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For the Soul of Mankind

For the Soul of Mankind

By Melvyn P. Leffler

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Sarajevo 1914 / Gaza 2014: The Short Twentieth Century Lingers On

Posted on Aug 3, 2014

By Lawrence Weschler

(Page 3)

It is in that sense that the so-called Short 20th Century has yet to play itself out. And this is more than a mere quibble over historiographical taxonomy. Because there was one other braiding strand rising up and out from that history that needs to be considered and layered back in: the way in which predominantly Germanic physicists (a plurality of those Jewish) were cracking the atomic code across those very years of the first half of the Short 20th Century, thereby giving rise to the creation (in exile) of an atom bomb that ended the Second World War and then defined the Cold War that followed, right through 1989, though one whose awful pall persists to this day, in arguably its most fearsome prospect, in the form of the Israeli arsenal. (OK, granted, the Indian/Pakistani stashes and the much, much smaller North Korean one may come in a close second, but those belong to other narratives.)

I say this because of the recurrently rabid (see my first article) temper of so much of what passes for Israeli policy these days with regard to the Palestinians, and the seeming inability of so many Israelis (and their allied apologists abroad) to credit the sheer and ongoing human suffering that those policies bring about or to be able with any accuracy to weigh that suffering in proportion to their own discomforts (see the discussion of brain damage in my second piece). And I’m not saying that those two tendencies would necessarily, by themselves, escalate matters to the level of a potential nuclear strike. Rather it is the way the combination of the two, stretched endlessly into the future, with no countervailing pressures of the sort that perhaps only American leaders might be able to bring to bear (but never, never, never seem like they ever will, hogtied and hobbled as they in turn are by the various domestic Likkudist neocon and Christian evangelical lobbies)—how those two together may well serve to isolate the Israeli state more and more, such that it wedges itself into an ever more feverishly self-righteous and self-pitying corner (its military leadership increasingly drawn from the most self-righteous and self-pitying sectors among the settler activists, its civilian leadership driven to ever more extreme positions by the ever more desperate reactions their policies may in turn provoke among the Palestinians), and then, down the line (especially should things turn grim), who knows what a sufficiently panicked Israeli elite might do, given the availability at hand of those “seventy-five to four hundred nuclear weapons” one keeps hearing about? Seymour Hersh’s so-called Samson Option? (The option, incidentally, the Christian evangelicals are banking on, theirs being a millennial time scape far vaster than any piddling Long or Short Centuries.) Masada?

The point, finally, in this context, is that the perhaps not-so-Short 20th Century, which began exactly a hundred years ago this weekend, won’t truly have wound itself out till the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is resolved, one way or the other.

Let us pray.


These past several weeks, two poems have kept thrumming through my mind. The first being that middle stanza from W.H. Auden’s meditation “September 1, 1939,” just as Europe was plunging back into war:


Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

And the second, the countervailing stanzas out of Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy,” his rendition of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes,” published in 1991, in direct response, one fancies, to the marvels, all around the world, of the immediately preceding years:

Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.


History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.

It means once in a lifetime

That justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

For which is it going to be? I keep thrumming, wondering, back and forth, braiding, layering. Those two poems, and Margaret MacMillan’s final lines of evaluation at the conclusion of her magisterial account of the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, “The War That Ended Peace:”

If we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century, we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be, and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.

Or, to phrase the same idea just slightly differently (returning to a slightly later moment in that same 1939 poem of Auden’s):


“We must love one another or die.”



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