122 Tales of the 20th century


Now that the 20th century and the 2d millennium are truly and well behind us, there is something I would like to tell you about them. There were two moments in the last half-century of that millennium when I thought we had lost it.

One was not a firsthand experience, but it might as well have been. It happened to Bob Cahn when the two of us were inseparable friends as students at Johns Hopkins University. The time must have been October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. Bob had spent the day in Washington at the National Gallery of Art and got on the train to go back to Baltimore. As the doors were closing, a man got on board at the last minute and said to the people in the car, “Did you hear the news?” No one had. “The Russians have fired their missiles. They’re on the way. They’ll hit us in maybe an hour.”

The train trip took about an hour, and in that time no one spoke. People tried to think about their lives while waiting for the flash, probably hoping they would be killed outright rather than slowly. When the train pulled into Penn Station in Baltimore and the passengers got off, they found daily life going on undisturbed and realized that the man, who was gone, had played a cruel joke on them.

From August 1953, when the Russians exploded an H-bomb, until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seemed only a matter of time before nuclear war broke out. While the danger that nuclear arms may be used in combat is still real, no one thinks anymore that global thermonuclear conflict is going to start tomorrow.

That was a fear I shared with nearly everyone on earth. The other one was an idea of my own that I kept to myself for too long. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in the late 1980s I had my yearly talk with Joost Elffers, the creator of some of the most imaginative books of our time. He told me about a project he had been working on for years but had to abandon. In the early 20th century, a German scientist had created an atlas of microscopic sea creatures. The book is a graphic masterpiece, with reproductions of color drawings of some 15,000 startlingly beautiful forms of protozoan life in the oceans. Elffers had the wonderful plan of commissioning new photographs of the creatures and reproducing them alongside the old chromos.

He went at the plan with his own manic energy. It stranded on something completely unexpected. Of the 15,000 animals in the book, it turned out, only 450 still existed. The rest had been lost to pollution. I commiserated with him about his project, but inside I was despairing about more than that. Sitting at my stand in the middle of the book fair, I was seized with the conviction that we were doomed. From high school on I had been taught that all life on earth is part of a single interdependent ecological system. Of course a species here and there died off, but this was different. If more than 95% of the simple life forms in the oceans had died out, it was – again – only a matter of time before the fish and then the birds and then the insects and then all the rest of us went. How long it would take I could not know. The fact that you read nothing about it in the newspapers meant nothing to me. I felt like Bob Cahn in the train.

I was saved by a fortunate coincidence. Last year, on May 9, I found myself on the same program at the PINC.1 conference in Zeist with Joost Elffers and David Gallo, a director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. I grabbed Joost and dragged him over to Gallo and made him tell his story. Gallo started nodding in agreement as he talked, and I could see that he too thought the figures were right. But he did not show any signs of the dejection that always overcame me when I thought about what has happening to aquatic life. “Yes, that’s right. By now you’d probably find even fewer than 450 out of that group.”

Finally I dared to ask my question. Didn’t scientists realize what this meant? If they believe their own theories about ecology, then how could Gallo tell us so calmly about this unimaginable disaster. He laughed. “It’s no disaster. Those low forms of sea life come and go. The ones in the old atlas have died out, but nearly as many new ones have been discovered. The cause may not be pollution at all.”

Looking backward, it occurs to me that neither of those threats to human life could even have been conceived before 1950. But that does not mean that the latter 20th century invented the fear that all of us were about to be destroyed. Among older forms of global annihilation that were as believable in their time as ecological holocaust seemed to the generation of the Club of Rome are insect plagues, the black death, invaders from outer space, a new edition of Noah’s flood, famine through overpopulation, the wrath of God. The early 2000s are working on a new set of our own – global warming, an ice age, a meteor, the indestructible prion. We seem to need an overriding fear, perhaps as a kind of common enemy to foster a feeling of common humanity. Sooner or later one threat or another will turn out to be more than a rumor in the train. But if we may go by past experience as a guide – and what better guide do we have? – then for the moment we can expect to keep muddling through. Tomorrow is another millennium.


© Gary Schwartz 2001. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 6 January 2001.


At the risk of being a nuisance about this: after marking the coming of the year 2000 with midnight celebrations around the globe, claiming it to be the start of the 3d millenium and the 21st century, mankind completely ignored the true turn of third millennium and the new century. The two daily newspapers of which I saw the issue of 2 January 2001, NRC Handelsblad and Het Financieele Dagblad, contained not a single item on the subject. Not that I was waiting for a repetition of all that televised fireworks, champagne-cork-popping and hollow statementizing, which seem to be the only things people can think of doing on such occasions. What impresses me is the universal indifference to a simple, demonstrable truth. (Another little proof: if January 1, 2000 was the first day of the third millennium and January 1, 1000 the first day of the second, then the second millennium lasted a thousand years, but the first millennium only 999.)  It makes an historian think.


Loekie and I have just returned from a memorial service for an old friend. Guus Kemme worked for me as senior editor when I was publisher of the imprint Gary Schwartz | SDU. He was with me from late 1988 to the spring of 1990. His dedication to that job was phenomenal. He took over daily operations and relieved me of lots of responsibility. He also brought in his own valuable network of art historians, photographers, designers, authors and editors. Guus was tireless and – as you have to be in art publishing – endlessly demanding, pestering people down to the last minute and beyond it to deliver perfect work.  But his real love was for bookselling. I understood this and encouraged him, when the opportunity arose, to buy a unique bookshop in Amsterdam, Architectura et Natura. He ran that place with incredible passion, turning it into an informal center for architecture and architectural history, as one of the speakers said. As another speaker said, his death has left as big a hole in Amsterdam as if a block of the historic center had been razed. The emergence of people like him, who create demand and supply for something they love (he went on publishing as well as stimulating other publishers to take on projects), cannot be forced or predicted. You can only hope that they happen in an area that you too love. And when they go you can only hope that someone just as self-sacrificing and capable will succeed them.

I called Guus an old friend, and he was. How terrible that he has died at the age of 42, of a strain of leukemia that was never properly identified. Hundreds of people turned up at Felix Meritis on the Keizersgracht to commemorate him.