Sunday, 15 June 2008

Re-fighting World War Two

Further to this earlier post, more on the strange characters on the left as well as the right who argue that the world might have been a better place if Britain and America had never gone to war with Hitler.

Harry's Place has a post on Pat Buchanan and his alternative reality view of WWII. There is a bizarre attempt by him in a TV interview to somehow portray WWII as Churchill's fault, despite the fact Churchill wasn't even in power when Hitler invaded Poland and Britain consequently declared war on Germany.

Martin in the Margins rounds up some reactions to that new book by Nicholson Baker, and clarifies the contemporary context of this craziness.

Snoopy the Goon works through the consequences of Nicholson Baker's wishful thinking about how war between the Nazis and Britain, France and the US might have been avoided. If Baker is correct and war on the Western Front was avoidable, then Hitler would have been free to use the totality of his war machine against the USSR, and would consequently have had a much higher chance of winning. What then, asks Snoopy?

“For me the answer is quite simple - I wouldn't have been born and somebody else would have had to respond to Mr Baker's well meaning drivel."
. . .

As Martin points out, the reason it has become necessary for some on the left to join revisionists on the right in pursuing this line of argument is that the fight against Nazism is the classic example of the necessity of being prepared to use force to defeat mass-murdering despotism. For those who argued against the use of military force by Britain and the US to defeat the Baathists in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Milosevic in the Balkans, WWII is a problem. If it was right to fight Hitler, why is it wrong to fight these other mass-murderers? 

There are a number of arguments that are used to counter this problem.

One: 'They're not on the same scale as Hitler and don't threaten us'. The argument of scale, while strictly speaking true, seems poor when the numbers of victims of Saddam Hussein's Baathists are set out. For Afghanistan the 'no threat' argument is demonstratively untrue to all but a disturbing number of conspiracy theorists.

Two: 'But this current war is not being fought for humanitarian or democratic motives'. The motive argument is shallow and irrelevant. Actions and their results matter, not motives. A decision to go to war will usually be determined by self-interest. There is such a thing as enlightened self-interest. And yes, financial self-interest is not incompatible with the greater good. Victory in war depends on economics. If too great a share of the world's resources are controlled by totalitarian despots, that constitutes a threat to democracy, and while it may not in itself justify war, it is a legitimate factor to consider. (Argument two is also answered here, in the paragraph on 'war for oil'.)

Three: 'But World War Two was not fought for humanitarian or democratic motives'. Enough already, see argument two above. (Argument three also answered here.)

There is a fourth argument, one beloved of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, which deals with WWII by trying to give the role of the Nazis to the US, an argument that attempts to equate the errors of the GW Bush administration on treatment of prisoners to Nazi war crimes and babbles about 9/11 being 'Bush's Reichstag fire'. But in its eighth and final year in office, the Bush administration can still be overruled by the US Supreme Court, and is still checked by a strong opposition in Congress. Look back to the events of the first few months of Hitler's rule of Germany, where their actions in parliament were backed by violent acts of terror on the streets, where all political opposition was outlawed, and where the Nazis gained total control of all aspects of the state, eliminating any separation of powers or independent rule of law, and the comparison is quickly shown to be ludicrous.

There is another grim aspect to the fourth argument, in that it seeks equivalence between the mass-murderers who now detonate bombs in Iraqi marketplaces and WWII's underground resistance to Nazism in Europe, but the European WWII resistance movements didn't carry out indiscriminate bombings of civilians. The comparison is as sick as it is dishonest.

Perhaps then it's a sense of the fragility of these arguments that lead some to the ultimate move of attempting a revision of the history of World War Two. But in this they find themselves on even more uncertain ground, and in most awkward company. If their initial standpoint leads them into such difficulties with historical fact, mightn't it be wiser for them to retrace their steps and re-examine their original assumptions rather than go ever deeper in trying to reshape reality into a more convenient form?
. . .

A couple of themes seem to recur in these attempted revisions: a focus on the mass-bombing of civilians by the Allies, and attacks on the belligerent and less than wholly democratic character of Churchill.

On strategic bombing of civilian areas, I have great sympathy for the argument that this was not just morally wrong but also militarily disadvantageous in terms of diversion of resources and psychological effect. I am also aware of how death tolls from Allied bombing have been in some cases exaggerated.

To support a declaration of war and the aims of that war, it is not necessary to support every action carried out in the name of the war. Wars are complex, containing a multitude of decisions, carried out by a multitude of individuals. Of course it is possible to support a war, and at the same time argue against a particular action, even more so if one believes that the action is not just disproportionate but detrimental to the aims of the war.

On Churchill, he wasn't perfect, he wasn't the first choice of most of the backbenchers wanting to replace Chamberlain, but he was finally their only option. He showed the necessary forcefulness to overcome appeasement when others wavered. As Prime Minister he was head of an administration that governed by cabinet, and he assented to being overruled by the Cabinet when his was the minority view.

Update 16 June: it continues, Hitchens on Buchanan's book.

Update 23 June: Meryl Yourish responds to Buchanan v. Hitchens with facts, and Harry's Place responds with the West's secret weapon, Daffy Duck.

Update 28 June: A follow up from Martin in the Margins.

Update 11 July: from But I am a Liberal : Buchanan Pimps Book on Nazi Radio

Update 17 August: Victor Davis Hanson and Christopher Hitchens on WWII revisionism, a highly recommended video in five parts.

Related, Sultan Knish traces Buchanan’s views on Putin. In short, it seems Buchanan thinks Munich 1938 was so good that it should be a model for relations with Russia too. (I disagree with some of SK’s other points of view, but this post I like.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My Blogger account is screwed up -I'm Virgil Xenophon who posts over at Harrys--As to the charge that the Allied strategic bombing campaign and the fire-bombing of cities was a needless diversion of resources I would counter that the facts prove otherwise and that the "diversion" shoe was on the Nazi foot. Most studies I have read conclusively show that Nazi commitment of resources to Air Defense took roughly one-third (1/3)
of their ENTIRE war effort--industrial production, troop and asset deployment, etc.--assets that could have been better put to use in offensive operations. By contrast the Allied bombing campaign took nowhere near
1/3rd of total Allied assets--so seen in this light the Allied strategic bombing was a roaring success.