The best popular historians write about the past in a way that illuminates the present, and can be read by the general public, not just academics. Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history book, “A Distant Mirror,” stresses this even in the title. Another historian of this type who I like even more is Norman Cohn, the author of several books on the medial and classical world, which illuminate the ideological roots of the wars and genocides of the 20th century.
Like Tuchman, Cohn wasn’t a trained historian, but a student of languages. He worked for British Intelligence just after the end of World War II, as an interpreter in the interrogation of captured German SS officers and refugees fleeing the Soviets from Eastern Europe. This shattering experience shaped all of his writings. Using his knowledge of both modern and medieval languages, he extensively read the surviving documents of the religious heretics from 1000 to 1600, to draw a picture of how Europe’s the in-the-name-of-religion movements shaped modern ideological thought, for good and bad.
I think that the desire for the poor to improve their lot in the West was blended with and driven by misinterpreted New Testament prophecies – the emergence of a paradise. Belief in the perfectibility of the world jumped languages, countries, cultures, and centuries, and was translated into secular discourse, never loosing its power to jolt ordinary people and inspire them to rise up. But, unfortunately, it also inspired the desire to suppress, harass, and kill dissenters of all types.
In essence, this belief inspired both the later followers of Marx and Hitler – for example, in the modern era – and developed a belief in totalitarian thought and action, driving both social aspersions and animosities. Hitler, for example, seemed pagan, but still had the themes of an “elect” (Aryans) prevailing over and dominating and destroying everyone else.
This seems to explain why modern totalitarian ideologies often resemble each other closely – political and religious ideologies alike. The best example from today is the curious way that conservative Islam resembles conservative Christianity, and how they both resemble Soviet Communism in Russia, or China in the late 20th century, in their mutual absolutism and belief in strict adherence to certain narrow beliefs and goals. Also, sadly, the tendency to violence to carry out such beliefs (though, in Christianity, violent actions would be contrary to the teaching the Bible or Jesus, who taught his disciples to love their enemies).
Another good book on this subject is Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements,” which discusses the attraction to such belief systems, and how they seduce people into following them.
If you want a gift idea for the friend who loves medieval history, modern political writing, Marxism, or is interested in the history of Christianity in the middle ages, I also recommend Cohn’s books “The Pursuit of the Millennium” and “Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom.”
As well, in his book “Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” Cohn demonstrates how this pamphlet was the blueprint of the “final solution.” This pamphlet, which casts a long shadow even today, is dissected by Cohn as to its origin, the text, and its heinous misuse. In the modern new era of The Big Lie in American politics, where we again are fighting the agents of totalitarian thought, this book is an excellent gift for any serious reader.
This author alone asks: Where our deepest beliefs come from? Are these beliefs useful anymore?
We can’t be horrified by the excesses of, say, the modern Muslim faith without understanding where they come from, and that we, as a culture with Christian roots, share many of these same excesses because our shared belief in apocalypse. Nazism, State Communism and other totalitarian forms of government mutated that part of Christianity to gain political backing.
The blind belief in the rightness of all that we do and say, and our right to suppress those who disagree with us, in the name of God or security or even just automatically as a public good – our right to wage war on other nations, to jail citizens for private behavior like taking drugs, and to control others’ private lives in the name of morality, such as in our marriage customs, do not horrify us as they should.
It’s about time that we understand ourselves better, and face the insidious influence that these old belief systems have on our freedoms and reason. For we can’t repudiate that which we do not thoroughly understand.