Boiling the frog
The rise of Nazism in Europe
Last weekend I had the great privilege to attend a festival in the U.K. about the Second World War organised by James Holland and Al Murray for the friends and followers of their immensely popular We Have Ways podcast. (The photo is merely an opportunity to show how much fun we - or at least I, in the Universal Carrier’s ‘passenger’ seat - had!)
At the festival I heard Katja Hoyer powerfully describe the road to war in the inter-war period in Germany. Her talk was about what was happening in Germany. It was a subject I have written about in a book about the view from outside, one particularly from the perspective of Americans. I still regard it as one of my best, even though it has had lamentably poor sales (come on, folks!) Published in the U.S as Under A Darkening Sky and in the U.K as The Rise of the Third Reich, I describe the rise of Nazism through the eyes of Americans who lived through the period in Europe, watching the process in which the freedoms and liberties of the old world were undone by the rise of fascist totalitarianism.
Why is this story, and Katja’s presentation on Saturday, so pertinent? Because when they came, the loss of Europe’s liberty happened in plain sight of those who lived through the period, watching, observing and to a large extent allowing it to happen. If there is a lesson for our times about the totalitarian impulses of the enemies of liberty both inside and out it is the one taught to us by the period that led up to the Second World War.
I was conscious of this when I was in the Army. As a soldier, I lived for a time with my young family at Lager Bergen-Hohne, the old Wehrmacht barracks complex that sits next door to the site of the notorious transit camp of Bergen-Belsen, where the Dutch teenager, Anne Frank, lost her life. Scores of thousands of Untermenschen, the human detritus of a Nazified Europe, died of neglect in the human garbage dump that once lay hidden amidst the towering silver birches of these remote forests in Lower Saxony. Standing at the entrance to the Bergen-Belsen memorial today is a sobering experience, the bleak surroundings bringing a rush of melancholia triggered by the thought of so many lives wasting to death on the cold, grey sod amidst the terror of starvation, disease, loneliness, and deliberate, criminal neglect. This horror came about as the result of human design and political purpose. Men—some men—wanted this to happen, and many men, and women, allowed it to be so. Horror did not take place of its own accord but was the result of action by some—a few perhaps—and inaction by many. Bergen-Belsen today stands mute but terrible testimony to human evil and the failure of people to recognize malevolence for what it was, and to act, in a timely manner, against it. Both in Germany during the 1930s, and in the wider world of the democracies, political liberalism failed catastrophically to assert, and protect, its primary virtue, liberty under the law for all. Bergen-Belsen—one small place among many—was the product of deliberate calculation, in which in the space of a single generation an entire nation was persuaded to hate.
The real travesty is that most of what happened among these bleak birch forests was foreseen. From the moment Hitler took power the world began to know and understand—albeit through a glass darkly—what the Nazi Party was attempting to do. It was clear to many observers that the Nazi plan was to mobilize an entire society in a program of racial and national aggrandizement that would overturn many hundreds of years of Judeo-Christian civilization, not to mention the culture of Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller. It would do so at the expense of her neighbours, as well as those—inside Germany and out—considered by the Nazis not to reach the physical and moral standard set by nature for the Teuton, the Aryan master race destined to rule the world. The Untermenschen were people unworthy of life, or at least worthy only of being ruled—as slaves—by Germans. John Winant, the United States ambassador to Britain between March 1941 and April 1946 concluded that the Nazis “not only knew, they planned, with cold premeditation, the slaughter of a race, and all others who opposed their will. Long before war came at all the indifference of an appeasement-minded world allowed these enemies of humanity, bereft of charity, an open field to sow and reap their nightmare harvests.”
It was far less easy at the time in the West to see what was happening in the Soviet Union and the horrors of Stalinization, as this happened behind a carefully constructed curtain, designed to prevent outsiders seeing the truth within, but this could not be said for Germany. For an entire decade before Hitler in a pique calamitously (for Germany) declared war on America on December 11, 1941, considerable numbers of North Americans—travellers, academics, journalists, diplomats, housewives, businessmen, among others—possessed a window into the darkening soul of this ancient, declining culture, and made their findings known, often in clear and unequivocal terms, to the folks back home. Some of these warnings strike the modern reader to be remarkably prescient. But was anyone listening? Some, a courageous few, decided to take the fight to the Nazis by direct action well before America found itself committed to war.
Some people argue today that the Second World War could not have been foreseen. I disagree. When Abbott (“A.J.”) Liebling of the New Yorker asked long-retired General Pershing in 1940 whether he argued against reductions in American military power after the Great War because he feared the consequences of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, the grizzled veteran snarled back, “Who the hell could have foreseen this?” Well, many, actually. Some limply, and wrongly, like the Nazis themselves, blame Versailles. It is historically fraudulent to argue such a thing as causal inevitability, or historic determinism with respect to the start of the Second World War, suggesting for instance that the peace agreement in 1919 caused the next war. I was delighted to hear Katja agree with this point. It was the Nazis who brought about this war, aided and abetted by incontinent Western politicians who failed to understand the impact of their own pacific inactivity with respect to the looming threats facing them. Could the Nazis have been stopped? Yes, if free nations had done more to stand up for the political cultures they led and in which they purported to believe. The problem with arguing that nothing could have been done to prevent an out-of-control Nazi dictator thrusting his country into destructive war based on a repulsive ideology is that it denies the power of human contingency. All men and women have the power to act to prevent the encroachment of evil. The first challenge is to recognize malevolence for what it is (a good place to start is to accept that humans are capable of extraordinary depravity); the second to act in a timely way against it. Unfortunately, the only ones who acted precipitately during the 1930s were the dictators.
Appeasement—allowing Nazi Germany to achieve its political goals at the expense of the precious sovereignty of others, simply to avert the threat of war against themselves—ironically enabled totalitarianism to flourish, and led to calamitous war. The failure of appeasement was at two levels. First, many appeasers assumed that national decision makers on the opposing side of international arguments were rational actors and wanted the same thing for their people as they did themselves. This view was morally naïve. But the second level was far more profound in its moral declension. Many of those who pursued a policy of compromise (by accepting that Hitler and Mussolini, for example, did not want the same thing as the liberal democracies, namely peace, personal liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) knew only too well that the consequence of this approach was that the dictators would simply continue their policies of territorial and racial aggrandizement: they hoped (wrongly, as it turned out) that appeasement would have no negative consequences for themselves, and their own countries, even though it spelled doom for the victims of the dictators. The moral disaster at the heart of appeasement was that too many politicians accepted that in attempting to contain the dictators, bad things would happen to others and (hopefully) not to themselves. It was a policy of acceptable harm. Winston Churchill described an appeaser as someone “who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” The great failure of the 1930s was that both Europe and the United States refused to acknowledge the rise of fascism for what it was—a threat to the sanctity of personal liberty, democracy, and the rule of law within independent sovereign states—and do anything practical about preventing its unchecked growth. The rise of totalitarian politics based on perverse social and racial ideologies (either communist, fascist, or nationalistic) was nowhere adequately confronted and denied, and was allowed to march unchecked for fear that positive action might lead again to war. Thus were the impulses of appeasement bred. Indeed, such was the topsy-turvy world of domestic French and British politics during this period that significant minorities became noisy advocates for both fascism and communism, creeds most only vaguely understood, supporting their favourite cheerleaders (Stalin and Hitler) like opposing teams in a baseball game. However, few passionate supporters of either ideology in France or Britain at the time had any real comprehension of the bloody reality these political regimes had on their countries of origin. These political supporters’ groups, when combined with the wave of post-war pacifism, emasculated the efforts of those who advocated taking the threat to peace and security seriously by pushing back against German and Italian belligerence, and adequately preparing for war. It was fear of war that perversely allowed war and violence to flourish. Germany’s political trajectory was repeatedly excused and the consequences of Nazi ideology denied or ignored.
The fundamental problem with appeasement was that France and Britain did not think that defending the basic principles of liberal democracy, including the rule of law and the sovereignty of independent states, was as important as preserving the flawed status quo. At its heart the policy of appeasement was an exchange between the aggressor and the appeaser, in which it was agreed that the price for not doing a bad thing (let’s say, for example, invading Czechoslovakia) was allowing the aggressor to do another, albeit slightly less bad, thing (such as being allowed to absorb the territory of a neighbour without resorting to bloodshed). The exchange at Munich was that Europe was promised a wider peace in exchange for the enslavement of Czechoslovakia. It was a chimera. The tragedy of 1938 was that the price of the exchange was not paid for by those making the agreement (Britain and France on the one hand, and Germany on the other) but by Czechoslovakia itself, the victim. The agreement, dressed up by Chamberlain as delivering “peace in our time,” was fundamentally deceitful, because it was written on a cheque from a bank in which London and Paris did not even have an account. It is extraordinary to modern observers that this dishonesty was ever allowed, either by democratic states or by what constituted at that time the “international community.”
How did they get away with it? The answer was that there was no functioning “community” in the international sphere worth talking about following the collapse of the benighted League of Nations, and that there was overwhelming fear in the liberal democracies at the time of another devastating war close on the heels of the “war to end all wars.” In attempting to preserve the uncertain peace that had existed since 1918, British and French politicians did not have the honesty or the moral courage to accept that peace required them to make every effort short of actual war—including the threat of war—to defend it. The great weakness of liberalism in its interwar context was its inability to see threats to itself for what they were, and to defend against them. The raw truth, which appeasers seemed conveniently to forget, was that the essentials of liberalism were not attractive to all: communist and fascist ideologies alike saw liberal liberties as a threat to their own exercise of power. In the mid-to-late 1930s the vast bulk of political opinion in France and Britain considered that any price was preferable to the unbearable consequences of another war. Unfortunately, in this equation, the autocracies (Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union) did not have the same qualms. Just as many in France and Britain were prepared to trade the freedoms of Czechs for a wider peace, kowtowing to the war drums beating from Berlin, the weight of American public opinion at the time was likewise strongly for non-intervention in another European imbroglio. Americans might have wanted the British and French to win in the fight against Germany (85 percent, in fact, in March 1940), but few saw this as a war that required their direct involvement. Widespread pacifism, industrial interests, and significant ethnic groups (German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Irish-Americans especially) rejected any American military commitment in favour of defending the European democracies who were threatened by Germany.
The rise of Nazi Germany during the 1920s and 1930s was closely observed by many North Americans, who, like the children opening the wardrobe door into Narnia, found themselves entering a world dramatically different from their own, and one which they could not entirely comprehend. As they—Dorothy Thompson, Leland Stowe, Bill Shirer, Matthew Halton, Sigrid Shultz, Janet Flanner, Edgar Mowrer, and many others—began to report their findings back home, they encountered something they did not expect. On the one hand, many of their listeners and readers seemed resistant to the story they were telling, and reluctant to accept its veracity. On the other, many people simply expressed disinterest. The accusation of exaggeration, bias, and even warmongering became common. One was understandable—people often need to see and touch, like doubting Thomas, before they believe—but the other reaction surprised them. As the years went by, and the true nature of Nazism was increasingly revealed to American observers in Europe, the implications for deeply entrenched personal, societal, economic, and religious freedoms, in the United States, Canada, and other European democracies, became starkly apparent. How was it that their own countrymen and women could not comprehend the scale of the threat facing liberal democracy emanating from the new Nazi regime in Germany? How, then, to deal with a member of the community of nations whose values—in respect of human liberty—were now so dramatically different from the others? How to do so, especially when the type of political repression represented by Nazism was sold to both internal and external audiences as an antidote to bolshevism? How to sound the alarm without appearing to beat the war drum?
The failure to respond adequately and in time was to be the leitmotif of the age.
We all know what happened next.
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