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20th Century

Thirty years ago today, the boundary between East and West Germany popped like a soap bubble. Something that had seemed fixed, an unsolvable problem, simply ended. This was one element of the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the relatively peaceful end of a major system of world totalitarianism.

I was 16 at the time. It was a wondrous thing for a young person to watch, still the best geopolitical event I’ve ever witnessed. To see people power in action was to get a sense of hope, of the possibility inherent in the human spirit if it can just seize the moment.

It didn’t make everything wonderful forever. In the world as it is, there is no such thing as happily ever after. But it did make things better. If they got bad again, it doesn’t change that. That moment of liberation was real. If it happened once, it can happen again.

As I am constantly harping on about, we live in an Unprecedented Era. There are no models in human history for what we should do with our amazing knowledge and technology. We as a species are making it up as we go along. It’s only natural that sometimes everything looks bleak, as it did in the Thirties and the Seventies, because we don’t know where to go. Horrible things happen along the way. But so far we have managed to find a new path each time. H.G. Wells, on his deathbed, was sure, for very rational reasons, that humanity was doomed. But he was wrong. May he keep being wrong.

We have to cherish the good moments. We have to keep the memory and not let it degrade, to give us hope for the next one, to be sustained from victory through confusion to victory again.

One of the hardest things to express of the beauty of the Unprecedented Era is its ephemerality. Every phase can happen because conditions are Just So, and those conditions will never be that way again. The Seventies, just to use one example, are a combination of economic (the end of the great wave of mid-20th century economic growth), cultural/demographic (the afterglow of the Sixties, the autumn of those who remembered World War II, the maturity-but-still-youngness of the postwar generation), technological (the introduction of personal computers) political (the fading, but not faded, of Mass Man) elements. A certain permutation, made in the instant, year by year, month by month, hour by hour, never to be seen again.

And the same can be said for every decade since the 18th century. They are all birds: you see one for a moment, try to pin a name on it, but it flutters and is gone. You can only reconstruct it from memory, but whatever memory will never equal that empirical instant.

We cannot say “the good guys won World War II,” because the victors of World War II included Stalin’s Soviet Union, a regime that murdered millions of human beings and pioneered new ways of human evil in the same fashion as Nazi Germany.

The best we can say is that the forces of human freedom (or at least, the Enlightenment Package) survived the war to hold up their example against the totalitarian ideological movements spawned by the 20th century.

Which is just another data point to support the theory that World War II was the worst thing that ever happened.