Something Happened, or how to live after an apocalypse

“More history than ever is today being revised and invented by people who do not want the real past, but only a past that suits their purpose. Today is the great age of historical mythology.”

Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times (2007)

1. Your apocalypse, our apocalypse

“It is almost commonplace to think that the Native Apocalypse, if contemplated seriously, has already taken place,” wrote Grace Dillon in 2012, drawing attention to the fact that many indigenous cultures have already been through their own apocalypses through the mechanisms of the European empires. What is left is “survivance”, a term coined by Gerald Vizenor to describe the mixture of survival and resistance necessary to survive in such post-apocalyptic landscapes. Yet it is also true that Europe suffered a similar apocalypse; as Aime Cesaire described World War Two in his Discourse on Colonialism,

“what [the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century] cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “niggers” of Africa.“

Europeans were both perpetrators and victims of this their own apocalypse, but World War II was only the most visible, most visceral aspect of far deeper tectonic dislocations – the tidal wave that strikes the shore rather than the shifts that caused that wave. Something happened to Europe in the twentieth century that we have collectively agreed to forget; when we do remember it, it is an exercise in incomprehension, either subtly or wilfully. Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is untrue; those who cannot remember the past are condemned to carry on bravely.

2. There is no after

The first chapter of Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 lays out in visceral detail just how great was the destruction left by the Second World War, summarising a series of losses on a scale that seem nearly inconceivable when simply seen on the page. The estimated thirty-six and a half million Europeans dead from war-related causes between 1939 and 1945 – more than half of whom were civilians – is reasonably well-known,1 so it was the enumeration of material losses that had the greater impact on me.

“Because much of the damage had been done to houses and apartment buildings, and so many people were homeless as a result (an estimated 25 million people in the Soviet Union, a further 20 million in Germany), the rubble-strewn urban landscape was the most immediate reminder of the war that had just ended… of 12,000 railway locomotives in pre-war France, only 2,800 were in service by the time of the German surrender… Two-thirds of the French merchant fleet had been sunk… [but the] true horrors of war had been experienced further east… In the Soviet Union, 70,000 villages and 1,700 towns were destroyed in the course of the war, along with 32,000 factories and 40,000 miles of rail track. In Greece, two-thirds of the country’s vital merchant marine fleet was lost, one-third of its forests were ruined and a thousand villages were obliterated… Yugoslavia lost 25 percent of its vineyards, 50 percent of all livestock, 60 percent  of the country’s roads, 75 percent of all its ploughs and railway bridges, one in five of its pre-war dwellings and a third of its limited industrial wealth—along with 10 percent of its pre-war population.”

What astonishes me is that nowadays, despite the centrality of World War 2 to postwar narratives, we find so little direct reference to the impact that all this human death and physical destruction must have had on the people of Europe – as if the only way forward was through forgetting. In reference to the myths of anti-fascism that sprung up after the war, Judt asserts that “[w]ithout such collective amnesia, Europe’s astonishing post-war recovery would not have been possible.” While clearly at the individual level people obviously remembered, at the collective level there seems to have been an unspoken agreement to never speak of it; like many people in the UK, you’d have been hard pressed to get my grandparents to talk about the war.

This isn’t to say that histories written of the war did not talk about these points: it’s not that they were inaccurate, more that they are incomplete, missing the sense of what it felt like for us to have survived. Something had to take the place of history, and that something was myth, layer upon layer of myth laid down in country after country, causing Judt to lament that “only much later would it become clear just how much post-war Europe rested on foundation myths that would fracture and shift with the passage of years. In the circumstances of 1945, in a continent covered with rubble, there was much to be gained by behaving as though the past was indeed dead and buried and a new age about to begin.”

3. There is only future

In fact Europe was already living in a new age. As noted by Aime Cesaire, the myth of European superiority was done; colonial soldiers saw the white man die the same as them, then watched postwar Europe descend into a series of local civil wars that only stopped once they were frozen in place. As exhausted empires were forced to concede loss after loss of their territory, what was shattered was not just the physical and economic substructure, but the ideological and psychological superstructure of “Western civilisation”, a thin veneer peeled back to reveal barbarism on a scale previously unseen – unseen because previously it had been confined to the colonies, but had now been visited upon the imperial centre. A sickened Europe could not bear the sight of itself.

The shattering of that superstructure had begun even before the Second World War, however, as John Higgs pointed out in his book Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century. In chapter after chapter Higgs goes through the ways in which each and every aspect of society was upended in the course of the twentieth century, all the way down to the nature of reality itself. Psychoanalysis asked whether people really knew themselves, and psychedelics answered that question with a resounding No. The development of Cubism veered art further from our everyday perception of the world, while Surrealism forced perception into the centre of art; around the edges, Dadaism undermined the very idea of art itself.

The revolution begun by Darwin was extended further by the discovery of DNA, opening up a pandora’s box of social unease. General relativity made clear that the story we had been told by Newton was far from complete, that our perception of the world did not match its physics, and then quantum theory pushed further, showing that the nature of the world was stranger than we could imagine. Even the failure of the complacent European empires and their replacement by a bewildering number of bewildered nation states was a seismic novelty in the historical record, especially given that so many of them were democracies, more or less. The fabric of everyday life changed, and kept changing, and kept changing.  

Postmodernism seems almost inevitable given the violence wreaked by modernity on European society. World War Two was both cause and effect in a chain of changes that shattered the mirror in which Europe saw itself, the shards themselves washed away on quick currents of change. That river of shattered glass is our own river Lethe, and standing as we do on its far side, having drunk deep during our passage, we have forgotten what life was like before. Judt may be correct that this was the price we paid for being able to go on, but the price was higher than he could imagine; entire societies that have failed to understand what has happened to them, and so what is happening to them, and what will happen to them in the future.

4. So then – what happened?

Joseph Heller’s second novel “Something Happened” will forever be in the shadow of his first, “Catch-22”. Where the latter rolls around in the muck of modern warfare like a happy pig, the former clinically dissects middle-class life in post-war America. I can’t honestly recommend the book, even though it had a huge impact on me. It’s an unrelenting barrage of banal experiences reported by Bob Slocum, a man clearly traumatised but who has not yet recognised how his trauma has destroyed his humanity. At one point we discover that he has been marked by tragedy, but that this tragedy was just a drop in the ocean of banality. His destruction is ongoing.

Once he recognises this trauma, he does nothing. He is unable even to imagine a way in which things could be different – at least not a way that could offer him the same security and stability as his current way of life – and it is here that Heller skewers a society that wields amnesia as a weapon. The refusal to allow trauma to mark you, to change you, is not a sign of strength but a sign of weakness, and a guarantee that nothing will ever change you. Following his awful tragedy Slocum carries on bravely, and is lauded by his colleagues and community; but as he notes towards the end of the book; “No one understands that carrying on bravely was the easiest thing to do.”

In his 1992 article The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe, Judt wrote that “What we are witnessing, so it seems to me, is a sort of interregnum, a moment between myths when the old versions of the past are either redundant or unacceptable, and new ones have yet to surface.” This was a conscious echo of Antonio Gramsci’s more well-known comment on another interregnum, that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” 60 years have passed since Gramsci wrote those words, and 30 years have passed since Judt wrote his, and the question must surely have occurred to somebody other than I: what if this interregnum is permanent?

Europe lives in the aftermath of a century of apocalypse, yet it carries on bravely. It astonishes me that we don’t seem to have taken proper account of what happened in the twentieth century. It worries me that as we move further away from the twentieth century we have lost our chance to take that proper account. It amuses me when reactionaries defend “Western civilisation” while failing to observe that its downfall was seeded by that civilisation itself, rather than by the latest target of their two minutes hate. It puzzles me what this means for how we should live, what lessons we should draw from it, both for Europe and the wider world. It’s commonly held that Europe is the past; but I suspect it might be closer to the future, and too close for comfort.

  1. This was out of a global total of 70-85 million dead – 3% of the global population – the majority of whom were in the USSR and PRC.

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