The Totalitarian Epoch: The Fate of Law and Liberty in the 20th Century and Beyond

The Annual James Madison Program May Conference

May 19, 2014
Totalitarian Epoch Conference poster

Keynote Address by Alan Charles KorsHenry Charles Lea Professor of European History, University of Pennsylvania

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and thus invites us to reflect on that war’s significance. The Great War had momentous consequences for western civilization. It set in motion events and currents of opinion that swept away the old aristocratic regimes of Europe and seemed to make self-government an internationally accepted principle. For all the suffering it caused, the Great War paved the way for forms of government most of us take to be superior to the ones that fell as a result of the cataclysm. In this light, we might view the Great War as the birth pangs, painful but fruitful, of human freedom. This view, however, is inadequate, as the war created an opening not only for the rise of democracy, but also for the rise of totalitarian regimes, regimes of a brutality that far exceeded anything experienced in the old aristocratic orders.

To admit that the legacy of the Great War is ambiguous is to admit that the legacy of the 20th century is ambiguous: it was the century of freedom and the century of totalitarianism. In order to come to grips with this legacy candidly, in order to achieve a clear-eyed understanding of the world we have inherited and in which we must live, we need not only congratulations on the progress of freedom but also investigations into the rise of totalitarianism. We must ask what aspects of the modern world, and even of human nature, permit or encourage totalitarianism, and to what aspects of the modern world and human nature we can appeal in resisting it.

With a view to fostering such reflections, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Association for the Study of Free Institutions are pleased to announce a conference entitled The Totalitarian Epoch: The Fate of Law and Liberty in the 20th Century and Beyond. The program includes scholars from a variety of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities speaking on issues relating to this theme. We seek to address a number of questions. How did the Great War turn out to be a cradle of totalitarianism as well as of democracy? What political, philosophic, and social movements did it unleash that could lead to the rise of totalitarian regimes? What is the fate of the rule of law under totalitarian regimes? Can the rule of law restrain totalitarianism, or does a totalitarian regime necessarily become lawless? How have those responsible for the foreign policies of free societies reacted to totalitarianism, and by what principles should they engage it? Should they seek to undermine it, or is a given nation’s drift toward totalitarianism a matter of indifference to other nations, so long as they are able to maintain their own domestic institutions? How have dissidents been able to stand up to the totalitarian state, through the written word and active engagement? Finally, what is the future of totalitarianism and freedom? Is totalitarianism merely a relic of the past, or does it have a future, and can it be a threat, or even a temptation, to the free societies of the world?

See Schedule for Full Panelist Listing and Session Times.


Presentation to Alan Charles Kors of 2014 James Q. Wilson Award for Distinguished Scholarship on the Nature of a Free Society

The Great War As the Cradle of Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism and the Rule of Law

Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Totalitarianism

The Literature and Practice of Dissent

Totalitarianism and the Future of Free Societies


McCormick 101 and Frist 302

Cosponsored by:

  • The Association for the Study of Free Institutions, Texas Tech University

Funded by:

The Bouton Law Lecture Fund

Photo Album:

  • Keynote Address by Alan Charles Kors
  • Keynote Address by Alan Charles Kors
  • Keynote Address by Alan Charles Kors