100 Years Ago Today, The West Attempted Suicide

We all love the stories about Sherlock Holmes. We enjoy the masterful storytelling and vivid characters, and the ingenious plots that only Holmes’s razor-sharp mind can untangle. But there’s another reason why we treasure them. They remind us of another world, just a hundred years ago, one in which so much appalling evil had not yet reared its head.

In the world before July 28, 1914, the day Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, you could travel without a passport. Economies were booming, and science promised a future of seemingly endless growth. Labor unions were rising to blunt the sharpest edges of capitalism, and in most of Europe voting rights for citizens were expanding. Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, and Russians met for scientific and literary conferences, studied at each others’ schools, and their aristocrats intermarried. The diverse ethnic quilt that was central Europe was held together peacefully under the Austro-Hungarian empire, where Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims enjoyed religious freedom. While a few crank parties favored racist or ultranationalist platforms, minorities in Europe were mostly protected from the bigotry of their neighbors. Even in troubled Russia, rapid economic and technological progress were offering hope that the country’s hard-pressed workers and land-starved farmers might join the modern world—with guidance from an Orthodox Church that was experiencing a spiritual renaissance.

If a character had tried to warn Sherlock Holmes about what was coming, would that brilliant detective have believed him? Could Holmes have imagined that Germans and Englishmen would soon be gassing each other with human pesticides? That a bitter world war would destroy three European empires and hand half of the continent over to hateful extremists? That the Russian government would try to wipe out Christianity, private property, and every vestige of freedom, and engineer famines that would exterminate some ten million people? That this first war’s millions of dead would have died in vain? That another and bloodier war would come in its wake, and this time entail the murder of half of Europe’s Jews? That this war would only end when terror weapons blotted entire cities off the map?

Surely Holmes would have asked Dr. Watson to treat this “prophet” for hysteria. Horrors like those were confined to the violent fantasies of the rare, sociopathic criminals Holmes hunted. Such schemes of evil would never become the policies of civilized governments in Europe. It was simply unthinkable.

The world of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters was eerily like our own. The world’s superpowers, once locked into conflict, were now committed to peaceful coexistence. New technologies were annihilating distance, uniting mankind, and globalizing the economy. The English language had leaped far beyond its island home, and now knit together hundreds of millions of people on four continents. Medical advances were saving millions from infant mortality and infectious diseases, while new agricultural methods offered the hope of eradicating hunger. Transnational organizations in defense of human rights were striving to eliminate forced labor and torture, and reform movements in tyrannical countries promised to introduce democracy. At the same time, popular science and biblical criticism had weakened the hold of religion, leaving man as the measure of all things. We had entered the final phase of human development, an age of perpetual worldly progress. The sun that dawned on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo shone bright as all our hopes in a sky almost clear of clouds — a day much like September 11, 2001, in New York City. A day much like today.

What would you think if we told you that all the horrors that marked the twentieth century might happen all over again? That this time the cruelties and casualties would be even greater, since our weapons are even deadlier. That the next genocides would face less resistance, and generate fewer “rescuers,” because the West is less restrained by religion. That the twenty-first century could be remembered not for Twitter, but for total warfare? You might think that we were paranoid. Then you might remember August 1914, and think again.

It’s a truism that history repeats itself, because the human heart is profoundly imperfect and torn between good and evil. Study of man’s repeated lapses into cruelty and chaos can tempt us to lapse into cynicism, when what we really need is hope.

Hope is not optimism. Stock analysts are optimistic. Worldly optimism is a brittle dream that can be shattered by a single act of terrorism. But hope can survive in cancer wards and concentration camps, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Victor Frankl have testified. Hope exists in a fourth dimension that cuts across the world we see at an angle we cannot imagine. It rises from secret places in the heart, where the torturers cannot find it, and spreads through quiet gestures or silent prayers they cannot quash. Hope is what Winston Smith hungered for in Orwell’s 1984.

If we wish to save the twenty-first century from repeating the crimes of the twentieth, we must face some very hard truths.  We must realize that there is no salvation in our accumulated “stuff,” in political programs, or in technological fixes. We have spent the last several centuries asking only “how” to do things to nature and to man. We must step back and ask again “why” and even “why not.” We need to recover a dignified vision of the human person, or else it will cease to exist.

Such a vision will help us resist many temptations, of the sort our race falls into so very easily, to use the superhuman powers we gain in inhuman ways; to treat the weak, the “other,” the Enemy, as subhumans; or even to embrace a subhuman vision of ourselves.

Subhumanism lay just beneath the civilized skin of life in 1914. Each of the toxic ideas that would make the twentieth century so inhospitable to innocent human life was already present, ready to turn a political or military crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe:

Total war, the theory that in time of military conflict any means can and should be used to bring about victory, however destructive to civilian life among the enemy or liberty at home. This principle had not been practiced in the West itself since 1648, but Western nations had been employing genocidal tactics against civilian populations in their African and Asian colonies. It was only a matter of time before Europeans turned their machine guns and gas against one another.