Paul Johnson: Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties; Harper & Row; New York.

Impresario Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballet Russe rose to give his address. The year was 1905. “We are witnesses to the greatest moment of summing-up in history,” he declared:

in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. That is why, without fear or misgiving, I raise my glass to the ruined walls of the beautiful palaces, as well as to the new commandments of a new aesthetic. The only wish that I, an incorrigible sensualist, can express, is that the forthcoming struggle should not damage the amenities of life, and that the death should be as beautiful and as illuminating as the resurrection.

True to this prescience, revolutionary changes in culture, politics, economics, and technology did then pour upon the world, with dazzling speed. But the face of the new order proved to be far more malevolent and blood thirsty than Diaghilev or any of his generation could have imagined. The death of the old order was agonized, horrible, and complete. The resurrection seemed at times stillborn. Looming far above the landscape by the 1980’s was The Monster State, at once the great victor and the central failure of the 20th century. Over 100 million corpses lay at its feet, the victims of violent or unnatural deaths instigated by state action; our century’s unprecedented sacrifice to a new, cruel, and voracious god.

In Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties, Paul Johnson traces the course of this sorry, bloody era. With literary skill and scholarly panache, he shatters the cherished myths, beloved delusions, Marxist lies, and liberal flimflam that have passed for historical fact in recent decades. By and large, Johnson’s is a grim tale, relieved only by moments of light and progress during the 1920’s and 1950’s. Through his luminous metaphors, rich analogies, and unexpected comparisons, however, Johnson brings order out of the century’s chaos and helps to restore to the historian’s enterprise both common sense and a commitment to transcendent truth. The past and present will not appear quite the same to anyone who reads and honestly ponders this book.

Johnson draws his dominant themes in broad strokes. First, he insists that there are no historical inevitabilities. For example, he argues that the collapse of the British Empire was not preordained. Rather, it fell primarily because there was no longer “the will to keep this elaborate structure functioning.” Similarly, in surveying the “watershed year” of 1941 — “From which mankind has descended into its present predicament” — Johnson emphasizes the decisive role played by individual choice. “Hitler and Stalin played chess with humanity,” he writes. “Neither man represented irresistible or even potent historical forces. . . . We gave here the very opposite of historical determinism — the apotheosis of the single autocrat.”

The author stresses “the holistic principle,” through which political events and moral tendencies are seen as exhibiting consequences throughout the world. As example, he argues that industrializing Japan became infected by the moral nihilism rising in the West and “so cast itself into the very pit of twentieth century horror.”

More importantly, Johnson stresses the awful consequences of the breakdown of the “highly developed sense of personal responsibility” and the “duty toward a settled and objectively true moral code” which lay at the heart of 19th-century Europe. In their place rose moral relativism, a knife which would “help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.” But again, such a transformation had consequences even far beyond the once-Christian continent. “The tragedy of interwar China,” Johnson writes, “illustrates the principle that when legitimacy yields to force, and moral absolutes to relativism, a great darkness descends and angels become indistinguishable from devils.”

Also hammered home as a dominant theme of our century is the new worship of politics, a cult which rose in the advanced nations to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the old religious impulse. “Hitler, like Lenin, was the product of an age increasingly obsessed by politics,” the author suggests. “He never seriously attempted to make his living by any other means and he was only really at home, like Lenin, in a world where the pursuit of power . . . was the chief object and satisfaction of existence.” Drawing connections across the decades, Johnson ascribes the same characteristics to the French-educated leaders of the Khmer Rouge who, as “Sartre’s children,” ordered the mass genocide of their own people: “Like Lenin, they were pure intellectuals. They epitomized the great destructive force of the twentieth century: the religious fanatic reincarnated as professional politician.”

So believing in the freedom of the will and in personal responsibility, Johnson clearly distinguishes history’s swelling torrent of villains from its shrinking rank of heroes. The former group includes expected figures such as Stalin and Hitler (“fellow ideologues” building utopias “on a fundamental division of mankind into elites and helots” who were opponents only though “the accident of race”); Mao Tse-tung (“an oriental Hitler” who “loved politics as theatre” and “hated ‘civilization’” as much as the German führer); India’s Jawaharlal Nehru (“the leading exponent of the higher humbug”); and Indonesia’s Achmad Sukarno (the prime example of “the political religiosity and inner heartlessness of the post-colonial leadership”). But Johnson’s list of the enemies of society also embraces less expected names, men who moved through the shadows of our century and who “sought to create climates rather than shape specific policies.” Men like Lytton Strachey, center of Britain’s effete and sodomizing Bloomsbury Group, who spent the Great War writing Eminent Victorians, a book ridiculing “precisely those virtues and principles the men in the trenches were trying to uphold” and which proved “far more destructive of the old British values than any legion of enemies.” Men like Edwin Montagu, named Undersecretary of Sate for India in 1919, who “suffered from that corrosive vice of the civilized during the twentieth century . . .: guilt.” And men like United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld, severe, humorless, probably sexless, “guilt personified,” and “determined that the West should expiate it.”

Johnson’s painfully smaller roster of the culturally and politically courageous includes Joseph Conrad, called the “only substantial writer . . . whose vision [today] remains clear and true. . . .” It embraces Warren G. Harding, labeled as the victim of a vicious and sensationalizing historiography, as “the only President in American history who actually brought about massive cuts in government spending,” and as an “agreeably liberal” chief executive who cleared the jails of Woodrow Wilson’s political prisoners. It claims Calvin Coolidge, a man “wholly uncorrupted by power,” who most comprehensively carried into our age the “founding principles of Americanism: hard work, frugality, freedom of conscience, freedom from government, respect for serious culture.” It also embraces a handful of postwar figures: Harry Truman, whose “instincts were democratic and straightforward”; Dwight Eisenhower, “the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents”; and “a group of European titans”  Conrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, and Charles de Gaulle — who reached back to an older, better value system “to revivify the corpse of a Europe which had slain itself.”

Found throughout the book, moreover, is the figure of Winston Churchill, serving at once as Paul Johnson’s alter ego and as the conscience of the Western Christian World, challenging the dominant forces of the age (“You might as well legalize sodomy as recognize the Bolsheviks,” he exclaimed in 1919), struggling — often alone — to hold back the apocalypse, always managing to be present at the major axes of time (astonishingly, Churchill was actually sitting in the visitors’ gallery of the New York Stock Exchange on October 24, 1929 when the stock market boom began to collapse).

Of course, some personalities fall between these camps. While Johnson labels Herbert Hoover “one of the tragic figures” of his era, he also criticizes him as the first true American social engineer, as a corporatist and Keynesian, and as the prototype of the new and dangerous activist politician. Francisco Franco, while certainly “cold” and “unlovable,” is nonetheless called “one of the most successful of public men of the century.” As a soldier “in the tradition of the Romans, the crusaders, [and] the conquistadors” who “spent his entire political career seeking the exterminate politics,” Franco draws some admiration from the historian as an honest, if archaic spirit swimming against the tide.

Yet in general, Johnson spends little time agonizing over the nuances of judgement. Absolute evil is loose in the world, he believes, and its partisans are widely spread. But what the author sacrifices in terms of lack of caution, oversimplification, and strained generalizations, he more than recovers in the sharpness and moral vigor of his argument. For Paul Johnson, at least, nothing is relative.

Least of all when drawing broad comparisons across time and space. The Third French Republic, he argues, “had been the embodiment of the notion ‘small is beautiful,’” sporting a declining population, a stagnant economy, and a highly developed cult of the “little man,” the small farm, the small factory. “it was dead even before the Germans defeated it,” he adds with implicit warning, “and collapsed into a heap of dust in the summer of 1940.” Hitler’s fear of race poisoning and the latter-day fear of environmental poisoning, Johnson suggests elsewhere, shared a common psychology: “As with the . . . ecologists [the German racists] thought race poisoning was spreading fast, that total disaster was imminent, and that it would take a long time to reverse even if the right policies were adopted promptly.” He casts Hitler as a precursor of the rock musician, an artist-politician who designed and set the scenes of his oratory with “enviable skill” and who was “the first to appreciate the power of amplification” and the “devilry” of the light show. The author suggests that the pacifism of the 1930’s with its “highly emotional atmosphere” and “an ostensible concern for humanity forming a thin crust over a morass of funk,” is quite suggestive of this decade’s nuclear scare. Such comparisons would be avoided by most professional historians as facile exercises. Less inhibited by the rigors of academe, Johnson presses ahead, searching for — and often finding — his absolute truths.

Johnson’s treatment of colonialism deserves special note. It is easily the best short discussion now extant of this sorely misunderstood subject. Most impressively, de deflates the whole phenomenon — gassed up by endless harangues at the United Nations — back to its real size. The author writes:

Colonialism was, in essence, a cartographic entity. . .Seen from maps, colonialism appeared to have changed the world. Seen on the ground, it appeared a more meticulous phenomenon which could and did change little. It came easily; it went easily. Few died either to make it or break it.

Colonialism’s importance, he suggests, lay rather in what it was not. It generated grandiose illusions of power before 1945. Thereafter, it bred unjustified grievances.

What lessons does Johnson draw from the experiences of the last 60 years? A wholly unjustified Western guilt, he concludes, has been the “prime dissolvent of order and justice.” He adds that self-imposed restraints by civilized powers in the pursuit of international objectives have proven equally disastrous: “They are interpreted by friend and foe alike as evidence, not of humanity, but of guilt and lack of righteous conviction.” Above all, he insists that only a fixed moral code rooted in transcendent religion can steer men clear of the abyss and toward the improvement of the human condition. With a hint of optimism, he suggests that secularism and militant atheism seem now to be in retreat. So it is with Solzhenitsyn and the Polish Pope that Paul Johnson finds hope, the primal, purely human emotion that the horrors of our century have not yet managed to extinguish. cc