World War II: Prime Target of the Historical-Revision Industry

The Wall Street Journal’s invaluable Dorothy Rabinowitz reviews yet another attempt, this time on taxpayer supported PBS, to promote pacifism by rejecting World War II as a triumph over evil:

Early in “The War of the World” — PBS’s very own entry into the lists of revisionist tracts about World War II now clamoring for attention — historian Niall Ferguson appears on camera to tell how he had been deceived about that war, and the one before it as well. He had been a schoolboy, and they had taught him wrong — and what was most wrong, the rest of this three-part work (beginning Monday, 10-11 p.m. EDT, check local listings) sets out to show, was any notion that in those wars the forces of good had triumphed over those of evil.

Mr. Ferguson’s series (he is its writer and presenter) concerns itself with both World Wars and the conflicts since, but the throbbing heart of this enterprise is impossible to miss — namely, its argument that the Allies who had brought about the end of the Nazis and Nazism, and of Imperial Japan, were only marginally better, morally speaking, than the foes they had defeated. That throb is there in the publicity announcement — always a reliable indicator of what a program’s producers consider their most important big idea. The first line of the release delivers the message: “World War II, we have been told all our lives, was our greatest triumph. . . .” Like Niall Ferguson as a schoolboy, we had all, in short, been misled. Till now.

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is just that. Revisionist history of all kinds is a hot field, never more so than today. At least two books of recent vintage claim that Americans have been misled about the world-famous crusader of the 1950s, the late, notorious Sen. Joe McCarthy. The Wisconsin senator — whose ill-famed reputation was nothing if not well earned — was, we are now informed, one of America’s great heroes.

But it is World War II that is, as it long has been, the prime target of the historical-revision industry. Today, on the right, we have Pat Buchanan’s “Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War.” It portrays Winston Churchill as a warmonger who turned a deaf ear to Adolf Hitler — a much misunderstood man, in Mr. Buchanan’s view — and to all evidence of Hitler’s wish to be friends. That title gets straight to the point. Mr. Buchanan’s book, enthusiastically touted by Sean Hannity, is on the best-seller list now. Meanwhile, a political world or so away on PBS, we have Mr. Ferguson.

And there is plenty of him. We can marvel not only at the number and kind of claimed fallacies Mr. Ferguson is busy setting right here, but also at the amount of travel that has put him, and his cameras, on location in every corner of the globe. The documentary is rich in background scenes — a good thing — and Mr. Ferguson is physically at the center of every last one of them. Not such a good thing. Here he is on the banks of the Volga, and there, looming out at us from a room housing the Gulag’s secret archives. We find him lunching in the sun, near Hitler’s Berghof in Bavaria, where, he confides, he feels a bit strange — eating and all. Inevitably, he arrives at Auschwitz, heart of darkness, to ask how it all came to be.

The answer quickly circles back to the main point — that the Allies could not be credited with any triumph over evil.

Russian troops had liberated Auschwitz, yes, but we’re reminded that Stalin had imprisoned and murdered millions. Does this mean the liberation of Auschwitz was nothing? A good question with no answer. Mr. Ferguson is content to have delivered another in his long stream of accusatory ironies and contradictions, all in support of the claim that the morally tainted Allied armies should not be credited as liberators.

The Americans and British had adopted the totalitarian techniques of their foes, Mr. Ferguson contends in a series of arguments ranging from the strange to the simply inflated. Japanese combatants kept fighting to the very end, he explains, because they feared the cruelty of their American captors. Undoubtedly some American troops were guilty of killing Japanese prisoners. In this film’s version of events, the slaughter was wholesale. By way of support Mr. Ferguson summons testimony from Charles Lindbergh — pro-Nazi icon of American isolationists. He proceeds to reminds us that Lindbergh had complained, in the 1940s, that Americans thought nothing of killing Japanese prisoners. Noteworthy to be sure — the first and last time, perhaps, that the world was privileged to hear Lindbergh express outrage over the commission of atrocities.

The catalog of Mr. Ferguson’s stranger arguments is too long to go into, but here’s a hint — don’t miss the part about Kursk, the greatest of all tank battles. Here the U.S. seems to stand accused of providing material help that made it possible for the Russians to prevail. Were the Germans supposed to win? Mr. Ferguson doesn’t say, but the question hangs in the air — for good reason.

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