â€œThe lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in my lifetime.â€
â€"Sir Thomas Grey, 1914
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The shadow that descended in August 1914 has lifted. In Moscow, when it counted, the worst lacked all conviction and the best were filled with passionate intensity. Yeatsâ€™s blood-dimmed tide at last recedes. The 20th century is over.
Centuries, like decades, exist not in the neat and tidy pages of the calendar but in the expanses of the imagination. They're defined not by what is forgottenâ€""â€˜What were the peasants doing?" our teaching assistant used to ask of the age of Machiavelli and Luther, Galileo and Shakespeareâ€"but by what is remembered. The details fade, like faces recalled in a dream. What remains is but a caricature, a sketch suggesting truth by dominant features, characteristic gestures.
Of the 20th century, especially in Europe, we shall remember that it was nasty, brutal, and mercifully shortâ€"77 years that murdered millions. It was the century in which all but the naive and the wicked lost faith in progress, when every idea became its extreme. Nationalism begat racism; racism begat genocide. Equality liquidated the kulaks and marched the cities of Cambodia into the killing fields. We bided time until someone would push the button. If we can destroy the world, we thought, we will.
In the 20th century, liberty seemed an endangered species, a little bird whose very nest fell prey to marauding beasts. The destroyers claimed history as their ally, a force as impersonal and inevitable as a tidal wave or earthquake. The long twilight struggle had the fatalism of Norse legend. As the free world grew smaller, pessimism seemed only logical.
Europe got its tragic sense of life from World War I, America from Vietnam. But the results were the same. We cowered before history. The president of the United States was afraid to invite Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to dinner. It wouldnâ€™t have been prudent.
The left declared us â€œbetter Red than dead,â€ positing those as the only alternatives. We were, they said, on the â€œwrong side of history,â€ in Africa and Asia and, by implication, in Europe and America as well. In response, the right told us that democracies perish and totalitarianism endures. Freedom was worth fighting for, they said, but we shouldnâ€™t expect to win.
Fatalism cannot, however, long sustain freedom. For that, one must have confidence, defiance, cheek. And somehow, somewhere, sometime between the invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Wall, the people of the West recovered their courageâ€"and their convictions. We began to believe, once again, that we were right, that the liberal society was not decadent but good and true, that capitalism was liberation, that freedom was more than nothing left to lose.
In part, it was bravado born of desperation. But there was substance as well. Franco set Spain free, and Juan Carlos stood up to fascists who would have reenslaved her. Portugal stopped a communist coup. Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, put their communist neighbors to shame. Japan, not China, became the next superpower.
Latin America followed Franco. The College of Cardinals elected a Polish pope. Solidarity survived. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan proclaimed the Anglo-American gospel of liberalism and sometimes even acted on it.
When Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire, the left deemed him a dangerous madman. When he said communism was doomed, the right thought him a fool. A man out of his time, he did not partake of pessimism. He infuriated those who admired him most.
â€œHis trust in the future, his sunny belief that change, big change, was possibleâ€"the very things that occasionally infuriated the young of his administrationâ€"turn out to have been appropriate to the times,â€ writes Peggy Noonan in What I Saw at the Revolution. â€œSometimes the shrewdest thing is not to be too skeptical, not to be too â€˜wise.â€™"
In the heart of darkness, a new Soviet man was born. Vladimir Bukovsky wrote of the old version in his 1977 memoir, To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter: â€œI despised Soviet manâ€"not the one depicted on the posters or in Soviet literature, but the one who existed in reality, who had neither honor nor pride, nor a sense of personal responsibility, who was capable of tackling a bear alone with a pitchfork but who shrank away and broke into a cold sweat at the sight of a policeman, who would betray and sell his own father to avoid the boss thumping his fist on the desk at him. The tragedy was that he existed inside every one of us, and until we could overcome this Soviet man within, nothing in our life would change.â€ Dissidents like Bukovsky and Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky, and Sakharov overcame the Soviet man inside because they could not do otherwise. They could not live by the lie. Others followedâ€"less brave, less bold, less public, but nonetheless important. Soviet man became weaker, and the Soviet Union changed.
The old Soviet man undoubtedly still exists. After all, only a tiny percentage of Moscowâ€™s millions turned out to protect the â€˜White Houseâ€ from the expected onslaught of tanks. But thousands did. And, as Tatyana Tostaya notes in The New Republic, each did so not as a mob but as an individual: â€œEvery one of the men and women who assembled outside the Russian Parliament building left his or her home alone, and headed in the rainy night toward the danger without any certainty that they were joining anything larger or safer than themselves.â€
Some still claim that history is the product of impersonal forces. But in August 1991 it was made by great men and womenâ€"many of them nameless. There was greatness on the streets of Moscow and in the halls of the Russian parliament. It resounded in Yeltsinâ€™s address from atop the tank and in Gorbachevâ€™s â€œThe hell with youâ€ response to the coup plotters. History spoke in the voices, and the deeds, of individuals.
The lamps are going on all over Europe, all over the world. We walk again in the light. The 20th century is over.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Fin de Siècle".