The Magazine

What Makes a Man of the Century

There were lots of important individuals, but one stands out

Jan 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 16 • By DAVID FRUM
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2. In the spring of 1917, the repeatedly defeated French army mutinied. Under very similar circumstances 23 years later, the French capitulated. Had they done so in April 1917, the First World War would have ended with a German victory before a single American soldier had entered the field, and Europe from Paris to Warsaw would have been ruled by a radicalized German autocracy. That the French stayed in the war was very largely the work of one fierce man: the newspaper editor, then prime minister, Georges Clemenceau.


3. Walter Rathenau was the great German-Jewish industrialist who mobilized the German economy for total war after 1915 and along the way created the first functioning command economy. Not only did Rathenau prolong the First World War, but his methods inspired Lenin and became the basis for Soviet economic planning.


4. What we call the Russian Revolution was really V. I. Lenin's coup d'etat. In the chaos and defeat of 1917, it was Lenin alone among the Russian radicals who saw an opportunity to seize power. If he had been hit by a tram in Zurich, Trotsky and company would have dithered the revolutionary moment away, and some reactionary but harmless general would have seized power. Instead, one fanatical man created the world's first totalitarian dictatorship and the first state at war with its own people and bequeathed it to his disciple, Joseph Stalin.


5. A joint nomination: Helmuth von Moltke and Giulio Douhet. One of the great achievements of European civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries was the broad acceptance of laws of war. War was to begin with a formal declaration, civilians were not to be targeted, soldiers who surrendered were to have their lives spared, and so on. And one of the great relapses into savagery of our century is that these rules have by and large vanished. A tip of the hat, then, to the German general who ordered the shooting of Belgian civilians in August 1914 and to the Italian military theorist who as far back as 1921 envisioned winning wars by the aerial bombing of cities.


6. Suppose the Bavarian cops had shot a little more accurately on November 9, 1923, when a mustache-wearing ex-corporal from Linz staged his ludicrous putsch. Would not everything in our century have been different had Adolf Hitler died on a Munich sidewalk?


7. A mediocre man and in many ways a second-rate president, Harry Truman drew a much harder job than his great predecessor. Roosevelt took the country into war; it was Truman's job to create and enforce an enduring peace. It was Truman who pulled and cajoled a reluctant country into paying the bills to reconstruct Europe. It was he too who halted the demobilization of 1945-46, and called the country to 45 wearisome years of confrontation with communism.


8. Of the 100 million victims of communism counted by the authors of The Black Book of Communism, Mao Zedong was guilty of the deaths of more than half. Pol Pot killed a greater percentage of his own countrymen. Hitler killed more violently and more quickly. Stalin was more personally cruel. But some recognition must go to the most blood-stained human being in world history.


9. Richard Nixon. What?! No Ronald Reagan? Republican loyalists may well wonder. But Ronald Reagan only became electable in the first place because Richard Nixon had inadvertently smashed to pieces the statist economic consensus that governed the democratic world from 1930 until 1975. Ronald Reagan may have told us that price controls, uncontrolled government spending, and loose monetary policy were a formula for misery. It was Richard Nixon who proved it.


10. You don't have to be a great man to have a great impact. If our terrible century has had a reasonably happy ending, it occurred very largely because of a colossal miscalculation by the last of the Soviet general secretaries, Mikhail Gorbachev. He believed that if he liberalized his rule, he could strengthen his regime without overthrowing it. He believed that if he relaxed his hostility to the West, he could collect aid for the modernization of his empire. And he believed that if he pushed the hard-line rulers of his satellite regimes to one side, they would be replaced by reformist Communists much like himself. But precisely because he got it all so wrong, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe with hardly a fatality. Imagine what might have happened if Russia had been ruled in 1989 by a man with the acuity to perceive how ferociously he, his system, and his country were hated by those they ruled.