Today is the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, so it’s appropriate that I’m reading about one of its primary architects.
British historian Andrew Roberts, in his wonderful new biography, shares Winston Churchill’s 1899 observation that South Africa’s Boers resisted British rule because of their “abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man.” Churchill wrote: “Black is to be proclaimed the same as white…to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights.”
South Africa under white Afrikaner rule for decades would fiercely reject this British view of legal equality and rights. Of course, the Afrikaners were ultimately defeated and succeeded by British-inspired constitutional government
Government premised on inequality, based on tribe, race or class, has been the norm for nearly all of human civilization. Persons are born into their destiny through their respective group. For the ancient Greeks, people were gold, silver or iron. The gold ruled, while the iron labored. In ancient Greece, even “democratic” Athens, most people were slaves, and nobody questioned this social order.
A great slave empire was smashed 75 years ago, on Victory in Europe Day. Nazism, which Reinhold Niebuhr called a great revolution against Christianity, reintroduced tribal hierarchies with special cruelties varnished by modern technology. The Third Reich, governed by the Master Race of white Aryans, was to have governed 1000 years. Under its rule, inferior races were to have been liquidated or enslaved. The Jews of course would be murdered. But so too eventually would hundreds of millions of “subhuman” Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Vast empty lands across Eurasia would be repopulated by Germanic peoples, in glistening new cities, connected by mega trains with swimming pools.
Fortunately the Third Reich only got 12 years, not 1000. But in those few years it directly murdered about 11 million persons deemed inferior, more than half of them Jews. And it killed tens of millions more by launching WWII, mostly in the Soviet Union, where over 20 million or more died. Many tens of millions more would have died had the Allies not resisted and defeated Nazism, whose rulers surrendered on May 8. This surrender came only after Hitler’s suicide and the occupation of Berlin by the Soviets, following six years of war, during which Germany’s great cities were flattened.
The victors rejected the Nazi racial hierarchy, perversely rooted in the worst of human history, in favor of human equality. But the Soviet version of equality was imposed like Nazism with bayonets and boots, with millions murdered in camps, and with some elites, as Communist Party members, more equal than others. The Anglo-American version of equality was consensual and democratic, based on Christian anthropology.
Of course, neither America nor Britain in 1945 lived up to their vision of equality. The U.S. Army that defeated Hitler was racially segregated, as was much of America. Britain through its empire paternalistically subordinated native peoples to white colonialists. Yet the Third Reich, in its horrors, challenged Anglo-America to reject racial hierarchy and to implement the equality that its rhetoric exalted. WWII sealed the doom of legal segregation in America, and of the British empire. Anglo-America’s post war global architecture, articulated through the UN Declaration of Human Rights, would seek equality and self-governance for individuals and nations.
The Christian notion of human equality that guided this architecture is splendidly articulated in British historian Tom Holland’s new book Dominion, summarized this way by Matthew Rose in his First Things review:
Modernity began with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, we view human beings as individuals defined by their abilities to reason and to choose, capacities that endow them with moral equality. Holland tells us there was nothing natural or inevitable about this perspective; it is the result of a metaphysical earthquake, two millennia ago, that slowly altered our perception of human life. The idea that God died on an instrument of torture, that the Eternal could be revealed through humility and suffering, did not change human history overnight. But it suggested the possibility, dimly understood at first, that the world might be utterly different than it had seemed to be. Perhaps it is not the victors but the victims who are closest to the divine.
The central character in Holland’s story is St. Paul, whose genius was to see that the God revealed in Christ turned the world upside down. Paul questioned what pagan antiquity had serenely assumed: that the strong are fated to exploit the weak, that we have no obligations to strangers, and that our identities are determined by our social status. His vision of a community of believers, drawn from all nations and lands, was disruptive. Paul discovered a ground of human identity, and a depth of motivation, that no pagan thinker could fathom. Human beings are individuals, equal before God, called to act out of love.
This disruptive notion of human equality based on divine identity was especially potent in the Anglo-American revolutions against kingly and aristocratic authority. British-American Protestantism, with its stress on the Bible and priesthood of all believers, was intrinsically subversive to hierarchy and privilege. As this tradition developed across centuries, it empowered each individual against ruling elites and group conformity.
Thomas Jefferson articulated this spirit when noting, on the 50th anniversary of July 4, 1776, the “palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Jefferson was a slave owner whose rhetoric guaranteed slavery’s doom. He borrowed the phrase from the English Puritan revolutionary of the 1600s Colonel Richard Humbold, who was hanged by the king, before which he pronounced on his scaffold: “None comes into the world with a saddle upon his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”
Nazism refined with notorious zeal the saddling of some ostensibly inferior people by booting and spurring supposedly superior others. But today we commemorate its spectacular and providential defeat, delivered like a biblical judgment of old. The victors offered a vision, if not always the example, of human equality and justice, premised on each person bearing God’s image.
This vision of human equality and justice is the most revolutionary and powerful political message in the world. It will always be resisted and challenged. But it will never be defeated, of which May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day, is just one central example. There are future victories for human freedom and defeats for inhumane tyranny, hopefully gained peacefully. Where will they be?