Ideology and Delusion
Intellectual autobiography is fertile ground for delusion and distortion. But I think the books that made me the kind of historian I am—contrarian, suspicious of received wisdom, mistrustful of “theory,” secular, rational, humanist, and focused on explaining the horrors to which politics led in the early twentieth century—were the great anti-ideological novels of the 1940s : Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, George Orwell’s 1984, and Albert Camus’s The Plague—and one older, heavy-handed but haunting work in a different vein, Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People.
The messages I took away from the novels were that overarching ideological and philosophical systems elide quickly into schemes of mind and body control, that their application to human life inevitably leads to massive cruelty, and that humanity’s only defense lies in individual courage put to the service of reason and compassion. Put that way, I am an obvious product of the liberal, democratic, postwar, anti-communist West, and the road to my becoming a historian preoccupied with how the Third Reich and the Holocaust could happen in the years just before I was born does not look in retrospect like a very long or curvy one.
Ibsen taught me something related that shaped not so much what I have studied, but how: with a streak of rebelliousness against comfortable or pious or self-serving assumptions. An Enemy of the People teaches that societies have less to fear from verbal, fact-based, and non-violent challenges to prevailing ideas and practices than from their comfortable reiteration by what the play’s hero calls “the compact majority.” The drama also warns truth-tellers to expect less than warm receptions, which I have found a consoling lesson from time to time.
A wonderful eighth-grade teacher named Mary Faherty put me on to the Ibsen play early in 1960, thus providing an apt intellectual overture for the defiant decade that followed. I don’t remember how I found or in what order I read the others during my high school years, but I do vividly recall that the one of the three novels that probably has most faded in people’s consciousness (Koestler’s) was the one that hit me hardest then. Triggered by the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, Darkness at Noon presents an even more horrifying picture than 1984’s portrayal of the forces that seek to crush Winston Smith: a demonstration of how ideological commitment can delude people into crushing themselves.
Now, approaching my seventieth birthday and retirement, I plan to revisit these books—along with others whose memories I cherish, especially Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and two later, powerfully iconoclastic books, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange—to see whether they retain their galvanic power (and whether I can still feel it). Whatever my findings in those regards, I expect to note that the dangers against which these writers warned are still present, though perhaps in new disguises. As the wonderful historian Barbara Tuchman once wisely observed,
“History doesn’t repeat itself; people always do.”
Peter Hayes is professor of history and Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies at Northwestern University. His latest book is How was it Possible? A Holocaust Reader (Nebraska University Press, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Banksy and was photographed by Jasn.