Just over forty years ago, in 1980, I found myself by chance teaching for a semester at Columbia University, armed with the grandiose title of Visiting Associate Professor of European History, provided with a free apartment and paid a salary not far short of what I earned in a whole year as a lowly lecturer in the UK. I’d never been to the US and knew nothing about Columbia or indeed any other American university. The faculty mostly seemed rather elderly to me, and so far as I could tell they lived upstate and only came in to New York City once a week to dispense their wisdom ex cathedra in very lofty and very lengthy lectures, which were later explicated for students by a phalanx of teaching assistants. Most of the professors evidently thought I was a grad student, and in any case it was the grad students on whom I quickly came to rely for my social life.
Several of my friends were engaged in teaching a two-semester sophomore course called ‘Contemporary Civilisation’, and at first I thought how admirable this was: the university introducing its students to the world today, no matter what subject they were majoring in. What a splendid preparation for life after graduation! My friends soon disabused me. It was a ‘great books’ course. It began with Plato’s Republic and continued with the Bible, before going on to Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith and so on. There was, it seemed to me, little sign of contemporary civilisation. Fully occupied with delivering twice-weekly lectures on Europe from 1870 to 1919 and a weekly graduate class on imperial Germany, I considered myself fortunate that I didn’t have to teach this course as well: I’d have struggled to keep up since I’d never studied anything remotely resembling it myself.
‘Contemporary Civilisation’ was Columbia’s version of what in other American universities went by the name of ‘Western Civilisation’. Like them, Columbia had introduced it in the aftermath of the First World War, with the intention of informing the next generation of Americans about issues of war and peace, and, more generally, telling them what their country had been fighting for. American and Allied propaganda in the war had portrayed the conflict as a struggle to defend European and American civilisation against German barbarism. The enemy then was ‘the Hun’: a term borrowed from an unfortunate speech given by the kaiser in 1900, when German expeditionary troops confronting the Boxer Rebellion were instructed to make themselves remembered as the actual Huns had been after they trashed the Roman Empire. A widely distributed American recruitment poster showed a gorilla-like figure standing before the ruins of Louvain cathedral, wearing a spiked helmet, with a club marked ‘Kultur’ in one hand and a swooning, half-naked maiden in the other. The poster urged young Americans to ‘destroy this mad brute’.
In wartime propaganda, as in the newly created ‘Western Civ’ surveys, civilisation was seen as the creation of Ancient Greece and Rome. ‘Plato to Nato’ courses may have introduced the mediating influence of Christianity, but essentially they emphasised the classical origins of the civilisation which educated elites in Europe and the US claimed to defend. There were few major politicians in the first half of the 20th century, and for some time afterwards, who hadn’t received a classical education. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher, a scientist, was a rare exception; far more typical is Boris Johnson, who likes to quote great chunks of Ancient Greek from memory.
In his original and engrossing book, the Oxford historian Paul Betts, an American who experienced ‘Western Civ’ at first hand, perhaps underplays the classical origins of the idea. ‘Civilisation’ in the classical tradition already incorporated many of its contemporary meanings, from advanced technology and material comfort to enlightened philosophising and artistic sophistication. When, in his television series Civilisation (1969), Kenneth Clark asked himself, ‘What is civilisation?’, the answer was: ‘I don’t know … But I think that I can recognise it when I see it.’ What Clark recognised was very much the ‘Western Civ’ idea, stretching back to the Ancient Greeks and given new life by the Renaissance. These assumptions were shared by Norbert Elias, whose The Civilising Process (1939) had charted the history of manners and civility, and the emergence of the modern state. What Betts shows, however, is that the term had many uses and many different definitions, even in the relatively short time between the end of the Second World War and the present day.
During the war, Goebbels proclaimed that Germany was defending European civilisation against the barbarism of the Bolshevik hordes. Nazi propaganda condemned the ‘British barbarism’ demonstrated by the bombing of historic German towns – an example, Goebbels said, of ‘England’s assassination of European culture’. Hans Frank, governor general of Nazi-occupied Poland, said his aim was ‘to elevate the Polish people to the honour of European civilisation’, even as he trashed and looted the vast art collections of the Polish aristocracy, banned performances of Chopin and sent millions of Jews and other Poles to their deaths.
Contemplating the heaps of dead and dying in the liberated concentration camps, the British MP Mavis Tate thought that German rule in Europe represented the negation of civilisation. She noted that it exposed ‘the deep streak of evil and sadism in the German race, such as one ought not to expect to find in a people who for generations have paid lip-service to Western culture and civilisation’. When the surviving German war criminals were put on trial at Nuremberg, the American prosecutor Robert Jackson told the judges that ‘the real complaining party at your bar is civilisation.’
In 1945, the victorious Allies faced many of the same problems they thought they had faced in 1918. But the destructive effects of ‘barbarism’ were now greater and more obvious. For one thing, the scale of the material damage inflicted on Europe was unprecedented. Entire cities were razed. Tens of millions of people were starving, destitute and homeless. And the Nazis had departed radically from the widely understood standards of decency and humanity that were central to the concept of civilisation.
Initially, there was a marked reluctance on the part of the Allies to embark on a programme of ‘re-civilising’ the Germans. Betts doesn’t mention the Morgenthau Plan to deindustrialise Germany, which, though it was never formally adopted, exerted a powerful influence on American policy in the immediate aftermath of the war, but he does make clear that it wasn’t until 1946 that food and funds and other kinds of aid began to flow into Germany. The Marshall Plan, which poured millions of dollars into Western Europe on the condition that recipient countries accepted the principle and practice of liberal democracy, was intended, in the words of the director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, to fulfil ‘the task of saving Europe for Western civilisation’. The reconstruction effort was driven by a growing fear that, without it, the Germans would become susceptible to Communist or neo-Nazi propaganda. The doctrine of collective guilt underpinned a policy of ‘non-fraternisation’ with individual Germans until it was suggested that the Red Army, more lenient in this respect, might be winning over more Germans than the British and Americans might like. The Cold War had begun.
The re-civilising of Germany was made easier by the concession that Germany had been civilised before 1933, possessing legal norms that the defendants at Nuremberg knew they were violating. Amounting to a distinction between the Nazis and the Germans – a distinction which wartime propaganda and early postwar reactions to Nazi atrocities had threatened to obliterate – this helped the occupying powers in their efforts to ‘re-educate’ ordinary Germans. While the British adhered to the well-established concept of the ‘two Germanies’, and tried to bring out the civilised tradition of Beethoven and Goethe while suppressing the uncivilised tradition of Bismarck and the kaiser, the French sought to convert the Germans by introducing them to the universal values of French culture. Germans themselves paid little attention, at least to begin with, as they tried to stay alive among the ruins.
American policy was driven by the belief that the Germans needed reconnecting with contemporary Western civilisation. This could prove tricky, however. When the CIA sponsored a travelling exhibition called Advancing American Art, showcasing work by Abstract Expressionists such as Adolph Gottlieb and designed to show that American culture was a world away from the pseudo-classicism of Nazi art and the crude propaganda of Soviet socialist realism, the House Un-American Activities Committee condemned it and funding was withdrawn. The CIA continued to promote exhibitions in Germany by Abstract Expressionists, but covertly. Backing these initiatives was another CIA-sponsored institution, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which supported magazines such as Der Monat and, in Britain, Encounter, to cultivate American values. For a long time, the identity of these magazines’ backers remained hidden from most of their contributors. Regardless of the controversy aroused when it was eventually exposed, the CCF illustrated a key aspect of the mainstream US concept of civilisation in the 1950s: its identification with liberalism.
Betts emphasises, perhaps overemphasises, the contribution of photojournalism to these efforts, though this enables him to include illustrations that give a good flavour of the period. Policies – such as the shift in 1946-47 from starving the Germans to feeding them – were made in the end by politicians, not journalists. The Cold War was remoulding Western civilisation into ‘Judeo-Christian civilisation’, a concept endorsed by Eisenhower in 1952, shortly before he entered the White House. Catholic-Protestant reconciliation underpinned the Christian Democratic idea that, as the Italian politician Alcide de Gasperi put it, ‘Christianity lies at the origin of this European civilisation.’ Faced by the threat of atheist communism from the east, politicians relegated the classical heritage to a subordinate role. What’s more, downplaying democracy and human rights in favour of Christianity allowed the Catholic dictatorships of Franco and Salazar to be welcomed into the club.
The Cold War also brought the threat of nuclear annihilation. Eisenhower’s warning in 1953 that nuclear war would mean the ‘probability of civilisation destroyed’ was echoed by the Soviet premier Georgy Malenkov: he said it would bring ‘the end of world civilisation’. Fear of catastrophe encouraged the negotiation of agreements such as the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, which strengthened similar agreements signed before 1914 but treated as a dead letter between 1939 and 1945 (and not just by the Nazis). For most people in Europe, though, ‘civilisation’ in the 1950s meant material progress. America, as the French poet Louis Aragon complained, was a ‘civilisation of bathtubs and Frigidaires’. Betts cites a 1954 opinion poll which asked French women what they wanted out of life: 22 per cent said love and 54 per cent ‘material wellbeing’. Left-wing European intellectuals worried openly that American consumerism was undermining European civilisation and drowning it in a wave of Coca-Cola and rock’n’roll. American sociologists decried the dumbing down of civilisation in a levelled-out ‘mass society’. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, a proliferation of etiquette books emphasised the importance of civility and moderation, in contrast to the fascist values propagated before 1945.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Betts’s book is the attention he pays to the reconstitution of European overseas empires as part of the effort to reconstitute European civilisation overall. Integral to this effort was the familiar claim that the colonial empires were justified because they were extending the benefits of European civilisation to parts of the world that remained uncivilised in many ways. But in the climate of the postwar world this was a lost cause. Japan’s easy conquests in the Far East had torpedoed the claims made for British, French and Dutch superiority to Asians. India became independent in 1947. Brutal campaigns waged by the French in Algeria, and by the British in Malaya and Kenya, destroyed the idea that European civilisation meant peace, order and the defence of human rights. Both the US and the USSR distanced themselves from European attempts to cling on to empire. In 1956 there was the debacle of Suez. In 1960 Harold Macmillan recognised the inevitable when he conceded the power of anticolonial liberation movements in his ‘wind of change’ speech.
African nationalist intellectuals were by now appropriating the language of civilisation for themselves. Colonialism, they argued, had corrupted or displaced African civilisations, whose achievements could be seen in spectacular archaeological sites such as Great Zimbabwe that had been ignored by the colonisers, or falsely ascribed to mysterious white people by racists such as Ian Smith. Hugh Seton-Watson, an anti-communist historian of Eastern Europe, claimed that decolonisation was not ‘a glorious extension of democracy, but a tragic decay of civilisation, similar to the decline of the Roman Empire, and followed by the same result, reversion to barbarism’. His views were echoed by other conservatives. But they were challenged by writers such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, who borrowed from the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius to argue there had been a major precolonial African civilisation. He had to be somewhat selective in his borrowings, since Frobenius, a friend of Wilhelm II, believed that the civilisation had been founded by white men and had degenerated once they abandoned it.
For newly independent African states, exhibitions of precolonial sculptures, masks and monuments provided evidence of a vibrant cultural heritage. This idea blended into the concept of world civilisation, which became influential in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unesco, founded in 1945, expressed the idea in the multi-volume History of Mankind (1963-76), whose bland optimism and avoidance of controversial political issues was widely criticised by historians. Far more successful was the parallel forty-volume History of Civilisation series, which brought together a diverse collection of historians including Eric Hobsbawm, Friedrich Heer and Michael Grant to produce single-author volumes on particular time periods and parts of the globe. Underpinning the concept, developed by its enterprising publisher George Weidenfeld, was the French idea of civilisation as encompassing material life and economies, ideas and mentalities, science and the arts, alongside the politics, revolutions and wars that were the traditional subjects of history.
Unesco scored a far greater and more lasting success with its invention of World Heritage Sites, a popular idea that had its origins in the multinational effort to rescue Ancient Egyptian monuments and artefacts threatened in the 1960s by the building of the Aswan Dam. As they proliferated across the globe, World Heritage Sites succeeded in breaking the identification of civilisation and heritage with Europe. The initiative also ran counter to the Western designation of civilisation as Christian. Communist governments in Eastern Europe saw that they could put themselves on an equal footing with the West by propagating the idea of ‘socialist civilisation’, which they sought to extend to the global south, supporting liberation movements in colonies such as Angola and Mozambique and backing the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa. This challenged the concept of Judeo-Christian civilisation adhered to by spokesmen for apartheid such as D.F. Malan, who declared the racial differences between blacks and whites to be ‘the physical manifestation of the contrast between two irreconcilable ways of life, between barbarism and civilisation, between heathenism and Christianity’.
The backlash against the secular, progressive concept of civilisation found dramatic expression in Greece in the coup of April 1967, led by colonels in fear of a socialist victory at the upcoming national elections. The coup had been necessary, one of the colonels proclaimed, because ‘we had arrived at a situation of anarchism in this country of Helleno-Christian civilisation.’ ‘Greece is a mission,’ another said, ‘and this mission consists of civilisation.’ This did not prevent them from arresting and torturing thousands of their opponents. Nor did it stop them adding the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles to their already extensive list of banned works. The coup earned the colonels condemnation across the globe, and few were sorry when the regime was brought to an end in 1974. But neither the overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974 nor the death of Franco the following year prevented the return of civilisation’s identification with Christian conservatism in the following decade.
The Islamic revolution in Iran and the ascendancy of hardline theocracy sparked a sense that civilisation was in crisis, fanned ten years later by Khomeini’s incitement to Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. When the end of the Cold War determined that Russia could no longer serve as the antithesis of civilisation in the eyes of Christian conservatives, Islam provided a handy substitute. ‘Global politics,’ Samuel Huntington wrote in 1996, ‘is the politics of civilisations,’ a politics in which the ‘rivalry of the superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilisations’. The sense that Christian civilisation was threatened by violent Islamist barbarians was deepened by 9/11, the Iraq War, the Taliban and Islamic State. Beheadings and public stonings weren’t civilised and nor was the destruction of ancient monuments such as the city of Palmyra and the buddhas of Bamiyan.
Unesco condemned these and other acts of cultural vandalism as crimes against world civilisation, though the ‘civilised’ world did not scruple to exploit these crimes for its own purposes: between 2007 and 2009, customs officials at Heathrow confiscated 3.4 tons of antiquities looted from war zones in Iraq and elsewhere, intended for sale on the international market. Civilisation under threat was the theme of a BBC television series broadcast in 2018, which opened with video footage of the destruction of Palmyra. Entitled Civilisations, it was clearly intended to dethrone the Eurocentrism of Kenneth Clark’s series of the 1960s. But Unesco-style liberal multiculturalism had to compete with the growing resurgence of older and narrower ideas of civilisation, summed up in Niall Ferguson’s 2011 TV series and book Civilisation, which argued that the West had achieved world dominance through a combination of competition, science, property-owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. Even this upbeat account ended, however, with a warning that civilisation in ‘the West’ was now under threat – though if, as the subtitle asked, the West was about to become ‘history’, this was only because it had lost faith in itself.
Ferguson shared Unesco’s emphasis on scientific progress, legal accountability, human rights and democratic politics. But in his pessimistic concluding chapters, Betts charts the narrowing of the idea of civilisation to a strong identification with Christianity, political authoritarianism and scientific denialism. Real and would-be populist authoritarians, from Orbán to Trump, have uncoupled the idea of civilisation from many of the concepts with which it was associated in the Unesco tradition. Where George W. Bush, speaking in Warsaw in 2003, referred to democracy thirteen times, and talked, like his predecessors since Truman, of ‘the free world’, Trump’s inaugural address in 2017 mentioned democracy only once. ‘In Trump’s parlance,’ Betts notes, ‘civilisation replaced democracy and human rights as sources of allegiance and identity.’ In 2017, Trump declared that his mission abroad was to defend the ‘civilised world’ against terrorism: ‘Our civilisation will triumph.’
In the view of modern conservatives, civilisation is Christian, and it is under threat above all from the Islamic world. In this view, secularism is too feeble a force to ward off the threat. This brings with it in turn a populist scepticism about secular science, above all the science of climate change, with its unacceptable attacks on material civilisation: cars, fossil fuels and all the other sources of global warming that have underpinned the prosperity and wellbeing of advanced industrial societies. On the far right, a racist understanding of civilisation has been used to warn the ‘white majoritarian culture’ about the dangers of immigration. Orbán, who has built a wall on the Serbian border to keep out migrants, declares that he is defending the whole of European civilisation. Yet for liberals and the left, Betts observes, the idea of civilisation is ‘a source of chagrin and loathing, a hangover from the era of imperialism’. By vacating the field, they have left the rhetoric of civilisation to the right, to be deployed in the service of nationalistic and anti-democratic ambitions. Perhaps, given the many reconceptualisations of civilisation over time, this may change at some point in the future. But it doesn’t look likely soon.