The 20th century: What happened?

The world that began the 20th century had vanished completely by the middle of that century.

Rabbi Berel Wein, | updated: 15:18

Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
pr

The Talmud records for us that the great scholar Choni Hamgael slumbered for a period of seventy years. When he awoke he looked around and saw an entirely new and different world than the one that he knew before his sleep. Society had changed drastically, and he realized that somehow, he was unable to adjust to the new world that surrounded it. As a result, he asked that the Lord take him from this world since it was impossible for him to live in it.

I have studied the events and society of the 20th century extensively and in fact I have written a book of history on this subject. And, I am constantly amazed by the enormous changes to the Jewish world and to human civilization generally that occurred during that pivotal century.

At the beginning of the century, Great Britain was the dominant power in the world and, as it says, ‘the sun never set on the Union Jack.’ It governed almost 1/3 of the human population of the earth and one quarter of the Earth's surface belonged to its empire. Even though there had been substantial Jewish immigration to North America in the latter years of the 19th century, Europe and especially Eastern Europe remained the heartland of Jews living in the world at the time.

The Jewish presence in the land of Israel was relatively miniscule and the entire area was dominated by Arab tribes and clans all under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. However, Jewish immigration to North America continued and the anti-Semitism, coupled with the poverty of Eastern European society, certainly was driving millions of Jews to leave the areas controlled by the Czar to look for a new beginning for themselves and their families.

The world was then dominated by European empires. As mentioned above, Great Britain was the principal empire in the world. However, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Austria and even to a lesser extent the United States of America all were Imperial powers. Many of these empires were relatively new to the world scene while others, such as Austria and Russia, had existed for many centuries.

Empires sometimes fall suddenly and dramatically, as was the case in our time of the demise of the Soviet Union. History records that sometimes empires decline over long periods of time until they finally collapse of their own internal sins and contradictions. Apparently, all the great European empires that began the 20th century already possessed within themselves the seeds of their collapse and destruction at the beginning of the century.

But, no one really noticed that, and we are only able to assess that this was happening because of the perfection of hindsight that we possess. The 20th century would produce the two greatest and most gruesome wars that human civilization had ever known. The consequences of those wars destroyed the empires that then existed. Both the winners and losers in Europe of those wars were equally exhausted and financially ruined. There could no longer be any reasonable form of empire and of past grandeur. The world that began the 20th century had vanished completely by the middle of that century.


Out of this wreckage there emerged an event so unlikely that even hardened historians observed it with incredulity.
Out of this wreckage there emerged an event so unlikely that even hardened historians observed it with incredulity. That event naturally is the creation of the state of Israel and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel after almost two millennia of exile and persecution. Great rabbis observing the wreckage of Eastern Europe after World War I, already opined that there must be a redeeming purpose for the slaughter and wreckage that the war inflicted on the world.

Though it is impossible for us to attempt to read the minds of Heaven, so to speak, it is undeniable that the two great world wars served as the catalyst for the emergence of the Jewish state in the land of Israel. So, someone who was familiar with the world and particularly the Jewish world at the beginning of the 20th century, awakening at the end of that century, would certainly have been amazed, confused and would have asked in wonder, “What happened?”

We live by the news of the day and always concentrate on the small things that often prove to be so worthless in the long run.  We are hard put to really understand the great pattern and picture that surrounds us. Maybe that is what the Psalmist alluded to when he said that at the time of the restoration of Zion we would all be as dreamers, awaking from a deep sleep and wondering what in the world happened that we did not notice.


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