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“Humanitarian bombs,” “ethical war,” and “surgical strikes””it is Orwellian Newspeak such as this, accompanying recent military action undertaken by Western liberal states, that incenses Tzvetan Todorov and fuels his latest work, Hope and Memory: Lessons from the Twentieth Century . A historian, literary theorist, and moral philosopher, Todorov has increasingly taken part in contemporary controversies and has become a distinguished member of the current cohort of public intellectuals in France.

Originally published in French in 2000, the book is the first of a pair of his works that are provoking debate at the moment (the other is Le nouveau désordre mondial , published in September 2003 and not yet translated into English). Although Todorov would never defend the September 11 terrorists, the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein, let alone Tojo, Hitler, or Stalin, he cannot see how counterviolence, particularly when it is driven by staggering technological superiority, can promote the cause of democracy and freedom. War does more harm than good, he believes, no matter what the announced intentions of the warmakers may be.

A sense of moral outrage informs Todorov’s recent efforts. Indeed, Hope and Memory may have been intended as a balance sheet for the previous century, but it turns at times into a polemical discourse on world affairs. Protect us, dear God, from the crusaders of righteousness, for they can be just as dangerous as the overt evildoers: that is Todorov’s message and, as he sees it, the most important lesson we can learn from the twentieth century. The totalitarian impulse, which he considers to be the one truly original political development of that century, was promoted by zealots whose vision was of a better world. The motivation of some contemporary liberal democrats, however, he finds to be disturbingly similar. In a democracy the emphasis is supposed to be on individuals and their rights, on respect for the variety of human beings and for their potential, whereas in a totalitarian scheme the stress lies on the welfare of the collective enterprise. The trouble, for Todorov, is that the first urge can give way to the second”and in our bureaucratic-mechanistic age, it often does.

Todorov was born in Bulgaria in 1939 and grew up under Stalinist communism before moving to France in 1963, so his analysis of totalitarianism is understandably dotted with relevant personal reminiscences. In Paris he established himself as a historian interested in many areas, from eighteenth-century thinkers to modern literature to the fate of the Bulgarian Jews during World War II; more recently he has become known internationally as a major thinker in the humanities. (There will be a conference on his work this summer at the University of Sheffield.) He is director of research at France’s prestigious Centre National de Recherche Scientifique and is married to the Canadian novelist Nancy Huston. This personal and professional trajectory suggests hope, but to read Todorov is to find this hope enveloped in humility and a tragic sense of history.

In Todorov’s view, there can indeed be just wars. World War II, forced upon the world by Hitler’s murderous intentions, was one such war. There are, however, no good wars. War brings to the fore, most dramatically, the propensity for evil as well as good in all of us, even the well-intentioned. He gives as an example the bombing of civilians by the Allies in World War II, culminating in the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombing of Belgrade in 1999 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter was being prepared as Todorov was writing the preface to this English translation) are more recent examples, according to Todorov, of the way venality and selective memory, dressed up in the guise of history and morality, can turn good and evil into blood brothers.

On the question of why this transformation happens, Todorov has little to say. His view of life, like that of most Europeans of a certain age who experienced the great European implosion of the twentieth century, is replete with melancholy and suffused with a determination to avoid any rash action. Todorov claims the individual human being as his point of departure and his terminus. Todorov calls himself a “critical humanist,” and he believes that the major democratic states of the world must not only stake out the moral high ground but must stick to it, which he claims they have not done. The upshot, he fears, is the growing convergence of the two great impulses of the twentieth century, the totalitarian and the democratic.

Though much in this book is controversial, his analysis of totalitarianism may be the least contentious section. Here Todorov returns to some of the arguments of Hannah Arendt and Carl Friedrich, who stressed in the 1950s the similarities between communism and fascism. Subsequent writers of history and political science were more interested in the differences between these extremist ideologies, and this led implicitly to a categorization of Nazism as more demonic than Bolshevism, even in the latter’s Stalinist variation. Todorov turns our attention once again to the monstrous parallels in these totalitarian systems, which were similar in their intent to reshape the world mechanically and hence brutally”to create a new man and a new order.

On this score Todorov is convincing, and his general discussion of the ideological components of democracy and totalitarianism is astute and enlightening. However, his suggestion that the twentieth century should be viewed as primarily a struggle between democracy and totalitarianism”as if there were a battle going on for our souls”is problematic. Todorov’s formula suggests a degree of intention and agency that is difficult to discern in the events. Rather than as a conflict of ideas, the century might be viewed better as an unravelling of authority, a loss of precision and definition, along with all the attendant surprises that came with this process of deconstruction and decolonization.

I would argue that this process began with, or was at least greatly accelerated by, World War I. Launched in 1914 with supreme confidence on all sides, the war ended in an asphyxiating fog of doubt and regret. In the bewildering crisis that followed the war, communism and fascism emerged as radical initiatives to reformulate a world that was wallowing in self-pity, and they met with stunningly little active resistance. As the economic and social crisis mounted, democracy was confined, remarkably quickly, to the peripheries of European civilization. By the late 1930s, with Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, and even more so with the alliance of Stalin and Hitler, a new world order seemed to have come into being. The reluctant declaration of war by Britain and France in September 1939 in response to the German invasion of Poland was followed not by a determined military effort but by peace feelers.

Had Hitler not blitzed Rotterdam and then attacked France in the spring of 1940, the phony war might have remained just that. Had Hitler not turned on his confrère Stalin in June 1941 and then, in a foolhardy act of arrogance, declared war on the United States”and if the Red Army had not prevailed at Stalingrad and thus, ironically, saved the world for democracy and capitalism”who knows what would have happened? Contra Todorov, however, I would say that these developments, from 1914 on, were driven not by ideas per se but rather by a cruder dynamic”initially national self-assertion, then fear, and later an instinct for survival. Both of the world wars turned into horrific misadventures, not because of ideas but rather because of the bankruptcy of existing ideas. Authority and agency gave way to surprise and, in the collapse of structural restraints, to a primeval brutality.

That said, Todorov’s chapters on the logic and fate of democracy and totalitarianism in the twentieth century are well worth reading in this fluent translation by David Bellos, as are his poignantly celebratory essays on a number of outstanding humanists (Vassily Grossman, Margarete Buber-Neumann, David Rousset, Primo Levi, Romain Gary, Germaine Tillion) who experienced, in different ways, the dehumanizing intentions of totalitarianism but were, in the process, strengthened in their humanity.

The chapter on Romain Gary may be the most interesting for an Anglo-American audience. Born in 1914 in Moscow and brought up in Vilna and Warsaw, Gary went to France to study law and then, when Hitler occupied Paris, fled to England and became a fighter pilot for the Free French under de Gaulle. But he was troubled by the “victory” in World War II, by the thought of the victims he had bombed, strafed, and conquered. He was sure that in the end the losers would win. After the war he became a diplomat and a prolific writer; his second wife was the American actress Jean Seberg”perhaps best known for her role in Bonjour Tristesse ”whom he met while serving as French consul in Los Angeles.

As Todorov tells Gary’s story, it becomes clear that for Gary, as for Todorov, good and evil are not easily separable categories; both are an integral part of us all. Gary, the offspring of a Jewish mother and an unknown Cossack father, was born in the wake of the pogroms in tsarist Russia at the turn of the century, and he felt that he had two souls in his breast, that of perpetrator and that of victim. By abandoning clear moral distinctions, Gary was condemned to writing tragic stories: “All that I’ve written is out of respect for weakness,” he said in an interview. Thus Gary, despite being a Jew and an agnostic, admired Jesus, for Jesus to him embodied tolerance, respect, forgiveness”“Jesus is weakness.” Gary’s favored form of struggle was resistance, not war. The ground of humanity, he said, is love; and he savored the militancy of love. In his 1980 novel Les cerfs-volants (“The Kites”), the French pastor and his wife who protect Jews during the war represent the resistance of the weak. “You can’t do better than that,” Gary insisted. Todorov, following Gary, points out that to accept the notion that poetry died at Auschwitz, as Theodor Adorno postulated, is to accept the totalitarian fallacy. “If you take poetry and imagination away from people,” Gary wrote, “all you’re left with are hunks of meat.”

A few years ago the former Communist Eric Hobsbawm, a man of conscience and utopian yearning, ended his elegant analysis of the twentieth century, Age of Extremes , with the word “darkness.” His dream of social harmony and international goodwill had crumbled. Tzvetan Todorov’s analysis of the same century-long crisis ends with the words “precious human beings.” Todorov has no dream, only foreboding; yet in the midst of his doubt he wishes to cherish the survival of the human spirit. However flawed his understanding of what went wrong in the last century, Todorov’s account serves as a useful caution against the dangers we face in this one.

Modris Eksteins teaches history at the University of Toronto. Author of Rites of Spring (2000) and Walking Since Daybreak (2000), he is writing a book about Vincent van Gogh.