The twentieth century witnessed the shattering of the traditional social and moral order among nations as the infection of the ideologues and their murderous ideological regimes spread throughout the civilized world. It began in earnest with the assassination of a central European archduke and the consequent destruction of the Old World in 1914. But in truth, the forces that would imprison much of the world’s population from 1917 to 1991 (and even to the present) have their origins in the French disciples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and their assault on a Parisian prison in the summer of 1789. Historian Christopher Dawson has explained its significance:
The history of the nineteenth century developed under the shadow of the French Revolution and the national liberal revolutions that followed it. A century of political, economic and social revolution, a century of world discovery, world conquest and world exploitation, it was also the great age of capitalism; and yet saw too the rise of socialism and communism and their attack upon the foundation of capitalism society…When the century began, Jefferson was president of the United States, and George III was still King of England. When it ended Lenin already was planning the Russian Revolution.
More than any other event in world history to that point, the leaders of the French Revolution murdered history, virtue, and tradition. Indeed, the Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, called the introduction of the French revolutionary spirit the “most astonishing [thing] that has hitherto happened in the world.” Other observers saw it as well. In 1838, John Henry Newman voiced his fear of “a confederacy of evil, marshalling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, and preparing the way for a general Apostacy from it.”
The French Revolutionaries, smug in their arrogant and malicious instincts, introduced the disease of ideology into the world, a disease that has yet to be contained. “Out of the tomb of the murdered Monarchy in France, has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man,” Burke concluded in the last year of his life. By rejecting the laws of nature as mere constructs imposed to shackle pure reason, Burke argued, the French Revolution instigated much havoc: “Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom; every thing human and divine sacrificed to the idol of the public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence.”
The French Revolutionaries attempted to overturn and remake all of society in their image (or images, more accurately). First, the revolutionaries, inspired by the vision of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attempted to abolish all institutions of subsidiarity, institutions such as family, school, and church that make life worth living. As early as the fall of 1789, the revolutionaries emphasized this in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Article Three of that document states: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”
Their most vehement attacks on institutions of subsidiarity were against the Roman Catholic Church, then seen as an ally to the hated French monarchy and aristocracy. Priests and other religious were beaten, tortured, raped, and exiled. Church property was confiscated, and a prostitute was put on the altar at Notre Dame Cathedral and declared a goddess. One apostate abbot desired to distribute the bodily remains of “reactionaries” as a “Republican Eucharist.”
Those who opposed the new revolutionary regimes (for they came and went based on who momentarily had the most might to rule) would pay with their lives. True to Burke’s prediction, at least twenty-five thousand forfeited their lives to the insatiable hunger of the guillotine between 1791 and 1794. Indeed, the revolutionaries were so bloodthirsty, they tended to turn on each other. As Russell Kirk has argued, revolutionaries tend to eat their own children. The worst modern case of this would be in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1978, which almost collapsed due to so much internal bloodletting. Tellingly, many of the Khmer Rouge leadership, known as Ankor (The Organization), had studied under the French Communist existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Inspired by the excesses of the French Revolutionaries, the twentieth-century ideologues began their assault on the modern world with the destruction wrought by World War I, and the consequences have been terrifying. One scholar put it bluntly: “The French Revolution was the overture to the “Age of the G,” of guillotines, gaols, gallows, the Gestapo, gas chambers, and gulags. The guillotine marks the first step toward a mechanical-technological mass extermination, toward genocide.” In regime after regime in the twentieth century, ideologues repeated and multiplied the tragedies of the French Revolution: the Soviet Union and Mexico in 1917 (where the governor of Tabasco renamed his children, “Lenin, Lucifer, and Satan”); Italy in the 1920s; Germany, Austria, Portugal, and Poland in the 1930s; the rest of eastern Europe in the final year of World War II; China and Korea the late 1940s; Vietnam and Cambodia by 1975; and numerous others in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Those who espoused traditional understandings of character and virtue suffered arrest, torture, the gulag, the firing squad, or the gas chamber. The killing fields could be found across five of the seven continents in the twentieth century. Only Australia and Antarctica remained safe.
In terms of the loss of human life, the world has never seen anything like the consequences of this ideological takeover. “As some departed beneath the sod,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the machine kept bringing the replacements.” Indeed, the ideological regimes incessantly demanded blood sacrifices from the beginning. Sound estimates are that ideological regimes—communist, national socialist, fascist, and all others—murdered almost two-hundred million of their own men, women, and children in the twentieth century. This figure does not include those killed during the various wars of the same century. In sum, roughly an additional thirty-eight-and-a-half million were killed in warfare between 1901 and 1987. Communist China murdered the greatest number, estimates running as high as sixty-five million. The Soviet Union, at least through 1987, slaughtered only three million fewer, Josef Stalin claiming at last forty-one million of those. Adolf Hitler, who will always be remembered for the Holocaust of between five and six million Jews, also ended the lives of an additional fifteen million persons, most of them Catholic, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox, the most famous being St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest who traded his life for a Jewish father and husband at Auschwitz. The ideologues destroyed these people through the Holocaust camps, the forced labor of Gulags, forced famines, in the interrogation chambers, and by lining them up in fields and across bridges, machine guns ripping into their flesh, releasing their souls into eternity. Numerous other ideological regimes—in Nationalist China, Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Mexico, and Indonesia—murdered millions as well.
The numbers and devastation are so immense that they render us numb, as our imaginations cannot fathom such overwhelming human slaughter. Historical demographer R.J. Rummel attempted to put the numbers in perspective. “If one were to sit at a table and have this many people come in one door, walk at three miles per hour across the room with three feet between them,” he wrote, “and exit an opposite door, it would take over five years and nine months for them all to pass, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.” During the twentieth-century, then, if we exclude those killed during warfare, ideological states murdered roughly two million a year: 166,667 a month; 5,555 a day; 231 an hour; or four per minute. Such was the demand of blood to fuel the machine of the terror regimes. A recent study argues that of all the martyrs during the two-thousand year history of Christianity, sixty-five per cent of them were killed during the twentieth-century.
In certain instances, the killing was systematic. In others, it was merely random. Any incorrect thought, or suspicion of an incorrect thought, could lead to one’s death or the death of a loved one. In Cambodia, to name one cruel example, the display of any emotions—all emotions being officially defined as bourgeois—resulted in immediate execution. In the Soviet Union, to give another example, Vladimir Lenin frequently sent messages to his secret police with such horrifying instructions as: “To NKVD, Frunze. You are charged with the task of exterminating ten thousand enemies of the People. Report results by signal.” Usually, the secret police were given little time and no specific directions as to who the enemies of the people might be. They quickly rounded up ten thousand random persons, so as to not violate their orders, and executed them. One infamous story reports that Stalin often had the first person in a crowd who stopped applauding for one of his speeches immediately shot.
The ruin, though, does not end there. Those who survived physically, suffered mentally, psychologically, and spiritually. In volume two of The Gulag, Solzhenitsyn lists ten disorders of those who managed through luck or grace to survive physical death in the Soviet Union.
1) Fear. “Fear was not always the fear of arrest. There were immediate threats: purges, inspections, the completion of security questionnaires—routine or extraordinary ones—dismissal from work, deprivation of resident permit, expulsion or exile.”
2) Servitude. Internal passports, legal prohibitions on buying, selling, or renting housing stock greatly limited one’s ability to escape; the right to exit was denied.
3) Secrecy and Distrust. “This universal mutual mistrust had the effect of deepening the mass-grave pit of slavery. The moment someone began to speak up frankly, everyone stepped back and shunned him: ‘A provocation!’ And therefore anyone who burst out with a sincere protest was predestined to loneliness and alienation.”
4) Universal Ignorance. Because of number three, no one could trust the information of another, or trust another with information. This resulted in true isolation of the right-thinking person.
5) Squealing on one another, further eroding any trust that might exist. Without trust, civilization proved impossible.
6) Betrayal, therefore, became a norm. Sons betrayed fathers, daughters betrayed mothers, husband betrayed wives, and supposed best friends betrayed one another.
7) Corruption, as a result, became endemic, as the betrayers became professionals, earning positions, status, and wealth for their inside information, true or false. Frequently, one informed on a person simply to acquire something the other person had or had created. The informer then became the owner and the “creator.”
8) Lies. “The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence, in the same way as betrayal. Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone. Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie. There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.”
9) Cruelty. “And where among all the preceding qualities was there any place left for kindheartedness? How could one possibility preserve one’s kindness while pushing away the hands of those who were drowning? Once you have been steeped in blood, you can only become more cruel….And when you add that kindness was ridiculed, that pity was ridiculed, that mercy was ridiculed—you’d never be able to chain all those who were drunk on blood.”
10) Slave psychology. The system, ultimately, made men impotent.
Clearly, ideological regimes have resulted in massive numbers of bodies being destroyed, some two hundred million in one century. Even more souls, surviving as shadows and shades of what they were meant to be, have been trampled under the boot of those running the new machines. Again, T.S. Eliot spoke for his age:
But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
1. Christopher Dawson, The Gods of Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 1972), 155.
2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1999) 95.
3. Christopher Dawson, “A Return to Christian Unity,” unpublished mss., Harvard University/Andover Theological Library, pp. 12-14. See also, Christopher Dawson, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement (1933; London, ENG: The Saint Austin Review Press, 2001).
4. Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace (1797; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1999), 65.
5. Burke, Reflections, 128.
6. Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “The Age of the Guillotine,” in Reflections on the French Revolution: A Hillsdale Symposium, ed. Stephen Tonsor (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 1990), 79.
7. Kirk, Politics of Prudence, 10.
8. See Christopher Dawson, “The Left-Right Fallacy,” The Catholic Mind (April 1946), 253.
9. Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “The Age of the Guillotine,” 74.
10. Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (New York, N.Y.: Crossroad), 16.
11. Solzhenitsyn, Gulag, vol. 1, 595.
12. These figures come from the various estimates in R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press, 1994); Stephane Courtois, et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999); and Robert Royal, Catholic Martyrs.
13. Rummel, Death by Government, 3.
14. Rummel, Death by Government, 13.
15. “20th Century Saw 65% of Christian Martyrs, Says Author; Conclusions of New Study Published in Italy,” Zenit.org (Rome, Italy), May 9, 2002. See also, “Communism’s 100 Million Victims,” Mindszenty Report 40 (February 1998), 1-3.
16. Rummel, Death by Government, 81.
17. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag, vol. 2, 633.
18. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag, vol. 2, 635.
19. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag, vol. 2, 646.
20. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag, vol. 2, 650.