Twenty-five years ago friends of mine were talking about Paul Johnson’s Modern Times (now revised and expanded), telling me it was a must read. I was always daunted by the size. But this fall I realized that I had several long flights coming up when I knew I could make a big dent in it. So while others flashed their Kindles at me, I happily plowed into 800 pages of pulp, glue and ink.
My friends were right. This wonderful narrative of world history in the twentieth-century was every bit as rewarding as they promised. I certainly enjoyed Johnson’s provocative opinions, as mentioned here. But the book is much more. One of its unique features is that Johnson doesn’t just focus on politics or wars. He also takes time to consider art and science and philosophy at length. And Johnson does not ignore religion either. He sees the ebb and flow of religion to be critical to the story he has to tell.
The decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum [in the West]. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum had been filled. Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the “Will to Power,” which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behaviour than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. (p. 48)
That will to
power was seen most clearly in the tyrants of the age–Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and others who imposed mass death on the populations they subjugated. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the elite saw religion as a problem that needed to be solved (eliminated), the result to be the opening of an era of enlightened reason triumphing over dark passion. But as the influence of religion declined, the gates were opened to an orgy of violence unlike anything the world had seen.
Christianity was content with a solitary hate-figure to explain evil: Satan. But modern secular faiths needed human devils, and whole categories of them. The enemy, to be plausible, had to be an entire class or race. (p. 117)
Jews, Cossacks, the bougeoisie, city-dwellers, whole tribes and nationalities–the broader the better. Those of religious faith themselves were not immune.
Both [Lenin’s] parents were Christians. Religion was important to him, in the sense that he hated it. Unlike Marx, who despised it and treated it as marginal, Lenin saw it as a powerful and ubiquitous enemy. . . . The men he really feared and hated, and later persecuted, were the saints. The purer the religion, the more dangerous. (pp. 50-51)
Johnson’s insight is evident as well when, long before the rising influence of Islam was felt and the continued endurance of Christianity was noticed in the last decade, Johnson wrote:
What is important in history is not only the events that occur but the events that obstinately do not occur. The outstanding event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear. (p. 700)
Along with the will to power, according to Johnson, were three other horsemen of the apocalypse that was the twentieth century. We’ll see where they rode in my next installment.