The following links are relevant to this blog: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._J._P._Taylor , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajani_Palme_Dutt , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Trevor-Roper, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niall_Ferguson. For my own questioning of the culture wars (from the religious Right conducted solely within a religious framework) see https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/. Neither Taylor, Ferguson, nor Dutt follows the culturalist explanations for change that I criticized in the latter essay.
I. The ongoing debate over the efficacy of an American intervention in Syria’s civil war, raises the question of the role of decision-making in history: decisions that can be either flawed or effective in deciding when to fight, and what for. Opposed to those who emphasize decision making by leaders, stand structural analysts, often of the Left whether they be anarchists, postmodernists, post-colonial theorists, libertarians, New Leftists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, or Maoists. The latter Old and New Leftists, with a sprinkling of New Deal liberals, control the Golan Heights of academe.
In prior blogs, especially this one (https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/) I stated that Leopold von Ranke, a major historian of Germany in the nineteenth century, was dead, having been supplanted by social historians, primarily of the Left who are preoccupied with “the people” against malodorous “elites,” particularly the “moneybags” (Dutt’s term) whom everybody “hates.”
During the last ten days or so, I have not blogged because I was intent on reading A. J. P. Taylor’s controversial book Origins of the Second World War (1961), and then I went on immediately to a book I had first read long ago, R. Palme Dutt’s Fascism and Social Revolution (1935). The contrast could not have been more relevant to the current debate over Syria, for Taylor’s book was grounded in faulty decision making by the Great Powers of Europe, while Dutt’s text transmitted the Leninist line focusing on working class participation as the “final solution” to “fascism,” but built up the case for far-sighted leadership and organization to bring about communism: the working class on its own might be “backward” or easily seduced by Social Democrats. Dutt was all about monopoly capitalism and its inevitable degeneration into barbarism/war, while Taylor seemed to be operating within the old balance of power paradigm for the prevention of murderous conflicts; i.e., Germany could have been checked with better leadership.
As I write this blog, it appears that Taylor’s book is more relevant to the Syria matter, for President Obama’s tortuous path to consulting Congress before he orders a military strike that would somehow punish Syria and uphold international prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons supports the notion that decision making at the top (as opposed to working class organization and revolution) remains a priority for leaders and journalists as they try to understand events and their consequences.
II. What was controversial about Taylor’s book? To understand what an uproar it provoked (see biography of Trevor-Roper above), one might look at the newspapers and other media that sought to explain Hitler and the Nazis. I remember numerous photos of Hitler with exophthalmic eyes and a crazed look: he was obviously the Devil incarnate, a monomaniac like Captain Ahab. (This Hitler-Ahab connection was a diagnosis that would be ascribed to Amerikkka by anti-imperialists and isolationists. As I scoured the writings of Harvard social psychologists such as Henry A. Murray “the Dean of Melville studies”, Gordon Allport, and the important publication by Walter Langer (reviewed here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/), I was stunned to see that the possible presence of Jewish blood in Hitler’s body had a degree of explanatory power for Murray and Langer. Similarly, in various documentaries aired by public broadcasting, great care was taken to carve a clear channel between the good father Franklin Roosevelt and the world-conquering mass murderer Hitler. Such formulations were obviously a move by allies to the New Deal to validate progressivism, contrasting benign statist measures with the devilish designs of “big lying” Hitler and the Nazis to dominate the world.* Indeed, it was common to see maps of Europe circa 1940-41, with big black arrows showing an aggressive Third Reich thrusting into all the occupied satellites as if these were now all part of Germany. America would be next, if it did not cast off its old isolationist ways. (The following map was probably morale boosting, but I could not find the earlier maps I sought on the internet. Taylor did view FDR as an isolationist.)
What Taylor did in his short book, based on foreign policy documents generated mostly by the Third Reich and Britain, was to argue that Germany, like Russia after the 1939 Pact, should be thought of as a normal state, that Hitler was not a monster who had seized power from a passive Germany; rather he had been installed in power by monarchists and conservative nationalists who later lost control of him. Of course he was bad, but Taylor paints him as a dreamer whose “conquests” were more like fruits that fell in his lap. Taylor’s book is almost entirely about the errors of Britain and France. Rather than painting Hitler as a world conqueror with uncanny abilities to hypnotize the German people, then, Taylor sees him as mostly benefiting from the miscalculations of rival world leaders.
No one reading Taylor’s book would see him as an apologist for Hitler and his acolytes. Von Ranke would perhaps have approved of this book, whatever his opinions about Taylor’s larger argument, for it focused on elite decision making and the diplomatic record. [Similarly, Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War (1998) argued that British leaders overestimated the military capacity and geopolitical intentions of Germany, and that the Great War, from which both Hitler and Lenin sprang, should have been avoided.] Taylor also dismissed communist histories of fascism as weighted entirely toward the blaming of decadent democracies.
I wrote to Professor Ferguson, asking him his opinion of Taylor’s book, and got this response, quoting from his own The War of the World (2006), pp. 312-15 (I have guessed at the paragraphing):
“For obvious reasons, we tend to think of the years from 1933 to 1939 in terms of the origins of the Second World War. The question we customarily ask is whether or not the Western powers could have done more to avert the war – whether or not the policy of appeasement towards Germany and Japan was a disastrous blunder. Yet this may be to reverse the order of events. Appeasement did not lead to war. It was war that led to appeasement. For the war did not begin, as we tend to think, in Poland in 1939. It began in Asia in 1937, if not in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria. It began in Africa in 1935, when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. It began in Western Europe in 1936, when Germany and Italy began helping Franco win the Spanish Civil War. It began in Eastern Europe in April 1939, with the Italian invasion of Albania. Contrary to the myth propagated by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that he and his confederates were its only begetter, Hitler was a latecomer to the war. He achieved his foreign policy objectives prior to September 1939 without firing a shot. Nor was it his intention to start a world war at that date. The war that broke out then between Germany, France and Britain was nearly as much the fault of the Western powers, and indeed of Poland, as of Hitler, as A. J. P. Taylor contended forty-five years ago in The Origins of the Second World War.
Yet Taylor’s argument was at best only half-right. He was right about the Western powers: the pusillanimity of the French statesmen, who were defeated in their hearts before a shot had been fired; the hypocrisy of the Americans, with their highfaluting rhetoric and low commercial motives; above all, the muddle-headedness of the British. The British said they wanted to uphold the authority of the League of Nations and the rights of small and weak nations; but when push came to shove in Manchuria, Abyssinia and Czechoslovakia, imperial self-interest trumped collective security. They fretted about arms limitation, as though an equality of military capability would suffice to avoid war; but while a military balance might secure the British Isles, it offered no effective security for either Britain’s continental allies or other Asian possessions. With withering irony, Taylor called the Munich agreement a ‘triumph for British policy [and] . . . for all that was best and most enlightened in British life’. In reality, war with Germany was averted at the price of an unfulfillable guarantee to the rump Czechoslovakia. If handing the Sudetenland to Hitler in 1938 had been the right decision, why then did the British not hand him Danzig, to which he had in any case a stronger claim, in 1939? The answer was that by then they had given another militarily worthless guarantee, to the Poles. Having done so, they failed to grasp what Churchill saw at once: that without a ‘grand alliance’ with the Soviet Union, Britain and France might find themselves facing Germany alone. As an indictment of British diplomacy, Taylor’s has stood up remarkably well to subsequent scholarship – though it must be said that he offers few clues as to why Britain’s statesmen were so incompetent.
Where Taylor erred profoundly was when he sought to liken Hitler’s foreign policy to ‘that of his predecessors, of the professional diplomats at the foreign ministry, and indeed of virtually all Germans’, and when he argued that the Second WorldWar was ‘a repeat performance of the First’. Nothing could be more remote from the truth. Bismarck had striven mightily to prevent the creation of a Greater Germany encompassing Austria. Yet this was one of Hitler’s stated objectives, albeit one that he had inherited from the Weimar Republic. Bismarck’s principal nightmare had been one of coalitions between the other great powers directed against Germany. Hitler quite deliberately created such an encircling coalition when he invaded the Soviet Union before Britain had been defeated. Not even the Kaiser had been so rash; indeed, he had hoped he could avoid war with Britain. Bismarck had used colonial policy as a tool to maintain the balance of power in Europe; the Kaiser had craved colonies. Hitler was uninterested in overseas acquisitions even as bargaining counters.
Throughout the 1920s Germany was consistently hostile to Poland and friendly to the Soviet Union. Hitler reversed these positions within little more than a year of coming to power. It is true, as Taylor contended, that Hitler improvised his way through the diplomatic crises of the mid-1930s with a combination of intuition and luck. He admitted that he was a gambler with a low aversion to risk (‘All my life I have played va banque’). But what was he gambling to win? This is not a difficult question to answer, because he answered it repeatedly. He was not content, like Stresemann or Brüning, merely to dismantle the Versailles Treaty – a task that the Depression had half-done for him even before he became Chancellor. Nor was his ambition to restore Germany to her position in 1914. It is not even correct, as the German historian Fritz Fischer suggested, that Hitler’s aims were similar to those of Germany’s leaders during the First World War, namely to carve out an East European sphere of influence at the expense of Russia. Hitler’s goal was different. Simply stated, it was to enlarge the German Reich so that it embraced as far as possible the entire German Volk and in the process to annihilate what he saw as the principal threats to its existence, namely the Jews and Soviet Communism (which to Hitler were one and the same).
Like Japan’s proponents of territorial expansion, he sought living space in the belief that Germany required more territory because of her over-endowment with people and her under-endowment with strategic raw materials. The German case was not quite the same, however, because there were already large numbers of Germans living in much of the space that Hitler coveted. When Hitler pressed for self-determination on behalf of ethnic Germans who were not living under German rule – first in the Saarland, then in the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland and Danzig– he was not making a succession of quite reasonable demands, asBritish statesmen were inclined to assume. He was making a single unreasonable demand which implied territorial claims extending far beyond the River Vistula in Poland. Hitler wanted not merely a Greater Germany; he wanted the Greatest Possible Germany. Given the very wide geographical distribution of Germans in East Central Europe, that implied a German empire stretching from the Rhine to the Volga. Nor was that the limit of Hitler’s ambitions, for the creation of this maximal Germany was intended to be the basis for a German world empire that would be, at the very least, a match for the British Empire.” [End, Niall Ferguson quote]
III. By contrast R. Palme Dutt, writing to support the Third International against the “corrupt” Second International that allegedly waylaid revolutionary socialism and the hoped for dictatorship of the proletariat, provided no footnotes at all, though he quoted copiously from sources that buttressed his case that anti-Bolshevism motivated European leaders. He even pointed to incipient fascism in the United States, faulting the early days of the Roosevelt administration as unambiguously fascist. (This line would be obsolete in light of the Popular Front against Fascism declared by the flawless Leninists whom Dutt admires.) Throughout his diatribe against demonized “finance capital” Dutt nails such outdated values as “liberty”, the American Constitution, the law, and parliamentary democracy as ruses that have waylaid “backward workers” who succumbed to the gradualist approach of Dutt’s antagonists in the Weimar Republic and everywhere in the advanced industrialized societies where treacherous socialists/Labourites participated in government. By the end of the book, the reader may come to see that a [nomenklatura] is the primary guide to social anti-authoritarian action. Democracy having been discredited throughout as a mask for fascism, will presumably be obsolete after the Soviet bureaucracy has brought workers everywhere into the Promised Land. The Second International should stop its “class collaboration” and liquidate itself by joining the “united front“ against imperialist capitalism (finance capital), but only under the guidance of those best fit to understand the dialectic of history.
Both Taylor and Dutt were materialist historians, but only Dutt inverted freedom and slavery (see Orwell blogs: https://clarespark.com/2012/11/17/index-to-orwell-blogs/) . For Dutt, while demonizing finance capital and their Social Democratic facilitators in smashing the independent working class organizations then existent throughout Europe, this Leninist delivered the working class into the hands of their “betters” by subordinating their “independence” to a class that managed History itself. Such was “science” and “culture” in the Soviet Union.
Today, as more and more people are focused on the inadequacies of the public school system, or are alarmed by the “social justice” brigade that populates the better colleges, it is time to rehabilitate the historical methods that von Ranke championed. I am not defending A. J. P. Taylor as the perfect historian, but I admire his shaking up the profession and attacking the notion that Hitler was unstoppable in his demonic powers. I prefer a more disciplined approach to historical scholarship than either the schematic authoritarianism of Dutt or of those revolutionary socialists who twist the history of the West every which way to support “antifascism.” As numerous capable historians of the interwar period have pointed out, “fascism” was located solely in the interwar period. Conditions that prevailed then cannot be translated willy nilly into the present to legitimate a fighting working class or other “victims” that no longer exist in their old forms.
Controversial books that disrupt conventional opinion about the past should be welcomed and, where wanting, should be vigorously opposed insofar as they deviate from the archival record. We should be fighting for unredacted documents from past and present to further that noble/democratic goal. For a blog that runs down competing explanations for Hitler’s appeal or the inevitability of fascism in late capitalism see the second footnote here: https://clarespark.com/2014/03/19/thomas-carlyle-german-romanticism-and-the-double-bind-of-modernity/.
*On the misconceptions regarding Hitler and the Big Lie see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/19/index-to-links-on-hitler-and-the-big-lie/. In Mein Kampf, Hitler blamed Jews and communists/social democracy for lying to the workers. He was the good father who would rescue the feminized masses from themselves.