The Forgotten Twentieth-Century

BERLIN – It has been 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which for many historians marked the real end of the “short twentieth century” – a century that, beginning in 1914, was characterized by protracted ideological conflicts among communism, fascism, and liberal democracy, until the latter seemed to have emerged fully victorious. But something strange happened on the way to the End of History: we seem desperate to learn from the recent past, but are very unsure about what the lessons are.

Clearly, all history is contemporary history, and what Europeans, in particular, need to learn today from the twentieth century concerns the power of ideological extremes in dark times – and the peculiar nature of European democracy as it was constructed after World War II.

In some ways, the great ideological struggles of the twentieth century now seem about as close and relevant as the scholastic debates of the Middle Ages – especially, but not only, for younger generations. Who now remotely understands – let alone takes the trouble to try to understand – the great political dramas of intellectuals like Arthur Koestler and Victor Serge, people who risked their lives for and then against communism?

Nevertheless, much more than most of us would care to admit, we remain enmeshed in the concepts and categories of the twentieth century’s ideological wars. This was most obvious with the intellectual responses to Islamist terror: terms like “Islamo-fascism” or “third totalitarianism” were coined not just to characterize a new enemy of the West, but also to evoke the experience of the anti-totalitarian struggles that preceded and followed World War II.