The word has been tossed around during recent elections, but it means something real. History helps most to get a sense of what totalitarianism really means.
From a notable issue of the NYTBR, former Deputy Secretary of State and Russia observer Strobe Talbott writes this short summary of Russian history–where the first two-thirds captures the connection between Stalin and Hitler and adds context to a well-known historical epoch.
A hundred years ago, a malignant form of governance, both modern and barbaric, slouched towards St. Petersburg to be born. As it grew, it swept across Eurasia, enveloping the largest territorial state on the planet and cloning itself elsewhere. As the decades passed, the monstrosity was given a name: totalitarianism.
If you haven’t read A Peace to End All Peace, add it to your summer reading list immediately. David Fromkin, a professor of International Relations at Boston University is a prolific author and scholar whose book provides a historical look at the creation of the modern Middle East–with an eye toward geography, conflict, and the decisions taken post-WWI the shaped the regions storied history.
In a Foreign Affairs review of the book, John C. Campbell writes that “Fromkin’s history is made by men rather than impersonal forces.”
Fromkin wrote about other seminal issues in 20th century international relations, such as the origins of the Great War, post-war relations and reconstruction, and the fate of key theoretical constructs such as idealism and realism, as embodied in institutions and programs:
In 1995, he wrote “In the Time of the Americans: F.D.R., Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur — the Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World,” in which he argued that after World War II Americans were given a rare second chance to correct the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson’s one-world idealism.
As Richard Reeves wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “The United Nations is Wilsonian; NATO represents the kind of big-power peace enforcement envisioned by T.R.”Among Professor Fromkin’s other books were “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” (2004), which the journalist Avedis Hadjian, writing for CNN.com, called “a fast-paced, gripping guide through the complex set of reasons and emotions that led to the 20th century’s seminal conflict”; and “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners” (2008).
In one sense it’s uncontroversial that 1917 matters. After all, it is recent history, and there’s no arena of the modern world not touched by its shadow. Not only in the social democratic parties, shaped in opposition to revolutionary approaches, and their opponents of course, but at the grand scale of geopolitics, where the world’s patterns of allegiance and rivalry and the states that make up the system bear the clear traces of the revolution, its degeneration and decades of standoff. Equally, a long way from the austere realms of statecraft, the Russian avant-garde artists Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko and others remain inextricable from the revolution that so many of them embraced.Their influence is incalculable: the cultural critic Owen Hatherley calls constructivism “probably the most intensive and creative art and architectural movement of the 20th century”, which influenced or anticipated “abstraction, pop art, op art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk … brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism”. We can trace the revolution in cinema and sociology, theatre and theology, realpolitik and fashion. So of course the revolution matters. As Lenin may or may not have said: “Everything is related to everything else.”
We are still talking about what past U.S. Presidents meant to national interests and strategy and how their decisions shaped the world (or failed to do so). Consider this new take on Eisenhower or Nixon or Wilson. And so, we will still be talking about the Obama Presidency for a long time. He told Doris Kearns Godwin that he “didn’t want to be Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce”. He seems to be reshuffling the deck, rethinking the game–even dissing the Special Relationship. So what will be Obama’s legacy?
If you want to read the latest round of journalism-to-maybe-become-history longform, head over to Jeffery Goldberg’s lengthy piece in The Atlantic.
But if you want a shorter take, Max Fischer does a nice job on Vox. He breaks down the notion of Obama as a “Hobbesian optimist” and someone who sees long-term historical thinking as a key part of U.S. strategic interests–contrary to a foreign policy establishment that is focused on quick wins, especially by use of military power:
This spoke to how Obama sees challenges as well as opportunities: as a matter of encouraging that global progress toward peace and prosperity, while also acknowledging how dangerous it can be when that progress stalls or reverses. But it sees the latter as the exception rather than the norm.
Some facts about Verdun may surprise you: Verdun was symbolically important for both sides, had been intended by Germany to be a battle of attrition and caught the French by surprise. It resulted in roughly equal and staggering casualties: 800k dead, wounded or missing with approximately 150 dead–and many unrecoverable remains.
What was the meaning of this now-defining battle of World War I? Paul Jankowski writes:
To a historian 100 years later, Verdun does yield a meaning, in a way a darkly ironic one. Neither Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff, nor his French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, had ever envisaged a climactic, decisive battle at Verdun. They had attacked and defended with their eyes elsewhere on the front, and had thought of the fight initially as secondary, as ancillary to their wider strategic goals. And then it became a primary affair, self-sustaining and endless. They had aspired to control it. Instead it had controlled them. In that sense Verdun truly was iconic, the symbolic battle of the Great War of 1914-18.
Could the Great War have been avoided? Ian Kershaw’s new book offers an explanation:
Kershaw argues that World War I could have been forestalled if Vienna had acted with speed to punish Serbia for its complicity in the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it had the Kaiser’s reckless blank check for punishment, but as Kershaw puts it, the Austrian Empire “knew only two speeds, slow and dead stop.” By the time Vienna sent its ultimatum to Belgrade, three weeks after the assassination, Russia, with France in tow, had encouraged the Serbs to be more bloody-minded. More bloody-minded, in my own judgment, than justified.
Kershaw identifies a second missed opportunity to avert mass slaughter. He writes that even as Russia started to mobilize in the summer of 1914 — much before Germany — “a firm British declaration of neutrality . . . might even at a late hour have prevented general war. But Grey’s disastrous hesitation meant that the room for diplomatic initiatives vanished.” Pretty well every history nods to the poetic prescience of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, in the foreboding he expressed on Aug. 3. Standing by his big window overlooking Horse Guards Parade, he watched the gas lights being lit in the street below and said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” They were, though Grey lived to see Europe, with the lights on, begin to fumble its irresolute way to World War II.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
History allows us to look back and create convenient categories, rightly or wrongly. One such set of bookends could include the 19th century’s run of peace and cooperation ending with the Great War in July 1914 and starting in Vienna, 1814.
Was this party in Vienna such a game changer? Some sigh with apathy–or debate the notion, but as Stephen Walt writes in ForeignPolicy.com, many rightly see this as a key turning point in global affairs:
After the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats and officials from all over Europe convened in Vienna to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve the various issues that had arisen after over two decades of war. Sure, there was a lot of hard-nosed haggling over borders and other arrangements, but historical accounts of the Congress also make it clear that the participants also engaged in months of energetic revelry, much of it of a decidedly lubricious sort. Historians who regard the Congress as a great success might argue that all this frivolity helped; those who believe the Congress left many critical issues unresolved probably think the assembled plenipotentiaries should have spent less time partying and more time on their work.
Follow this animated map of 19th century Europe through the Congress to WWI to see how events evolved in the aftermath of Napoleon and how power was maintained by the victors, with clear losers being nationalistic aspirations and French revolutionary ideals in Poland, Belgium Norway, Italy, Germany, and among Balkan Christians (Serbs, Christians, Greeks, and Bulgurs).
No less than Henry Kissinger, the realpolitik living dean of international relations cut his teeth on the Congress of Vienna, writing his dissertation on Metternich the statesman. But an exciting new book on the topic by historian Adam Zamoyski takes on Kissinger’s conclusion directly, as noted in this Guardian book review:
For those who believe that jaw-jaw is more interesting than war-war, this is an exhilarating book. Zamoyski starts with the exhausted emperor hustling back to Paris after the retreat from Moscow to try to keep French domination of Europe alive. He finishes with a demolition job on Henry Kissinger, whose doctoral thesis on the diplomat Metternich praised the Congress of Vienna for giving Europe a century of peace. Zamoyski has no time for Kissinger or his Austrian hero, Metternich.
The system that came to be called the Concert of Europe, Zamoyski writes, “imposed an orthodoxy which not only denied political existence to many nations; it enshrined a particularly stultified form of monarchical government; institutionalised social hierarchies as rigid as any that existed under the ancien régime; by excluding whole classes and nations this system nurtured envy and resentment, which flourished into socialism and aggressive nationalism.”