Our First Task

Roger Kimball writes of Pat Buchanan’s revisionist view of World War II. He also might have mentioned Newsweek’s Evan Thomas (see preceding post). He also should have mentioned that Buchanan’s book is part of a paleo-con/leftist effort to repudiate the lessons of World War II and replace them with the “lessons of Vietnam.”

An excerpt:

…How much, I wonder, did Patrick J. Buchanan have to forget to write Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War? Buchanan is not stupid. He is not, I think, malevolent. But his book exhibits an historical obtuseness that is as morally reprehensible as it is politically toxic. Buchanan’s central thesis is that the chief blame for the Second World War (and for the Holocaust) belongs to Winston Churchill, not Hitler. Germany, in his revisionist view, was the chief victim of the First World War, and he repeats the canard, popularized by John Maynard Keynes, that the harsh terms of Versailles Treaty paved the way for Hitler and made World War II all but inevitable. (This contention was usefully exploded by Andrew Roberts in his magisterial book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. As Roberts shows, the treaty should have been much harsher, dividing Germany into two or more parts. Instead, it left Germany “in a physical position to launch her fifth war of territorial aggression in three-quarters of a century.”)

If Patrick Buchanan were less intelligent, his book would be less depressing. Does the record really need to be set straight about the origins and nature of World War Two? Is even that recent conflagration up for fundamental political renegotiation? Apparently so. In a way, the title of Victor Davis Hanson’s response to the book says all you need to know about it: “The Delusional Views of Pat Buchanan, Pseudo-Historian,” but the whole review is worth reading. In another brilliant review for Newsweek, Christopher Hitchens eviscerates Buchanan’s argument while providing some much needed historical context about Germany’s behavior during the last century and a half. (Hitchens seems taken with the conventional, Keynesian line about the Versailles Treaty, but that is a minor quibble.) The whole review is eminently worth reading, too, but let me quote here a passage from the last part of the piece:

“As the book develops, Buchanan begins to unmask his true colors more and more. It is one thing to make the case that Germany was ill-used, and German minorities harshly maltreated, as a consequence of the 1914 war of which Germany’s grim emperor was one of the prime instigators. It’s quite another thing to say that the Nazi decision to embark on a Holocaust of European Jewry was ‘not a cause of the war but an awful consequence of the war.’ Not only is Buchanan claiming that Hitler’s fanatical racism did not hugely increase the likelihood of war, but he is also making the insinuation that those who wanted to resist him are the ones who are equally if not indeed mainly responsible for the murder of the Jews! This absolutely will not do. He adduces several quotations from Hitler and Goebbels, starting only in 1939 and ending in 1942, screaming that any outbreak of war to counter Nazi ambitions would lead to a terrible vengeance on the Jews. He forgets–at least I hope it’s only forgetfulness–that such murderous incitement began long, long before Hitler had even been a lunatic-fringe candidate in the 1920s. . . .”

Buchanan’s ugly book is hardly the only reminder we have that, when it comes to history and politics, our first task in facing the future is to remember the past. Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War isn’t even the only book to argue that Churchill was the war’s chief villain. An other recent specimen Nicholson Baker’s mendacious novel [Update: A reader points out that it is “not a novel” but “a collage – some might say a farrago”] Human Smoke (about which see this review). But Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War is in a category by itself, partly because of Buchanan’s rhetorical skill. He casts his immoralism in high-toned moralistic terms, presenting himself as a Jeremiah who has been warning us all of the coming dissolution of our civilization. In fact, what our civilization has chiefly to fear at the moment (even more, I suspect, than any external threat) is the internal atrophy of that gumption–what the Greeks called thumos–that fired statesman like Churchill and whose lack among our leaders today makes for dispiriting contemplation.

Wow! A left-wing London Guardian columnist actually writes that “Bushitler” made us safer:

…[Bush’s] office, and the system of collective security from which we benefit, would be justification enough to welcome President Bush’s visit to London this week. But there is an additional reason peculiar to the Bush presidency. For all Bush’s verbal infelicity, diplomatic brusqueness, negligence in planning for post-Saddam Iraq, and insouciance regarding standards of due process when prosecuting the war on terror, the world is a safer place for the influence he has exercised.

When Bush ran for president in 2000 he was an isolationist advocate of scaling back America’s overseas commitments. But after 9/11, he was right in not interpreting the attack as confirmation that America was stirring up trouble for itself. The theocratic barbarism responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers was driven not by what America and its allies had done, but by what we represented. In the words of Osama bin Laden, illegitimately appropriating for himself the mantel of Islam, “every Muslim, the minute he can start differentiating, carries hate toward Americans, Jew, and Christians”.

The most fundamental decision in western security policy in the past seven years has not been the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It has been the recognition that the most voluble adversaries of western society are not merely a criminal subculture, and still less an incipient liberation movement. Rather, they are a reactionary, millenarian and atavistic force with whom accommodation is impossible as well as intensely undesirable.

The grand strategy pursued by the US under Bush has overestimated the plasticity of the international order, but it has got one big thing right. There is an integral connection between the terrorism that targets western societies and the autocratic states in which Islamist fanaticism is incubated. Bush is culpable for much that went wrong after the overthrow of Saddam, but the outlook for Iraq has changed fundamentally owing to his decision to appoint General David Petraeus and pursue a confrontational strategy with al-Qaida in Iraq.

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