One was during the Thirty Years' War, in the 17th century. In great regions of the Continent, all order collapsed: political, economic, social. Ragged bands of armed men who had once been soldiers prowled through silent villages where grass grew in the streets. The dead lay unburied in half- burnt cities whose population had either been massacred or had fled into the countryside in search of food. Swedish troops impaled German peasant women in front of their children, in revenge for their own hunger. Imperial armies ate their own emaciated horses and then sat down to wait for death by typhus, plague or starvation.
Another such time began 50 years ago. The Allied invasion of Normandy, in June 1944, will be commemorated this summer by an old-fashioned victors' festival - without the Germans. But the Normandy landings, and the arrival of the Red Army on Germany's eastern frontiers, began to push the whole of central Europe into an increasing tilt which, in early 1945, became tumbling collapse.
I will never forget the descriptions of a friend of mine, a South African liberated from a prisoner- of-war camp, who found himself wandering across this landscape. He said that it was like the Book of Revelation, like the end of the world. The cities stood in ruins or were burning. The roads were jammed with lost human beings, men in every imaginable uniform and families in rags, pressing this way and that as the Allied aircraft plunged down on them with rockets and cannon. Abandoned trains stood in rainy fields, their locomotives still smoking, corpses humped across rails already turning crimson with rust. No newspaper or radio remained to give news or instructions. The roofless factories were silent; the shops gutted. Bandit gangs, some of them still in concentration-camp clothes, ranged the land murdering and plundering. The Seven Seals had been opened.
This condition, which spread far beyond Germany, is called by the Germans Stunde Null. That means much more than 'Zero Hour'. It means the moment at which the world has ended - but also the moment at which the next world is conceived.
The thought of Stunde Null came back to me as I read an article by David Selbourne in last Monday's Independent. Selbourne treats the revolutions of 1989 as a third Stunde Null. He calls it the revolution 'of greatest intellectual and political scope since 1789 - the revolution against Communism and old socialism'. But he is worried about what will replace the old patterns. There is a competition between the confused survivors of the left and the 'post- fascists' to rescue what he calls the 'civic order'. Selbourne thinks the post-fascists are winning.
It is not always easy to follow what Selbourne is talking about. What does 'civic order' mean, for example? He refers to President Bill Clinton's State of the Union speech last month. But that speech was a vague, right-wing jumble of warnings about the 'stunning breakdown of community, family and work' and the 'vast vacuum which has been filled by violence and drugs and gangs': ills to be dealt with by less welfare support and more tough measures against 'underclass' crime. Clinton's 'back to basics', in fact. If 'civic order' means anything, it appears to mean a conservative society in which government's role is to maintain the standards of public services used by the middle class and to protect the middle class against the poor. As visions go, this is about the mingiest and least inspiring that can be imagined.
In the same way, Selbourne talks about 'post-fascism' and 'post-conservatism', as if the events of 1989 really had brought an entire ideological epoch to an end. This is a fashion, and I have also been guilty of talking about 'post-Communist' parties when I mean reformed Communist parties which have abandoned Leninist-Stalinist tradition for social- democracy, free-market liberalism or rabid nationalism. But it is a misleading fashion. In retrospect, a world did not end in 1989. The suspicion that there is a great deal of continuity with the world before the 'Fall of the Wall' becomes more convincing all the time.
What happened between 1989 and 1992 was the fall of an empire. The removal of the threat of Soviet armed force led to the collapse of the Communist regimes, and the introduction of multi-party politics and market-oriented reforms. There followed, often, violent economic convulsions and a sense of political disorientation - both predictable hangovers. But 'order' did not vanish. It was not in the least like 1945. Neither did 1989 smash the whole coherence of the left across the world. By then, Soviet-style Communism had long been discredited, even as an ideology for Third-World development.
The social-democratic left in the West, including the Euro- Communists, was not pitched into disarray by the collapse of Communism. It had been disarrayed for years. As for conservatism, its two modern developments - French nouvelle droite fantasies about elite authority, and the Reagan-Thatcher combination of laissez-faire with a more repressive state - both got going 10 years before the Cold War ended. There is nothing 'post' about the outlook of British Tories, described last week by the German liberal magazine Die Zeit as 'vulgar right-wing populism with fascist undertones'.
'Post-fascism' bumps into the same problem. The racist ultra- right is much the same as it was in the 1980s, when it was known as 'neo-fascism'. The only difference - though an important one - is that there is now much more of it about. And yet I do not feel that it is destined to triumph. This is because the left - the poor, battered old left - is a great deal stronger than Selbourne allows.
The left now takes many forms, a party or just a cast of mind. It offers no grand 'vision'. It simply says: the public interest exists, and it is not identical with the interest of the rich and pushy. The 'free market' dream, which spread to enchant the world after 1989, is now plainly fading. People want democratic government, but government: the use of public resources to encourage a wiser, more modest, less unfair society which does not have to invent the enemy of an 'underclass' to feel 'civic'.
That sort of attitude is now apparent right across the developed world. It is the bedrock of modern politics which re-emerges as the floods of neo-fascism or free-fall marketeering drain away. Maddeningly dull and pragmatic, the inner strength of social democracy today goes back to that last Stunde Null in 1945. Then the survivors said to one another: a social order without social justice is a disorder. And most people in the world, whatever exotic political excursions they may enjoy, still return to that truth.Reuse content