The dark midnight of the 20th century

Podium: Christopher Hitchens: From a lecture given by the writer and academic for the Radio 3 series `Sounding the Century'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MANY OF my predecessors at this podium have spoken of this expiring century as a period uniquely terrible in human history. The century of the inhuman, George Steiner went so far as to term it. Auschwitz and the Gulag are now frequently twinned almost as a commonplace, conversational pairing, as if they might denote some horrific combination of modernism: the harnessing of cruelty to science and mechanisation.

One may register two differences with the emerging consensus about what the "midnight of the century", the era of the Hitler-Stalin pact, which was itself the product of the banal evil of the Munich agreement, really signified. In her celebrated essay "The Concentration Camps", published in 1948, Hannah Arendt discussed David Russet's masterpiece, "The Universe of the Concentration Camp" and suggested chillingly that, and I quote:

"The next decisive step in the preparation of living corpses is the murder of the moral person in man. This is done in the main by making martyrdom for the first time impossible. The Western world has hitherto even in its darkest periods granted the slain enemy the right to be remembered as a self-evident acknowledgement that we are all men. It is only because even Achilles set out for Hector's funeral, only because the most despotic governments honoured the slain enemy, only because the Romans allowed the Christians to write their martyrologies, only because the Church kept its heretics alive in the memory of men, that all was not lost and never could be lost."

Now, the revered shade of Hannah Arendt is ever present in the New School for Social Research in New York where I teach. So it's with some diffidence that I say that her passage is overwrought. May we not fairly safely say that the millions of victims of this century's midnight are done copious honour in our day?

Only months after the revelation of all the horrors of 1945, enough human reason and technique had survived for an impressive process of reconstruction to begin. That process, which I believe has not yet culminated, has every prospect of culminating hopefully. Millions of people lead ethical lives without help from any church, a cultural achievement that deserves far more celebration than it receives.

Now, in order that I not sound like Dr Pangloss - in order, in other words, not to sound too cheerful - I should point out that we are of course capable of alienating ourselves even from our own highest achievements. It's a cliche to say that nuclear physics still threatens us with annihilation, but such does remain the case. In other words, a process of innovation and experiment that was inaugurated largely by humanistic Jewish refugee scholars has the potential for an erasure of memory, and an erasure of humanity, far more frightful than anything imagined by Hannah Arendt or put into practice by Stalin.

I must also mention the recrudescence of slavery. A recent book by a scholar named Kevin Bales computes the number of slaves toiling on this planet at this moment at 27 million. Disposable People is a dry understatement of the true situation. The slaves of our world are disposable because their ranks are easily replenished by debt and by indentures. Many children are necessarily born into the system, rendering obscene our babble about family values and the protection of the innocent.

The most encouraging sign, though, is the rapid emergence of a single standard for human rights. Who can fail to be impressed in this decade by the parallel extension of justice? The last vestige of divine right has been stripped from our rulers.

I salute those who withstood the midnight of this century and who nurtured the liberty tree without any expectation of sharing in its roots. "All I have is a voice," wrote WH Auden in 1939, "to undo the folded lie... The lie of authority." The lie of modern dictatorship, that it can deliver goods at the mere cost of frivolous liberties, has been historically refuted.

The series can be heard on Saturday evenings on Radio 3

Comments