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When a wise and sharp-edged historian of some of our era’s greatest traumas reflects on the century as a whole, one should pay attention—especially if that historian also happens to have been involved in public life and is a fine poet besides. Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century is short on warmth and fuzziness. Its few understatements are all meant ironically. But Conquest offers a view of our predicament that merits the attention of anyone seeking to look ahead.

For Conquest, ideas count. (His commitment to this notion seems almost quaint when a large part of academia is devoted to the proposition that they don’t.) During the 20th century, a kind of "ideological frenzy" seized European minds and gave us communism and fascism, which he correctly sees as related.

"Idea addicts" in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere produced movements that devastated minds and whole countries. The West had to struggle against Hitler and Stalin. If anything, Conquest argues, Western policies during the Cold War were too timid, not too bold.

The book’s discussion of these points is far richer and more challenging than any telegraphic summary can convey. Conquest is able to draw on his own pioneering research on Stalinism, research that was once bitterly condemned in the West for overstating the death toll under Soviet rule—and therefore the moral deficits of Soviet communism—and is now attacked in Russia for understating it. One also hears the voice that advised Margaret Thatcher during her rise to power, and that encouraged Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson to stand up to the Soviets during the 1960s and ’70s. In the face of all those who have written off postcommunist Russia as hopelessly authoritarian and corrupt, Conquest shows great patience. Three-quarters of a century of communism left a "legacy of ruin," he writes, which accounts for the absence of any sense of individual responsibility among Russians, let alone of an honest and selfless political class.

As stimulating and provocative as they are, these sections merely set the stage for Conquest’s larger argument: that there is a sure antidote to the ideological passions and the surrender to abstractions that have shattered our century. This antidote is to be found in Europe’s consensual tradition, which includes the civic ideal of compromise that enable societies to enjoy a "culture of sanity." British institutions and the British empirical tradition epitomize these ideals, but they have spread to America and to many other peoples who earlier followed very different approaches.

So change is possible. We can do better in the future, and the key is education—but what Conquest sees in this area plunges him into dyspeptic foreboding. It is not enough, he argues, simply to believe passionately in the Good: "To congratulate one’s self on one’s warm commitment to the environment, or to peace, or to the oppressed and think no more, is a profound moral fault." Any education that brings students only this far is ipso facto faulty in a moral sense. The goal of education is not to fill students with dogmas disguised as ideas, much less to turn them into self-deceiving and hence dangerous "experts." Rather, it is simply to foster thinking, which entails a knowledge of history and an appreciation of human folly, including one’s own.

Reading Conquest, one wonders whether we have learned anything from the disasters that befell Europe earlier in this century. But perhaps even this doubt should be more tentatively expressed, in keeping with Conquest’s larger argument in this honest and admirable volume.

—S. Frederick Starr


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