Aconsiderable part of world opinion has grown convinced that the end of history has led to a return of ethnic nationalism. The return is mainly a threat, and a permanent one in the sense that few can see any general cure for the fragmentation or anarchy now supposed to prevail. Empires and imperiums have gone for good. Sinn féin is universalized, as all existing and potential national groupings fall back increasingly upon their own resources. No longer a liberating mission to throw off colonial control, nationalism becomes the general fate: the (menacing) new way of the world.

I doubt if there is any good reason for such feelings. What reasons there are derive mainly from two situations of the early 1990s, in the former republics of Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. At stake here is not—of course—the frightfulness of what has occurred in these countries, but a generalizing verdict drawn, it seems to me, much too easily and indiscriminately from their sufferings. Nobody would make light of such events. However, it has been quite easy to make dark of them, as if there lurked in the post-Cold War atmos-phere a positive thirst for Apocalypse withdrawn. Sometimes people appear almost reassured by what they can imagine as the new abyss. The mediaeval hell-promise of nuclear war has gone. But don’t feel too lost, things are not too good either—look, mini-hells all over the place. A collective imagination inured to the odour of sulphur is now unable to live without it. Everyone over twenty or so imbibed damnation with their cornflakes, and now a daily fix of ethnic or other conflict is required. Apollyon, Angel of Destruction and Lord of the Bottomless Pit, is no more. But don’t worry, there are still plenty of Old Adams. Shattered Vukovar and the Hutu refugee camps in Burundi offer miniature consolations for what Armageddon might have been.

In an Amnesty lecture last year Eric Hobsbawm observed how post-1945 barbarization occurred against a background of ‘the lunacies of the Cold War’:

a period which will one day be as hard to understand for historians as the witch craze of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. . .the extraordinary assumption that only the readiness to launch the nuclear holocaust at a moment’s notice preserved the Western world from immediate overthrow by totalitarian tyranny was enough in itself to undermine all accepted standards of civility.footnote1

How did it do so? In part by retuning the popular world-view towards accep-tance of death. Individually this is true anyway: recognition of inevitable demise and the brevity of personal existence conditions all social life and provides the soil of poetry as well as despair. But Cold War lunacy entailed something different. Its fated all-round demise was to come from them, and the cause was their evil empire. Hobsbawm’s analogy with the time of witches is apt. Against the forces of darkness all means are justified, and any ruthlessness will eventually be pardoned. This supported a coarsening of the general imagination, a kind of all-conquering tabloidism. Sustained by wordly authority and consecrated by the nearing End of Things, comic-strip fantasy formed a grisly alliance with some of the deepest motifs in human culture—with the witches’ Sabbath, Satan’s domain and the Apocalypse.

The Age of Extremes lays most emphasis on the American side of the psychosis. It was—the author frankly admits—democracy which made the United States more dangerous and explains why ‘the apocalyptic tone of the Cold War came from America. . .If anyone put the crusading tone into the realpolitik of international power confrontation, it was Washington.’footnote2 Unconstrained by the need to woo an electorate, he argues, the Soviet leaders could afford to be more pragmatic or frankly hypocritical about the prospects for war.

But what this contraposition ignores, surely, is the more serious theoretical weight which at that time seemed to attach to the communist version. The latter may have been less strident or populist. However, its quieter annunciation also derived from a supposedly scientific view of human destiny, to which grim matter-of-factness was, in any case, more appropriate. Prophetic presidents like Kennedy or Nixon were not needed to scream the message: every newspaper and arm of the educational apparatus did so routinely, dully but not necessarily without effect. And what was the message? Many years ago Norman Cohn pointed out how: