By Charles Kanjama
Some years ago, I read ‘A History of the Modern World’ by Paul Johnson. It is an illuminating account of history from 1917 to the 1980s. The author starts with a captivating sentence, “The modern world began on May 29, 1919, when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe...” Johnson goes on to tackle with academic rigour the stories and the stories behind the stories of the 20th century.
Still, I remained sceptical of some explanations of what really happened. I found Johnson too unconsciously Anglo-American in his interpretation of history.
He rightfully lambasts the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin for race and class-supremacy, but forgets to talk witheringly about American anti-Japanese sentiment. He correctly scorches Hitler for anti-Semitism, but surprisingly has no words for those international Jews who responded with economic war against Germany.
It is long since I sympathised with GK Chesterton’s hyperbolic observation, “No good modern historians are impartial. All modern historians are divided into two classes – those who tell half the truth and those who tell none of the truth.”
Paul Johnson is a good modern historian: He tells half the truth, but tells it well.
The half-truth he leaves untold is the Polish, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian perspectives.
Even Stalin, one of the most riveting historical figures of the 20th century, Johnson only understands halfway. He is unable to get into the Stalin psyche: “Why really did Stalin turn out the monster he became? How did he rationalise? What did he love, and what did he hate? What did he yearn for, and what did he fear?” Paul Johnson however, makes a gallant effort to understand Europe and the world. His knowledge and mastery of the events and facts of the 20th century is grand. It covers the history of art, music, European cultures, and of the national psyches that built up and lived through this history.
I am still haunted by Johnson’s depiction of anti-Semitism in early 20th century Europe. Johnson quotes Jakob Wasserman on the isolation of Jews that led to the ghetto: “Vain to seek obscurity. They say: the coward, he is creeping into hiding, driven by his evil conscience. Vain to go among them and offer them one’s hand. They say: why does he take such liberties with his Jewish pushiness? Vain to keep faith with them as a comrade in arms or a fellow citizen. They say: he is Proteus, he can assume any shape or form.”
Another Jew, Mortitz Goldstein, lamented how efforts to counter anti-Semitism with logic were ineffective: “What would be gained? The knowledge that their hatred is genuine. When all calumnies have been refuted, all distortions rectified, all false notions about us rejected, antipathy will remain as something irrefutable.”
The psychology of anti-Semitism appears today in different forms. It manifests as a knee-jerk response that is irrational or non-rational (not rational, for which there is a big difference). It results from an accumulation of half-truths that harden into a psyche that remains even when the half-truths are stripped away.
The modern secular world, with all its progressive rhetoric and humanitarian sentiment, often falls into an anti-Semitic psychology with respect to religion. Secularism detests religion or barely endures it, and like anti-Semitism is only comfortable when religion is hidden away in a ghetto, in this case within church walls and away from the public square.