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Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century


altThe Industrial Revolution and subsequent technology created vastly more powerful weapons—including some that were entirely new, such as the airplane and rocket—that raised the potential for bloodshed to new heights.

Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection was perverted into Social Darwinism and eugenics: racist pseudosciences that provided excuses to repress or eliminate entire groups of people.

These events created a dangerous backdrop for the most sinister development of all. This was the notion that utopia was not just a perfect paradise to look forward to in the afterlife. Instead, utopia could be built right now, in this life.

Such 20th-century ideologies as Marxism, Nazism, Communism, and Fascism embraced this idea willingly—even enthusiastically—and used terror to implement it. These ideologies functioned as political religions, demanding fanaticism, commitment, and sacrifice in return for an ultimate reward in this life rather than the next.

Understanding Totalitarian Governments: Gangsters and Machines

Professor Liulevicius offers an intellectual framework though which to understand the totalitarian governments of the last century or, for that matter, of today. Such governments, and the terror they spread, share key characteristics and strategies.

For example, their leaders can be seen not as politicians but as mobsters, an organized conspiracy that uses criminal methods inspired by gangsters. They gain and maintain power by manipulating masses of people, often exploiting societies with many uprooted and alienated citizens, such as existed in Europe after World War I.

In addition, you will see that these regimes create fear and command allegiance through the use of "machines." These are not literally machines, but bureaucracies that carry out a set of deliberate, interrelated strategies. These include:

The cult of the leader, or the cult of personality. These make the dictator seem larger than life, or superhuman. After Italy annexed Ethiopia in 1936, Mussolini's followers declared him to be a new god in human form. In the Soviet Union, long ovations after Stalin's speeches were common, as no one wanted to be seen as the first to stop applauding.
The Big Lie, or deliberate distortions of the truth. During the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao Zedong seemed to promote free speech, then killed some half million dissidents when they came out in the open.
Secret police. An estimated 274,000 people worked with the East German secret police, the Stasi, from 1950 to 1989. When informers were added, this translated into one secret policeman for every 6.5 persons.
The media. Radio, film, and television were used to rewrite history and manipulate the masses. The Bolsheviks produced documentary films that made their October Revolution seem much more dramatic and deadly than it was (a common joke was that more people were injured during filming than in the actual event).
The portrait Professor Liulevicius paints is that 20th-century violence, while horrific and massive, was not chaotic or random but deliberate and calculated. Very often, it was based on precedent.

In using concentration camps, Hitler and Stalin essentially adopted a strategy that had first been employed by the Spanish in 1896 in Cuba and by the British against Dutch settlers during the Boer War (1899–1902).

Hitler's plan to exterminate Germany's Jews was inspired by the 1915 genocide of Armenians by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, an atrocity barely noticed by the international community. The fact that "no one remembered the Armenians," as Hitler is said to have declared, convinced him that his Final Solution would work.

Lessons Learned: A Hopeful Conclusion

In the final lectures, Professor Liulevicius considers recent figures such as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and assesses terrorism in the contemporary world. What is the future of terror? What lessons have been learned by the hard experience of the past century?

These questions hinge on several issues, including our attitudes toward human nature, our ability to remember and learn from past atrocities, and our use of technology. But an especially optimistic note is the notion of resistance. If the 20th century was plagued by repressive regimes, it was also blessed with those who resisted them.

Unlike the story of totalitarianism, which is about the state, the story of resistance is one of individuals who ignored personal risk to oppose violence. These "witnesses to the century," as Professor Liulevicius calls them, include novelists George Orwell and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, and political philosopher Hannah Arendt.


Course Lecture Titles
1. Defining Utopia and Terror
2. The Legacy of Revolutions
3. Omens of Conflict
4. World War I
5. Total War—Mobilization and Mass Death
6. Total Revolution in Russia
7. War's Aftermath—The Hinge of Violence
8. Communism
9. Stalin
10. Soviet Civilization
11. Fascism
12. The 1930's—The "Low Dishonest Decade"
13. Nazism
14. Hitler
15. World War II
16. Nazi Genocide and Master Plans
17. The Cold War
18. Mao
19. Cambodia and Pol Pot's Killing Fields
20. East Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea
21. From the Berlin Wall to the Balkans
22. Rwanda
23. Saddam Hussein's Iraq
24. The Future of Terror 


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Tags: Century, violence, Utopia, Terror, University, century