Cross-posted from To The Point Analyses
Part I -- Watershed Moments
World Wars I and II created watershed moments in the lives of Western intellectuals, defined here as those who are guided by their intellect and critical thinking, and understand various aspects of the world mainly through ideas and theories which they express through writing, teaching and other forms of public address. Just how were they to respond to the call of patriotic duty that seduced the vast majority of citizens to support acts of mass slaughter? What constituted a proper response is often debated. How most of them did respond is a matter of historical record.
During the world wars, most intellectuals on all sides of the conflicts uncritically lent their talents to their government's war efforts. Some did so as propagandists and others as scientists. Some actually led their nations into the fray, as was the case with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson held a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, had taught at Cornell, Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, and became president of Princeton University. Eventually he was elected President of the United States and, having taken the nation to war, sanctioned the creation of a massive propaganda machine under the auspices of the "Committee on Public Information." He also supported the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress all anti-war sentiments.
Wilson never experienced combat, but another intellectual, the British poet Siegried Sassoon, did so in the trenches of the Western front. After this experience he wrote, "war is hell and those who initiate it are criminals." No doubt that was his opinion of the intellectual President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1928 the French philosopher and literary critic Julien Benda published an important book, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. In this work, Benda asserted that it is the job of the intellectual to remain independent of his or her community's ideologies and biases, be they political, religious or ethnic. Only by so doing could he or she defend the universal practices of tolerance and critical thinking that underpin civilization. Not only were they to maintain their independence, but they were also obligated to analyze their community's actions and, where necessary, call them into question.
However, as the memory of the intellectuals' complicity in World War I faded, so did the memory of Benda's standard of behavior. By World War II it held little power against the renewed demands of national governments for citizens to rally around the flag. Thus, in that war, with even greater atrocities being committed, most intellectuals either supported the slaughter or remained silent. Some became fascists, others communists, and all too many once more lent their talents to propaganda machines and war industries in all the fighting states.
As a result the debate over the proper role of the intellectual in relation to power and ideology continues to this day. It is not a question that needs a world war to be relevant. There are any number of ongoing situations where nationalism, ethnicity, or religious views spark intolerance and violence. And with each of them the intellectuals, particularly those whose home states are involved, have to make the same age-old choice. Do they follow Woodrow Wilson's path or that of Julian Benda?
Part II -- The Fate of the Jewish Intellectual
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