Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Pestilence and plague have often prompted waves of apocalyptic thinking, calling into question the steady march of progress in human history.
In 1498, in a period of intense apocalyptic speculation, the German artist Albrecht Dürer published a series of fifteen woodcuts depicting the Book of Revelation. Simultaneously Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance, seeming to span not just styles but centuries, the work condenses the most abstract and elusive book of the New Testament. And none of the woodcuts in the series is more striking, or famous, than the fourth: the one depicting the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
For Dürer, apocalypse was the great leveler; no one was to be spared regardless of class or social position.
In Revelation, written in the last years of the first century A.D. by the Prophet John on the island of Patmos as Christians were suffering increased persecution in the Roman Empire, God is said to carry in his right hand a book, or scroll, locked with seven seals. Upon opening each of the first four seals the Lamb of God releases a figure on horseback into the world. The first, riding a white horse, carrying a bow and wearing a crown, is usually considered to represent pestilence. The second, on a red horse, is war; the third, on black horse, is famine. The final horseman, riding a pale horse—shown in Dürer’s woodcut as a terrifying near-skeletal old man, eyes popping from his head and bearing a fork—is death itself. In classical depictions the four figures had been depicted individually, riding out one at a time. It was Dürer’s innovation to show them charging together as a closed troop, turning what was once a staid image into an obscene vista: knights of the apocalypse running headlong into their helpless victims, left trampled under the horses’ hooves. Here, everyone was to be judged equally, each subject to God’s mercy or wrath. Apocalypse was the great leveler; no one was to be spared regardless of class or social position. Only the merciful would be granted everlasting life.
As the century drew to a close, portents of the end times were everywhere in Dürer’s Nuremberg. Famines intermittently struck the city during the 1490s, and the undercurrent of social conflict that would eventually erupt during the Peasants’ War just thirty years later was steadily rising to the surface. Added to that were two great epidemics that swept through Europe during the decade. The first was a new terror, syphilis, that emerged in Europe in 1494 during the French invasion of Italy. The disease left its victims brutally disfigured and often led to insanity and a painful death. It spread rapidly throughout the continent over the next century, affecting nobles and royalty as much, if not more severely, than the rest of society. The second plague hit Nuremberg in the years immediately preceding the publication of Dürer’s work, proving deadlier and more portentous still: the return of the plague.
Who among us, even the most sober, hasn’t given thought to the end of days in recent months? It is hard not to feel that something—perhaps the world—is ending.
Returning to Dürer amidst our own modern plague reminds us how the apocalyptic mood lives on today. Who among us, even the most sober, hasn’t given thought to the end of days in recent months? It is hard not to feel that something—perhaps the world—is ending, as we struggle to comprehend unprecedented disruptions to our social orders and personal lives. As the historian Paul Boyer noted in his study of the place of prophecy in American thought and culture, When Time Shall Be No More (1994):
When all is said and done, we are confronted with the remarkable endurance of this ancient way of understanding the world. Prophecy belief, and specifically premillennialism, not only survived the ‘secular’ twentieth century but exhibited vigorous signs of renewal as the century ended.
If end times are to be averted, or even just delayed, it is vital that we understand the impulse to such speculation, and perhaps even find hope in the apparent ruins of the world.
• • •
Behold a Pale Horse
It is in the fundamental nature of all apocalyptic prophecy that the event itself is always to come, never quite arriving, endlessly deferred and delayed, explained away and rethought. When the designated end date passes without the world collapsing around us, as it always does, there must be mitigating circumstances. Perhaps the most famous study of the phenomena of failed prophecy was conducted by the social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, published in 1956 as When Prophecy Fails. The group infiltrated the Seekers, a millenarian group in the U.S. Midwest who believed in the imminent end of the world, from which they would ultimately be saved by aliens. When the inevitable end date passed without note, Festinger and his colleagues studied the resulting “cognitive dissonance”—the painful experience of the disconfirmation of such strongly held beliefs—that the cult members suffered. This pain of disconfirmation, they wrote, can be “eliminated if the members of a movement effectively blind themselves to the fact that the prediction has not been fulfilled.” One powerful tool for coping with the dissonance is increased proselytizing. “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct,” they continue, “then clearly it must, after all, be correct.”
Rather than the failure of prophecy leading believers to discount the theory, people seek explanations for why it didn’t occur, explanations that themselves often serve to further a belief in the original event. In this way, as the literary critic Frank Kermode notes, the end is forever “disconfirmed without being discredited.” Even more than that, failure often hardens the original belief, increasing the fervor of the devotees; next time the immanent end will be even more serious. Against what should be fatal faults in such visions, the end date is simply pushed back, delayed. Every missed arrival is a surer sign still that apocalypse is immanent. Seekers search constantly for any possible sign of coming disaster, whether in the movement of stars, recurrence of unexpected events, outbreaks of wars, pestilence, or crop failure.
If there is one thing we can learn from the gathering storm of zoonotic disease and the impending destruction of the natural world, it’s that the harbinger of the end times is not God, but man.
Another universal feature of such prophecy is the characterization of the period that precede the end of days as a time of decadence and decay. Years become weary, centuries grow tired, epochs fall into maturity and begin to deteriorate. In 2020 the signs of decadence and decay seem, much like in Dürer’s Nuremberg, all around. While the year 2000 passed with barely a whimper—despite widespread fear in a kind of bang, whether driven by prophecy or technology—two decades on it looks to many as if we are indeed hurtling toward the end. With every year of inaction we’re that bit closer to climate breakdown; political instability across the world has been compounded by economic instability and the gaping chasm of inequality grows ever wider; and since its first reported case in Wuhan last December, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to all corners of the globe. Everywhere people are living in isolation, hundreds of thousands have already died, and many millions more have suffered terrifying symptoms.
Since the emergence of Machupo virus in the villages of northeastern Bolivia in early 1960s, which inaugurated the modern era of zoonotic diseases (animal infections transmissible to humans), we’ve seen global pandemics erupting with increasing frequency, and we’ve come dangerously close to a massive deadly outbreaks on many other occasions. HIV/AIDS emerged in west and central Africa, a byproduct of the trade in bush meats and global travel; the subsequent pandemic has killed an estimated 30 to 40 million people. MERS and SARS, both deadly respiratory diseases closely related to COVID-19, came close to breaking into global pandemics themselves in the late 1990s and early 2000s. H5N1, bird flu, although first observed in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, spread rapidly between people in 2003 before slowly petering out. Swine flu, although far less deadly than initially feared, result in a global pandemic in 2009. This is to say nothing of Marburg (1967), Lassa (1969), Sin Nombre (1993), Hendra (1994), Nipah (1998), West Nile (1999), and many others.
In public consciousness, perhaps the most terrifying of all zoonoses is Ebola. Much of that infamy can be attributed to Richard Preston’s 1994 bestseller The Hot Zone, which tracked the emergence of several members of the Filoviridae family of virus, including both Ebola virus and Marburg virus. It charts in gruesome, purple detail the emergence of the virus in the depths of central and west Africa in the late 1960s and mid 1970s. The narrative is peppered with lurid descriptions of people “bleeding out,” their bodies rapidly succumbing to the affects of the disease, their cadaverous remains liquefying, transforming “virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles,” those effected crying tears of blood as their bodies disintegrate. Yet, while the disease is undoubtedly deadly—it has an average case fatality rate of around 50 percent and up to 90 percent, making it among the deadliest of all viruses to infect humans—Preston’s book wildly exaggerated the details. Bleeding out may sound like the stuff of nightmares, but massive hemorrhaging is incredibly rare. And, as Karl Johnson, one of the pioneers of Ebola research, said, “Bloody tears is bullshit. Nobody has ever had bloody tears.” The last major outbreak of Ebola in West Africa between 2013 and 2016, in which nearly 30,000 people died, was apocalyptic enough without these narrative excesses.
Humans have longed lived with a fear of pestilence and plague. Revelation’s linking of these with the coming apocalypse is hardly surprising, nor is it the first such tale. Yet if there is one thing we can learn from the gathering storm of zoonotic disease and the impending destruction of the natural world, it’s that the harbinger of the end times is not God, but man. As the historian Mike Davis asserts in the introduction to the new edition of his 2005 book on the threat posed by Avian flu, the current age of pandemic is, “like previous pandemic epochs . . . directly the result of economic globalization.”
• • •
The Unification of the World by Disease
In 1973 the renowned French historian of the Annales School, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, published an essay on a phenomenon he called the “unification of the world by disease.” A pioneering scholar of environmental history, Ladurie begins his essay in the present with the emerging age of globalization. If this new age seems at first to be heading toward an “antiseptic or aseptic environment,” Ladurie warns us that this will increasingly be punctured by new diseases, bursting forth across the globe precisely by those most modern of technologies: planes. Here, as in much of the Ladurie’s best work, we see what we take to be the stable ground beneath society is actually a series of ever-shifting tectonic plates, always liable to erupt under our feet.
Ladurie’s essay itself is a kind of prophecy. In the early 1970s, this new age of zoonotic infection was just starting to emerge, its contours barely visible in the relatively minor outbreaks of the Marburg and Lassa viruses. In the mind of environmental campaigners, and in public consciousness more generally, the major concerns of the day were, Ladurie writes, “more to do with chemicals than with microbes.” More Silent Spring than The Hot Zone, there was only a creeping awareness of capitalism’s destructive impact on the natural world. While not downplaying the threat humans pose to the natural world, Ladurie warns us of nature’s revenge on us—this new age of pandemic. This is not a pre-modern remnant, an unfortunate eruption of the past in an otherwise rosy march toward a perfectly antiseptic age, but rather a product of the most advanced technologies and social relations, from industrial agriculture to the promethean advances of modern transportation.
In 1973 the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie published an essay—itself a kind of prophecy—on a phenomenon he called the “unification of the world by disease.”
Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a series of massive global upheavals: the waning of feudalism, the first shoots of capitalism in the British countryside, the rise of global empires. For much of the world, as Ladurie writes, this was a “particularly intense, rapid, dramatic, one might even say apocalyptic phase.” And perhaps the first major cataclysm was the outbreak of the Black Death, bubonic plague, in Europe in 1348. But to tell that story, we need first to understand the nature of populations, not just of humans but also of animals, and how they came to interact.
In central Asia, carried by the fleas of the gray marmot and several species of squirrel, there still lives to this day the bacteria Yersinia pestis. The bacteria had probably lived in the area for thousands of years, harbored naturally in its animal reservoirs with perhaps minor outbreaks into the human population. The prodigious rise of European urbanism in the years after 1000 produced an environment in which humans lived much closer together than before. It also led to an early form of economic globalization, facilitated by the Mongol unification of Central Asia. For the first time, the stability of the pax mongolica enabled the growth of caravan trade of Genoese merchants between their Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean bases with the Far East. Yet this Silk Road brought not just fabulous wealth, but also the deadly plague bacteria—probably carried either by soldiers of the Tartar army or by fleas hitching a lift on the backs of rats, camels, and humans.
Once inside Genoese trading communities, the tentacles of early globalization carried it across the European continent. Those affected develop the characteristic buboes on the groin, neck and armpits. From the lymphatic system, it soon spreads into the bloodstream, causing fevers, cramps, seizures, and gangrene of the extremities. Before the development of modern medicines, bubonic plague had a mortality rate of around 50 percent. In total, around a third of the European population, and perhaps as much as half of China’s, was killed during the Black Death, with most of the deaths occurring in the heavily urbanized areas around the Mediterranean, as well as the Middle East, Central Asia, and India.
The conditions that made the outbreak possible were thus directly connected to the new social relations flourishing in Europe, Central Asia, and the Far East in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was the booming trade in silks and luxury goods, as well as the growth of towns and cities with relatively stable sedentary populations, that laid the ground for the deadly pandemic. This proto-globalization led, in Ladurie’s telling phrase, to a “common market” of disease on the Eurasian landmass, as well as those connected parts of the African continent. The trade of goods and the movement of people could carry diseases from China to Scotland and down into West Africa. Many of these diseases had far less deadly consequences than the plague and became, like smallpox and measles, endemic childhood diseases in populations throughout the area. Outbreaks of new diseases in one region would soon lead to its transmission across the landmass; each node in the network was connected by sophisticated trading networks with all the rest. What developed then, was the “unification of the world by disease.” Yet there were highly concentrated and sophisticated human populations outside of this zone, who, from the late fifteenth century, would experience the apocalyptic effects of this microbial unification of the globe.
• • •
Before the landing of Spanish galleons in the New World in 1518 the Aztec empire counted millions of inhabitants in what is now Mexico. Yet in fewer than a hundred years the native population would be decimated in a major demographic catastrophe. What could have caused such an apocalyptic decline in population in just a few generations?
As the contemporary accounts of Bartolomé de las Casas attest, the Spanish conquest of the New World was one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty events written in the annals of blood and fire that chronicle the long history of European colonialism. Yet, as Ladurie points out, the huge death toll was inflicted not only by the military and economic exploitation of native populations but also by the lack of contact between the pre-Columbian populations of the New World and the Eurasian “common market” of microbes. It was not the swords and guns of the Spanish that were to kill the majority of the indigenous population but the passage of measles, smallpox, and plague, carried by Spanish soldiers across the Atlantic to populations with no built-up childhood immunities.
Today it is hard not to register some of these same features of apocalypse, even if the disease we confront is far less lethal.
The Spanish forces were dwarfed by the combined forces of the Aztec Empire. By October 1520 their troops were demoralized, and the shifting alliances between Cortes and several Aztec nations seemed to be crumbling. The Aztec ruler of the great city of Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma, had been killed some months earlier during a battle with the Spanish. He was succeeded by his brother Cuitláhuac. Victories for the Aztecs, and the retreat from Tenochtitlan by the Spanish, led to a series of fiestas in the great city, and a period of relative normality followed. But in October the city was struck by a terrible plague, the likes of which had never been seen before. Contemporary Aztec sources describe the scenes:
Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies; we were covered with agonizing sores from head to foot. The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs or even their heads. They could not lie face down or roll from one side to the other. If they did move their bodies, they screamed with pain.
The disease, probably smallpox carried across the Atlantic by the Spanish, ravaged the city and virtually ended the Aztec resistance. By the time Francisco Pizarro reached that other great New World empire of the Incas ten years later, the continent’s population was already severely reduced by the spread of previously unknown infections, diseases which traveled faster than their human pursuers across the continent. This was the first such plague to sweep through the New World, a terrifying portent of what was to come.
As Ladurie states, North America “received in a very brief period of time the series of shocks that Europe and the Far East had the opportunity to absorb over several thousands of years.” Smallpox, influenza, measles, chickenpox: all were endemic to Eurasia. Although affecting the majority of the population—mainly children who would then carry immunity into adulthood—few died as a result. What was for the Europeans a minor inconvenience proved apocalyptic for the indigenous populations of the Americas. Where Dürer’s apocalypse had been a great leveler, trampling all under the horsesmen’s hooves regardless of status, religion, nationality, or class, Cortes’s apocalypse was the first modern, uneven catastrophe. The years after the conquest, with the native population decimated by a series of plagues and under the yoke of brutal forced labor, the white, European population of the New World boomed. What was for the Aztec’s the end of the world was for the Spanish the opening of a vast new horizon, enriching that great trading nation still further.
• • •
Pessimism and Progress
Today it is hard not to register some of these same features of apocalypse, even if the disease we confront is far less lethal. Those hardest hit by COVID-19 and its economic and social consequences are frontline workers, carers, nurses, and doctors, and those who cannot afford to lock themselves away while the virus spreads. In Britain and the United States the disease disproportionately afflicts people of color, and the effects are further distributed along class lines. If the apocalypse was once the last refuge for those demanding equality and justice, now not even extinction is experienced the same by everyone.
If little else, the current mood has put a one more dent into faith in progress. For every Steven Pinker convinced of the steady march of progress, there are many others ready to pour scorn on such naive optimism in history’s steady march.
Those with the resources are not just sheltered from the worst effects of the virus; they are actively preparing for the worst. As Mark O’Connell catalogues in his latest book Notes from an Apocalypse, eerily published in April this year (and thus written before the pandemic), those with the resources have been planning for the end for some time. The book charts the current fantasies of the end times via survivalist bunkers in South Dakota, the New Zealand shelters of Peter Thiel and his coterie of tech-millionaire-millenarians, a conference on Mars colonization in Los Angeles, and a wilderness retreat in the Scottish Highlands. As O’Connell notes, the contemporary apocalyptic is more of a general mood than a series of concrete speculations, notwithstanding those you will find if you delve far enough into the pool of cranks and fools trading theories online. It is hard to overcome thoughts of the end. Just like those failed prophecies, its failure to arrive so far does little to disprove its immanent arrival. Once you start looking for the signs, it is hard to look away. As O’Connell writes: “It has always been the end of the world. . . . But what if now it’s especially the end of the world?”
If little else, the current mood has put a one more dent into faith in progress. For every Steven Pinker convinced of the steady march of progress, there are many others ready to pour scorn on such naive optimism in history’s steady march. Even those not so taken with visions of the world’s collapse are pessimistic: With the future so uncertain, how could one be otherwise? We could even go so far as to say that pessimism has become something of a dominant culture mode, on the left as much as its more traditional home on the right—always more readily accepting of a Spenglerian doom.
The birth of a particularly modern pessimism was itself a product of one such moment of doom and decay. On the morning of the November 1, 1755, one of the most disastrous earthquakes in human history hit the city of Lisbon. Virtually all of the city was reduced to rubble, and the resulting fires that swept through the rubble and the devastating tsunami that raced up the Tagus and flooded much of the city did for the rest. The years leading up to 1755 had been a golden period of the Enlightenment; that was to all come crashing down along with the city of Lisbon. In the words of Mike Davis, divining the connections between catastrophe across the centuries, “Lisbon was the Hiroshima of the age of reason.”
In the wake of the earthquake, Voltaire struck a fierce blow to the philosophers like G. W. Leibniz apt to declare that all is well in this the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire’s long poem on the earthquake asks how anyone can look upon the death, and the almost unimaginable suffering, of thousands of innocent people, crushed under the rubble of the city, their lives obliterated in just a few hours, and see the world itself as fundamentally guided by reason and progress. The poem’s powerful opening announces the stakes of Voltaire’s work:
Oh wretched man, earth-fated to be cursed
Abyss of plagues and miseries the worst!
Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,
That man’s the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain.
What could possibly justify such suffering? How was this still possible in spite of the light of reason radiating from Europe’s fashionable salons? How was it possible to speculate in comfort on the nature of the world, on the classical questions of metaphysics or epistemology, while humans are condemned so? The only option after the earthquake was to look with a studied pessimism. The world is corrupt, filled with suffering. Humans must make the most of this cruel and cold world, nothing more.
• • •
The Ruins of History
As news of the COVID-19 outbreak began seep out of Wuhan, I was reading Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance. The book follows Candace Chen, a millennial working a dead-end job in book production in New York as a pandemic strikes the city. Unlike most apocalyptic fiction, Severance isn’t set in an imagined future, but in the recent past—sometime in late 2011 as the Occupy Wall Street protest began to converge on Zucotti Park. Much of that world is familiar, and even the pandemic strikes an odd note of familiarity. Emerging in the global manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, Shen Fever is spread through fungal spores radiating out from China to encompass the globe. Once infected, Shen Fever turns its victims into zombies, although zombies of a particularly contemporary sort. There’s no mass feeding frenzies, no blood and gore. Instead the zombies apathetically reenact their most mundane daily routines—endlessly laying the table for dinner or trying on clothes.
In an interview Ma described Severance as “an apocalyptic office novel.” One of the book’s central questions is why Candace, in the face of the apocalypse, continues to return to work. Why does she continue to oversee the production of Bibles, printed in factories in China, when it becomes obvious that the end is near? Even when there’s no one left—no colleagues, no boss, no one in the Chinese factories—Candace continues to navigate the increasingly desolate streets of New York to arrive at her office on time, to work day after day.
Perhaps it is in the scavenging from the ruins, not the melancholy of apocalyptic fantasies, that we should be looking to understand our current moment.
It is not only Ma’s zombies that appear bored, mindlessly cycling through their old routines, oblivious that everything around them has collapsed, that the old routines no longer make sense. For many COVID-19 struck just such an apathetic reaction. With news of enforced lockdowns only in faraway places—Wuhan, Italy, Spain—it was easy to watch with dispassionate disinterest. Watching as the death toll mounted and the suffering spread, it became difficult for many to reconcile that reality with the one just outside their doors. With the majority of deaths occurring in hospitals and care homes, and most of us locked in our houses, it was easy to miss the suffering, to encounter it only as a simulacrum: on the television, in the newspapers or radio, not in lived experience. This isn’t the apocalypse as cataclysm; there is no great leveling or ground-clearing. It is instead, in the words of German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “the apocalypse in slow motion.” Perhaps the major difference was that we, just like Voltaire, can no longer blame such events on a transcendent being unleashing his wrath. There is us, and only us, to blame.
Although COVID-19 likely originated in what media have called Chinese “wet markets”—passed most likely from bats to a pangolin, a type of scaly anteater often eaten in parts of China—most zoonotic diseases originate in the vast industrial factories for the slaughter of animals that we have created across the world. The primary driver of such illness is industrial agriculture. As long as we have factory farms, the threat of further pandemics will always remain high. Bats are the natural reservoir of coronaviruses, and so far over 102 different bat species have been shown to carry one. Potentially pandemic strains of influenza have already emerged in pig farms in both America and China. As industrial agriculture encroaches onto wild habitats, the likelihood increases that such diseases will pass from their natural reservoirs into intermediate hosts, and then onto humans.
Once more we are trapped in a cell of our own making. The most advanced of technologies—in this case those for the production of the huge quantities of food needed to sustain ever-growing urban populations, and facilitated by mass air transit—has brought about a return of an enemy long presumed vanquished. For many mid-century intellectuals this seemed obvious. For those who had navigated the ruins of the twentieth century, any faith in rational progress was likely to seem ridiculous at best, callous at worst. How to find redemption in the ruins? Enzensberger describes this need:
The idea of the millennium, the sunshine state, was not the pallid dream of a land of milk and honey; it always had its elements of fear, panic, terror and destruction. And the apocalyptic fantasy, conversely, produces more than just pictures of decadence and despair; it also contains, inescapably bound up with the terror, the demand for vengeance, for justice, impulses of relief and hope.
The now famous description of the Angel of History by German social critic Walter Benjamin is perhaps the most famous critique of the concept of progress written in the twentieth century: back turned, watching the rubble build up, forced onwards by the winds of history, unable to stop the mounting catastrophe. Ruins and rubble play a central role in Benjamin’s work; he described his method as akin to that of a “rag-picker,” sifting through the detritus of history for something valuable. Perhaps it is here—in the scavenging from the ruins, not the melancholy of apocalyptic fantasies—that we should be looking to understand our current moment. This focus on the ruins of history changes our relationship to the ongoing crisis. From this perspective the end of days is not to come, endlessly delayed and deferred; instead it is the always ongoing locomotive of history that causes such ruination.
It is difficult, right now, to see beyond the immediate future. Yet, ultimately, in the words of Benjamin, “it is only for those without hope that hope is given.”
In Benjamin’s final work, “On the Concept of History,” written in Paris shortly before Benjamin attempted his final, fatal, flight from occupied France into Spain, reverses the typical order of historical temporality associated with messianism. It is an attempt to “brush history against the grain,” to regard the course of history not as a progression building toward a terminal point, but instead as “one single catastrophe.” Benjamin’s ruins, rather than an apocalypse to come, are themselves the storm driving on the Angel of History; as he writes in thesis IX, “what we call progress is this storm.” At stake in the figure of the ruin is a political-historical shot in the arm—one that will spark hope in the present. It is only by tarrying with the ruined and most maligned products of the modern that hope can be produced.
It is difficult, right now, to see beyond the immediate future. The long-term political and social consequences of this moment are hard to predict. In the wake of the Black Death, populations searching for scapegoats unleashed pogroms on to the Jewish population of Europe. Thousands were forced from their homes in Germany, pushed further West into Poland. The 1349 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Strasbourg saw 2,000 Jews slaughtered, and there were over 350 massacres across what is now Germany. Catastrophes are uneven, affecting those with limited resources hardest of all. While governments across the world enacted unprecedented state action to prop up their ailing economies in the wake of the global lockdown, many now predict further waves of austerity to follow. In such an environment it is easy to lose hope, to succumb to pessimism. Yet, ultimately, in the words of Benjamin, “it is only for those without hope that hope is given.”
... Boston Review is a magazine of ideas. For decades we have provided a forum for public philosophy, bringing fresh and urgent arguments from leading thinkers to a wide audience. The essays we publish engage the leading issues of the day, challenging contemporary thought, pushing normative boundaries, and foregrounding new perspectives. Above all, Boston Review is motivated by reasoned conversation driven by human curiosity. Animated by hope and committed to equality, we pride ourselves on exploring difficult questions and subjecting it all to the scrutiny of a diverse readership. To continue to foster this open and free space for the discussion of ideas, we need your support. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution and join us in providing a free forum to debate, discuss, and learn.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.