On the other, other hand, there is the argument advanced by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (and seemingly shared by John Paul II) that World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—the collapse of the old order in Europe in 1914-1918, the rise of communism and then fascism, the latter’s defeat in World War II and the former’s in the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War—are best understood together as a civil war of European civilization. In his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture, delivered at the height of the agitations over the Reagan/Thatcher rearmament of the West, Solzhenitsyn had this to say about the pattern of twentieth-century history:
The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war … took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the powers of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them…. Only the loss of that higher intuition which comes from God could have allowed the West to accept calmly, after World War I, the protracted agony of Russia as she was being torn apart by a band of cannibals. . . . The West did not perceive that this was in fact the beginning of a lengthy process that spells disaster for the whole world.
The moral-cultural prism on history comes, it seems, more naturally to Slavs: thus Solzhenitsyn, and thus John Paul II, who wrote in 1991 about the bitter legacy of World War II for the peoples caught, between 1945 and 1989, on the wrong side of the Elbe River. The war that “should have reestablished freedom and restored the rights of nations,” said John Paul, “ended without having attained these goals”; indeed, it ended with “the spread of communist totalitarianism over more than half of Europe and over other parts of the world.”
Who is right? Churchill, Taylor, Weinberg, Solzhenitsyn, the pope? If one thinks of history as the rise and fall of civilizations, and not just nation-states or governments, there is much to be said for the Slavic “take” on World War II, its origins, and its aftermath. The farther humanity gets from those events, and the more the actors (including nation-states) of that era fade into the past, the more the deeper moral-cultural analysis and its explanation of World War II as the second phase of an intra-European civil war will seem persuasive. (Unless, that is, the current vandals in the Temple of Clio win out, and it becomes the received wisdom of the twenty-third century that the great struggles of the twentieth were rooted in culturally constructed gender roles. Or somesuch.)
Yet Gerhard Weinberg also seems right in arguing that something new and terrible entered the world scene between 1939 and 1945: the clash, not just of nations within a generally accepted world political order, but of inimical ideologies in a struggle to define the future of world politics. That struggle, of course, had profound moral dimensions, in that it was based on wholly incommensurable understandings of the human person, human community, and human destiny. So perhaps the Slavic/cultural and Western/political interpretations of the distinctive character of World War II are not so different, after all.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.