Among the neoconservatives’ kept pontificators on modern history, Victor Davis Hanson may well be the most ridiculous. A respectable scholar when writing about Greek hoplites and other aspects of ancient military history, Hanson becomes a raving maniac as soon as he puts on his neocon spectacles. His latest syndicated column, “World War II: Unfashionable Truths” illustrates this process of transformation.
On the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two, Hanson is in a tizzy about “revisionist histories,” for example, those that “blame Germany’s aggressions on the supposedly harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles.” Does Hanson believe that a treaty that stripped Germany of a third of its territories and placed millions of its citizens under hostile foreign regimes, such as Polish rule in West Prussia and Danzig, was only “supposedly harsh?” Was the reduction of Austria from a great empire to a shrunken ward of Europe at the hands of the Allies or the attempted reduction of Turkey in the Treaty of Sèvres to a principality around Ankara, a fate that, by the way, only the military brilliance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk kept from happening, look anything like just peace terms? According to Hanson, “Versailles was more lenient than what Germany had planned for Britain and France should they have won in 1918.” Moreover, “the terms imposed on a defeated Russia by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918” was far harsher than the comeuppance the Germans got at Versailles in 1919.
These generalizations are so breathtakingly one-sided that one wonders what research Hanson has done to reach his flawed opinions. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the German Empire, then at war in the West, concluded with Lenin’s regime in March 1918, was intended to release both food and war matériel to a blockaded country. The Germans took what they could, which was the Western part of European Russia, to carry on a grim military struggle they would soon lose. As historian Egmont Zechlin has observed, the German gains at Brest-Litovsk should be viewed as Kriegsmittel (means of continuing a fight) rather than as Kriegsziele (war aims). They represented the same kind of military-diplomatic measure as the Treaty of London, signed in April 1915, the bait by which the British tempted Italy into joining the bloodbath. The effect of that treaty, only parts of which were (fortunately) ever implemented, would have dragged millions of unwilling subjects, mostly South Slavs and Austrians, into an expanded Italian empire. Needless to say, the victorious Allies did nothing to return territory to Lenin’s government that had been taken by the Germans. They divided this land among their client states, which were either brought into existence or expanded as a counterweight to Germany. The Allies also used these states to contain a crippled Austria and an amputated Hungary. As for the “harsher” treaties that Hanson claims the Germans had in store for the Brits and the French had they won, since he doesn’t elaborate, we’ll treat this comment as mere space-filler.
Note all of this is lead-up to going after the name that dare not be mentioned, that of Pat B, who has treated the Second World War as a confrontation that could have been limited to Germany and Russia. Although I for one have expressed some disagreement with Pat’s argument about the likelihood of Hitler’s going directly for Russia after occupying Western Poland, I would like to make one point crystal (pardon the pun!) clear. Buchanan has every right to argue what he does without being called a Nazi or Nazi-sympathizer. Further, everything he has written about World War One is entirely correct, although Pat may understate the role of the British government (and particularly of Churchill) in greasing the skids for the Great War.
Pat’s assignment of at least some responsibility to what Hanson calls “neutral Poland” in fanning hostilities with Germany seems indisputable. The Polish government in the mid- and late 1930s went on the rampage inciting violence against Germans and periodically closing off Danzig and the “Polish Corridor,” a strip of land through which Germans by agreement with the victorious Allies were allowed free access between East Prussia and Central Germany. As former German major general and military historian Gerd-Schultze Rhonhof demonstrates exhaustively (although not to the satisfaction of the obsessively antinational German press) in 1939: Der Krieg, der viele Väter hat (1939: The War that Had Many Fathers), Hitler’s bargaining position in dealing with Poland’s military dictatorship up until September 3, 1939, was actually quite reasonable.
The most Hitler demanded from the other side was joint German-Polish control over Danzig and assurances that Germans would be permitted to move through the Corridor without Polish military harassment. It should be possible (although perhaps it is not) to document Polish abuses of German minorities, without being accused of being in love with Hitler. In the same way it would be reasonable (and perhaps even helpful to an ambitious journalist in his leftist profession) to point out that what Stalin devoured after the Second World War was what Churchill and FDR had helped put on his plate.
Needless to say, I could make this observation, unlike discussing Polish provocation in September 1939, without running the risk of being called a Nazi-sympathizer.
Rhonhof and the Russian (Jewish) historian Dmitrij Chmelnizki, both of whom deal with the outbreak of the war in the East, do not deny the brutality of Hitler’s regime. Their conclusion, however, is that other belligerents had something to do with inciting the war. And the unwillingness of the Allies to address the wretched treatment of German minorities in the successor states they supported after World War One added to the tensions contributing to the next European war. Had the German head of state in 1939 not been Hitler but any patriotic German, he too in all likelihood would have pressed the Polish government on the same grievances Hitler raised.
Hanson makes other statements that recall Allied propaganda during or right after World War Two. He goes on about how England, standing alone, “saved Western civilization between September 1939 and June 1941.” Indeed as late as “December 1941 the odds were all in favor of the Axis powers.” Moreover, the only reason that “Germany, Italy and Japan were transformed from monstrous regimes into liberal states whose democracies have done much for humanity” is that unlike our overly lenient treatment of the Central Powers after World War One, we took time to “monitor” our justly crushed enemies.
A few rectifications would be in order. The RAF was more than a match for the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain; and after March 11, 1941, the US was extending material support to the British side in the form of Lend Lease and manning British bases in the Atlantic. One might also note that the British were far from consistent in defending Western civilization, even in the form of the allies they supposedly went to war over. When Stalin’s erstwhile Nazi ally attacked Soviet Russia, Churchill and Anthony Eden ran to betray the Poles, by yielding to the Soviet tyrant the Eastern part of Poland, which he had acquired during his alliance with Hitler. Nor is it possible to give the odds for winning the war to the Axis, particularly when the world’s most powerful country, the US, was moving to enter the conflict, as quickly as FDR could have his way. None of this is to take credit away from the British for resisting the true Axis of Evil, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, in 1940 after the fall of France. But there is no reason to overstate the advantage enjoyed by Hitler in a war in which he overextended himself, with extremely limited energy resources. His attack on Russia may well have been necessary to gain oil supplies, without which his side was doomed.
Hanson’s attempt to ascribe the recent nice behavior of the Germans to the “monitoring” we did after World War Two, an activity that we apparently failed to perform after the Treaty of Versailles, is inexpressibly naïve. In the last eight months of World War Two, the British and Americans incinerated over 700,000 German civilians and obliterated about forty percent of German cities, and particularly the historic areas of German cities, including such “military” targets as cathedrals, universities, and palaces. This, plus the need to resettle about 15 million Germans, who were driven out of Eastern Europe, and the anti-national effects of forced American “re-education” upon the defeated German population, created a pacifistic and indeed demoralized nation. Perhaps if we had blessed our enemies with more phosphate and atomic bombs, the “democracy” we then bestowed on them would have been an even greater boon for “humanity.”
Alas my memory may be failing. But I can’t recall that “monstrous regime,” as opposed to an incompetent, authoritarian one, that Mussolini established in Italy. And I’m also unable to discover the “liberal” regime toward which we have helped the Germans ascend. The state of civil liberties in that country is today more precarious than I could ever imagine it becoming in Obama’s America. Organized “antifascists” vandalize the premises of “reactionary” publications and attack their critics on the street, while the police ignore these assaults. Meanwhile immigration-critics and those suspected of Holocaust-denial (whatever that expanding term may mean by now) are threatened with fines and jail sentences. Antinationalism practiced with a jackboot has become the state-creed of the only German state that Hanson would approve of, but neither tolerance nor freedom seems to have benefited from our terror-bombing and subsequent re-educational efforts in that part of the world.
As someone who has closely studied the German Second Empire, I’m also unaware of how it lagged behind present-day Germany in its protection of constitutional rights and academic freedom, in the limits placed on the taxing power of the state or in the advancement of the sciences and humanities. Historians such as Niall Ferguson and Eberhard Straub have dwelled on the many political, economic, and intellectual accomplishments of the German Second Empire, and Straub, a biographer of the last Kaiser, contrasts the civil liberties of Germany in the early twentieth century to the antifascist snooping regime under which his country now lives. Ferguson makes the point in The House of Rothschildthat Germany in the late nineteenth century treated Jews as fairly as any other European country. Educated German Jews were among the Empire’s economic and professional leaders, and the Jewish ship magnate Albert Ballin was one of the Kaiser’s closest personal friends and, not surprisingly, a fervent German nationalist. Germans back then could also boast of the best-educated and most prosperous working class in the world, and their universities and educational and scientific foundations had achieved international renown.
Today in what Hanson imagines is the only good state the Germans have ever enjoyed, roving gangs, with the implicit support of the powers that be, burn down “fascist” newspaper buildings. Those who formed Red Brigades in the 1970s have been able to occupy the corridors of power, and public moneys and government coercion are used to carry on a “struggle against (a largely marginalized) right.” German inner cities are full of Muslim, which often means Islamicist, underclass populations, and the demoralized “reeducated” native Germans have the lowest birth rate in Europe. Perhaps once the European German population disappears entirely, after the country has surrendered its sovereignty, without a popular vote, to the EU, Hanson and other neocons will have what they want, a Germany that has blessed humanity by vanishing forever.
September 8, 2009
Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, and Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right.