The two sides of free will

Tolkien was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers in July 1915. It's remarkable that some of the men that saw a lot of evil created some of our finest children's literature. I'm also thinking of Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis.
Tolkien was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers in July 1915. It’s remarkable that some of the men that saw a lot of evil also created some of our finest children’s literature. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I like history and coming from a country that was invaded by the Nazis for five years in what feels like a near past I like reading about World War II. I was born 23 years after the war ended, but it feels near as both my parents had memories from the war. I especially like reading about the brave men and women working in the resistance movement. It’s also fascinating to take a look back in history and observe what happened after the war. How did these very evil times influence people?

We may feel that we are living in troubled times today and that our governments are not able/willing to offer us the stability and peace we desire, but imagine how the first half of the 20th century must have been like. World War I didn’t just happen in 1914, but there were many events leading up to this big war. It started many years earlier with the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904).

Then Britain and France were concerned about Germany building up its military power, especially the navy. They counteracted this by signing a series of agreemnets and thus creating an alliance called Entente Cordiale (1907). The war really started getting closer with the Moroccan crisis (1905), the Bosnian annexation crisis of 1908, the Italo-Turkish war (1911), and the Balkan war (1912) where Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League, an alliance against the Ottoman Empire. This period of escalating violence ended with the assassination of  the Austro-Hungarian heir in Sarajevo.

After World War I ended in 1918 people had barely got back to a normal life when Hitler rose to power in 1933. That was the end of the Weimar Republic, the first German democracy. It came into existence after the German revolution and the following abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II in 1919.

We may feel that most people were innocent victims of the Nazis, but the truth is that Hitler had stronger support than many are willing to admit. We have a tendency to focus all attention on Hitler and none on the people that brought him to power. He is still responsible for what he did of course, but he wasn’t the only evil people were dealing with from the early 1930’s. There were weighty people that was actually convinced that Hitler was on the right track, but of course they couldn’t control the monster they had created. Hitler’s vision wasn’t much different from eugenics, which was developed in California long before the war, but they didn’t seem to realize that most of them would not have been a part of Hitler’s new world.

It may seem like a good idea to use a dictator as a part of a plan to execute an evil scheme, but you wouldn’t be dealing with a rational person. In other words, sooner or later all deals will be off. There were a lot of influential people around that time that seemed to have fallen outside our definition of nice. Most intellectuals at the time seem to have argued that the intelligent few should be encouraged to reproduce, while the “unfit” should be sterilized. This went on in Norway too and we actually had a sterilization law between 1934 and 1977. The law aimed to reduce the population of socially disadvantaged people, and didn’t target Romani people specifically, but they were over-represented.

This must have felt like incredibly dark times and to Christians it may have felt like the end of the world was getting closer. I am not that familiar with authors like Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but from the little I know I believe they were strongly influenced by the baneful times they lived in. J.D. Salinger was born in 1919 and his most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, may have been coloured by what he saw as a soldier in World War II-Europe. These authors were either directly involved in war or had contact with the American expatriate community in Paris. This was the negative impact of war, but there is also a positive side.

I’m not sure how C.S Lewis came to identify as an atheist already at the age of 15, but being born in 1898 he would have seen evil growing stronger and stronger across Europe, and it happened again in his 30’s and 40’s. He converted to Christianity in 1931, and interestingly enough the evil that was just about to throw the world into the abyss, didn’t make him doubt. C.S. Lewis went on to write some great Christian apologetic books like Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man and The Great Divorce, but his most beloved books are of course The Chronicles of Narnia. They were written between 1949 and 1954, which is a remarkable testimony such a short time after the great war.

I recently came across the 1920’s youth movement referred to as the other KKK. I’m not sure what to make of The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. Their goal was to create a society without war, poverty and wasted lives. Everything looks innocent on the surface, but there is something disturbing about this scout-like organization at the same time. I considered embedding a video from the 1920’s, but the young men and women were raising an arm in a way that resembles what the Hitler Jugend did some years later. It could be that Hitler later corrupted something innocent of course, but their views on religion is a bit disturbing too. It appears to have been very pagan. They are ambiguous, but appear to have had the best intentions.

But all those movements, like the later hippies, have a tendency to demonstrate human weaknesses. Many people have convinced themselves that Christianity is evil too because a few Christians are, but I don’t agree with that hopelessly flawed way of thinking. Atheists like to point to the Crusades, kings going to war under the pretense of acting on behalf of God, or the Inquisition. But it’s all us. Evil is present in the churches too, but to call all Christians and all churches evil would make as much sense as calling all right-wing political parties a security threat. Politics is divided into left and right, and the Republican Party in the USA and the Conservative Party in Britain are examples of two parties that belong to the right-wing. Does that mean they are like the Greek party Golden Dawn, which has been described as a Nazi and a fascist party? Of course not!

Everything can and will be corrupted. I’m afraid that’s what we do. That’s what free will lets us do, but it also gives us the freedom to do good. I’m a great fan of a few men that are far from perfect, but authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, A. A. Milne and C.S. Lewis have created some of the best moments I had reading books as a child and teenager, and they created this after seeing the other side of free will.

We are fast approaching the time when I get into the Christmas spirit and one of my traditions is to read Letters from Father Christmas by Tolkien. These are illustrated letters he wrote to his children between 1920 and 1942. In addition to the love for his children these letters also reveal a love for mythology, and it’s pretty clear that he had started thinking about The Lord of the Rings. It may be troubled times again, but there is hope. Evil won’t win if we choose our freedom of will to fight it. I find Lady Galadriel words from The Lord of the Rings encouraging: Even the smallest person can change the course of history.

I often feel like a hobbit, small and average, and I don’t especially want to leave my Shire, but I also don’t want to give up the fight. Giving up is never and option.

Kibbo Kift
Events leading up to WW I
J.D. Salinger


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