Origins of Monotheism and World History

World History devotes much attention to the world’s belief systems and religions that shaped our past. One integral theme is the development and impact of monotheist religions, particularly the “Abrahamic traditions” -Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Polytheism (multiple gods) preceded these “One-God” religions that eventually came to predominance in much of the world. Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists seek to understand how and why monotheism happened. Recent studies over the last thirty years suggest that the three monotheistic religions evolved slowly from various historical circumstances. This evolutionary view challenges the traditional idea of monotheism as revolutionary insights from the likes of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammed.    

Polytheism

Polytheism predated monotheism and resided in the earliest civilizations, linking gods to various phenomena. Gods inhabited or controlled the forces of nature or more minute aspects of life. Historian Greg Woolf writes that Mesopotamians “recognized thousands of different divinities, each associated with a different aspect of the universal, from the sky and the sea to humbler implements such as the plow and the hoe – there was even a god of brick-moulds.” (Woolf, 84). Polytheistic deities possessed supernatural but not unlimited powers and displayed human foibles. Sumerian gods for instance, “ate, drank, lusted, quarrelled and intervened in earthly affairs.” (Woolf, 8). In the Greek pantheon, Zeus’s philandering evoked Hera’s jealousy, and various gods vied for power. Polytheistic systems also tended to be linked to localities – a stark contrast to the universal God espoused by later monotheistic traditions. 

Polytheism pervades most of human history, but at some point, monotheism evolved, espousing the belief that one uncreated, all-powerful, and all-knowing God created everything. How did monotheism evolve and grow? The answers remain elusive, but scholars generally began with Judaism. 

Judaism.

There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a saviour; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45: 21-3

The Old Testament of the Bible identifies Abraham (born.c.1800 BCE) as the first Hebrew and the first monotheist.   Abraham left Ur (Mesopotamia) and travelled west to Canaan (modern Israel) after God promised him a “land of milk and honey.” In Canaan, Abraham received the covenant from God on Mt. Sinai, the written and oral law established between God and the Jewish people. God, often referred to as Yahweh (by scholars but not believers), later led Moses and his chosen people out of enslavement in Egypt (an event known as the Exodus) and back to Canaan. In Canaan, Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, and God gave him the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment specified, “You shall have no other gods before me.” However, some Israelites continued to worship other deities, but over time an increasing number established a covenant with the One God.

This God fundamentally differed from gods previous. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “Unlike the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but a realm apart” (99). In other words, God transcended the limited role ascribed to geography or function (e.g. Ares, God of War). As Robert Wright writes, Yahweh “was Lord of nothing in particular and everything.” (100) 

Interestingly, recent scholarship suggests that forms of monotheism, such as that espoused by the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten (c. 1353-1335 BCE), predated Judaism but did not survive. On the other hand, Judaism demonstrated incredible resilience as it spread with Jewish merchants to various communities and trading centres in Europe and Southwest Asia. As Christine Hayes writes, “Judeans survived even after the more numerous and powerful people like the Sumerians and Babylon and Hittites and “carried with them new ideas, a sacred scripture, a set of tradition that would lay the foundations for the major religion of the western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” (2)

Almost 2000 years after Abraham left Ur, a Jewish prophet would inspire what eventually became the most widespread religion in history – Christianity. 

Christianity.

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet for us there is one God. Paul, Corinthians. 8: 5-6.

Christianity evolved from the Jewish notion of a “messiah,” foretold in the Old Testament. Christians identify Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Christ is the Greek word for messiah. This belief fundamentally differs from Judaism and Islam; both recognize Jesus as a prophet but not as a divinity.

A Jew born in or near Nazareth, Jesus continued the Jewish tradition of prophets who mediated the earthly world with the spiritual. A “charismatic faith healer,” Jesus offered his teaching in Roman-controlled Palestine and attracted devoted followers until Romans crucified him (around 29 BCE) – an event Christians believe was a sacrifice of God’s son for the sake of humanity. After his death, Jesus’s followers recorded his teachings in the Bible’s New Testament Gospels. Christian missionaries and merchants spread these teachings via a vast network of Roman roads and overseas trading routes. “Jesus groups” and prophets like St. Paul gain coverts by offering an inclusive religion that promised salvation through faith in Jesus.   Christianity, as Huston Smith points out, “sought converts more provocatively than Judaism and would rapidly spread over the following centuries.  

This rapid spread, as Karen Armstrong writes, “certainly would not have succeeded without the Roman Empire.” (106). Rome initially persecuted Christians, who they saw as an obscure Jewish cult, as disloyal to the emperor but legally recognized Christianity in 313 CE, allowing Christians to own property and worship freely. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272-337 CE) organized the first ecumenical council of bishops of the Roman Empire ” to unify canons of doctrinal orthodoxy and define a common creed for the Church.” As Scott Vitkovic points out, this step offered the first uniform Christian doctrine” that would bind Christians and foster Christianity’s growth. (5) By 380 BCE, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion, a status that allowed Christians a significant advantage over competing belief systems.

When the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, the Christian Church filled the power vacuum, ostensibly providing political stability, social order, faith, and hope. The Pope became the spiritual and political leader of much of Europe. The Church established a hierarchy of regional bishops overseeing more local priests administer this growing influence.   Christianity continued to grow into the next millennium until 1054 when it split into the Western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox. A more profound split occurred with the Protestant Reformation, encouraged by Martin Luther in 1517. Numerous Christian denominations evolved, but scholars tend to identify three main groups – Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic. 

Christianity’s meteoric rise as a global religion would foreshadow the rapid rise of another monotheistic religion centuries after Christ’s death– Islam. 

Islam.

He is the One God; God, the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of all being. Koran 112.

More than 500 years after the death of Jesus Christ came Muhammed (570-632), the prophet of Islam, who lived in Mecca, a commercial center in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. Polytheism still predominated Arabic society, but by this time, Judaism and Christianity had developed well-established traditions and a growing influence. As historian Ira M. Lepidus points out, monotheistic religion was “introduced into Arabia by foreign influences: Jewish and Christian settlements” and “travelling preachers and merchants…” (19). Accordingly, by “the sixth century, monotheism had a certain vogue.” (19)

At 40, Muhammed experienced a series of revelations through Allah’s angel Gabriel. Through these revelations, he identified himself as the last in a line of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammed saw these revelations as the completion of Judaism and Christianity that had lost their way. According to Islam, Muhammed and all prophets possessed no divine qualities but were mere messengers of God. In this sense, Islam agrees with Judaism by denying Christ’s divinity as the Son of God and the Messiah. Muslims see the period before Muhammed, including the polytheist and monotheistic religions, as a period of ignorance. Islam, in short, is a pristine monotheism.    

When he died in 632 BCE, Karen Armstrong writes, Muhammed “had managed to bring nearly all the tribes of Arabia into a new united community, or ummah” – an incredible feat. (135). He did not leave any writings, but his successors recorded his teachings in the Qur’an (Koran). Two main groups, the Sunni and the Shiite, evolved from disputes over the rightful successors to Mohammed. By the end of the 7th century, despite divisions, Muhammed’s followers had conquered Armenia, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Isreal, North Africa, and Spain. Today, it stands as the world’s second-largest religion.    

How did monotheism happen? Traditional religion asserts that monotheism began before history and the creation, with God the uncreated and that God (or Allah) first revealed himself to Abraham. However, historical evidence suggests that monotheism did not begin with Abraham of Ur. Scholars of the Ancient Near East generally agree that monotheism grew out of various historical processes but dispute how this happened. Biblical scholar Yehezkeh Kaufman sees the Hebrew God as more revolutionary than evolutionary, rejecting monotheism as “an organic outgrowth of the religious milieu” of the Middle East. Instead, he sees “an original creation of the people of Israel…absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.” (Wright, 100)

Kaufman published his works in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, new scripture analysis and archaeological finds seem to reveal a more evolutionary process. Regarding the more traditional view that identifies monotheism as early as Abraham, scholars such as Karen Armstrong suggest that “we tend to project our knowledge of late Jewish religion back onto these early historical personages.” (14). Evidence indicates that Abraham and other biblical figures – Isaac and Moses – likely recognized multiple gods. Ancient Hebrew scripture refers to many Gods before gradually focusing on one God – Yahweh. Initially, Yahweh faced competition from the gods such as Baal, Enlil, Mardele and Amon-Re. Over time the Hebrews came to regard Yahweh as the only God, thus laying the foundations for a monotheistic religion.  

While the precise reasons for this evolution to monotheism remain elusive, scholars suggest various reasons. Historian Ira M. Lapidus links the development of monotheism to a growing and increasingly connected Middle Eastern population that could see a larger world beyond their local experience. So, instead of a god for a small community, why not gods (and eventual God) for the vaster world? (19?) Lapidus suggests that these religions, Judaism (and later Christianity and Islam), offered salvation and a sense of universal order in an often-unstable world.     Scholar Reuven Firestone reinforces this view, suggesting that monotheism “removed the universe and all its people from the fractions and uncertain rule of often bickering deities and placed them under the grace of One Great God. (20). 

Besides monotheism’s appeal for some, scholars point to the persecution of polytheists, later labelled as “pagans.” The term “pagans,” writes Jonathan Kirsch, “is a word invented by early Christians to describe anyone who refused to recognize the One True God.” (19).   Some monotheistic believers actively sought to rid the world of pagans. In 529 BCE, for instance, the Roman Emperor Justinian closed the school of philosophy in Athens, what Karen Armstrong calls “the last bastion of intellectual paganism.” (125).   Some nine centuries later, the Renaissance would see the revival of classical Greek and Roman philosophical works in Europe.  

Exploring the reasons for the growth of monotheism requires more space than we have with this blog which outlines the origins of the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three claim to follow the only God, a claim that has led to many conflicts among monotheistic religions (e.g. The Crusades) and against “pagans”. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that monotheism evolved very gradually after Abraham. The scholarship also presents evidence that even with their monotheistic foundations, these religions evolved much slower than we once believed. Scholars such as Karen Armstrong argue that Christianity, for instance, grew out of disparate Jesus groups and did not consolidate until centuries after the death of Jesus. 

What is certain is that these monotheistic religions profoundly impact our past and our present. Future blogs will further explore these belief systems and others such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. 

Bibliography.

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1993.  

Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. W.W. Norton, 2007.

Bowker, David et al. World Religions: The Great Faiths explored and explained. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Firestone, Reuven. “A Problem With Monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Dialogue and Dissent.” Heirs of Abraham: The Future of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Relations. New York: Orbis, 2005 20-54.

Hayes, Christine. Introduction to the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 

Kagan, Neil ed. Concise History of the World. An Illustrated Timeline. Washington, D.C. National Geographic, 2006.

Kirsch, Jonathan. God Against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.

Lapidus. Ira M.  A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Oxtoby, William M. and Alan G. Segal. A Concise Introduction to World Religions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Perry, Marvin. ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society. Volume II, From the 1600s. Sixth Edition. 2000. 

Rosenberg, David.   Abraham: The First Historical Biography. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 

Sayem, Md. “The Monotheistic Concept of Judaism and Islam in the Light of their Basic Creeds: A Comparative Analysis.” The Dhaka University Studies. June 2012. p. 127-137.

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Our Great Wisdom Traditions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991

Vitkovic, Scott. (2018). The Similarities and Differences Between Abrahamic Religions. IJASOS- International E-journal of Advances in Social Sciences. 4. 2018, 455-462. 10.18769/ijasos.455673.

Woolf, Greg. Ancient Civilizations: The Illustrated Guide to Beliefs, Mythology, and Art. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005. 

Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009.

China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

From 1966 to 1976, Communist leader Mao Zedong led a “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that renewed the Chinese Revolution that Mao felt had lost its way. Mao and his followers drastically altered the country’s political, economic, and social structure.   Historian Paul Clark calls it “the biggest non-wartime, concentrated social upheaval in world history. (1). Rhoads Murphey and Kirsten Stapleton describe it as “perhaps the great cataclysm in world history, measured by the hundreds of millions of people in mass persecution and suffering. (377).

During this period, Mao used strong imagery to promote himself as the “father” of the people and China as the world’s communist leader. By 1976, and after Mao’s death, moderates like Deng began to guide the country down a different path that invited economic incentives, western technology, education, and industrialization.

The Great Leap Forward and Soviet “revisionism.” A series of events leading to 1966 undermined Mao’s position in the Chinese Communist Party. First, his “Great Leap Forward” (beginning in 1958) was a disaster. Proclaiming that China would exceed British industrial production, Mao abolished private ownership and established communes throughout China to focus on manufacturing and bring industrialization to China’s rural areas. These peoples’ communes lacked organization and adequate equipment, expertise, and resources to succeed. Peasant resistance, administrative problems and bad weather also lead to unproductive food production. As many as 30 million starved or died from malnutrition in what Murphy and Stapleton describe as the “worst famine in world history.” (376). The program undermined Mao’s credibility and opened more opportunities to the moderate elements of the Communist Party, such as Lin Shaoquoi, who wanted to invite foreign technology and reinstate profit incentives.

Foreign developments also undermined Mao’s status. Mao had “portrayed Soviet policy-makers as ‘capitalist roaders’ and as betrayers of Marxism for seeking to cooperate with the West. (Rossabi, 386) The subsequent break with Moscow led to increasing political isolation and the withdrawal of much-needed Soviet technical support and economic assistance. In short, Mao’s zealous ideology furthered China’s isolation.   

Mao “revives” the revolution. Mao Zedong lost his position as head of state but somehow remained the most powerful and popular leader of the Communist party. He wanted to renew a revolution he felt had lost its vision and integrity. He insisted that China would fall into the complacency and Westernization he believed was happening in the Soviet Union without drastic changes. The Chinese revolution needed a revival.

Persecution. Supported by ideologically driven Party members and youth movements, Mao set about to “cleanse” Chinese society by targeting those deemed enemies of the campaign. The list of enemies proved long, but Mao and his supporters began with moderate party members like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997). A Red Guard Student Brigade ridiculed and abused Mao’s political rivals such as Liu Shou (killed), Deng Xiaoping (imprisoned), and Zhou Enlai (driven to seclusion).  

Mao closed China’s schools and universities, labelling them as breeding grounds for rightist dissenters. Intellectuals, including writers, educators, and academics who criticized Party policies, were removed or detained, sentenced to forced manual labour or killed. Persecutors identified these targets as “rightists,” “enemies of the revolution,” or people of “bourgeoisie” inclination. In 1968, Zhou Enlai finally convinced Mao to bring in the army to suppress the Red Guards, many of whom felt betrayed by Mao, who had encouraged their radical actions. 

Mao’s Economic Revolution. Mao and his supporters altered the economy to reflect their ideological goals. They criticized Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiangping’s welcoming of foreign technology to grow the economy. Mao preferred to depend on labour rather than machinery and favoured the competence and dedication of the proletariat over capital investment in technology. In other words, China would achieve progress and prosperity through domestic efforts without foreign inspiration or assistance. Like the Great Leap Forward, rural communes produced mediocre and low-quality items such as iron, steel, and agricultural goods.  Once again, the economy faltered.

The Moderates Regain Power. By the 1970s, the revolution lost momentum, mainly under the weight of its extremism and archaic economic policies. The violence of the Red Guard and other groups had gone further than even Mao saw fit. People coveted stability. Not surprisingly, Mao’s economic policies did not revive the economy, and China seemed again immersed in a weakening economy inspired by ideology rather than practical guidance. 

The Cultural Revolution received its final blow when Mao died on September 9, 1976. Again, the moderates moved to consolidate control. One of the first steps was to purge the Gang of Four from the Party and sentence them to life imprisonment. Deng Xiaoping would lead the moderates to shift China away from Mao’s ideologically driven plan to a more pragmatic approach that blended modernization and capitalist ingenuity into the Party’s communist agenda.

In future blogs, we will take a closer look at various elements of the Cultural Revolution and the preceding Great Leap Forward. As always, feel welcome to contact us with ideas about future blog topics you would like to see.

Bibliography

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dikoter, Frank. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

MacFaquahar, Roderick and Michael Schoenhals.  Mao’s Last Revolution.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Murphey, Rhoads and Kristen Stapleton. A History of Asia. Eighth Edition, New York: Routledge, 2019.

Rossabi, Morris. A History of China. West Sussex, Blackwell Publishing, 2014.

Oceans, Seas, and World History: An Introduction

Oceans and seas make up about two-thirds of our planet, yet historical attention to such bodies has been minimal at best. Rainer F. Buschman.

With the rise of world history, more people view the past through a lens that brings a broader range of global interconnections to light. Essential to these linkages are geographical features such as waterways (oceans, seas, and rivers) and landforms (e.g. mountains, deserts, and forests) that help shape the formations of societies and their interactions and exchanges, including trade, culture, flora and fauna, and disease. Understanding these geographical features is critical to understanding our past.  

Traditional world history tends to be “terrestrial-focused,” but this is changing as historians display an increasing tendency to study the world’s waterways. Maritime history enriches our understanding by highlighting world history trends and patterns in unique ways. As Eric Kjellgren writes, “favorable prevailing winds and fish suddenly seem as influential as access to fresh water and arable land. Shipbuilding and skillful navigation challenge the prominence of building roads and canals. (1)  World history returns the favour by encouraging maritime history into a global approach that moves away from seeing oceans as barriers to human interaction to conceiving them as important interconnected regions. In short, a blending of maritime and world history can lead to more sophisticated understandings.  

Oceans. It would be a severe understatement to say that the world’s oceans and seas that comprise about two-thirds of the planet play an essential role in unfolding world history. Oceans and seas facilitated the migration of people, animals, flora, disease, culture and technologies. As maritime historian Lincoln Paine writes, “Before the locomotive in the nineteenth century, culture, commerce, contagion, and conflict generally moved faster by sea than by land. Besides transport, people used oceans and seas to provide food and other vital goods. Whale blubber, for instance, served as lamp fuel, lighting a growing world population. Waterways have imbued culture. Poseidon and Neptune, Moby Dick, the Ancient Mariner, various folk songs, and countless varieties of seafood reveal how waterways help shape the world’s cultures.

Beyond a Eurocentric Focus. World history encourages maritime history to move beyond a Eurocentric approach. As S. Arasaratnam points out, world history fosters a move “away from a view of the ocean as primarily the playground of European naval and commercial powers with indigenous actors providing minor roles for the lead up to the period of empire in the nineteenth century. (246)  Of course, studying the European powers remains vital to our understanding of the unfolding of global history. How, for instance, could we understand the monumental developments in the Atlantic community without carefully studying its most impactful player – Europe? But an exclusive focus on these players can limit our understanding. David Abulafin argues that “the European presence around the shores of the oceans can only be understood by taking into account the less well-documented activities of non-European merchants and sailors, some of whom were indigenous to land in which they lived.” (xx) For instance, the “Silk Road of the Sea” that connected people as far as China and the Roman Empire involved a blended relay of major powers such as Rome and China with more local merchants indigenous to the shores of the Pacific and Indian oceans. 

Conclusion. As Lincoln Paine writes, “maritime history offers an invaluable perspective on the world and ourselves. (599). Waterways such as the world’s oceans, seas, and rivers are integral to our past. Interestingly, recent historiography has questioned whether we can consider the oceans as separate entities. As David Armitage writes, “the oceanographic connections among the oceans ensure that any attempt to separate them will be artificial and constraining.” (359). This is particularly true after developments such as da Gama’s navigation around the Cape of Good Hope, and later, the Suez and Panama canals connected major bodies of water. 

We are writing four upcoming blogs, each focusing on one of the world’s four oceans – the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic, and the Arctic. The first focuses on the world’s largest, the Pacific, but will include its relationship to other bodies of water, including the Indian Ocean. These blogs will reflect the fruitful mingling of maritime and world history that highlights regional and global connections.  

Stay tuned. 

Bibliography

Abulafin, David. The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Ocean. London: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Arasaratnam, S. “Recent Trends in the Historiography of the Indian Ocean, 1500 to 1800.” Journal of World History 1, no. 2    (1990): 225–48.                            

Armitage, D. (2019). World History as Oceanic History: Beyond Braudel. The Historical Review/La Revue Historique, 15(1), 341-361.

Ashin Das Gupta and M.N. Pearson eds. India and the Indian Ocean 1500 to 1800. New Dehli, 1987.

Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours. Cambridge, Mass, 2005.

Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Buschman, Rainer F. “Oceans of World History: Delineating Aquacentric Notions in the Global Past.” History Compass 2 (2004) WO o68, 1-10. 

Crosby, Alfred. The Columbine Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westpoint; Conn, 1973.

Duiker, William J. Twentieth Century World History. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

Martin J. Peggy, Beth Bartolini-Salimbini, Wendy Peterson. 5 Steps to a 5: AP World History 2019. McGraw-Hill Education, 2018

Mukherjee, Rita. “Escape from Terracentrism: Writing a Water History,” Indian Historical Review 41 (2014), 87-101.

Paine, Lincoln. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Germans and the Nazi Persecutions (1933-45): Coercion or Complicity?

Complicity. Partnership in a crime or wrongdoing.

Coercion. Persuade or restrain (an unwilling person) by force or threat of punishment.

Introduction. Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party gained power in 1933 and would govern Germany until the end of World War Two (1945). By 1934, his Nazi government had become a dictatorship, with Hitler as the Fuhrer. With bolstered state powers, they persecuted  “enemies of Germany,” such as Communist Party members, Social Democrats, and labour groups. Hitler also targeted those deemed unfit according to the Nazi racial hygiene agenda – people of colour, gypsies, criminals, the mentally and physically challenged and above all, Jews. The Nazis dismissed people from their jobs, confiscated property, locked people in prisons and concentration camps, sterilized the “unfit,” and executed millions. 

A Debate. How was it possible for the Nazis to persecute various groups – especially- Jews without significant resistance from German citizens? Many historians have addressed this question. Some scholars argue that German citizens complied with and supported and even initiated the persecution and slaughter of Jews and other groups. Others insist that most Germans disapproved of Nazi domestic persecution and terror but did not speak out for fear of Nazi retribution, including loss of property or career, imprisonment, and execution. 

Nazi Terror and Retribution. When Hitler and the National Socialist Party took power in 1933, they began centralizing control of Germany. According to Richard Evans, the main instrument of coercion was the law. The Nazis passed laws and decrees that broadened what constituted treason and people’s options for freedom of expression. For instance, it became legal to ridicule Hitler, to make derogatory remarks against the Nazi party, or to “discuss alternatives to the political status quo.” (Evans,101)  

Speaking out against Nazi policies or assisting the persecuted could result in severe retribution. In Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017),  Peter Hayes points out that “overt assistance to Jews constituted sabotage punishable by death”  and cites the example of Nazi Anton Schmidt, who facilitated the escape of at least 100 Jews after witnessing the execution of Jewish infants. After being exposed, he was court-martialed and executed. (145-146).   

Surveillance and intimidation proved effective deterrents to dissent. The Nazi secret police (Gestapo) did not have many men at their disposal but still “infiltrated people’s lives – directly, indirectly and psychologically.”  (Childress, 319).   Gestapo agents performed late-night arrests and interrogations. Germans were encouraged to report transgressions of Nazi law by their peers, neighbours and even family. Those charged faced a dubious legal process through what Richard Evans describes as a “whole system of regional Special Courts, crowned by the National People’s Court, the Volkgerichlen, was created to implement these and similar laws. (Evans, 101)

These historians argue that the Nazis organized an effective program of intimidation and coercion that effectively discouraged Germans from resisting the Nazi racial hygiene program.  

Citizen Complicity. Other scholars believe such interpretations overstate the extent of Nazi control while neglecting the willingness of German citizens to facilitate and even initiate the persecutions. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997), Daniel Goldhagen acknowledges Nazi government coercion but argues that the main driving force behind the Holocaust was deep-seated, specifically German antisemitism.  

Goldhagen relates a story about Captain Wolfgang Hoffman, “a zealous executioner of Jews” who led “ordinary men” to slaughter tens of thousands of Jews in Poland. (3). Hoffman, he points out, refused to sign a declaration that his group would not plunder and steal from the persecuted Jews. Why did he refuse? Hoffman took offence that he and the men under his charge would steal. Besides the irony that Hoffman enthusiastically killed people, Goldhagen points out that Hoffman was not punished for refusing a direct order. In order words, Hoffman had a choice. By extension, his persecution of Jews came not from fear of retribution but from personal conviction—a willing executioner. 

Goldhagen goes on to argue that historians have focused on the leaders of the Nazi regime while neglecting people like Hoffman who facilitated the execution not from fear of Nazi retribution but out of a conviction that stemmed from “a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die.”

Goldhagen’s thesis hinges on pervasive  German-specific antisemitism – a point of controversy among historians.   In Hitler and the Holocaust (2001), Robert S. Wistrich argues that Goldhagen overstates the role of German eliminationist antisemitism in the Holocaust. Germans certainly facilitated the killings, but this didn’t stem from a longstanding eliminationist mindset in the mid 19th century. Before Hitler, Wistrich argues, “racist antisemitism had not made great inroads in Germany” and was “still a state based on the rule of law, where Jews achieved remarkable economic success, were well integrated into society, and enjoyed equal rights.” (4)  

Selective Nazi Terror. In Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans (1999), Eric Johnson agrees with Goldhagen that many ordinary Germans willingly facilitated terror campaigns, persecutions and genocide. He also acknowledges the role of Nazi coercion but disagrees with Evans on the extent of Nazi coercion. He argues that Hitler’s government did not terrorize most Germans but instead focused the terror against “enemies of the state” – especially Jews. Most German citizens were not directly impacted by Nazi terror and “enjoyed considerable space to vent their everyday frustration with Nazi policies and leaders without inordinate fear of arrest or prosecution. (19)

Richard Evans disagrees with Johnson’s presentation of selective Nazi coercion and persecution. Nazi violence focused more on particular groups but “operated across the board.”(199). In 1933-4, for instance, the Nazis targeted the political leaders of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, such as Social Democrat Johann Steller, who “was tortured to death. (93).   Together, Evans notes, “the Social Democrats and Communists had won 131 million votes in the Reichstag election of 1932.” (94). “Hardly,” he points out, “members of a despised minority of social outcasts.”(94)

Self Interest and Opportunism Another historian who does not see antisemitism as the main factor in Holocaust is Joseph D. Bendersky. In A Concise History of Nazi Germany (2014), Bendersky argues that “the Jewish question had not been important to most German” who were more concerned with “moral degeneracy, crime, political subversion, and public order.” (139). Accordingly, the persecution of Communists, sexual deviants, and violent criminals received public support. He places more weight on other factors, including economic self-interest and the “terror of the police state.” (141)  Regarding self-interest, Bendersky notes how although a “Large segment” of German were shocked by Nazi violence, many opportunistically filled the Jewish vacancies in various professions, civil service positions, and businesses as Nazis pushed Jews out of their jobs. “Profit at the expense of the Jews was a temptation too many could not resist.” (139). Like Evans and Hayes, he adds that the Nazi use of terror deterred resistance and many who persisted paid the price. “Countless individuals,” Bendersky writes, paid with their lives for speaking out or for attempting to save others from Nazi tyranny. (141)

Conclusion. The role of German citizens in Nazi persecution, and particularly the Holocaust, remains a contentious topic and one that scholars will grapple with for many years to come. Hitler’s Nazi regime indeed used terror and reward to encourage German complicity. Some Germans, of course, engaged in the persecutions of “German enemies” with horrific enthusiasm. The longstanding question remains. Which factored more, coercion or complicity?

Bibliography

Aly Gotz, Peter Chrousti and Christine Ross. Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Barnet, Victoria J. Bystander: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999

Bendersky, Joseph W. A Concise History of Nazi Germany. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2014.

Benz, Wolfgang. A Concise History of the Third Reich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006

Bergen, Doris L.  Twisted Cross. The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill, 1996.

Childress, Thomas. The Third Reich. A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon Shuster, 2017.

Marc Dewey, Udo Schagen, Wolfgang U. Eckart & Eva Schoenenberger, “Ernst Ferdinand Sauerbruch and His Ambiguous Role in the Period of National Socialism”, in Annals of Surgery 244 (2006), pp. 315- 321.

Friedlander, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1 The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. New York: 1997.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah.  Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Random House Inc., 1997.  

Hamerow, Theodore S. On the Road to the Wolf’s Lair. German Resistance to Hitler. London, 1999

Hayes, Peter. Why? Explaining the Holocaust. New York: W.W. Norton Inc. 2017.

Johnson, Eric A. Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lifton, Robert J. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York, 1986.

Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictators: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. (London, 1993).

Proctor, Robert N. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. 

Schmidt. U.H. Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor. New York: Continuum, 2007

Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1960.

Stern, Fritz. Five Germans I have Known. New York: Farar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. 

Thomas, Gordon and Gary Lewis. Defying Hitler: The German Who Resisted Nazi Rule. New York: Random House, 2019. 

Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust. London, The Orion Publishing Group, 2001. 

Wistrich, Robert. Who’s Who in Nazi Germany. London, 1995.

Social Darwinism. An Introduction

 In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.  In it, Darwin convincingly argued that all species evolved by adapting through an ongoing struggle for survival.   The book is considered one of the most influential in the natural sciences.  However, Darwin’s influence would go well beyond the biological.  Shortly after the Origin of Species publication, people began speculating on the social implication of Darwin’s theories.  

“Social Darwinism,” a term for various social theories allegedly based on Darwin’s work, described individuals and societies competing for limited resources where the fittest survived and reproduced.  These theories provided intellectual fodder for racism, imperialism, militarism, political and economic conservatism, and misguided public health practices.   

What is Natural Selection?  In other blogs, we go into more detail about Darwin’s theories.  For now, here is a 5-point synopsis of natural selection.   

  1. More species exist than their environments can sustain.
  2. As a consequence of 1, all species are in a perpetual struggle for survival.
  3. Individual members of each possess variations or traits. 
  4. Those with favourable traits survive and reproduce, passing on these traits.
  5. Over generations, as traits pass, species evolve to survive in their environment—those who don’t perish.  

Origin of Species focused on plants and animals and did not address human evolution.  However, social theorists enthusiastically applied Darwinian biological concepts to human society, identifying societies as individuals competing in a struggle leading to the evolution and improvement of nations, classes, and races.

Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer. The notion of competition between individuals and groups as inevitable and necessary predated Darwin and increasingly pervaded the 19th century.  Adam Smith advocated an economic model based on competition and minimal state intervention in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776).  In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798),Thomas Malthus, a clergyman, argued that people competed as populations outstripped limited resources – food, land, wealth.  Some, of course, would fall, but the strongest would survive. This competition, he insisted, led to social betterment, so state or private efforts to alleviate poverty were against nature.  Perhaps the strongest advocate of Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer, who coined “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology (1864).  The term helped bring attention to Darwin’s work and led to more applications to human society, including race, politics, economics, and medical practice like eugenics and euthanasia.

Politics, Social Inequality, Economics. Conservatives, concerned with the rising population of lower classes, cited natural selection as justification for refraining from poor relief in towns and cities.   Malthus and Spencer, two vehement individualists, insisted that poverty arose from flawed character and that state support for the poor contradicted the rules of nature and weakened society.  Similarly, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie justified low wages and laissez-faire business practices that exploited weakness.  In The Gospel of Wealth (1900), Carnegie applauded “the concentration of business, industrial, and commercial, in the hands of a few and the competition to the progress of the race.” (4)

Race and Imperialism.Jacque Barzun writes that “The 19C was the heyday of physical anthropology, which divided mankind into three or more races” and “taken for an exact science in spite of its conflicting statements.” (577). Social Darwinism offered “scientific” support for racial categories that hardened in the latter part of the 19th century. Theorists applied Social Darwinist principles to nations.  Nationalists and imperialists appealed to social Darwinism to explain and justify colonial control of inferior ethnic groups and races, offering a rationale for displacement, unfair laws and even genocide.  For example, British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace supported European expansion at the expense of the “savage” and “inferior” indigenous peoples in the Americas and other continents.  Karl Pearson argued that the higher state of civilization arose racial struggle and the resulting survival of the physical and mentally fittest race. (Perry, 594)

An Infamous Legacy. Social Darwinism extended into the 20th century carrying its flawed reasoning and destructive implications with it.  Eugenics, founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, inspired the sterilization and euthanizing of people deemed “unfit” – the mentally ill, criminals, developmental delayed, and people of colour – in countries like Canada, the United States, and especially Germany.  Marvin Perry contends that “The Social Darwinist notion of the struggle of the races for survival became a core doctrine of the Nazi Party after World War 1 and provided the scientific and ethical justification for genocide.  (596). Social Darwinist theories began to wane by the middle of the 20th century, mainly as Nazi atrocities realized many of the morbid implications of Social Darwinist thinking, including sterilization and, of course, the Holocaust. 

Selected Bibliography

Barzun, Jacques.  From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.

Carnegie, Andrew.  The Gospel of Wealth. New York: Century, 1900. 

Hofstader, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1955.

Koch, H.W. ed.  The Origins of the First World War. New York: Taplinger, 1972. 

Olson, Richard, ed., Science as Metaphor.  Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1971. 

Perry, Marvin. Ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

World War 1 Begins

The Great War, also later known as World War 1, began in 1914 as a European conflict between the major powers and spread to almost all European states except Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain.  Countries outside of Europe like Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, and India joined the fray, usually due to political obligations or strategic concerns.  Many believed the war would be short-lived. Fighting, however, lasted until 1918, taking many lives and forever changing the global landscape.

How did the war begin? The origins of the conflict are complex and contentious.  Historians have cited numerous causes, including the Alliance System, nationalism, imperialism and militarism. As eminent historian Jacques Barzun pointed out, “No conclusion has been agreed upon.” (68). We will explore the causes and other topics of The Great War in other blogs.  For now, we will focus on the events leading to war. 

European Alliances and Rivalries The alliance system refers to the two opposing camps that entered the war in 1914 after a series of war declarations.  On one side, the Triple Alliance comprised Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary.  The other, the Triple Entente, included France, Great Britain and Russia. These alliances reflected a “strength in numbers” approach to security.    

All of the countries had reasons to ally. France feared a Germany that, since its unification in 1870, became a formidable economic and military power, in part at France’s expense. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), Prussia defeated France, annexed Alsace-Lorrain, and made France pay reparations.  An invigorated Germany bolstered its military power and, through French eyes, remained the primary threat.  Britain and Russia agreed.  Germany’s military growth, particularly its Navy, threatened Britain’s traditional naval hegemony.  Russia, still recovering from their 1905 loss to Japan and reeling from an internal revolution, saw a growing Germany as a threat to Russia’s western border.   

Germany, of course, had its concernsWith France and Russia on its west and east borders, Germany stood pinned between two powers. Berlin met this challenge in two ways. First, in 1880, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark solicited Austro-Hungary and Italy to create a Triple Alliance. Second, they adopted the Schlieffen Plan – an offensive strategy where Germany would attack France first in the hope of defeating them before Russia mobilized – in what they estimated to be forty-two days. (Storey, 21-22) 

Berlin’s primary ally, Austria-Hungary, included a significant German population and coveted a solid supporter to back it against Balkan uprisings, particularly from Serbia.  Italy, less enthusiastic about allied commitments, would not enter the war until 1915 – alongside the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia! Neither Russia nor France matched Germany’s economy or military, but together they offered a viable threat.  Neither Berlin nor Vienna wanted to stand alone. 

So, how did these countries come to war?

The Balkans – Instability Spreads. As William Kelleher Storey writes, the war  “was touched off by a crisis over nationalist aspirations in the Balkans,” a region of unrest and instability. (29)  The Ottoman Empire once controlled the Balkan Peninsula but, after a steady decline, relinquished control of the region that broke into several countries  – Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Romania, Montenegro and Greece.   Competing nationalities and religions exacerbated political divisions and lead to perpetual struggles for regional control and independence, leading to many local conflicts and longstanding hostilities.

Serbia became the peninsula’s dominant country and took center stage leading to the Great War. Serbia gained independence from a weakening Ottoman Empire in 1878 and coveted a Greater Serbia.  Austria-Hungary feared Serbian nationalist fervour might encourage the southern Slavic population in Austro-Hungary to separate and join Serbia. 

On the other hand, Russia coveted a strong Serbia as a base of influence in the Balkans and Constantinople and the Dardanelles that would link the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.   These ambitions, coupled with its Slavic heritage, lead Russa to offer itself as sponsor and protector of the Slavs in the Balkans, particularly Serbia.  

Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and its significant Serbian population in 1908 widened the rift between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.  Russia, still recovering from its 1905 loss to Japan and warned off by Germany, did not intervene, undermining its status as Slavic protector.  As tension grew between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, it seemed more likely that regional strife would spill over into the rest of Europe.  All that was needed was a catalyst – that occurred on July 14th, 1914. 

The Catalyst. On July 14th, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip assassinated Austro-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife- shooting them both in the car as they toured the streets of Sarajevo.   Emboldened by German support, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia that would effectively deny Serbian independence.  Serbia accepted all but one of the demands.  Seeing an opportunity to deal with the “Serbia problem,” Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28th.  

The entangled alliances and competing interests encouraged a series of Great Power decisions that lead to a much broader conflict.  Here is a very simplified sequence of events. Russia, supporting Slavic Serbia and protecting its influence in the Balkans, declared war on Austria-Hungary and mobilized its forces.  Germany, alarmed by Russian mobilization and in support of Vienna, declared war on Russia then France.  Germany’s attack plan on France required them to cross Belgium, a neutral country.  This action leads to Britain, obligated to protect Belgian neutrality, to declare war on Germany.  Now, the prominent European nations were at war, and soon, soldiers from around the world would join the fray. 

Conclusion. Could the war have been averted?  Some historians insist that the alliance system meant that one declaration of war leads to the diplomatic equivalent of dominoes falling.  Others maintain that leaders could have made different choices and averted war.  These are discussions for future blogs.  Historians, however, do agree that World War 1, drastically changed Europe and the world. 

Selected Bibliography

Barzun, Jacques.  From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  New York: Harper Collins, 2000.

Black, Jeremy.  The Great War and the Making of the Modern World.  London: Continuum International Public Group, 2011. 

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History.  London: Oxford University Press, 1997. 

Ferguson, Neill.  The War of the World Twentieth Century and Descent of the West.  Penguin Books, 2006. 

Meyer, G.T. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918.  New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. 

Roberts, J.M.  The Penguin History of the World.  New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Storey, William Kelleher.  The First World War.  London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

What was the “Agricultural Revolution”? 

Try this. Ask people to name three revolutions.  Depending on their background, they might cite the American and French Revolutions of the nineteenth century.  Others will mention the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Industrial Revolution.  How many cited the Agricultural Revolution?  Likely not many.  Ironic, since the agricultural revolution stands as one of the more fundamental and far-reaching developments in human history.  Peter Stearns calls it a “great watershed in human history.” (Stearns 16) Ronald Wright argues that “In the magnitude of its consequences, no other invention rivals farming…”  (Wright, 45)

So, what is the agricultural revolution? When did it happen?  How did it change how humans lived? It is a far-reaching and complex topic but let’s try to cover the essentials.  “Essentially,” the agricultural revolution transitioned nomadic hunting-gathering societies to human societies that grew their food and for some domesticated animals.  This development is revolutionary because it fundamentally changed how people lived.  Hunting and gathering societies depended on edible wild plants and animals, whereas agricultural communities controlled and shaped their environment (to some extent) to grow crops and domesticate animals.  Besides planting crops, agricultural societies changed their landscapes through irrigation and canal construction.   

When Did it Happen? Where did it happen first? The above chronology offers a general timeline. Essentially we are looking at 9000 BCE to 3500 BCE.  Agriculture on a large scale first happened in various river valleys (e.g. Nile River, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica) that offered reliable water sources and fertile soil. Different crops grew throughout the world.  Egypt produced wheat and barley. People living on what became the Greek peninsula grew grapes and olives.  China cultivated rice

There are two points to remember.  One is that this revolution happened over a very long time – 1000s of years.   Secondly, agriculture occurred independently in various parts of the world and at different times. Mesoamerica, for instance, had no contact with Eurasia and alone learned to cultivate crops like maize and squash. Later, as populations grew and interacted more through trade, agricultural practices and technologies would be shared and accelerate agricultural production over larger areas. 

Nomadic to Sedentary and Permanent Dwellings.  Tending to crops requires people to stay in one area.  Hence the term “sedentary agriculture.”  Nomadic people might remain in one place for some time, but as soon as the supply of wild plants and or game ran low or migrated, they were on the move.   Permanent dwellings offered space to store food and house families.    

Growing Populations, Social and Political Specialization By increasing food production, the agricultural revolution also facilitated drastic population growth.  Agriculture could sustain more people in a smaller area.  As Greg Woolf writes, “5 square miles cold support a farming village of 150 people. (Woolf 58).  A more reliable food source also contributed to higher life expectancy.   These growing population centers became the first steps toward cities, city-states and even empires.  A food surplus allowed people to adopt more specialized roles in families, politics and religious life. 

What motivated hunters and gatherers to adopt agriculture?Great question.  After all, farming required more effort than hunting and gathering.  Accordingly, people likely adopted agriculture very gradually. Probably, circumstances pushed them in this direction.  Climate change, for example, might have encouraged big game to migrate north of the Middle East and other river valley areas.  Overhunting also might have significantly diminished the wild animal population.  Another factor might be growing populations that required alternative food supply offered by hunting and gathering.     

Historians, of course, differ on how the Agricultural Revolution came about, how it evolved and its impact.  Concerning the latter, some historians have lauded it as one of the seminal movements of human progress.  Others see it as the catalyst for current problems such as overpopulation, consumerism, rapid species extinction and climate change.  Whatever their position, they agree that the Agricultural Revolution is one of the most fundamental developments in human history. 

Select Bibliography.

Havari, Yural Noah.  Sapiens.  A Brief History of Humankind.  Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2014. 

McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2015

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World.  New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.

Stearns, Peter et al.  World Civilizations: The Global Experience. Third Edition.  New York: Longman, 2001.

Woolf, Greg, ed.  Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd., 2005.

Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress.  Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.