Nineteenth-Century Nihilists Foretold Our Era

Why the Age of Alternative Facts Might Have Unnerved Even Nietzsche

John Fredricks / REUTERS

Most historians view the French Revolution as the source of the ideologies that have shaped the modern and postmodern eras. For any ism—from liberalism, conservatism, and communism to nationalism, totalitarianism, and anarchism—historians can make the case that it springs from the cascade of events that began in 1789. An ism that usually fails to make the list, however, is one that now seems to be on the tip of every pundit’s pen—namely, nihilism. In one of the odder footnotes to the revolution, the Baron de Cloots, Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce—better known by his pen name, Anacharsis Cloots, …