The World & I
December 2000
By Alan W. Dowd

As we begin a new century, it’s altogether appropriate to consider the person who had the most profound impact on the last hundred years. Too often, similar deliberations for "Man of the Year" or "Man of the Decade" have become glorified popularity contests, as decision-makers consider only heroic figures, only familiar ones, or only safe ones. Time’s selection of Albert Einstein as Person of the Century is a case in point.

"Time’s Person of the Century," according to the magazine, "is that person who, for better or worse, most influenced the course of history over the past 100 years." Einstein was a great figure, a true giant in his field, but he was not the man who most influenced the last hundred years. By Time’s own definition, he falls short of that moniker. For that matter, so do the two runners-up--Franklin Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi.

In fact, an honest, unbiased review of the last hundred years reveals that only a handful of people made a truly lasting impression on humanity. And perhaps only one continues to impact us as we enter the 21st century.

Without question, Einstein’s imprint on the 20th century is visible beyond the world of physics, etched deep into the decades beyond his lifetime. In his survey of the 20th century, historian Paul Johnson observes that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity ushered in a kind of relativistic revolution, triggering moral, political, and social changes that shook the world for the balance of the century. "Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably," writes Johnson in Modern Times, "relativity became confused with relativism. No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension."

As Frederic Golden writes in Time’s tribute to the German genius, "curiosity about him continues, as evidenced by the unrelenting tide of Einstein books (Amazon.com lists some 100 in print)." Echoing Johnson, Golden notes that Einstein’s "ideas, like Darwin’s, reverberated beyond science, influencing modern culture from painting to poetry."

Of course, that’s true of many people who lived during the 20th century. Surely, the Wright Brothers’ invention reverberated beyond aviation, revolutionizing commerce, travel, war, and life itself. Alexander Fleming revolutionized more than medicine with his discovery of penicillin. The effects of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points were felt far beyond Versailles, where the Great War’s victors and vanquished made peace.

Gandhi’s peaceful demand for justice and freedom echoed outside India’s borders--in the writings and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and John Paul II.

Winston Churchill’s denunciation of appeasement, and his rally cry for freedom were heard not only in London: they reverberated in Paris and Prague and Berlin and Washington, convincing men like Roosevelt to build an arsenal for democracy, and compelling others, like Truman and Marshall, to rebuild what it destroyed. And it was Churchill whom Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher invoked at century’s end, as latter-day Chamberlains sought peace at any cost.

A Century of Bloodshed

The point is this: While a case can be made for Einstein, an even stronger case can be made for a dozen others who used reason or intellect or power to change the world for the better.

But the 20th century was schizophrenic. For all its promise and hope, never has a century been bloodier or more destructive. History will catalogue it not by Einstein’s theories, Churchill’s oratory, or democracy’s coming-of-age, but by bloodshed. And most of the bloodshed can be traced back to the Soviet Union and its architect. For that reason, Vladimir Lenin is "Person of the Century."

To doubt Lenin’s relevance is to ignore the last 75 years. Indeed, even today Russians are arguing over what to do with his lifeless body. Not since Jesus of Nazareth has a corpse generated as much controversy and passion. And while the West has already consigned Leninism to the garbage bin of history, a fifth of the world’s population has not. For the sake of comparison, Amazon.com lists 358 books in print about Lenin, and another 10,725 about the state he spawned. Lenin’s impact on the 20th century may be less direct than that of the century’s more likable figures or more infamous villains, but it’s no less profound. With all due respect to the scholarship of Time’s researchers, no theory or theorist influenced the past 100 years like Lenin.

It was Lenin who built the infrastructure of the world’s first totalitarian state; Stalin just refined and expanded it. Take, for example, Stalin’s secret police--the KGB--which murdered 20 million people over the span of his 30-year dictatorship. The KGB was just a bigger version of Lenin’s terror police--the Cheka--which killed hundreds of thousands in less than a decade.

To solidify his power, Stalin sentenced 10 percent of the Soviet population to prison camps, where they died at a rate of a million a year. But again, Stalin was just imitating his mentor. It was Lenin who built the camps and first employed them to maintain his terror state. It’s not clear how many died in the purges and chaos that followed, but most historians credit Lenin with over four million murders.

Century’s Long Night

Many others would embrace his methods. In China, Lenin’s protege Mao Tse-Tung would kill 37,828,000 people. In Cambodia, Pol Pot murdered 2.4 million people--out of a pre-massacre population of 7 million. In North Korea, Kim Il-Sung would butcher 1.66 million. In Yugoslavia, Tito would erase 1.1 million in Lenin’s name. In Ethiopia, it was 725,000. In Rumania, the murder toll would reach 435,000. In Afghanistan, 228,000 would die at his altar. In Bulgaria, it was 222,000.

They were every creed, every color, and every race. And they died on nearly every continent. Lenin’s trail of blood stretches across eight decades and spans four generations.

But Lenin also spawned counter-brutalities, among them Nazism, fascism, and the militarism of Chiang Kai-shek, the Shah, Suharto, and a bloody line of other dictators. If Stalin and Mao were Lenin’s sons, then these men were his stepsons.

Indeed, Hitler used Lenin’s terror to justify his own excesses, offering Germany a stark (and false) choice between Bolshevism and Nazism. Even so, Johnson observes, that Hitler learned from Lenin how to build "a large-scale terror regime [and] remained a Leninist to the end."

Lenin saw certain classes as his enemy; Hitler saw certain races as his: Over 60 million people would die in the race war Hitler ignited–6 million just because they were Jewish. But as with so many of his crimes, Hitler’s holocaust was just a bloodier version of something Lenin had already done. Two decades before Hitler hatched his final solution, Lenin targeted and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Russians because they were Jewish.

Lenin is Man of the Century not because he was the most powerful of most vicious totalitarian, but because he was the first. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao murdered more and conquered more, but they were just following the path carved out by Lenin. It was Lenin’s shadow that incubated them, Lenin’s revolution that unleashed them on the world, and Lenin’s methods that they--and so many others--imitated.

All told, Lenin and his heirs murdered 130 million people and altered the world’s very ethnic composition, a legacy that will scar humanity forever. The numbers are nearly incomprehensible. They numb us to the real horrors and terrors they represent. It was Stalin who coldly observed that "The death of an individual is a tragedy, the death of a million a statistic." And in a perverse way, he was right: When thrown together in a lifeless heap of nameless, voiceless numbers, human life becomes less human; killing and slaughter take on the character of accounting; and the carnage--because of its very scope, because of the precedent set by Lenin--gradually becomes less repulsive, less tragic.

Even after witnessing Lenin’s rampage through mankind, Churchill was cautiously hopeful in his 1955 farewell address: "A day may dawn," intoned a frail Churchill, "when tormented generations march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell."

Perhaps that day is dawning even now, as we exit the long night that was Lenin’s century. If Churchill, who saw the century’s very worst, could be optimistic about the future, then so can we.