On this date in 1942, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands addressed the U.S. Congress – the first Queen ever to do so. The Dutch monarch was one of several heroic figures of that era who had refused to accept the apparent inevitablity of German victory in World War II – people like King Haakon of Norway, General Charles De Gaulle of France, and of course Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain.
I am constantly reminded of those heroic figures from another (and, for later generations, increasingly incomprehensible) age, every time I hear that frequently employed but nonetheless absurd expression about being “on the right side of history.” In 1940, when Wilhelmina, Haakon, and De Gaulle fled to establish exile governments in London where the British government and people opted to follow Churchill rather than those tainted by appeasement, the direction of history was obvious. It was imminent and total German victory. Still they resisted in the belief – or at least hope – that history’s direction could be changed. In the end, of course, they won. So someone could say that they ended up “on the right side of history,” but that just shows that “the right side of history” can change – and change quickly. (It also suggests that, with effort and good luck, human beings can change the direction of history, that “the right side of history” really is not pre-determined, which also makes it ultimately uncertain).
The notion that secular history has some purpose – presumably leading to progress – was particularly popular in the 19th century, right up until World War I seemed to prove the contrary to many disillusioned disciples of modernity. The idea of history’s inevitable direction was, however, a key component of the 19th century’s most notoriously lasting delusion, Marxism. “Communism,” the young Marx wrote in 1844, “is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” As a meaningful movement, communism is gone; but the lasting effects of Marx’s theory of history linger when supposedly secular people persist in invoking history’s directedness.
It is, of course, commonly claimed that Marx’s theory of history represents a secularized distortion of Christian apocalyptic. It is, indeed, true that both Christianity and Marxism share a linear view of history, culminating in a desired end. There is, however, little in the Christian conception of history that suggests that specific secular trends possess inherent salvific significance. On the contrary, much of what passes for human history suggests alienation and estrangement from the final fulfillment promised to the faithful at history’s end.
Even Marx, when he wrote more journalistically, commenting on contemporary events in their context, sometimes toned down his determinism - as, for example, in his 1852 interpretation of the rise of Napoleon III, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In the various great and trivial conflicts which contemporaries feel compelled to choose up sides about, the motives underlying any individual position may be noble or ignoble, wise or foolish, moral or immoral, but they cannot claim to be based on the inherent meaning of history, much less on any certainty of its direction beyond the temporary and transient.