jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part II





Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century


II. Two Physiognomies of the Century


The continuities of social modernization extending through the

century can only inadequately teach us what is characteristic of

the twentieth century as such. Thus historians tend to punctuate

the historical flow of their narratives with events, rather

than trends and structural transformations. And indeed the

physiognomy of a century is molded by the caesurae of great

events. Among those historians who are still willing to think in

terms of large historical units, a consensushas emerged that the

“long” nineteenth century (1789-1914) is followed by a

“short” twentieth century (1914-89). The outbreak of the

First World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union thus

frame an antagonism that stretches through both world wars

and the Cold War. Of course, this punctuation permits three

very different interpretations, depending on where one locates

this antagonism — on the economic level of social systems, on

the political level of superpowers, or on the cultural level of

ideologies. Which hermeneutical viewpoint is chosen is, naturally

enough, itself determined by a conflict of ideas that has

dominated the century.


The Cold War is carried on today by historiographic means,

whether the terms of the conflict are described as the Soviet

Union’s challenge to the capitalist West (Eric Hobsbawm), or

the struggle of the liberal West against totalitarian regimes

(François Furet). Both interpretations explain in one way or

another the fact that only the United States emerged from the

world wars in a politically, economically, and culturally

strengthened position, and from the Cold War as the world’s

only superpower, an outcome that has labeled the twentieth

century “the American century.” The third reading of the Cold

War is more ambiguous. As long as “ideology” is employed in a

neutral sense, the title The Age of Ideologies (Hildebrand)

expresses nothing more than a variant of a theory of totalitarianism,

according to which the struggle of regimes reflects a

struggle of contending ideologies. But in another sense, the

same title signals the claim (developed by Carl Schmitt) that

since 1917 the mutually opposed utopian projects of world

democracy and world revolution, with Wilson and Lenin as

their exponents, have engaged one another in a global civil

war (Ernst Nolte). According to this ideology critique from

the Right, 1917 marks the point where history became infected

with the bacillus of the philosophy of history, and was so badly

derailed that it was not until 1989 that it was able to jump back

onto the normal tracks of pristine national histories.


Each of these three perspectives endows the short twentieth

century with a distinctive physiognomy. According to the first

reading, the century is driven by the challenge presented to the

capitalist world system by the single largest experiment ever

conducted on human beings: carried out with extreme brutality

and at the cost of enormous sacrifice, the forced industrialization

of the Soviet Union certainly set the course for its rise to

the status of a superpower, but it also left the Soviet Union

without a sound economic and social-political basis on which to

construct a superior, or even a viable, alternative to the Western

model. The second reading sees the century under the shadow

of a totalitarianism that broke entirely with the civilizing forces

ushered in by the Enlightenment, destroying the hopes for a

domestication of state power and a humanization of social

relations. The boundless violence of regimes engaging in total

war shatters the barriers of international law just as ruthlessly as

the terrorist violence of single-party dictatorships neutralizes

constitutional protections internally. These first two readings

divide up light and shadow between the forces of totalitarianism

and their liberal enemies clearly enough; for the

third, post-fascist reading, the century stands overshadowed

by an ideological crusade of parties whose mentalities are essentially

similar, even if they are not of the same rank. Both sides

appear to fight out the global contradictions between programs

justified by differing philosophies of history; programs that owe

their power to kindle fanaticism to essentially religious energies

perverted to serve secular ends.


Notwithstanding all their differences, these three interpretations

have one thing in common: they all oblige us to look at the

gruesome features of a century that “invented” the gas chambers,

total war, state-sponsored genocide and extermination

camps, brainwashing, state security apparatuses, and the

panoptic surveillance of entire populations. The twentieth

century “generated” more victims, more dead soldiers, more

murdered civilians, more displaced minorities, more torture,

more dead from cold, from hunger, from maltreatment, more

political prisoners and refugees, than could ever have been

imagined. The phenomena of violence and barbarism mark

the distinctive signature of the age. From Horkheimer and

Adorno to Baudrillard, from Heidegger to Foucault and Derrida,

the totalitarian features of the age have also embedded

themselves into the very structure of its critical diagnoses. And

this raises the question of whether these negativistic interpretations,

by remaining transfixed by the gruesomeness of

the century, might be missing the reverse side of all these



Of course, it took decades for those who were directly

involved and affected to come to a conscious assessment of

the dimensions of the horror that finally culminated in the

Holocaust, in the methodical annihilation of the Jews of Europe.

But even if it was suppressed at first, this shock eventually

set loose energies, even opened new insights, that brought

about a reversal in the perception of this horror during the

second half of the century. For the nations that dragged the

planet into a technologically unlimited war in 1914, and for

the people who were forced to confront the mass crimes of an

ideologically unlimited war of extermination after 1939, the

year 1945 also marks a turning point — a turn toward something

better, toward the mastering of the forceof barbarism that had

broken through the very foundations of civilization in Germany.

Should we not have learned something from the catastrophes

of the first half of the twentieth century?


My doubts regarding all three of these readings can be

expressed in this way: the demarcation of a short twentieth

century forces periods of global war and the Cold War period

together into a single unit, suggesting the appearance of a

homogenous, uninterrupted, 75-year war of systems, regimes,

and ideologies. But this has the effect of occluding the very

event that not only divides this century chronologically, but

also constitutes an economic, political, and above all a normative

watershed: the defeat of fascism. In the context of the Cold

War, the ideological significance of the wartime alliance

between the Western powers and the Soviet Union against

the German Reich was dismissed as “unnatural” and promptly

forgotten. But the Allied victory and the German defeat of

1945 permanently discredited an array of myths which, ever

since the end of the nineteenth century, had been mobilized

against the heritage of 1789. Allied victory not only sparked the

democratic developments in the Federal Republic of Germany,

Japan, and Italy, and eventually Portugal and Spain. It undermined

the foundations of all forms of political legitimation that

did not — at least verbally, at least in words — subscribe to the

universalist spirit of political enlightenment. This is of course

little consolation for victims of ongoing violations of human



The year 1945 saw a change in the cultural and intellectual

climate that formed a necessary condition for all three of the

uncontested cultural innovations of this century. The revolutionary

changes in the fine arts, architecture, and music that had

begun in the decades before, during, and after the First World

War, and which drew from the experience of war itself,

attained worldwide recognition only after 1945, in the past

tense, as it were, of “classical modernism.” Until the early

1930s, avante-garde art produced a repertoire of entirely new

aesthetic forms and techniques, opening a horizon of possibilities

that was exploited but never transcended by the experiments

of international art during the second half of the century.

Only two philosophers, Heidegger and Wittgenstein — both

opposed to the spirit of modernism, to be sure — possessed a

comparable originality and exerted a comparable historical



This changed cultural climate after 1945 also formed the

background for the political developments which, according

to Eric Hobsbawm,1 changed the face of the postwar period

until the 1980s: the Cold War (a), decolonialization (b), and

the construction of the social welfare state (c).


(a) The continuing spiral of an arrogant, exhausting arms

race certainly succeeded in keeping directly threatened nations

in a state of continual fear. Nevertheless the mad calculations of

a balance of terror — MAD was the self-ironic abbreviation for

mutually assured destruction — did prevent the outbreak of a

hot war. The unexpected, mutual concession of two superpowers

gone wild — the eminently reasonable agreement that

Reagan and Gorbachev reached in Reykjavik that introduced

the end of the arms race — makes the Cold War appear in

hindsight as a high-risk process of the self-domestication of

nuclear alliances. This is also an apt description for the peaceful

implosion of a global empire, whose leadership recognized the

inefficiency of a supposedly superior mode of production, and

admitted defeat in the economic race rather than following the

time-honored pattern of deflecting internal conflicts with military

adventures abroad.


(b) The process of decolonialization did not follow a straight

path either. In hindsight, however, the colonial powers only

fought rearguard actions. The French fought in vain against

national liberation movements in Indochina; in 1956 Britain

and France saw their military adventure in Suez end in failure.

In 1975 the United States was forced to end its intervention in

Vietnam after ten costly years of war. The year 1945 marked

the end of Japan’s colonial empire and the independence of

Syria and Libya. Britain withdrew from India in 1947; Burma,

Sri Lanka, Israel, and Indonesia were all founded in the following

year. The western regions of the Islamic world from Iran to

Morocco next gained independence, followed gradually by the

states of Central Africa and finally the last remaining colonies in

Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The end of the apartheid

regime in South Africa, and the return of Hong Kong and

Macao to China, conclude a process that has at least formally

ended the dependencies of colonial peoples and established new

states (all too often torn by civil war, cultural conflicts, and

ethnic strife) as equal members in the UN General Assembly.


(c) The third development is an unambiguous change for the

better. In the affluent and peaceful Western European democracies,

and to a lesser degree in the United States, Japan, and

some other countries, mixed economies made possible the

establishment and effective realization of basic social rights.

Of course, the explosive growth of the global economy, the

quadrupling of industrial production, and an exponential

increase in world trade between the early 1950s and the early

1970s also generated disparities between the rich and the poor

regions of the world. But the governments of the OECD

nations, who were responsible for three-quarters of global production

and four-fifths of global trade in industrial goods during

these two decades, had learned enough from the catastrophic

experiences of the period between the two world wars to

pursue intelligent domestic economic policies, focussing on

stability with a relatively high rate of economic growth, and

on the construction and enhancement of comprehensive social

security systems. In welfare-state mass democracies, highly

productive capitalist economies were socially domesticated for

the first time, and were thus brought more or less in line with

the normative self-understanding of democratic constitutional



These three developments lead a Marxist historian such as

Eric Hobsbawm to celebrate the postwar era as a “golden age.”

But since 1989 at the latest, there has been a growing public

realization that this era is reaching its end. In countries where

the social welfare state is still acknowledged as a positive

achievement even in hindsight, there is a growing mood of

resignation. The end of the twentieth century was marked by

a structural threat to the welfarist domestication of capitalism,

and by the revival of a socially reckless form of neoliberalism.

Commenting on the current mood — somewhat depressed,

somewhat clueless, the whole thing washed over by the throb

of techno-pop — Hobsbawm could almost be taken for an

author from late Roman antiquity: “The Short Twentieth

Century ended in problems, for which nobody had, oreven

claimed to have, solutions. As the citizens of the fin-de-siècle

tapped their way through the global fog that surrounded them,

into the third millenium, all they knew for certain was that an

era of history had ended. They knew very little else.”2


Even the old problems — peacekeeping and international

security, economic disparities between North and South, the

risks of ecological catastrophe — were already global ones. But

today these problems have all been sharpened by a newly

emerging problem that supersedes the old challenges. Capitalism’s

new, apparently irrevocable globalizing dynamic drastically

reduces the G7 states’ freedom of action, which had

enabled them, unlike the economically dependent states of

the Third World, to hang on to a relative degree of independence.

Economic globalization forms the central challenge for

the political and social orders that grew out of postwar Europe

(III). One way to meet this challenge would consist in strengthening

the regulatory power of politics, to allow politics to catch

up with global markets that are beyond the reach of nation-states

(IV). Or does the lack of any clear orientation for ways of

meeting this challenge indicate not that we can learn from

catastrophes, but indeed that we only learn from catastrophes?

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