Introduction: Great Men and the Wave of History

In your study of the 19th Century, you learned of the ways in which leaders, organizations and nations form themselves based on their desires, their methods of acquisition, their displays of power and how new notions of identity both shaped these elements, and were in turn shaped by them. In our study of war, we learned the consequences of this convergence on the 20th Century which have carried over into our own lives.

George Orwell, 1984

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”



In our study of the 20th Century, we will see what fruits were born of the tumultuous 19th Century. As the century turned, the “Rise of the West” may have been complete, but the West was far from stable. Tensions arising from phenomena articulated by Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Lenin’s “the highest stage of capitalism”, Ferguson’s “Killer Apps,” and the conflicting theories that were developed to deal with these tensions were coming to a head in Europe and its colonies in a way that would define the turbulent 20th Century.

Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners

“The German perpetrators of the Holocaust treated Jews in all the brutal and lethal ways that they did because, by and large, they believed that what they were doing was right and necessary. Second, that there was long existing, virulent antisemitism in German society that led to the desire on the part of the vast majority of Germans to eliminate Jews somehow from German society. Third, that any explanation of the Holocaust must address and specify the causal relationship between antisemitism in Germany and the persecution and extermination of the Jews which so many ordinary Germans contributed to and supported

The German perpetrators were assenting mass executioners, men and women who, true to their own eliminationist anti-Semitic beliefs, faithful to their cultural anti-Semitic credo, considered the slaughter to be just.”

Anne Frank

Which brings us to the debate over the influence of Great Men v. the “Wave of History.” Over the course of this year’s studies, you will be confronted with atrocity on a regular basis. You will explore and analyze the inspirations and methods of authoritarian leaders throughout the century, but you will also see how theory and policy were put into action on the ground. We will be forced to analyze Lord Acton’s famous quote, often repeated out of context, to determine exactly what “absolutely” means: The absolute corruption of one great man, or the absolute corruption of all those he influences. –War, genocide, extreme violations of human rights were far too common characteristics of the 20th Century, but who is to blame: the man who gives the order, or the man who pulls the trigger? What does Acton think? What does Orwell think? What does Arendt think? By the end of this first examination of the 20th Century, you will know what many other scholars think, and hopefully what you think as well.

Let’s end this introduction by reading Acton’s famous quote in context. Don’t concern yourself over his discussion of Catholic or other groups (in his letter he made the statement in direct reference the pope and papal authority, but intended it to apply to a much broader analysis), just filter to the main ideas and decide what you think of them. Do you agree? Finally, when reading Acton’s quote in context, especially his statement on “historical science,” reflect on one of Orwell’s most powerful warnings from 1984: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”


John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, Letter to Mandell Creighton, 1887


“…I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III. ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman,for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.”