THE RAVAGED CENTURY: A Look Back at the Twentieth Century

Tuesday, March 28, 2000

For much of the one hundred years just past, the forces of freedom and democracy found themselves at war with two books, Das Kapital, by Karl Marx which, of course, gave rise to communism. Mein Kampf, by Adolph Hitler which gave rise to Nazism. Nazism and communism, how is it that these two totalitarian ideologies gained such a hold on tens of millions of people. If you had to decide the matter as a historical question, which one, Nazism or communism, did more damage to the fabric of our civilization?

Recorded on Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, The Twentieth Century. For much of the one hundred years just past, the forces of freedom and democracy found themselves at war with two books, Das Kapital, by Karl Marx which, of course, gave rise to communism. Mein Kampf, by Adolph Hitler which gave rise to Nazism. Nazism and communism, how is it that these two totalitarian ideologies gained such a hold on tens of millions of people. If you had to decide the matter as a historical question, which one, Nazism or communism, did more damage to the fabric of our civilization?

With us today, two guests. Christopher Hitchens is a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Robert Conquest is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Conquest is also the author of the book, so to speak, on the one hundred years just ended, Reflections on a Ravaged Century. with three different plans for saving social security.

Title: The Power of Myth

Peter Robinson: Why were so many Western intellectuals taken in by the Soviets?

Robert Conquest: I'm not sure I explain it very easily except to the degree that I find that intelligentsia is subject to these unfortunate maladies.

Peter Robinson: Why, why the intelligentsia particularly? Why did you get a people particularly?

Robert Conquest: Well, well I think as Orwell wrote somewhere that, that the great bulk of the population is both too sane and too stupid to follow the arguments.

Peter Robinson: Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Well I think anyone who spends any time in intellectual circles realizes how gullible the cognoscente really are. And it's-look, it's not agreed it's an honorable tradition in Europe and it goes back to the French Revolution. There is-there is the view that there could be a revolution that would dissolve the-the old bonds and that would bring a new bout of freedom and so on and people were-you'd hope for that was true especially, I think, in the conditions created by the first World War which, after all, was a war fought in the highest traditions of liberalism and the enlightenment. And so, it was a great discredit of the-of the preceding regime intellectually.

Peter Robinson: What about a loss of faith? You don't take up religion particularly in your book but Chesterton wrote, "When people cease to believe in God, it's not that they cease to believe, it's that they will believe in anything." Does that have-does that have-is there this kind of void creating by ceasing to believe in religion?

Robert Conquest: It may-may be so with some people but it isn't so with everybody. There are plenty of skeptics who are perfectly sensible and don't-don't accept a substitute for religion. They're-they're agnostics, if you like.

Christopher Hitchens: I'd say that it was more like people recovering a religious faith. In other words, indeed in Russia itself too. It's not-you don't have to be tremendous psycho disoriented(?) to see that if you've had a Czar, the Czar of all the Russians for all that time and that he rules with the blessing of the church and is, in fact, thought to be divinely ordained as the...

Robert Conquest: Stalin said to the-to Pascaloff(?) that Marxism is the religion of the prototherian.

Peter Robinson: Is the-curious maybe-detachment-you're not particularly cross with these intellectuals. Went to Russia, saw Soviet Russia and swallowed every lie they could.

Robert Conquest: Well I'm fairly cross at them but I think that, by now, the comic side really comes out. The lunacy of them is more interesting than their just being-they're being-they're being nasty in a way but they're being stupid is even more interesting. That the deans of Western Social Science. After all, the webs and people should just be taken in by paper, by pachunkin(?) paperwork. It's extraordinary.

Peter Robinson: One of the most vexing questions of the twentieth century, how much were Nazism and communism alike?

Title: Separated at Birth

Peter Robinson: Christopher Hitchens writes, reviewing your book, "Many of the cleverest people in the West became communists because they felt or believed that this was anti-Nazism", to be communist was to be anti-Nazi while Conquest wants to argue that the two phenomena, communism and Nazism, are more twins than opposites. Has he got you right there?

Robert Conquest: Yes, I think so. Some of the Frenchman say the unidentical twins, that more or less gets it.

Peter Robinson: It is the usual take that the Nazis were a party of the right and the communists were a party of the left. Would you say that's simply not so?

Robert Conquest: The Nazis had very much a left wing component as Hitler, Hitler always said that the communists would make-made good Nazis when they came over, lot of them did come over. He couldn't get good-good Nazis out of social democrats who, again, are left if you like but it's a different thing. There's-there's the extremist. The-the guy who wants everything now.

Peter Robinson: Because of that peculiar capacity to give themselves completely to an ideology?

Robert Conquest: Partly that and partly-let-let-let's say that they-they-they didn't have the patience to say that we'd have to work for a better society. No, we want it now. It may be better because we're killing Jews, may be better because we're killing Kulacks. But-but it was-it-it-it was laziness of mind.

Peter Robinson: Intellectual laziness?

Robert Conquest: Amongst other things. Kierkegaard said, laziness and impatience are the two great vices of intellectuals.

Christopher Hitchens: I quoted Orden, to you in the past, I know, but you'll forgive. I mean, he-an observation he makes quite early in his notebooks as a poet is to say the really remarkable and frightening thing about the Nazi seizure of power, the Nazi movement, is it doesn't even pretend that it's in favor of liberty and justice and the quality. He always says, it openly tramples on and despises those ideas. That frightened people a lot and its appeal was to the irrational and to concepts of-of race and superstition and blood and soil and so very primitive. And whereas the-the-the bulk of the Europeans who were lumped in intelligentsia, I think the appeal of the-of Marxism if-and (?) perhaps therefore the Soviet Union was that it seemed to be scientific, internationalist, rational and, so to speak, the era of the enlightenment. And you can…

Peter Robinson: Idealistic?

Christopher Hitchens: ...even in Bob's comparison just now, where one lot kills Kulacks, the other lot kills Jews. Well a movement that says the ills-all the ills of modern Germany are the fault of a Hebrew minority and its worldwide machinations. This is clearly a movement that is, in part, demented as well as deluded. Whereas one that says look, what we need is a massive land reform and there are a lot of rich peasants avoiding the grain. They commit several atrocities that isn't summoning people, apriori, to do something wicked.

Peter Robinson: There is a distinction between the two, at least, isn't there?

Robert Conquest: There is a distinction as Wesley Grossman(?), the great Jewish writer in Russia says in his book, Soviet writer, the Germans think that nationality and blood are the determining factors. We think that it's class. What's the difference? The difference one practice was very small.

Peter Robinson: Are you willing to grant a certain moral superiority to communism on the ground that at least it had ideals?

Robert Conquest: No, no. I think ideals are what-what the different-what are the trouble basically. It had phony ideals.

Peter Robinson: Phony ideals?

Robert Conquest: I-I would-I would say, I think I say in my book that I find that the holocaust was worse than Stalin's behavior but that's a feeling. It's not really a judgment.

Peter Robinson: Why is the holocaust worse? What informs your feeling?

Robert Conquest: It somehow feels more viciously unpleasant in its sort of cold-blooded way. I know partly in Stalin, he was concealing what he was doing. Well so was Hitler, concealing the holocaust. He wasn't sort of announcing it. But it was done in a very nasty, apart from the fact that anti-Semitism is, I think, nastier than, as you say, than the anti-Kulackism.

Christopher Hitchens: I'm tempted to say, I'm really not sure if I want to push it but if you say the worst you can say about Bolshevism and Stalinism, fifty-six years after 1917, lot of people had gone missing and dead, been murdered and this being an appalling treat-mistreatment of the minorities and so on and so forth but what had been a bankrupt and beggared and war destroyed state, where-served by wars you helped start, have become a modern state where the least allegiance is paid to the idea of science and reason and so on and progress and development and this literacy and that kind of thing. Well obvious after the Nazi seizure of power, the whole of Germany is a ruin. There's not one brick piled upon one another, never mind what national socialism has done to other countries and other peoples. The whole of Germany is sacrificed to it, immolated by it. The difference is in the-is in the worship of unreason, you know.

Peter Robinson: Let's look into this disagreement between Hitchens and Conquest over the supposed moral superiority of communism.

Title: Altered States

Peter Robinson: Bob said the ideals-he will not grant communism moral superiority because at least it was idealistic because the ideals themselves were mistaken. Would you…

Robert Conquest: They were cover stories for non-ideals.

Peter Robinson: Okay, but you don't buy that. You believe the ideals were, at least to some extent, believed and were genuine?

Robert Conquest: People believed...

Christopher Hitchens: No, no doubt of it, yes.

Robert Conquest: But this is true also in Nazi Germany because the anti-Semitism was only one part of it. If you think of Nazis as nothing but anti-Semitic, you're getting it wrong. They-they had a terrific amount of ideological meetings in the party on different-on German nationalism which is not quite the same thing as German anti-Semitism, as racism. They're both derived from the revolution…

Peter Robinson: Nazi ideology was never as fully flushed out as Marxism but it was an ideology all the same?

Robert Conquest: Yes. And people who believed it including, like I say in my book, well, for example, two Nobel Prize winners in physics in Germany. This wasn't merely street Nazism.

Christopher Hitchens: Not many historians, Peter, would say that the materious conception of history as advanced by Marx and Engles and later-some later historians is-is all hogwash, is a hoax or is pabulum. It's taken seriously by historians who disagree with it. It's a contribution. In fact, I don't think much history or much historiography could be done without reference to the theories of historic materialism. You can't say that about Alfred Rosenberg's theories of German nationalism. They're worthless in their own terms. And they're an invitation to evil.

Robert Conquest: I'd agree with-I'd agree with that but the-the level of Marxism is intellectual and the level nationalism is-is much less so although it was founded, the-the idea of the blood fueled stuff goes right back to the German national intellectuals' big people in the 1820's and '30's. This all arised from the French Revolution which was, after all, not only for the people, it was for the nation, one and indivisible. And German nationalism tucks into that.

Peter Robinson: But would you say then, Christopher, I'll put it a little bit crudely but it's television, would you say then that the Soviet state was a good idea gone awry or a good idea captured by Stalin and Brute. That is to say, had things turned out differently, had Trotsky risen to power instead of Stalin that the communist revolution might, in fact, have been commendable or are the ideas, in and of themselves, so distorted and so mistaken that the whole thing was bound to spin out very badly?

Christopher Hitchens: Well like over on the left, one's undergone, you know, what kind of revisions and reconsiderations and so forth.

Peter Robinson: Well I have to ask, you know, this question every time I see you to see where you are today.

Christopher Hitchens: It's but, I mean, I think that's pretty much rounded off with that. But, I mean, and you can take it back to Kronstabish(?), many people like to do and some Mensheviks would say it was all downhill, (?) Marxists would say it was all downhill from October, 1917.

Robert Conquest: Or earlier.

Christopher Hitchens: Or even earlier.

Robert Conquest: From 1902.

Christopher Hitchens: But I find I-I find I cannot not wish that the 1905 revolution in Russia had been a success, had not been…

Robert Conquest: Or October of '17 one perhaps…

Christopher Hitchens: Or indeed perhaps the February days, yes…

Peter Robinson: You agree with him on this?

Robert Conquest: Well the input of Marxism was not entirely poisonous. There-it was only some people who turned it into a pure paranoia. There were other elements in it. I think that's true. But I think they-basically the paranoiac element triumphed. That-to say that it's rational is-paranoia is not rational. You know, just-just, you were quoting the remark that a madman is somebody who has lost everything except his reason.

Peter Robinson: Yes, right, right.

Christopher Hitchens: And remember also in 1905, the conditions were different in another way. The First World War hasn't occurred yet which is the great reproach to all the alternative theories. You know, European liberalism, European democracy, European Christianity and so on, is all discredited by the First World War. Not just discredited but the continent is laid waste and people are perhaps an ideology amid ruins and with famine and cannibalism and scarcity and miseries and it's very unlikely, under those circumstances. You know, National Socialism doesn't have that alibi. It overthrew a pre-existing democracy in a relatively civilized and prosperous country, Germany. And took it to war, took the world to war on a program of racism and paranoia and-and conquest and-and barbarism.

Peter Robinson: The Second World War wasn't the first time that the Nazis and the Stalinists had clashed. Let's look at the Spanish Civil War and do so from a personal point-of-view.

Title: A Shot in the Dark

Peter Robinson: Robert Conquest, you're the only man I know who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Robert Conquest: That isn't-that isn't-that is not quite so…

Peter Robinson: Not quite...

Robert Conquest: I found...

Peter Robinson: You discharged a weapon in anger?

Robert Conquest: Well not exactly.

Peter Robinson: In befuddlement. Tell us the story.

Robert Conquest: I happen to be-I happened to be in Malaga. I was a bumming around Europe student when the civil war broke out. And I'd already-I'd been up to a bar which had some rather nice anarchists, syndicalists. I went and rejoined them. One of them-this was-after several days seemed people were fighting around and shooting up in a vague way. And one of them…

Peter Robinson: Shooting in a vague way...

Robert Conquest: Well they'd been-they'd been fighting.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert Conquest: But then I fell in with-they had a ford tin(?) which I happen to know, I mean, can you get this started? Sure…

Peter Robinson: A what?

Robert Conquest: A ford. So I got this ford started but-something I did with the distributor and they-they said can you shoot? I said, yeah sure. I-I'm-I was in the-my (?) team, my shooting team at Winchester. And so, said well could you come with us. I sympathized with them. Sure come-we went off along the coast. We're going to put down some Senioritos they said.

Peter Robinson: Senioritos.

Robert Conquest: They were holding out somewhere. So they gave me this huge, horrible Spanish mauzers. I looked down the barrel and after a bit I cleaned it. It was in a terrible state. Then-then they said, will you shoot it? Why don't you give a shot in-above that house to frighten them. So I gave it one shot. It nearly knocked me cold, my shoulder, that's my shot. But there was nobody there and we went back and they said, oh no, go back, go back home. We've won the war. Get on that boat and we went to go on that boat and went back to England. It was rather-rather not a sort of gallant war story, I'm afraid.

Christopher Hitchens: Still I sort of envy you.

Robert Conquest: I can say, yeah, I fired a shot.

Christopher Hitchens: Borob's(?) in Spain.

Peter Robinson: Let me give you three options. Three-three possible options in the Spanish war. One is the outcome that did occur, Franco won. Two would be an outcome where Stalin takes over the left and wins. And third would be that the anarchist syndicalists, the-the-the pure pre-Stalin left wins. Which choice would you have taken?

Robert Conquest: I-I wouldn't-well, at the time, I naturally preferred-I-I was a bit much in favor of the republic and indeed of the communists because…

Peter Robinson: Of the communists themselves?

Robert Conquest: Because we didn't-we didn't know what was going on in Spain and in England particularly. We got the line. I mean, now more is known that we-that would have been a communist takeover by-after the Cavalerro(?) fell in the empire-after the boom was put down. It's hard to say. I should hope it would be alternatives. Say Franco's assassinated by a more-in favor of a more liberal militarism. If you took cold-blooded choice, there is an argument, I think, that Franco at least kept the Germans out. The question is, would-would the communists-communist regime in Spain have allowed them to have bases? Well the answer is the Russians gave Hitler a U-boat base up near Mamansk and took it and escorted his communist raid into the Pacific through the ice sea route. So they weren't helping. Now I don't know if we can say yes or no on that but there's a…

Peter Robinson: It's a close one?

Christopher Hitchens: Orwell points out at one point that during the British blockade of the German ports in 1940, involving Commander Hitchens among other people, Moscow radio denounced this is an inhuman making war upon civilians. And that was really Moscow's take on-on British resistance to Hitler for fully a year. And I personally think not so about Spain. One, because the memory of fascism would have been-and fighting it and beating it would have been so fresh that that's the first thing. I don't think they could possibly have overrun the relations with Hitler and the Mussolini in the way that Franco, through great, excuse me-in the way that Stalin, through great power politics could do, having no great grudge anyway against fascism. The second is I think that a military defeat of fascism in Spain would have altered everything in any case.

Peter Robinson: We've discussed Nazism. We've discussed communism. What was the legacy of imperialism, specifically of British imperialism?

Title: Crowning Achievements

Peter Robinson: Bob, you give the empire rather sympathetic treatment in your book. You note that it was based on a surprisingly minor military presence. Some of the African colonies only had a couple of hundred soldiers. That the nations were by and large granted independence at about the time they asked for it and then you note that a recent survey established that, "the variable having a higher relation to democracy than any other, the world over, was having been a British colony.

Robert Conquest: That's Marty Lucas' research-did a research…

Peter Robinson: Marty Lucas' research, so the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand but also India, Nigeria which is a democracy from time-to-time, South Africa…not a bad record, eh?

Robert Conquest: Well it-I-I think it's-it is rather overbalanced in favor by-by Canada and America and places you count them in but still there's no French equivalent or anything. No, I think the whole…

Christopher Hitchens: Or Portuguese.

Robert Conquest: Or...

Christopher Hitchens: Or Belgian...

Peter Robinson: Or Belgian...

Robert Conquest: So when you're defending a reality like the British Empire-British Empire-defending, pretend we're getting some objectivity into it. You-you're not going to be defending anything that's going to be perfect.

Christopher Hitchens: I was reading Marvin Odalaski's(?) book the other day, this conservative story and his book on the origins of presidential style and morality in America. He said the George Washington's only won the war because he forbade swearing in the ranks and alcohol and homosexuality whereas it was notorious in the British forces. Well rightful and godly-Odalaski seriously says that his-what in his godliness brought forth victory. And I thought two things. One, I'm a supporter of Thomas Payne so-whose letters were read to the troops by Washington who was, in fact, a bit of a boozer and certainly a casso(?) but I felt a stirring of nativism in me suddenly. A sort of Anglo Sax pride. I felt well, how did this bunch of boozing, cursing queers manage to hold onto India, Africa, Australia, quite a lot of South Americas all that time? And then, the mood left me. I mean, well the-some of-the-the story-the story of British imperialism in India is a pretty bloody story actually.

Robert Conquest: It's better than the alternatives. We were talking about alternatives.

Peter Robinson: It's better than the alternatives?

Christopher Hitchens: It's not better than the alternative because the alternative was Indian independence which took a long time to come.

Peter Robinson: How could Indian inde-just a practical question-how could Indian independence have occurred without first forming a national language, English in India? Isn't that a kind of precondition to…

[Talking at same time]

Christopher Hitchens: That was-that was done, I think you mentioned Amritsar in your book. At the time of the Amritsar massacre (talking at same time) 1919, we-there were decades where the Indians were more than ready for independence. The British won't allow it. Not only won't allow it but repress, forbid, prohibit it and behave extremely badly and then end up by breaking their-their initial promise as colonists which is to bring unification, law, and cultural integration by partitioning, by butchering and dismembering the place on the way out. That's unpardonable.

[Talking at same time]

Robert Conquest: I totally agree on that one. The mishandling towards the end was very badly done.

Peter Robinson: Last topic and the last great conflict of the twentieth century, the Cold War.

Title: The Empire Strikes Out

Peter Robinson: The west winds, how? How? The morale, the Soviet Union who Christopher just lend the Soviet Union as a modern state dedicated to reason and science and progress. How did we win?

Christopher Hitchens: No, I didn't.

Robert Conquest: I-I would-if you did, I'd certainly say no it wasn't a modern state. It was a regressive state. It was-apart from economically, it's a rare thing. I don't think the Soviet Union covered-it was overdeveloped country.

Peter Robinson: How do you mean?

Robert Conquest: It had too much industry. You know, old-fashioned, heavy industry.

Peter Robinson: Oh, I see.

Robert Conquest: Then, of course, as-as Gorbachev said, it-it-the whole thing went bust because what he calls insane militarization. They couldn't support-they could only support the Cold War if you let the armaments question, if they could deceive the West in not-into not replying. That, of course, put a lot-they put a lot of effort into that.

Christopher Hitchens: Since you mockingly misrepresented what I said about the…

Peter Robinson: All right, all right, I'll let you back up...

[Talking at same time]

Christopher Hitchens: …the Soviet state, I'm just simply saying that some had voyaged from East to West-West to East Germany, say, I mean, we notice a lot of differences and very few of them, if any, would be in favor of the East. But they wouldn't think I've just left the modern world entirely behind. They wouldn't.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: Okay, the same would be issue…

[Talking at same time]

Christopher Hitchens: …they wouldn't-yeah that kind of thing…

Peter Robinson: Elevators might not work but they're being installed?

Christopher Hitchens: The-when Russia, at the turn of the century, wouldn't-that's not necessarily what you would expect, especially what it had to go through, not all of which was inflicted on it by Joseph Stalin or his deputies. But this excess militarization that Bob mentioned, in my review of his book, I try and draw a distinction between the Cold War and the arms race. Many people use the two things as if they were co-terminus. I think that the arms race was probably a rather disastrous and risky undertaking. And the-the-the idea of spending the Soviet Union into the ground, forcing it to compete, to distort its society, in that way, by trying to bankrupt and vagary, may, it seems to us, have worked. Remember we still have the-we still have the Russian result of that to deal with. So if a full audit's going to be made, it's-it's not as trendful, not as wonderful, not maybe all that-as creditable as all that.

Peter Robinson: Because-because why?

[Talking at same time]

Christopher Hitchens: Highly-highly militarized and very nationalistic and rather chauvinistic Russia with a lot of loose nukes and some re-targeted ones. It's just it isn't communist anymore. It doesn't mean it's not threatening.

Peter Robinson: The arms race was a risky…

Robert Conquest: Well Sartre(?) (talking at same time) says the opposite. If I'm-under a certain (?), there's no-probably an arms race is the one thing to let teach them something. So that is one view. There is another view I know.

Peter Robinson: Flat disagreement between the two of you. Let me-television alas, we have to close it up. Are there any grounds, can a historian argue, can an intuitive historian feel that there are grounds for supposing that the twenty-first century will be less murderous, less ravaged than was the twentieth?

Robert Conquest: Well it could be. I think there are dangers now. I think-I think it's-talk about the end of history and so on is nonsense, of course. There's too much history facing us but until the other-other countries have, that's to say a humane attitude to each other and this isn't happening and until they've digested the nationalism which in Europe and America has been digested, this is very dangerous stuff with nukes around. Of course it is.

Peter Robinson: The prospect for the twenty-first century?

Christopher Hitchens: Well let's hope that the proceeding one has had a pedagogic effect. I think there's some mistakes people won't make anymore and there's some mistakes, I think, that have lost their attraction. The idea certainly that people can be used as laboratory experiments in political economy has been shown to be inefficient. It's not very tempting even for people who like to, don't do experiments on humans. So I think that that might not happen and since the sort of regimes that are produced by that tend to be warlike and envious, to that extent, also one can be hopeful. But what I fear, I suppose most, is exactly the kind of solipsism that Bob mentions, of people feeling oh well, now our problems have been solved, we can do everything we like. But hubris is always a worrying sign, you know, but-cause you know what's coming.

Peter Robinson: I'd like to feel for some sort of cheerful note on which to end. Nevertheless, it's television. We're out of time. Robert Conquest and Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: Whatever the future may hold, there is at least this much to be said, at the end of the twentieth century, Nazism and communism were, so to speak, history. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.