Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues
20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

A brutal, brilliant century

In Eric Hobsbawm's inspired history of "the short twentieth century" (1914-1991), Age of Extremes, British novelist and Nobel laureate William Golding is quoted as making the following comment: "I can't help thinking that this has been the most violent century in human history."

Hobsbawm provides ample evidence to substantiate this remark. During his short century, "more human beings had been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before in history". The century's "mega-deaths" are estimated at 187 millions; the figure, notes Hobsbawm, "is the equivalent of more than one in 10 of the total world population in 1900". The numbers, as always, fail to reveal the full horror of the brutality required for human beings to be able to kill so many of their own kind.

For the first time in history, wars would come to involve millions of combatants; most awful of all, non-combatants would be exposed to systematic and cold-blooded violence on a scale unprecedented in human history. The Holocaust; Stalin's purges and forced collectivisation; the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the founding massacres of the state of Israel; the bombing of North Vietnam; the killing fields of Cambodia; General Pinochet's stadium; the Israeli bombing of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacre; the nearly decade-long military and economic genocide of the Iraqi people; the Serbs' massacres of Bosnians and NATO's massacre of Serbs --the list is virtually endless, the numbers staggering and the inhumanity involved stains the century indelibly with shame.

Yet this "descent into barbarism" stands in sharp contrast to the great promise the century also seemed to hold for the future of humanity. We need not try to enumerate the wonders science, technology and the overall development of the productive forces witnessed during this century, or to elaborate on their capacity to give people the ability to live longer, healthier and richer lives than could have been imaginable a mere century before. Humanity is already producing wealth that could fulfil the basic needs of every single man, woman and child on this globe in terms of food, education, shelter, clean water and health care. The absurd fact that it so staggeringly fails to do so is a paradox that will burden humanity during the next century.

The 20th century has held another kind of promise, though only very partially fulfilled. This lies in the multitude of ways through which people all over the world, in thought and in action, expressed their will to resist, their determination to dream of a better and more human life, and their willingness to fight to see that life created. On our front page, we have pitted Gandhi against Hitler, the image of Nasser and Che against the horrors of the holocaust, Sabra and Shatila and the bomb. True, the various battles for emancipation witnessed during the century have invariably fallen well short of the hopes that motivated them, and more often than not turned upon themselves, transforming dreams into nightmares.

But so long as oppression, brutality and flagrant inequality remain the defining characteristics of this world, it is inevitable that men and women will continue to hope for the day they are brought to an end. And this, too, they will no doubt take with them into the coming century.

The Editor

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