rules. We continue to talk about establishing values, not discovering virtues. To every secularist's considerable surprise, religion is back in politics to a degree not seen for a hundred years, but there is something artificial about the phenomenon. The Methodist revival began as a movement for personal reform that only later developed political significance. (The Labor Party, Ms. Himmelfarb notes, was practically born in a nonconformist chapel.) Today, however, one may be forgiven for suspecting that much of the new-found piety of American conservatives is a political tactic to coopt evangelical and conservative Catholic votes. Secular conservatives seem to think that they can conjure up God to be their familiar spirit and serve their interests. They may well succeed in conjuring up something, but maybe not exactly what they expect.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

Wilsonian is a term not often used to express admiration or approbation, but perhaps President Woodrow Wilson deserves another look. This is a fine piece of mild historical revisionism, putting Wilson in historical context, something the man himself would appreciate. How many of us now remember that before Wilson was elected to the presidency, he was generally considered a conservative? He was also a best-selling author and the first President from the South after the Civil War. He was a preacher's son, and his oratorical style exemplified that background:

[T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment.

Wilson was a passionate advocate of state's rights, even to the point of risking war with Japan over a California law preventing Japanese from owning land. Wilson also re-segregated the civil service, appointing Southern whites to positions held by black Republicans under Teddy Roosevelt. These acts are not surprising given his Southern birth, but the label of "Progressive" can easily confuse us today.

Even Wilson's most [in]famous accomplishments, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, could perhaps be considered something of a success. The League implemented the Treaty, and then closed up shop when that task was accomplished. Even though the United States never joined the League, most of its goals were accomplished, and it had the form that Wilson intended for it; by and large, Wilson got what he wanted at Versailles.

Eerie, in retrospect, is this quotation from his whistle-stop tour to advocate for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles:

You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

A presentiment of doom was common in fin de siècle Europe, but this is a disturbingly accurate prediction of the rest of the twentieth century. In many ways, Wilson set the tone for the American century, in concert with his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt.

Some of the premises from which Wilson operated perhaps were ill-considered, but his projects often had the right goals in mind. Both the premises and the goals are still with us, no matter how little regard we have for the man who fostered them.

Woodrow Wilson
A Biography
By August Heckscher
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991
745 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN: 0-684-19312-4


Reviewed by
John J. Reilly


Since the end of the Cold War, it has become a commonplace to say that the two great revolutionaries of the 20th century were Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, and that of the two Wilson has proven to be the more successful. Nonetheless, Wilson has become an oddly disliked figure. The term "Wilsonian" is often used as a derisive synonym for "utopian," and the man himself is recalled as a hectoring minor prophet, too inflexible even to see his pet nostrum, the League of Nations, through to ratification by the United States Senate. This biography of Wilson, written just as the Cold War was ending, puts some of the grosser calumnies against Wilson to rest. Readers should note that the biographer is a fan: August Heckscher is a former president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Still, the book at least touches on the failures as well as the successes of Wilsonianism. We also get personal information essential to understanding Wilson, especially his medical history. More important, though, the book gives us a starting point to discuss an issue that Wilson first broached and whose relevance has only increased since this biography was published: the relationship between democracy and world order.

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was born "Thomas Wilson," a name that he would gradually drop as his education advanced, though there were always a few friends who called him "Tommy." The place of birth was Virginia. He would become the first president from the South after the Civil War, after having experienced defeat and then occupation in the aftermath of that conflict. In Heckscher's account, however, Wilson was an eccentric Southerner. All four grandparents were born abroad in Scotland or Northern Ireland; his mother came from Scotland. His family on both sides were Presbyterians. Many of his relatives, including his father, were ministers. Old-fashioned Presbyterianism has a reputation as one of the more somber versions of Christianity, but the Presbyterianism of the Wilson family was neither gloomy or old-fashioned: this reviewer was reminded of the minister's family in Norman MacLean's novel, A River Runs Through It. As the biographer puts it:

Indeed, the religious faith the young Wilson derived from his father's teaching was not the sort manifesting itself only in dark moments, but grew stronger in times of confidence and elation when God's watchfulness seemed to be validated by outward experience. The coming together of worldly good fortune with a feeling of inner blessedness could make the Presbyterian of liberal faith, as it made Wilson in his happiest periods, a charismatic figure.

Actually, if one is looking for literary analogues to Wilson, one might consider the young H.P. Lovecraft. Both had boyhoods given over to fantasy and dreaming, and both were generally thought to suffer from some mild disability. Both would also acquire a taste for writing self-consciously archaic prose, which Wilson would employ in his popular histories. (The biographer thinks those works, such as A History of the American People and George Washington, were terrible potboilers, but they did sell well). One major difference was that young Lovecraft was precocious, while Wilson did not learn to read until he was nine; debate continues about whether Wilson was dyslexic.

A greater difference was that Wilson's father did not die young, but saw Wilson through undergraduate school, law school (Wilson practiced law for only a few months), and then graduate school. The bulk of Wilson's academic career was spent at Princeton University, which was still called "The College of New Jersey" when he entered as a sophomore. He would teach at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan University (in Connecticut), and at Johns Hopkins, where he also did his graduate work in the newest German methods of historiography, but he returned to Princeton and would eventually serve as its president from 1902 to 1910. His career as a young scholar coincided with an expansion of higher education in the United States unmatched until the 1950s. Wilson frequently received invitations to teach at, and sometimes even to head, new universities in the Midwest. He was tempted by these offers, but seemed to understand that his chance of influence in his own lifetime required that he not stray too far from the Boston to Washington DC corridor.

Though he trained as a historian, Wilson's academic reputation rested on his work as a political scientist. His first book, Congressional Government (published 1885 and still in print) deplored the eclipse of the executive branch in the years after the Civil War and argued for more effective government through greater cooperation between the president and Congress. Indeed, Wilson seemed sometimes to argue for something like a parliamentary system. His desire for more effective government was characteristic of the Progressive Era in which he played so conspicuous a part. The sentiment was remarkably nonpartisan: progressives were Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. The progressive agenda was variable, expanding from a core of issues that all sane people saw had to be addressed to more speculative issues with even more speculative solutions. The reformers' to-do list ran from reform of the banking system to female suffrage to ending child labor, and on through assuring the safety of the food supply and the criminalization of the recreational use of narcotics, not to mention the breaking up of business monopolies and the public ownership of utilities and even of the railroads. Wilson once deplored the fact that the term "socialist" had been appropriated by an eccentric school of economics, since obviously all public policy should be concerned with the good of society as a whole. In Wilson's sense, a policy of lowering tariffs to promote competition (something he did during his first term as president) could be characterized as "socialist."

Towards the end of Wilson's career, Oswald Spengler would predict, in characteristically cryptic fashion, that the final public morality of the West would be something called "Ethical Socialism." Spengler was no doubt thinking of Bismarck's social policy, but the term far better fits Spengler's contemporary, Woodrow Wilson.

Theodore Roosevelt is the contemporary to whom Wilson is most often compared, but there are stronger parallels (or at least it seems to this reviewer) between Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They shared an organic view of historical development and a fundamentally historicist metaphysics. The organicism no doubt puts them in the great conservative tradition of Edmund Burke; indeed, during his academic career, Wilson was generally regarded as a conservative. As a historian, Wilson favored narrative that attempted to recapture the texture of the period under discussion. (In this he anticipated the historiography of people like R.G. Collingwood; Wilson even attempted to employ the prose style of the period he was writing about, with results that were not invariably happy.) However, for Wilson there was a characteristically Progressive Era twist to the historical cast of mind. Burke emphasized the incremental and non-programmatic development of society as part of an argument against projects of social engineering. Wilson, in contrast, looked to organic models of change for an argument that change is possible, even mandatory.

The author notes Wilson's antipathy to the philosophy of Jefferson the Founding Father (though he gave high marks to the record of Jefferson the President). From this we may surmise that Wilson disliked Jefferson's appeal to universal, ahistorical, self-evident truths. This is very much the view that Holmes held toward natural law, and particularly to attempts to impose any theory of pre-existing, non-textual rights through constitutional judicial review. As a practical matter, these concerns met: Holmes spent much of his career as a jurist trying to persuade the courts not to strike down the social legislation that people like Wilson were enacting. Holmes argued that it is fundamentally lawless for the courts to overturn laws on behalf of "rights" not found in the text of the Constitution. This issue would surface again, in another context, in the later 20th century.

The parallels to Holmes should not be overstated. Holmes was an agnostic Social Darwinist who adopted historicist pragmatism as the last resource against nihilism. In Wilson's view, both business and government had an essentially moral basis. Wilson needed historicism as a medium through which Providence could transform the world. If Wilson rejected the idea of primordial self-evident truths, that was because he believed the future could do better. Though the term does not occur in this biography, Wilson seems to have been a postmillennialist of a very thorough and sophisticated sort. The complaints heard in the early 21st century that the government of the United States is being theocratized in an unprecedented fashion must contend with statements like this from Governor and then President Wilson:


[T]he man whose faith is rooted in the Bible knows that reform cannot be stayed, that the finger of God that moves upon the face of the nations is against every man that plots the nation's downfall or the people's deceit; that these men are simply groping and staggering in their ignorance to a fearful day of judgment.
Sometimes, according to the author, Wilson seemed to think there were two kinds of law: law that simply codifies the facts of society as they exist, and law that runs ahead of the facts to fix the moral parameters of the living generation. Where Wilson differed from Lenin, and for that matter from contemporary and later exponents of the "living constitution," is his insistence on fostering revolution through legislation enacted by democratic means.

If the biographer is to be believed, Wilson displayed a taste for social revolution even as president of Princeton, but in a characteristically Wilsonian fashion. His first concern was to raise academic standards. As a college administrator, he set his face against preferential treatment for athletes (and, perhaps not incidentally, undertook to suppress the riot and vandalism for which the burgeoning college populations of the day were notorious). He attempted to bring the system of elective courses under control. Students should have some control over what they studied, but he insisted that every course of study include some exposure to the whole field of learning. Despite his training in German historiographical methods (or perhaps because of it) he opposed the attempt, then very popular, to make the liberal arts conform to the methods of the physical sciences. He shared Matthew Arnold's insistence on the priority of liberal learning.

The revolutionary element appeared in Wilson's plan to suppress Princeton's famous "eating clubs," or at least to diminish their importance to a point where they would no longer be the organizing principle of undergraduate life. The eating clubs, Wilson argued, were the preserves of the very rich. Their existence tended to divide the student body on a class basis. Wilson's remedy was to reorganize the campus on the basis of residential quadrangles, which would function something like the system of residential houses at Harvard. In a not unrelated move, he wanted to incorporate Princeton's new graduate schools into the body of the campus. Wilson argued the merits of the arrangement for the coherence of the university. He also made clear his desire to prevent rich alumni from controlling the development of the new schools: Princeton had been offered large gifts conditional on the new schools being located in palatial campuses of their own, far from the main body of the university.

In carrying out his academic initiatives, Wilson honed his practice of turning controversial questions into matters of principle, with himself occupying a moral high ground from which there could be no retreat. This worked better with some issues than with others. His reform of the curriculum was well received. As university president and as lecturer, Wilson was wildly popular with the students, even the ones in the eating clubs. Long after his tenure as president, the quadrangle plan was carried out. The graduate schools, however, are still over the hills and far away.

Wilson did have flaws. His marriage to Ellen Axon ended only with her death in 1914 (they had three children: all daughters). We are assured that Wilson's reputation as a womanizer was grossly exaggerated, but there is good evidence for one affair toward the end of Wilson's time at Princeton, during the long, separate vacations that the Wilsons were in the habit of taking:


These complex relationships show the dualism that often characterized Wilson. He could appear to be different men, the one scarcely aware of what the other was thinking. Thus he seems never to have felt the need to make a choice between [Ellen] his wife and Mary Peck. The same post that in 1909 carried from Bermuda letters to Ellen that might have been those of a bridegroom to his bride, carried to Mary passionate assurance of how ardently she was missed.

One cannot help but note the same duality in Wilson's dealings with Germany in 1918. In one telegram, he might offer to serve as a mediator between the Central Powers and the Allies; in the next telegram, he might write as a belligerent who required the capitulation of his interlocutor. One cannot also help noting how often this strategy worked, on the public and private level.

In any case, as a political scientist and a lecturer on government reform, Wilson developed a national reputation of a size that even the politicians noticed. Thus came the invitation from the Democratic Party bosses of New Jersey to run for governor of the state, an eminence to which he was duly elected and served from 1910 to 1912. His platform as a candidate was typical of progressives of both parties: direct election of United States senators, a worker's compensation system, primary elections to select party nominees for almost all offices, the creation of commissions to regulate public utilities. There were differences in emphasis in the bipartisan progressive movement of the time. At first, for instance, Wilson was skeptical of such progressive measures as the referendum and recall elections. Not until he became president did he support suffrage for women, and he never endorsed the prohibition of alcohol. Wilson believed as much as Theodore Roosevelt in the need to expand the functions of government, but he took longer to come to the conclusion that these functions had to be exercised at the federal rather than the state level. Only reluctantly did he abandon the view that business monopolies could be broken up through ordinary legal processes, rather than preserved and regulated in the manner that Roosevelt pioneered.

Wilson's election to the presidency in 1912 capped the strangest presidential campaign in the 20th century. The Republican Party self-destructed when former president Theodore Roosevelt, denied the Republican nomination, ran as the candidate of the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party. The incumbent president, Robert Taft, seems to have stayed in the race as the Republican candidate to ensure that Roosevelt would not win. Meanwhile, many progressives who might ordinarily have voted for Wilson voted instead for Eugene Debs, the candidate of the Socialist Party, who received almost a million votes. Wilson actually received fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan did in 1906, when Bryan lost. Nonetheless, not only was Wilson elected, but his party controlled both Houses of Congress.

Wilson adopted the term "The New Freedom" to describe his program. As the biographer points out, it had a substantially different coloration in his first term from his second. During the first four years, Wilson was concerned with institutional reform. He got Congress to create the Federal Reserve System, which gave the United States a central bank for the first time since the administration of Andrew Jackson. This measure made the financial system less disaster-prone (although, as later events would prove, not disaster-proof). Perhaps more remarkable to contemporaries, he succeeded in lowering tariffs and reforming the tariff system. He did this despite the vampiritic flocks of lobbyists the issue attracted to Capitol Hill, much as business taxes do now. Wilson created the Federal Trade Commission to take some of the responsibility for anti-trust regulation from the Justice Department.

A worldwide recession was starting as Wilson took office, but despite the increase in unemployment his administration was seen as competent and effective. He won reelection in 1916 by a narrow but respectable margin. He had planned to devote his second term to what we would now call "social issues": an eight-hour day; an end to child labor; provision for cheap credit to farmers. He did make progress towards these goals. He also intervened in some major labor strikes in a way that reassured the labor unions that the federal government was on their side. However, regarding Wilson's domestic initiatives, one must note that his record on racial issues was appalling from first to last, even by the standards of the time. During his first term, the federal bureaucracy began to be racially segregated. Far from extending patronage jobs to black Democrats, which he had hinted in 1912 that he might do, he routinely appointed white southerners to jobs that had been held by black Republicans appointed by Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson declined to tell California that its new legislation barring Japanese from owning land was plainly contrary to United States treaty obligations. In effect, he risked a war with Japan to support a doubtful interpretation of states' rights.

Wilson had not even mentioned foreign affairs in his first inaugural address. His appointments in this area suggested that it was not one of his priorities. William Jennings Bryan was his first Secretary of State; Bryan was no fool, but he did serve grape juice rather than wine at diplomatic receptions, and his pacifism made him increasingly irrelevant as relations with the Central Powers deteriorated. He would eventually resign, to be replaced by Robert Lansing, a lawyer with a better education and a smaller imagination.

Actually, Wilson's foreign troubles began long before the First World War. His administration found itself called on to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate revolutions; or perhaps better, revolutions that marked important social transformations from mere changes of dictators. Wilson did not always do this well, particularly with regard to Latin America, and most especially with regard to Mexico. Wilson wanted to see land reform in Mexico in order to ensure the survival of electoral democracy, so he often found himself supporting the more radical alternative against the party with the better chance of maintaining stability. The policy backfired badly when Poncho Villa, whom Wilson had once supported, began making raids into the United States.

Wilson would later identify the Russian Revolution as a "deep" revolution. He deplored the Bolshevik turn that the originally liberal revolution of 1917 took, but believed that it was just a phase, like the phases of the French Revolution. He had no patience with the English, and especially the French, proposals to back counter-revolutionary forces in Russia, though some Americans were among the Allied troops sent to guard facilities in Russia from the Germans.

From the outset of the First World War, it was Wilson's position that the strategic interests of the United States lay with an Allied victory, or at least with a conclusion to the fighting that did not diminish the roles of France and Britain in the world. A decisive German victory, he thought, would require the United States to militarize on a permanent basis, a stance Wilson believed incompatible with the institutions of American government. However, the perhaps unfortunate slogan of his 1916 election campaign, "He kept us out of war," was perfectly sincere. The optimum outcome was "peace without victory," resulting in a situation in which the differences between the great powers could be settled by arbitration. The process of arbitration, Wilson also immediately surmised, would have to be permanent, requiring a permanent international institution to coordinate a permanent peace. Even when the United States became a belligerent in 1917, Wilson was very slow to attribute the principal blame for the war to Germany. Neither was he ever altogether willing to abandon the hope of acting as the intermediary between the two sides and negotiating a peace on neutral principles. Wilson's unilateral issuance of the 14 Points as a statement of war aims reiterated this aspiration.

Strange as it may seem for a southerner, Wilson's model throughout the war was Abraham Lincoln; and moreover, the mystical Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address. In that statement, Lincoln prescinded from a discussion of the merits of the arguments made by either side for fighting the Civil War. Instead, he directed the nation's attention to the inscrutability of Providence in the course of the war and its effects. Neither side got what it expected or what it desired. Lincoln then spoke of a postwar America reunited "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Few nobler words have ever been spoken by a statesman. However, what Wilson the war leader never entirely took on board was that those words had been spoken after victory for the North was assured. It also bears repeating, perhaps, that Wilson's notion of a postwar settlement was implemented more fully than Lincoln's ever was, but the post-Versailles peace of Europe was at least as unsatisfactory as America's Reconstruction Era.

The 14 Points had not been issued in a vacuum. There had been quiet diplomacy at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 that suggested a negotiated peace might be possible. The 14 Points specified the withdrawal from occupied countries, forbade crushing indemnities to be laid on either side, and sought to dampen the ambition to acquire new colonies by reconceptualizing the colonial empires as a system of trusts for the benefit of their peoples. Meanwhile, there would be an orderly transition to self-determination by the small nations of Europe. All these good things, of course, were to be overseen by a League of Nations. Lincoln could not have done better. However, the magnanimity of Lincoln's Second Inaugural evaporated when the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were announced. Though the terms were not uniquely harsh for a country as badly defeated as Russia had been, they showed that Germany had no intention of helping to create the world of neutral principles that Wilson envisioned. Wilson's reaction to this rebuff (and of course to the Germans' offensive that spring, which sought to win the war outright) reflected an essential feature of liberalism even at its finest: the enemy was not simply criticized, but delegitimized. The war could now be prosecuted without restraint, because the German Empire had, in effect, seceded from rational humanity. Wilson would again offer to intercede for Germany, but only on the condition of the end of the regime that had distained the principle of universal justice in the form of the 14 Points.

We see this same evolution in Wilson's own position toward his domestic opponents. Here is a vintage Wilson rejoinder, from as early as the election campaign of 1916, to a telegram from an irate Irish American who accused Wilson of Anglophilia:

I would feel deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to many disloyal Americans and I have not I will ask you to convey this message to them.

The worst excesses against civil liberties during Wilson's Administration occurred after his major stroke when he we was no longer running his own government, but perhaps there really was less place for dissent in Wilson's scheme of things than was in Jefferson's theory of natural rights, or even in Holmes's pragmatism. There came a point in any controversy with Wilson in which to oppose him was to oppose History. Wilson made it his business to ensure that history won.

This biography points out that Wilson got quite a lot of what he wanted at the Versailles Conference in 1919, especially during the first session. The League of Nations itself was much as he had proposed it. It was made integral to the Treaty of Versailles (the League Covenant is articles 1 to 26 of the treaty). He certainly succeeded in preventing the French from turning the League into an anti-German alliance, and he helped limit the dismemberment of Germany. He had some success with regard to colonial questions: the European empires at least made their territorial acquisitions in the form of League trusteeships; the Japanese were harder to restrain. His greatest single failure was in connection with reparations to be paid by Germany, especially the open-ended reparations that the Conference initially contemplated. It is not true that there was no negotiation with Germany over the final form of the treaty; Wilson was instrumental in getting the terms clarified, and in some instances mitigated, in response to the German protests at the first draft. However, he opposed a renegotiation of the treaty. He was not unduly concerned with the details of the treaty: its terms would take years to implement, and its more irrational features could be rectified through negotiation under the supervision of the League. That was not so different from what actually happened, but the League turned out to be less important than he had hoped, in part because the United States never joined.

The biographer's account of Wilson's doomed attempt to get the Treaty of Versailles ratified by the United States Senate may strike some readers as revisionist, though in fact the information is not new. The Democratic Party had lost control of Congress in the elections of 1918 (partly because Wilson was suspected of being soft on Germany), so Wilson's strategy seemed to have been to take a maximalist stand to limit the concessions he might have to make later. Publicly he said that the treaty had to be approved without amendment or reservation, on the grounds that the treaty could not be renegotiated and the Allies would regard conditional approval as a rejection. Privately, however, he prepared a draft of acceptable reservations and gave it to Senate minority leader, to be presented to the Senate only on the president's instruction. Some senators were in fact proposing amendments that were designed to kill the treaty, but some proposed reservations simply clarified that the League Covenant did not override the Constitution of the United States, particularly with regard to the power of Congress to declare war. Such reservations would have been well within the limits of diplomatic practice. With modifications, in fact, the League seemed to enjoy majority popular support.

Nonetheless, there was opposition among isolationists in the West and Midwest against the League in any form, and Wilson felt that he could not proceed to concessions until it was clear that he had the public unambiguously behind him. So, he undertook the famous whistle-stop tour of 1919, stopping at places large and small to deliver jeremiads like this to increasingly enthusiastic audiences:


You are betrayed. You fought for something that you did not get. And the glory of the armies and navies of the United States is gone like a dream in the night, and there ensues upon it, in the suitable darkness of the night, the nightmare of dread that lay upon the nations before this war came; and there will come some time, in the vengeful Providence of God, another war in which not a few hundred thousand men from America will have to die, but as many millions as are necessary to accomplish the final freedom of the peoples of the world.

Strong stuff, and it seemed to be working. However, it was obvious to those around him that Wilson was falling apart. He had actually suffered some minor strokes as early as his tenure as president of Princeton, and there had perhaps been another two incidents during the Versailles Conference. Under the unrelenting stress of the Western Tour he began to seem almost like the politician in the film The Candidate, who is reduced to incoherence in the later part of his campaign. Wilson started saying things that were not his policy, such as that reservations to the treaty were the same as amendments and both were unacceptable. In any case, he eventually suffered a major stroke (another parallel with Lenin, actually). The League campaign lapsed because Wilson was no longer able to negotiate with the Senate and would not allow others to do so for him.

Not long after the death of his first wife, Ellen, Wilson had created a mild scandal by marrying one Edith Bolling Galt. Edith Wilson is sometimes said to have been the first female president of the United States, because her control of the presidential sick room gave her effective control of the government. This exaggerates her role. Certainly she diminished the influence of Wilson's gray eminence, Edward Mandell House (best known by the courtesy title "Colonel House"), and of and Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's secretary and political advisor from Jersey City. However, as the biographer points out, neither Edith, nor Secretary of State Lansing, nor the relentlessly unassuming Vice President John Mitchel, ran the government during the last year and a half of the Wilson presidency. After some weeks, Wilson was able to conduct carefully controlled courtesy interviews, but he could do little work beyond saying "no." He did understand his condition. He confined most interaction with the executive departments to occasional advice, which he left to the discretion of the cabinet secretaries. In the case of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, his lack of oversight was to have very unfortunate results.

After leaving the White House, Wilson recovered somewhat. He was able to greet visitors, make a few public appearances (especially on Armistice Day), and even to make a few speeches. He carried on a limited correspondence (he still typed, though less well than formerly) and published one essay on the theme that the way to combat Bolshevism was to reform capitalism. When he died in 1924, he was scarcely a forgotten man, but one with an ambiguous historical reputation. He and Edith are buried now in the nave of Washington Cathedral.

Judging by this biography, Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles was a far nearer thing than we usually imagine, so much so that we must ask ourselves whether it would have made much difference if Wilson had completed his Western Tour and reached an accommodation with the Senate. The idea of a permanent body to administer the terms of a complicated multilateral agreement is far from utopian. The Congress of Vienna, which settled Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, continued after a fashion as the Concert of Europe to oversee the peace. The Concert was an alliance rather than a perpetual diplomatic conference like the League, but the principle was not so different. Wilson, by the way, despised the Congress of Vienna: an odd assessment, considering that the Viennese settlement was far less vindictive than the Treaty of Versailles would be.

The addition of the United States to the League would have augmented its capacities, and maybe also its sphere of attention (certainly the League would have paid more attention to Latin America and to East Asia). However, it is hard to believe that the effectiveness of the League would have been fundamentally increased, or that World War II would have been prevented. The harsher features of the Treaty of Versailles had already been renegotiated by the time the wheels started to fall off the international system in the 1930s. In any case, it simply was not true that the United States was an isolationist power in the 1920s. The US was deeply involved with the Bank of England in managing the world's monetary system; there were even quite a few US military interventions. US interest in international cooperation waned during the 1930s, and there is no reason to think that US membership in the League would have altered that trend.

Indeed, one might think of the League as a relative success whose posthumous reputation was blackened by comparison with the rhetoric of its founding. The League was created to oversee the implementation of the treaty of Versailles. Within a dozen years the treaty had been implemented or was obsolete. Soon thereafter the League went out of business. Is that really so surprising?

But what of the high hopes that accompanied the founding of the League? Wilson's arguments for the League echo Immanuel Kant's proposal for "perpetual peace" guaranteed by a universal confederation of liberal republics. Wilson's logic also reflects the Augustinian principle of the Tranquility of Order. As Wilson put it:


The world can be at peace only if it is stable and there can be no stability where the will is in rebellion, where there is not tranquility of the spirit and a sense of justice.

There is some sense in which this has to be true: no order, including a world order, is going to be durable unless the people who live under it accept its demands and benefits as legitimate. No doubt, in the working of the Providence in which Wilson set so much faith, some such legitimate world order will eventually appear. The problem is the premise that the predicate of legitimacy is neutrality, that no just order may retain historically conditioned content, or perhaps may not even serve any moral principle. Oddly enough for a philosophy named after a man with such a lively appreciation of historical context, Wilsonianism makes the organic the enemy of the just.

Again, there are parallels between Wilson's thought and that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes famously asserted that law should be made for the "bad man," for the subject who could not be expected to act from higher motives, but would do whatever he could that did not incur legal sanction. This is a clarifying principle that has its uses. However, taken literally, it would mean that everyone subject to the law would have to be treated as a potential criminal. Similarly, Wilson's hope that the peace after the First World War would be a peace without victors might have odd implications if it were made a universal principle. A world without victors would, in effect, be a world in which every country was treated as a conquered country. Whatever was not mandated by the universal consensus of neutral principles would be forbidden. Opposition to the consensus would be delegitimized, in much the way that the government of imperial Germany was delegitimized by its refusal in early 1918 to accept Wilson's offer of arbitration on the basis of disinterested reason.

These criticisms do not mean that Wilson's goals of effective government and universal peace through justice are either misguided or unobtainable. They do suggest that some of the basic premises of this enterprise need to be rethought.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Fascism: A History

Calling one's political opponent a fascist is still a popular political slur, but the actual occurrence of fascist ideas on the Right remains somewhat unclear. John was undubitably correct to note that the rise of popular parties on the right in Europe has mostly been tied to immigration, and also that anti-semitic ideas and Holocaust denial do have genuinely popular appeal nearly everywhere [not only on the Right].

John also notes that the world has in some ways only just returned to the conditions that prevailed before the Great War. International finance, and the relations between nations are beginning to relax again after the extended crisis that started in 1914, and only truly ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The interesting question for us is: how will it be different this time around?

Fascism: A History
By Roger Eatwell
Penguin Books, 1996
$14.95, 404 pages
ISBN: 0-14-025700-4

One More Time?

"Fascism is on the march again. Its style may at times be very different, but the ideological core remains the same -- the attempt to create a HOLISTIC NATIONAL THIRD WAY [Italics in original]...[A]n ideology that places so little emphasis on constitutions and rights, and so much on elite-inspired manipulation, must always be mistrusted. Beware of men -- and women -- wearing smart Italian suits...the aim is still power, and the fantasy of the creation of a radical new culture."


----"Fascism," page 361


This is the very alarming conclusion of this general history of fascist ideology by Roger Eatwell, a Reader in history at the University of Bath. It is all the more alarming because this is not a very alarmed book. Certainly it is free of "anti-fascism," which in this context often means the sort of Marxist analysis that assumes the whole political spectrum beyond the radical left is fascist in some imprecise but irredeemable way. What we do get is a brief description of the common intellectual heritage of fascism from the late nineteenth century, plus short histories of the fascist movements in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain. The sections dealing with fascism in these countries after World War II, and especially the more recent New Right, are the most interesting in the book.

Since we are not dealing with a partisan tirade here, it is genuinely disturbing when Eatwell ends the book by suggesting that, though fascism died in a sense in 1945, it may well be about to experience a resurrection in time for a bright future in the 21st century. Whether this hypothesis proves correct or not, still this analysis does illustrate yet another way in which Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century has returned to many of the problems that faced it at the century's beginning.

The ideological component of fascism has often been neglected in favor of psychohistories of fascist leaders and morbid prose poems about national character. This is understandable, since one of the defining features of fascism is ideological syncretism. Usually, this has meant combining "socialism" with some form of nationalism, but even this minimum requires qualification. The study of fascist ideology is made even more difficult by the fact it was most systematically expressed where it had the least influence, in France and Britain. (Eatwell is not an admirer of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, but he does give him credit for producing the best thought-out fascist party-platform. The best platform so far, that is.) In any case, at the local level, fascism often had little theoretical content, beyond the privilege of beating people up with impunity. Nevertheless, fascism does have an intellectual history, and the phenomenon as a whole is not so diffuse as to defy definition.

Fascism would not have been possible without Friedrich Nietzsche. There has been no lack of anti-theistic philosophers both before and after Nietzsche, but he is almost alone in honestly facing the consequences of living in a world in which everything is permitted. Most thinkers have sought to preserve some fragment of the intellectual structure that depended from the hypothesis of the Christian God, and so they appeal to reason or history or science. Nietzsche would have none of it. If the skies are really empty, then there are no imperatives. There is, however, life, which in the case of human beings expresses itself not just as biology but as the will. Now Nietzsche, unlike Schopenhauer and unlike many of his own followers, recognized the will is itself a composite entity. It is not a primary physical force, and it is not a god. It does, however, actually exist, and its exercise is all the meaning that life can ever have.

The proposition that the meaning of life is the exercise of the will leads to two kinds of conclusions. The most obvious, and the most popular, is the cult of cruelty. Naturally, the street-fighters who normally figure in the public activities of successful fascist parties are rarely well-read in the literature of philosophical nihilism. Nevertheless, even the nihilist violence of the German SA and the Italian "squadristi" chimes with high theory. Fascism promotes ruthlessness for the same reason that it promotes conspiracy theories: for a fascist, nothing is going to happen unless some will makes it happen. One suspects this consideration is also a factor in the usual fascist suspicion of free markets.

The other conclusion to which an ontology of the will leads is the transformation of politics into art. Whole societies become instruments for the expression of the will of elites, or often of a single great individual. In fascist theory, this is all that politics ever was, no matter what purportedly disinterested purposes the ruling elites of the past believed they served. The difference that Nietzsche made was that this reality could become conscious.

Fascism is not quite coincident with the great man theory of history. Since human beings are social animals, the will is to some extent a social phenomenon. Thus, reality is an intersubjective construct, a fable that people make up amongst themselves. The construct is not entirely arbitrary. Most fascists have also posited a strong racial or biological element conditioning the way that leaders and their peoples behave. Still, even in highly racialized forms of fascism, the leader stands to the people as the will stands to the individual. Politics, then, is not an arbitrary art, but an art whereby the leader makes the unconscious will of the people explicit.

In addition to Nietzsche, the other seminal influence on fascism whom Eatwell discusses at length is Georges Sorel. Now Sorel is remembered as the chief theorist of socialist syndicalism, and like Nietzsche his thought has influenced people who are not fascist by any definition. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a primary source of the nuts-and-bolts of practical fascism, which was chiefly concerned with integrating restive populations of industrial workers into fragile national communities. (The widespread use of the word "community" to refer to classes of people who could not possibly know each other is mostly Max Weber's fault, though to me it has long carried fascist undertones. Well, that is another story.)

Sorel's socialism was of the sort that combined plans for the betterment of the masses with considerable contempt for their intelligence, indeed contempt for almost everything about them as they actually existed. Sorel believed that the masses could be integrated into a social force only through slogans and myths. Sorel's favorite myth was that of the "general strike." Actual general strikes, in which the whole of a country's organized labor force walked off the job at the same time, have been tried a few times, with mixed success. The myth of the general strike, however, is like the vision of Judgment Day. It is the goal in whose name organizers organize, it is the reason to pay union dues. It is an ultimate threat, like the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, that creates a world by defining its limits. It is not entirely dishonest; the leaders may believe it in a heuristic sense. Such subtleties, however, are not for the people they lead.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the political systems of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was precisely their use of myth and symbol. (As Salvador Dali once remarked, Nazism was essentially surrealism come to power.) The widely-bought if sparsely-read "Myth of the Twentieth Century," by the Nazi Party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, seems to have used "myth" in a Sorelian sense, the myth in this case being the origin of the Aryan race in Atlantis and its leading role in later history. More generally, both the Nazi and the Italian Fascist regimes seemed to be exercises in government by grand opera. (Götterdämmerung and Don Giovanni, no doubt.)

The myths used to organize the elites were not necessarily those provided for the masses. The Nazi leadership in particular cultivated a sort of occultism (though if figures like Julius Evola are any indication, this enthusiasm was not absent from Italy, either). The people, however, were pushed with more conventional forms of nationalist xenophobia and pulled with quite prosaic promises of economic improvement and social welfare (promises on which both regimes could in large measure deliver). This difference of integrative principles was consistent with the fascist notion of society as an organic entity. Organism implies differentiation, so it was only proper that elites and masses be organized through different means.

Was antisemitism an integrating myth for the people? Certainly this was not the case in Italy, where fascism made much of cultural chauvinism but tended to mock biological racism. It was only in the late 1930s that Mussolini promulgated anti-Jewish legislation in order to please Hitler. The legislation was never as harsh as that in Germany, and was in any case ignored by the people and the government with some enthusiasm. (This changed after the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943, when Mussolini became a puppet ruling a rump-state under German control.) As for Germany, there is little evidence that antisemitism ever added to the Nazis' popularity. Certainly the Nazis downplayed the Jewish theme when electoral victory became a real possibility after 1929. While it is true that surveys taken after World War II showed high levels of antisemitic feeling in Germany, this is as likely to have been an effect of the Nazi regime as one of its causes. The truth of the matter seems to be that, if antisemitism was a Sorelian myth, it a myth embraced by the elites rather than the masses.

England and France both had proto-fascist and self-consciously fascist movements between the wars. Eatwell notes the many writers with fascist leanings in France during this period, some of whom, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, commanded large popular followings in the 1930s. (Charles Maurras and his Action Française were too traditionally conservative to quite qualify as fascist.) As a serious political movement, French fascism needed the Popular Front politics of the Left to fight against, and so it pretty much collapsed along with the Popular Front government in the mid-'30s. English fascism started off just after the First World War on a disarmingly dotty note, with a tiny party that advocated, among other things, lowering taxes on gentlefolk so they could reduce unemployment by hiring servants. However, the movement was dominated in the 1930s and after the war by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Mosley, not unlike Churchill, was a black-sheep establishment figure, an institutional outsider but not quite a mere eccentric. He maintained a measure of credibility quite late into the decade; he was even briefly touted by the press-lord Rothermere. Still, in neither France nor England did any fascist party come within shouting distance of playing a major role in national government, much less of inaugurating a fascist revolution. Eatwell emphasizes two key reasons why they did not go the way of Germany and Italy.

The first major difference was that Britain and France had respectable national right-wing parties during the 1920s and '30s, while Germany and Italy did not. In Italy, a proper conservative establishment never got a chance to form. To a large extent, the Kingdom of Italy had always been something that northern Italians did to southern Italians (and this without the blessing of the Church, which was still annoyed at the way the Papal States had been annexed in 1870). Therefore, the local notables who might have formed the backbone of a conservative party were alienated from the national government. In Germany, of course, the old establishment had been discredited by the war. The lack of responsible right wings meant that irresponsible persons in these countries had a chance to fill the political space such parties normally occupy. The opportunity came when the narrowly-based political establishments appeared to be incapable of dealing with a national crisis.

For France and Britain the interwar years were for the most part dreary decades, but in neither country were they attended by a general sense of social crisis. France, despite the proliferation of socialist theorists of all descriptions and the growing strength of the Communist Party, seems to have been singularly immune to Red Scares. Unemployment was muted even during the Depression, partly because the country was still so rural that unemployed industrial workers simply went back to the land. For England, the '20s was in many ways the more troubled of the two decades, with intractably high unemployment even during good times and the General Strike of 1925. In the '30s, on the other hand, the effect of the worldwide depression was not nearly as severe as in other countries, and for much of the decade the economy was conspicuously innovative and dynamic.

Italy's crisis came early. In the years between the end of the war and Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, revolution was in the air, particularly in the rural areas of the north. As in Spain during the prelude to that country's civil war in the '30s, local socialist governments were often uninterested in protecting private property from seizure by workers. Right-wing terror squads, usually led by strong-men without any particular ideology, also enjoyed official indulgence in some regions (as well as a measure of popular support). Mussolini, a sophisticated socialist with anti-clerical leanings, came to power by organizing the strong-men and convincing at least a section of the establishment that he could bring social peace. When he first met the king to demand the primiership, Mussolini wore a fascist uniform. For the second meeting, he wore proper morning clothes.

Hitler wore morning clothes, too, when he went to see President Hindenburg to be sworn in as chancellor 11 years later. Germany's crisis was far more a matter of economics than Italy's had been, though exasperated by the fact the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic was even more fragile than that of the Kingdom of Italy. Eatwell takes us through a quick review of the "Who Was To Blame" literature regarding Hitler's final ascension to the chancellorship. He finds little merit in the theory that Hitler (or Mussolini, for that matter) was essentially a tool of big business. What he does suggest is that the acquiescence of a weak establishment was a necessary precondition for such an improbable figure to be appointed head of a government.

Since the early 1930s, there has never been another coincidence of a weak establishment, a crisis, and a group of men with the proper ideological predispositions necessary for the formation of a fascist state. Franco's Spain was not fascist because Franco was not an artist, but a cop (or, as they used to say in my old high school, a "Prefect of Discipline"). The rulers of Vichy France, for all their authoritarian tendencies, were hardly in a position to view themselves as bold supermen. After the war, fascism was an enthusiasm only of cranks everywhere in Europe except in Italy, where the former regime never lacked for a small party of defenders. (Mussolini's widow got a regular ministerial survivor's pension.) Until the end of the Cold War, this looked like it would be the state of things for the foreseeable future. The problem with the end of the Cold War, of course, was that it made the future much less foreseeable.

In the 1990s we have seen a historically fascist party, led by Gianfranco Fini, achieve junior-partner status in an Italian government. (The party he leads changes names. Not long ago it was "The Italian Social Movement." Latterly it has been "The National Alliance." The Communist Party of Italy has undergone similar mutations in nomenclature, and also claims to have mellowed ideologically. Maybe they have.) Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National" in France seems to have a lock on from 15% to 20% of the vote. In Germany, in contrast, the party system has rebuffed the attempts to organize New Right sentiment. (This is not the case in Austria, where Jörg Haider's "Austrian Freedom Party" has polled up to 28% of the vote.) Throughout Europe, just as after the First World War, small groups of violent youths with proto-fascist leanings became conspicuous. Perhaps the most alarming thing we have discovered about the German Democratic Republic is that it did not so much extirpate Nazi ideas among the people as preserve them in ice, like dinosaurs in a science fiction movie that wreak havoc when defrosted.

One may, of course, quarrel about whether the European New Right as a whole should be consider proto-fascist, or crypto-fascist, or even fascist at all. Still, the deeper you look into any of these organizations and their leaders, the less comforted you are likely to be.

On a popular level, the issue which has the most resonance for the New Right is immigration. Everywhere in Western Europe (and in much of the United States), ordinary people are spooked by changing demographics. They are also alienated by the tendency of establishment opinion to dismiss this concern as mere reflexive racism. Persistent levels of high unemployment, often seen as a function of the presence of too many foreigners, similarly undermines the credibility of the governments of the major European states. Issues like this, however, are not the stuff of which revolutions are made, fascist or otherwise. Additionally, while right-wing leaders are at pains to keep themselves free of the least taint of racism in general or antisemitism in particular, the fact is that at ground level their organizations are, for the most part, virulently antisemitic. There is a significant public for Holocaust-denial theories. However, in no country are such things electorally useful.

The distinctive thing about fascism, however, is that it has always been a doctrine for masters rather than followers. Eatwell has some very alarming things to say about the growth of "up-scale" fascism, of ideological resources for people who either belong to existing elites or would very much like to start one. This has been made immensely easier, at least in my own view, by the spread of relativist philosophies in the Nietzschean tradition in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly at the elite schools. No matter the intent of the instructors, it always seemed singularly ill-advised to me to tell young people, who by virtue of native intelligence and social position were going to wind up running a fair slice of the world anyway, that life was really just about power. There is always some danger they might believe it.

A sentiment that seems to find increasing currency is what might be called "Euro-fascism." While fascist parties between the wars built their followings on nationalistic platforms, still from the very beginning fascism has always had a universalizing streak. Nietzsche pronounced himself a "good European." In these days when political theorists speak in terms of the clash of civilizations, New Right theory seems to be moving in the direction, not of renewed hypernationalism, but of an integrating theory for the European Union. Eatwell notes that the EU as it stands is a disedifying entity, run by bland bureaucrats who are most concerned with setting standards for bottled jam. Current plans for future integration will go no further toward turning Europe into a true political community (that word again). Eatwell asks whether anyone is ever going to be willing to die for the Bundesbank. Maybe what Europe needs is a Sorelian myth to hold it together. Work is in progress.

So, are we really just back where we started at the beginning of the 20th century, waiting for some crisis that will delegitimize the existing establishments and start the ball rolling again? One way to look at the 20th century is as one long recoil from the process of globalization. It was only in the 1990s, for instance, that international capital flows again reached the levels relative to the economies of the major countries that they had reached before the First World War. Similarly, it is only recently that international trade in general became as important as it was around 1900. What happened thereafter was that the governments of the leading nations sought to gain unprecedented control of their countries' destinies. Partly this was accomplished by war, partly it was accomplished through the creation of command economies. Stalinism was simply Lloyd George's "War Socialism" made permanent, something that happened in greater or lesser degree throughout the West. In every case, the goal was to replace the power of capital with the power of the will, whether the will was that of an electorate or of a would-be Nietzschean superman. When, starting in the 1980s, the military and economic systems of command began to be relaxed, the world economic system began to look again something like the way it had looked before these measures were implemented. The process of globalization began again. So did the attempts to stop it.

It would be wrong to say that all attempts to stop globalization of economics and communications and culture are fascist. Most resistance to universalism comes from a positive desire to preserve local identities and traditions. Such things may or may not be worth preserving. The balance between the local and the universal is not something that can be dictated categorically. Fascist nationalism, in contrast, was perhaps just an improvisation, made necessary by the fact that nations states were the largest units that fascist elites could hope to control. At a deeper level of fascism is the ideal of the universal empire, of the whole world subject to a single will. The goal is repeatedly deferred only because it is obviously so much harder to achieve.

Fascist statecraft is by its nature manipulative, a game that elites play with deluded masses. The fascists in the '20s and '30s did not come to power by promising to create a society beyond good and evil. They did it by promising people things that really were good, such as safe streets and private property and a country with a culture they could recognize. The opponents to fascism too often fell into the trap of opposing these things simply because the fascists endorsed them. This is an important point for the world's liberals (or progressives, or whatever they call themselves locally) to keep in mind. As for the conservatives, they must beware of the company they keep.

This article originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site


The Long View: If Germany Had Won World I.....

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919   By William Orpen - Imperial War Museum Collections: Website Webpage, Public Domain,

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919

By William Orpen - Imperial War Museum Collections: Website Webpage, Public Domain,

Given John's penchant for cyclical models of history, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that if Germany had won World War I, not much would have changed. We like to think of battles and wars as momentous things, and sometimes they are, but the outcome of the twentieth century was overdetermined, at least according to Spengler and Toynbee.

By way of proof, consider this: Spengler started writing the Decline of the West in 1911, and finished it in 1914. Weimar culture, famed for its decadence and defeatism, started before the war too. Its analogues started in England, France, and the United States about the same time.

Here is John's boldest claim:

I would go so far as to say this: something very like the Nazi Party would still have come to power in Germany, even if that country had won the First World War. I realize that this assertion runs counter to the historiography of most of this century, but the conclusion is inescapable. Politics is a part of culture, and the Nazis represented a kind of politics which was integral with Weimar culture. Salvador Dali once said, perhaps ironically, that he approved of the Nazi Party because they represented the surrealists come to power. The connection is deep, as with the Nazi affinity for the modernist post-rationalism of the philosopher Heidigger, and also superficial, in the styles the party promoted. The Nuremberg Rallies, for instance, were masterpieces of Art Deco stagecraft, particularly Albert Speer's "cathedral of ice" effect, created with the use of searchlights. As a young hopeful in Vienna, Hitler once passed up the chance to work as a theatrical set designer because he was too shy to go to the interview. But whether he knew it or not, that is what he became. People with no fascist inclinations at all love to watch film footage produced by the Nazis, for the simple reason that it is very good cinema: it comes from the same artistic culture which gave us METROPOLIS and THE BLUE ANGEL. The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich formed a historical unit, one whose advent was not dependent on the accident of who won the First World War.

Leni Riefenstahl deserves mention here too. A Triumph of the Will was a masterpiece of a movie, and continues to be influential today, although no one would be so foolish as to admit it influenced them. The Nazis were stylish and popular, a reflection of the spirit of the times.

John gets even more contrary towards the end. He suggests that despite the colossal waste and horror of the Great War, the way it turned out may have been better than some of the likely alternatives. This is worth considering.

If Germany Had Won World War I.....

In a way, this is a more interesting hypothesis than the more commonly asked question about what the world would be like if the Germans had won World War II. Several historians have noted that both world wars should really be considered a single conflict with a long armistice in the middle. If this viewpoint is valid, then the official outcome of the first phase of this conflict may have been important for reasons other than those usually cited.

As a preliminary matter, we should note that the actual outcome of the First World War was a near thing, a far nearer thing than was the outcome of World War II after 1941. While it is true that the United States entered the war on the allied side in 1917, thus providing vast new potential sources of men and material, it is also true that Germany had knocked Russia out of the war at about the same time. This gave the Germans access to the resources of Eastern Europe and freed their troops for deployment to the West. The German Spring Offensive of 1918 actually succeeded in rupturing the Allied line at a point where the Allies had no significant reserves. (At about this time, British Prime Minister Lloyd George was heard to remark, "We are going to lose this war." He began to create a record which would shift the blame to others.) The British Summer Offensive of the same year similarly breached the German lines, but did a much better job of exploiting the breakthrough than the Germans had done a few months earlier. General Ludendorff panicked and demanded that the government seek an armistice. The German army did succeed in containing the Allied breakthrough, but meanwhile the German diplomats had opened tentative armistice discussions with the United States. Given U.S. President Wilson's penchant for diplomacy by press-release, the discussions could not be broken off even though the German military situation was no longer critical. While the Germans were not militarily defeated, or even economically desperate, the government and general public saw no prospect of winning. Presented with the possibility of negotiating a settlement, their willingness to continue the conflict simply dissolved.

The Germans were defeated by exhaustion. This could as easily have happened to the Allies. When you read the diaries and reports of the French and British on the Western Front from early 1918, the writers seem to be perfectly lucid and in full command of their faculties. What the Americans noted when they started to arrive at about that time was that everyone at the front was not only dirty and malnourished, but half asleep. In addition to their other deleterious effects, the terrible trench warfare battles of that conflict were remarkably exhausting, and the capacity of the Allies to rotate out survivors diminished with the passage of time. Even with American assistance, France and Britain were societies that were slowly falling apart from lack of ordinary maintenance. Both faced food shortages from the diversion of farmers into the army and from attacks on oceanborne supplies. Had the Germans been able to exploit their breakthrough in the spring, or if the German Empire had held together long enough for Ludendorff's planned autumn offensive to take place, its quite likely that either the French or British would have sued for peace. Had one or the other even raised the question of an armistice, the same process of internal political collapse which destroyed Germany would have overtaken both of them.

Although today it is reasonably clear that Germany fought the war with the general aim of transforming itself from a merely continental power to a true world power, the fact is that at no point did the German government know just what its peace terms would be if it won. It might have annexed Belgium and part of the industrial regions of northern France, though bringing hostile, non-German populations into the Empire might not have seemed such a good idea if the occasion actually arose. More likely, or more rationally, the Germans would have contented themselves with demilitarizing these areas. From the British, they would probably have demanded nothing but more African colonies and the unrestricted right to expand the German High Seas Fleet. In Eastern Europe, they would be more likely to have established friendly satellite countries in areas formerly belonging to the defunct empires than to have directly annexed much territory. It seems to me that the Austrian and Ottoman Empires were just as likely to have fallen apart even if the Central Powers had won. The Hungarians were practically independent before the war, after all, and the chaos caused by the eclipse of Russia would have created opportunities for them which they could exploit only without the restraint of Vienna. As for the Ottoman Empire, most of it had already fallen to British invasion or native revolt. No one would have seen much benefit in putting it back together again, not even the Turks.

Communist agitation was an important factor in the dissolution of Imperial Germany, and it would probably have been important to the collapse of France and Britain, too. One can imagine Soviets being established in Glasglow and the north of England, a new Commune in Paris. This could even have happened in New York, dominated as it was by immigrant groups who were either highly radicalized or anti-British. It is unlikely that any of these rebellions would have succeeded in establishing durable Communist regimes in the West, however. The Soviets established in Germany and Eastern Europe after the war did not last, even though the central government had dissolved. In putting down such uprisings, France might have experienced a bout of military dictatorship, not unlike the Franco era in Spain, and Britain might have become a republic. Still, although the public life of these countries would have been polarized and degraded, they would probably have remained capitalist democracies. The U.S., one suspects, would have reacted to the surrender or forced withdrawal of its European expeditionary force by beginning to adopt the attitude toward German-dominated Europe which it did later in the century toward the victorious Soviet Union. Britain, possibly with its empire in premature dissolution, would have been forced to seek a strong Atlantic alliance. As for the Soviet Union in this scenario, it is hard to imagine the Germans putting up with its existence after it had served its purpose. Doubtless some surviving Romanov could have been put on the throne of a much- diminished Russia. If no Romanov was available, Germany has never lacked for princelings willing to be sent abroad to govern improvised countries.

This leaves us with the most interesting question: what would have happened to Germany itself? Before the war, the German constitution was working less and less well. Reich chancellors were not responsible to parliament but to the Kaiser. The system could work only when the Kaiser was himself a competent executive, or when he had the sense to appoint and support a chancellor who was. The reign of Wilhelm II showed that neither of these conditions need be the case. In the twenty years preceding the war, national policy was made more and more by the army and the bureaucracy. It is unlikely that this degree of drift could have continued after a victorious war. Two things would have happened which in fact happened in the real world: the monarchy would have lost prestige to the military, and electoral politics would have fallen more and more under the influence of populist veterans groups.

We should remember that to win a great war can be almost as disruptive for a combatant country as to lose it. There was a prolonged political crisis, indeed the whiff of revolution, in victorious Britain in the 1920s. Something similar seems to be happening in the United States today after the Cold War. While it is, of course, unlikely that the Kaiser would have been overthrown, it is highly probable that there would have been some constitutional crisis which would have drastically altered the relationship between the branches of government. It would have been in the military's interest to push for more democracy in the Reich government, since the people would have been conspicuously pro-military. The social and political roles of the old aristocracy would have declined, since the war would have brought forward so many men of humble origin. Again, this is very much what happened in real history. If Germany had won and the Allies lost, the emphasis in these developments would certainly have been different, but not the fundamental trends.

All the bad and strange things which happened in Germany in the 1920s are conventionally blamed on the harsh terms of the Versailles treaty. We forget, however, that the practical effect of these terms was really very limited. The diplomatic disabilities on Germany were eliminated by the Locarno Pact of 1925. The great Weimar inflation, which was engineered by the government to defeat French attempts to extract reparations, was ended in 1923. The reparations themselves, of course, were a humiliating drain on the German budget, but a system of financing with international loans was arranged which worked satisfactorily until the world financial system broke down in the early 1930s. Even arms development was continued through clandestine projects with the Soviet Union. It is also false to assert that German culture was driven to insanity by a pervasive sense of defeat. The 1920s were the age of the Lost Generation in America and the Bright Young Things in Britain. A reader ignorant of the history of the 20th century who was given samples from this literature that did not contain actual references to the war could reasonably conclude that he was reading the literature of defeated peoples. There was indeed insanity in culture in the 1920s, but the insanity pervaded the whole West.

Weimar culture would have happened even if there had been no Weimar Republic. We know this, since all the major themes of the Weimar period, the new art and revolutionary politics and sexual liberation, all began before the war. This was a major argument of the remarkable book, RITES OF SPRING, by the Canadian scholar, Modris Ekstein. There would still have been Bauhaus architecture and surrealist cinema and depressing war novels if the Kaiser had issued a victory proclamation in late 1918 rather than an instrument of abdication. There would even have been a DECLINE OF THE WEST by Oswald Spengler in 1918. He began working on it years before the war. The book was, in fact, written in part to explain the significance of a German victory. These things were simply extensions of the trends that had dominated German culture for a generation. They grew logically out of Nietzsche and Wagner and Freud. A different outcome in the First World War would probably have made the political right less suspicious of modernity, for the simple reason that left wing politics would not have been anywhere nearly as fashionable among artists as such politics were in defeat.

I would go so far as to say this: something very like the Nazi Party would still have come to power in Germany, even if that country had won the First World War. I realize that this assertion runs counter to the historiography of most of this century, but the conclusion is inescapable. Politics is a part of culture, and the Nazis represented a kind of politics which was integral with Weimar culture. Salvador Dali once said, perhaps ironically, that he approved of the Nazi Party because they represented the surrealists come to power. The connection is deep, as with the Nazi affinity for the modernist post-rationalism of the philosopher Heidigger, and also superficial, in the styles the party promoted. The Nuremberg Rallies, for instance, were masterpieces of Art Deco stagecraft, particularly Albert Speer's "cathedral of ice" effect, created with the use of searchlights. As a young hopeful in Vienna, Hitler once passed up the chance to work as a theatrical set designer because he was too shy to go to the interview. But whether he knew it or not, that is what he became. People with no fascist inclinations at all love to watch film footage produced by the Nazis, for the simple reason that it is very good cinema: it comes from the same artistic culture which gave us METROPOLIS and THE BLUE ANGEL. The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich formed a historical unit, one whose advent was not dependent on the accident of who won the First World War.

The Nazi Party was other things besides a right wing populist group with a penchant for snazzy uniforms. It was a millenarian movement. The term "Third Reich," "Drittes Reich," is an old term for the Millennium. The Party's core began as a sort of occult lodge, like the Thule Society of Munich to which so many of its important early members belonged. It promoted a racist theory of history not unlike that of the Theosophist, H.P. Blavatsky, whose movement also used the swastika as an emblem. The little-read ideological guidebook of the party, Alfred Rosenberg's MYTH OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, begins its study of history in Atlantis. Like the Theosophists, they looked for a new "root race" of men to appear in the future, perhaps with some artificial help. When Hitler spoke of the Master Race, it is not entirely clear that he was thinking of contemporary Germans.

This is not to say that the Nazi Party was a conspiracy of evil magicians. A good, non- conspiratorial account of this disconcerting matter may be found in James Webb's THE OCCULT ESTABLISHMENT. I have two simple points to make here. The first is that the leadership had some very odd notions that, at least to some degree, explain the unique things they said and did. The other is that these ideas were not unique to them, that they were spreading among the German elites. General Von Moltke, the chief of the General Staff at the beginning of the war, was an Anthroposophist. (This group drew the peculiar ire of the SS, since Himmler believed that its leader, Rudolf Steiner, hypnotized the general so as to make him mismanage the invasion of France.) The Nazi Party was immensely popular on university campuses. The intellectual climate of early 20th century Germany was extraordinarily friendly to mysticism of all types, including in politics. The Nazi leadership were just particularly nasty people whose worldview bore a family resemblance to that of Herman Hesse and C.G. Jung. The same would probably have been true of anyone who ruled Germany in the 1930s.

Am I saying then that German defeat in the First World War made no difference? Hardly. If the war had not been lost, the establishment would have been much less discredited, and there would have been less room for the ignorant eccentrics who led the Nazi Party. Certainly people with no qualifications for higher command, such as Goering, would not have been put in charge of the Luftwaffe, nor would the Foreign Ministry have been given over to so empty-headed a man as Von Ribbentrop. As for the fate of Hitler himself, who can say?

The big difference would have been that Germany would been immensely stronger and more competent by the late 1930s than it was in the history we know. That another war would have been brewed by then we may be sure. Hitler was only secondarily interested in revenge for the First World War; his primary goal had always been geopolitical expansion into Eastern Europe and western Asia. This would have given Germany the Lebensraum to become a world power. His ideas on the subject were perfectly coherent, and not original with him: they were almost truisms. There is no reason to think that the heirs of a German victory in 1918 (or 1919, or 1920) would have been less likely to pursue these objectives.

These alternative German leaders would doubtless have been reacting in part to some new coalition aligned against them. Its obvious constituents would have been Britain, the United States and Russia, assuming Britain and Russia had a sufficient degree of independence to pursue such a policy. One suspects that if the Germans pursued a policy of aggressive colonial expansion in the 1920s and 30s, they might have succeeded in alienating the Japanese, who could have provided a fourth to the coalition. Germany for its part would begun the war with complete control of continental Europe and probably effective control of north Africa and the Near East. It would also have started with a real navy, so that Britain's position could have quickly become untenable. The coalition's chances in such a war would not have been hopeless, but they would been desperate.

It is commonly said of the First World War that it was pure waste, that it was an accident, that it accomplished nothing. The analysis I have just presented, on the contrary, suggests that the "war to end all war" may have been the most important war of the modern era after all.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site