June 18, 2008
Neocons think in news cycles, the Vatican in centuries”and Patrick J. Buchanan? In the body of worthy, provocative books he has produced, his thought ranges over decades. Having nobly failed to affect American elections and nudge our policies closer to prudence, it’s clear that Buchanan has withdrawn from the dismal business of trying to sober up the Republican party”and decided instead to work at dismantling the historical myths and moral fetishes of the center-left publicists who now dominate the “conservative” movement. His books are clearly written and remarkably persuasive”which explains the hysteria they have occasioned. His genial public persona, the ease with which he can engage the likes of Stephen Colbert and Ali G (remember “I don”t think Saddam was a threat even if he had BLTs”), guarantee him a broad readership. Indeed, his works are bestsellers and hence impossible to dismiss. They make an impact, and threaten to shatter the groupthink so carefully cultivated over the course of the 1990s, when dissenting voices of the Right were systematically purged and persecuted. They are a species of samizdat.
Which is why the totalitarians among us want to silence him”not merely to beat back his arguments but to destroy him as a man, render him an un-person, whose very name evokes hysterical disgust … or better yet, terror. For up-and-coming conservatives, there is no worse fate than to be viewed as just a little too far to the right. You can err to the left all you want”Christopher Hitchens still venerates Leon Trotsky, not that it stops “conservative” journalists from licking his Bolshie jackboots. There are no enemies on the left. But lean a little too far to the right end of the narrowly circumscribed spectrum so recently established”remember when John O’ Sullivan used to publish Peter Brimelow in National Review? It seems like centuries ago!”and you might as well be a confessed pedophile.
Now, I’m all for drawing bright lines distinguishing honest opinion and daring dissent from the moral squalor of racial hate”whether aimed at non-whites, or Jews, or other groups who sometimes frustrate conservatives. But precisely because of the grave evil entailed in contempt for other races, or hostility aimed at the cousins of Christ, we must weigh such charges seriously. They aren’t parking tickets. To adopt an ideology predicated on racial or religious hate rightly earns a thinker an intellectual death sentence. It should never be administered lightly.
It’s clear that in writing Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, Buchanan was courting controversy”and not of the surface sort, like the meaningless chatter aimed by the likes of Limbaugh and Coulter at John McCain, over whom they will be fawning come November. No, Buchanan was striking deep, and his aim was mostly true. In critiquing the figure of Winston Churchill, he was acting like St. Boniface among the Teutonic pagans, when he stood before their sacred oak and hacked it down.
Like Buchanan, I see much to admire in Winston Churchill, although The Unnecessary War has added shadows to the portrait, revealing that statesman as a flawed and troubling figure, a broken record whose refrain””Now is the time to stand firm against the Germans!””finally came round to being right. It was indeed right to stand firm against the Germans in 1937, and again in 1940, when they were governed by a murderous sociopath. What Buchanan reveals is that Winston Churchill had been urging last stands against German “barbarism” since before World War I, when the relatively harmless Kaiser Wilhelm sought an English alliance. (England allied instead with the Tsar who permitted pogroms, and the Belgium which had butchered some 7 million helpless Africans in the Congo.) And again, Churchill urged ruthless firmness against the “Huns” in 1918, when they were ruled by hapless, well-meaning Social Democrats. Indeed, Churchill demanded the toughest line possible against the sane liberals and moderate nationalists of the Weimar Republic”undermining their attempt to revise an unjust Versailles Treaty, and unwittingly helping Hitler and his thugs to gain political power. From the extensive materials Buchanan carefully adduces, it seems clear that Churchill himself was a nationalist, and not of the moderate variety. He opposed Germany not for reasons of principle but of Realpolitik; as the growing Continental power, it threatened British dominance. Hence any successful regime in a united Germany must always and ever be England’s enemy. Cartago delenda est.
Only someone who has derived from the grisly crimes of the Nazis a retroactive hatred for every German of every century (as many of Buchanan’s critics seem to have done), someone who takes vindictive glee in the Thirty Years’ War, in the bombing of Dresden and the mass-rape of German women by Soviet soldiers, could endorse Churchill’s 20-year obsession with crippling every regime which might happen to govern that country. Only a bloodthirsty lover of war could approve the high spirits that Churchill expressed six murderous months into World War I: “I think a curse should rest upon me”because I am so happy. I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet”I cannot help it”I enjoy every second.”
Thus spoke the Man of the Century“as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis slogged through filthy trenches and watched their closest friends butchered”in defense, essentially, of what? Of Serbian terrorism? Of genocidal Belgium? Of the bumbling, Jew-baiting Tsar Nicholas? Of the corrupt, anti-clerical Third Republic (which only ten years before had stolen every church in France and expelled all religious orders, which denied women the vote because they would vote in defense of the Church)? It scalds us to admit it, but the conflict from 1914-1918 was a snuff version of “Seinfeld”: A War About Nothing.
The peace, as every serious historian admits, was utterly botched. A mishmash of Wilsonian messianism and incompetent Machiavellianism, it wounded the German “monster” but did not kill it. Perhaps if Charles Maurras, that other fanatical nationalist and anti-German, had had his way and the country had been divided once again”with an independent Rhineland and Bavaria, united to Austria”the next war could have been avoided. Conversely, if the principles of “self-determination” had been applied, and millions of Germans had not been placed against their will under fragile governments of tiny countries of dubious legitimacy”and German democrats discredited by crippling reparations”there seems little prospect that degenerate cranks would have come to rule the nation of Beethoven, Schiller, and Bach.
All this helps explain the rise of Hitler”it does not justify it. Not in my mind or in Buchanan’s. It should be presumed”in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary”that historians who attempt to account for the rise of Nazi totalitarianism are no more making excuses for it than epidemiologists who account for outbreaks of cholera.
It is nevertheless the case that any German government worth its salt in the 1930s would have rejected reparations, demanded revisions of borders, and undertaken some degree of rearmament”if only to guard against Stalin’s Soviet Union (which was undertaking its own Holocaust in Ukraine throughout the 1930s). This fact beguiled the appeasers, who’d rightly been traumatized by the irresponsible rush to war that led to the Somme. Just as for neocons, it is always and everywhere October 1938, for the appeasers it was always August 1914. They were transfixed by the madness which had led three monarchies into destruction, and sought to meet demands which seemed reasonable”even though they were being tendered by a madmen. (Pope Pius XII privately assured visiting diplomats that Hitler was demonically possessed”as good an explanation as any I’ve heard.)
When the British drew the line against Hitler, Buchanan argues persuasively, it was at the wrong place and the wrong time.
Is this so shocking? Why should it surprise us that Neville Chamberlain, who mucked up so much else in dealing with the Nazis, would also make a hash of this? In guaranteeing Poland’s independence against Germany in 1939, and encouraging its (anti-Semitic, dictatorial) leaders to stand firm against the return of the Germans of Danzig to Germany, Neville Chamberlain was lying. He had no intention of fighting in Poland’s defense, and no forces with which to do it. He was bluffing with hand a full of deuces, and he knew it. So did Hitler. The only people on earth who seem to have been taken in by Chamberlain’s last minute gambit were the feckless leaders of poor Poland”sandwiched between two totalitarian regimes, with an old-fashioned army and indefensible borders. Had the Poles succumbed to German pressure and surrendered the lands he demanded”and as was likely, become a German satellite state like Hungary or Bulgaria”Hitler’s full force would have turned against the Soviet Union. One fourth of the entire population of Poland would not have been starved, bombed or shot”Hitler’s vindictive answer to their misplaced trust in Britain. Instead, Chamberlain delivered Stalin to Hitler as an ally, and allowed Germany to turn its full attention to overrunning most of Western Europe.
Now, counter-factual history is in some sense a fool’s pursuit. Still, I enjoy counter-factual novels, and avidly consume the works of Harry Turtledove, who writes the best of the genre. One thing you’ll notice in such novels is that they are uniformly reactionary; whatever tweaks the author makes in the course of events, they always seem to end up worse than what actually happened. (Assassinate Stalin, and someone worse comes to power, et cetera.) Indeed, I think the primary satisfaction most readers take in such books is the Panglossian assurance that we do, after all, live in the best of all possible worlds.
But is this really true?
Given that Britain and France had no intention of fighting for Poland, was it really right to lie the Poles into war? What did this accomplish in the war against Nazi evil, other than buy a few months (Sept. 1939 to May 1940) in which to rearm? The Allies would have had that time in any case, had they allowed Germany to march through a compliant Poland against the Soviets. In essence, I cannot help but conclude that the Allies sacrificed Poland to an unprecedented genocide in order to bolster morale, and to salve their leaders’ bad consciences over Munich. Little good it did them. The rearmament they managed between 1939 and spring 1940 was not sufficient to keep Hitler from conquering most of Continental Europe, and seriously menacing Britain. Those brave Poles died”like Tolkien’s comrades on the Somme”for nothing.
At this point, I must differ with Buchanan. I’m not at all sure that the Allies would have sufficiently rearmed against a Hitler bogged down fighting the Russians. Nor might they have done what was essential to preserve their independence”and invade Germany from the West before he defeated Stalin. Given the folly, cowardice and short-sightedness of the French Third Republic, and the fiscal weakness of the English, it’s quite possible the Allies might have rested on their laurels, congratulated themselves on the defeat of Bolshevism, and ended up surrendering to a triumphant Nazi Germany that reached from Utrecht to the Urals. A horrible prospect”arguably worse than what actually happened, the conquest of half of Europe by Josef Stalin. (But for American intervention, he would have swallowed our Mother Continent whole.)
Here again, I will dissent from a man I deeply admire. I think America owed it to Europe to intervene in World War II. As part of Christendom, which took our entire civilization from that continent, we could not rightly stand by and allow it to be engulfed entirely by either variety of ideological evil. Mere filial piety demanded we hold the barbarians back.
Here I will agree with someone I’ve criticized quite sharply on this site, historian John Lukacs, who has written that Nazism was fundamentally more dangerous to the West than Communism, if only because the latter was so obviously impossible and insane. The abolition of private property, national independence, organized religion and the state, and all the other delusions which Marx foisted on intellectuals around the world”none of these could long have stood the reality test. The gap between Communist promises and Soviet reality could only ever have widened over time, leaving a regime empty and discredited as Brezhnev’s sclerotic state.
The distopia promised by the Nazis, on the other hand, really was possible. A dominant race really could have enslaved and exploited weaker peoples on a vast scale, just as Hitler had promised. Whole nations could have been exterminated, as Europe’s Jews and the Roma nearly were. Entire peoples could have been consigned to slavery for centuries. The Mongols managed it. So have the Moslems. Hitler’s “promises” were well within the range of the possible, and his degraded ethics were all too well-suited to modern man. If you don’t believe me, think about this: How many retarded children have you seen on the street lately? They used to be rather common”before the free, Christian peoples of the West discovered amniocentesis. Which side really won World War II?
With that said, I can only welcome Buchanan’s contribution to the debate about the 20th century, and his useful corrections to the fantasy picture most of us carry around of Winston Churchill”derived, I think, from the wistful craving for a “good guy” with whom we can identify when reading history, a friendly face at Yalta. That’s a fundamental human need, and I don’t mean to mock it. When looking back, it’s extremely dispiriting to see entire decades without a leader of men one might admire. In despair, we turned to figures flawed and faulty, who happened (by chance) to be right at the right place and right time.
But I can offer a better. There was one man who clearly understood the civilizational stakes at hazard in the three-sided conflict among the Nazis, the Communists, and the wavering West”who acted decisively against the dictators, aided in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler, fostered American intervention in the war, resisted both totalitarian tyrannies, sheltered some 800,000 Jews against genocide, and condemned both racial and class collectivism in stark and unstinting words that will ring for centuries. A leader without an army, he spent almost the whole of World War II in easy reach of a dictator who could have kidnapped and assassinated him. His only force was moral, his only power the pen. His army consisted of unarmed men in cassocks, cloistered nuns and prayerful peasants. The regime he governed survived the Nazi nightmare, and did more than any other to erase the stain of Stalin. Someday he will be rightly known as St. Pius XII.