Europe’s evolution and formation as a major world civilization can perhaps be divided into four epochs or periods: antiquity, medieval, renaissance, and modern. Antiquity can perhaps be characterized by the proliferation of ancient wisdom that has largely been lost. The Medieval period was characterized by the prevalence of a ‘theocentric’ worldview that has now been eclipsed by ‘anthropocentric’ thought. The ‘Renaissance’ period is known for the outbreak of scientific knowledge. Finally, the modern period is known not only for rapid progress in industry and technology, but also for tragic lapses into hedonism and total war. Why one should conduct a perusal of European political and social history is because the international system and thus politics and international relations are ‘Eurocentric,’ and as a result European politics has and will have a major impact on the politics and societies of virtually all nations.
By having a basic understanding of European history, one can perhaps anticipate and sense what happens in other societies in both the present day and age as well as in the future, given that Europe has long experienced what many other societies are currently experiencing. Basically, Europe – due to its experiences – is politically and socially ahead of all other regions of the world. Even during the Renaissance period, Europe was the first region in the world to establish a rules-based order that thwarted the outbreak of war based on religion and culture, created mechanisms for the enforcement of agreements and treaties, and preserved ‘national interests’ first through the advent of the historic ‘Treaty of Westphalia’ (1648) and later through the ‘Congress of Vienna’ (1815). As with Asia, the issue of Europe, even in the present day and age, ultimately pertains to the issue of order.
During the modern period, however, Germany would rise in military and economic stature but was basically a latecomer to colonialism, militaristic expansionism, and imperialism, which were first mastered by Europe’s status quo powers, namely, Britain and France. As a result, Germany demanded its share of power within the European order, which in turn led to confrontation with the status quo powers and thus the breakdown of the European regional order established first by the ‘Treaty of Westphalia’ and then the ‘Congress of Vienna.’ The goal of the ‘Allied’ powers (Britain and France) between 1914 and 1945 – which coincided with two total wars – was to maintain the status quo of British and French preeminence within the European order by relegating Germany to a subordinate status and mitigating its military rise, which it did successfully through World War I and during the interwar period through the ‘Treaty of Versailles.’
Within Continental Europe, the two total wars between 1914 and 1945 were also largely characterized by hostilities between Germany and Russia. Shortly after World War I, Russia would undergo a ‘Bolshevik’ revolution and become a communist country after a fierce civil war in the early 1920’s. Then, in the 1930’s Germany’s transformation into a fascist state under Adolf Hitler would threaten the equilibrium and order within Europe yet again. Thus, during the interwar period between 1914 and 1945, Europe had essentially been trampled upon by the twin scourges of fascism and communism. How enlightenment theory – which espoused liberal democracy – could translate into the rise of fascist, communist, and thus totalitarian thought has been the subject of debate and interpretation ever since these occurrences.
Nevertheless, despite the nuances, both German fascism and Russian communism were based on the same concept, namely, totalitarianism, which equates to the absolute power of a single person or state. Therefore, one can argue that the culmination of the modern age is totalitarianism – either in its fascist or communist manifestation – and thus total war, which is basically what occurred in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. It is also worth noting that fascism is race-based and it stems from the notion of ‘Aryan Nationalism’ or ‘White Supremacy,’ whereas communism is essentially based on atheism, ‘scientism,’ and ‘historical materialism.’ In Asia, politics, social strife, and warfare is based primarily on religion and culture, whereas in the Western world these issues have played out along ideological lines and ontological states over the last century or so.
European history has also demonstrated that fascists usually rise through established electoral processes, whereas communists tend to seize power through the armed overthrow of established systems. Both fascism and communism – and thus totalitarianism – were ideological subversions of liberal-democratic systems, along with their core elements of capitalism, constitutionalism, and individualism, first during the interwar period and later during the historic ‘Cold War.’ While fascism had been largely beaten and suppressed at the end of World War II, the Cold War featured the challenge of communism to the Western liberal-democratic order in the form of the Soviet Union, which also would be beaten in the early 1990’s. In both World War I and World War II, the decisive factor in bringing an end to Europe’s total wars would be American intervention. Arguably, it is the American military presence in Britain and Continental Europe today that is preventing the outbreak of war between the various European powers yet again. Thus, the objective of the Cold War for the Europeans was to ‘keep the Americans in, keep the Germans down, and keep the Russians out.’
What is still quite difficult to understand is why Europe, despite its unrivaled economic and social advancement at the time, would collapse into two total wars within the span of three decades in the early half of the 20th century. Kenneth Waltz’s ‘Levels of Analysis’ would suggest that either human nature, the failure of the various European states to align their interests, or the anarchic and chaotic nature of the international system prompted the total wars on European soil during the first half of the 20th century. Norman Davies has suggested that the breakdown of ‘traditional values’ in Europe led to the rise of totalitarianism in both its fascist and communist forms. Davies also mentions that the primary vehicle for the breakdown of traditional values during the modern period was technology, which spread things like American pop culture into Europe, thus eroding European culture in the process and in turn prompting a potent form of ‘moral nihilism.’
But perhaps the most convincing explanation for the rise of both fascism and communism during Europe’s interwar period is that deteriorating economic and social circumstances stemming from militaristic expansionism and economic imperialism led to totalitarian tendencies on the part of both lay intellectuals and the masses who were convinced by these intellectuals, despite a confluence of factors. Nevertheless, it is totalitarianism stemming from a popular uprising which has played out as the culmination of modernity in the Western world and thus the destruction of the Western social fabric by virtue of total war. As a result, it is worth exploring and confirming how totalitarianism – either in its fascist or communist form – comes into being.
The primary source for exploring the roots of totalitarianism is none other than Hannah Arendt and her all-time famous work titled “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” As Arendt wrote, totalitarianism – or the rule of one man – stems primarily from the contagion effect of an ideology propagated by a powerful leader that is based either on “nature” or “history,” with nature representing the notion of race superiority and an espousal of eugenics and pseudo-science, and history as represented by the entrenchment of atheistic scientism and historical materialism. Whereas the naturalistic and pseudo-scientific manifestation of totalitarianism had been refuted and suppressed at the close of World War II, it was harder to refute and suppress the atheistic and materialistic manifestation of totalitarianism as embodied by the former Soviet Union and its satellites. In the most basic sense, the Cold War was a repudiation of an ideology based on atheistic scientism and ‘historical materialism’ that served as a natural complement or philosophical underpinning to a totalitarian system.
But with the demise of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, communism and revolutionary fervor based on historical materialism and atheistic scientism no longer poses the kind of threat to established systems of governance as it once did during the Cold War. The bygone era – or the ‘good old days’ – of ideologies and ontological states such as liberalism, fascism, and communism in the 20th century has given way to a politics of culture, identity, and religion in the 21st century and in the post-Cold War era by and large. As the late Samuel Huntington wrote:
“With the end of the Cold War order, countries throughout the world began developing new and reinvigorating old antagonisms and affiliations. They have been groping for groupings, and they are finding those groupings with countries of similar culture and the same civilization.”
Another one of America’s foremost post-Cold War thinkers, Francis Fukuyama, also linked the yearning for a viable individual identity with a collective or group. Fukuyama wrote:
“For many, the inner self that needed to be made visible was not that of a generic human being, but of a particular kind of person from a particular place and observing particular customs. These partial identities could be based on nation, or they could be based on religion.”
Amidst the ashes of America’s hegemonic wars in the 21st century, the aim and purpose of lay intellectuals and statesmen alike has gone back to square one, in the sense that the aim and purpose is to first re-establish regional order in Europe and then translate European regional order into global order based on agreed-upon economic and political rules as well as social norms that transcend cultural and religious differences. After all, human beings all belong to the same species with a common origin, despite cultural and religious differences that were shaped largely by disparate environmental factors.
Also, for the United States and Europe, the challenge is preserving the already existing liberal international order and integrating Russia and Turkey into an already existing regional order in Europe, while creating a regional order in Asia which in turn would assimilate into the existing liberal international order. Preserving a global order based on liberal-democratic rules and norms is easier said than done and perhaps even impossible due to obvious cultural and religious differences between nations. But the expansion of a regional order in Europe – along with the creation of a regional order in Asia – and the subsequent translation of a European and Asian order into an American-led global order based on common rules and social norms is perhaps the only way by which one can prevent the outbreak of violence along cultural and religious lines, enforce international agreements and treaties, and promote economic interdependence and well-being on a global scale. It is indeed a Herculean task. But in a nutshell, America must return to a foreign policy that prioritizes global order and stability over global disorder and hegemony.