Sunday, September 06, 2009

Beginning of the Second World War, 70 years ago

Hitler arrives in Warsaw after the city falls

Zach Roth of TPM Muckraker reports, MSNBC Promoting Buchanan's Hitler-Sympathizing Column 09/03/09. The column in question was posted at Did Hitler want war? 09/01/09 but MSNBC subsequently removed it. It's also published on the WorldNutDaily site and at the rightwing isolationist-run

It's no news that Pat Buchanan is something of an admirer of Hitler Germany. He just recently published a book blaming Winston Churchill for the war. It's more interesting to me that he's a reflection of the far-right isolationist viewpoint that is, at bottom, another face of the more common manifestations of Republican unilateralism in foreign policy and xenophobia in immigration policy. For a comment specifically on that column of Buchanan's, see Just how crazy is Pat Buchanan? by Ethan Porter True/Slant 09/02/09. Here are some reality-based alternatives to Pat Buchanan's Second World War revisionism.

The more common Republican narrative of the Second World War is an American triumphalist one. We beat the bad buys, liberated Germany and Japan and a bunch of other countries, and that shows we're The Greatest Country In The World. The Democrats to a large extent embrace that narrative of the war as well, though subsequent smaller wars have tempered the enthusiasm of many Democrats for triumphalist rhetoric about war. Despite a mountain of books and films pitched especially to aging baby-boomers about the Second World War, I have to wonder how many Americans could make a good stab at explaining why Buchanan's fanciful version of the beginning of the Second World War is so frivolous, beyond just dismissing it (accurately) as pro-Nazi-Germany.

The Munich Süddeutsche Zeitung, less editorially friendly to pro-Hitler falsifications of history than WorldNutDaily or MSNBC, featured several article around the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 including: Täter und Opfer: Kriegsbeginn vor 70 Jahren 02.09.2009 von Sonja Zekri; Putin verurteilt Hitler-Stalin-Pakt: Streit um Kriegsschuld 31.08.2009; Es hat gefunkt: Zweiter Weltkrieg von Oliver Storz 30.08.2009; Eine schmerzhafte Wunde: 70 Jahre Hitler-Stalin-Pakt 23.08.2009 - Interview mit Stefan Troebst; Der Weg in den Krieg: 70 Jahre Hitler-Stalin-Pakt 27.08.2009.

Lots of people seem to have the notion that Adolf Hitler layed out his exact plans in his prison memoirs, Mein Kampf. Actually, Hitler was very flexible about goals and tactics except for two things. Throughout his political career, he kept twoo goals firmly in mind: invading Russia, and killing off the Jews. Everything else was flexible. Even when Germany was clearly losing the war and the German armies were being pushed back across Eastern Europe, Hitler diverted military supplies to keep the death camps like Auschwitz in operation. Killing as many Jews as possible was more a priority to him that saving his supposed precious fatherland (he normally called it motherland) from the barbaric Eastern hordes the Soviet armies were said to be. (Factual note: real instances of Soviet barbarism were not completely absent.)

Hitler's territorial aggressions up through 1938 in the Rheinland, Austria and the Czech areas with large ethnic German populations (Bohemia and Moravia) were aimed at uniting what Hitler saw as legitimate parts of the German Empire (Reich). The seizure of the remaining rump of Czechoslovakia in early 1939 didn't fit that category, though. In any case, Hitler's main territorial goal was the conquest of Russia, under the pretence of needed "living space" (Lebensraum) for the German people. The seizure of Poland - and not just the former German territories of Poland - was a necessary step along that path. He also planned for the Poles to be reduced to the status of a servant race, to be displaced at will by German colonization. Seizing Poland also gave him access to Polish Jews, who far outnumbered German Jews, most of whom had emigrated by 1939.

The infamous Munich Agreement of 1938, which has been reduced to the crudest brand of the "lessons of Munich" in American political speech, was a key turning point for more reasons than one. (For the neocons, the only meaningful "lesson of Munich" is that negotiating with a potential enemy is in itself a sign of insufficient testosterone.) It gave Germany control of the enormous Skoda arms works in Czechoslovakia, which enabled Germany to quickly expand its own already fast-growing armaments at a more rapid rate. It convinced the Soviets that the Western powers were aiming to promote a war between Germany and Russia from which the West would stand aloof. And it led Hitler to assume that Britain and France would not be willing to go to war over their ally Poland.

Signing of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, August 24, 1939: Stalin in the rear middle, German Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop rear left, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov in front signing document

The Soviet Union had sought an alliance with the Western powers to contain Germany. When Britain and France refused to go to war together with the USSR over Czechoslovakia, the Soviet leadership concluded that the Western powers were encouraging Germany to attack the USSR. They weren't entirely wrong in that assumption. But, as Jeffrey Record of the US Army Air War College details in his The Specter of Munich: Reconsidering the Lessons of Appeasing Hitler (2007), there were many reasons that Britain and France pursued the policy that made "appeasement" into a diplomatic dirty word; at the time "appeasement" simply meant "concession." At the moment of the Munich Agreement, Britain and France had a strictly defensive military policy that did not match their policy of alliances with Czechoslovakia and Poland to restrict German expansion. That situation was a result of the broader diplomatic strategy of appeasement, for which Record - who argues that the appeasement itself was a disaster - gives the following reasons:

  1. The exceptionally traumatic experience of the Great War of 1914-18, now known as the First World War.
  2. A major misjudgment of "the nature of the Nazi regime and Hitler's strategic ambitions".
  3. France's inflexibility in military policy, more particularly its rigid conviction that in no circumstances should it initiate an attack on a major power and its lack of military capacity to do so (it was scarcely so scrupulous with colonies) - in this regard France's allowing Germany to re-ccupy the Rhineland in 1936 was "an irreperable blow to French prestige".
  4. British strategic overreach with its worldwide empire, which among other things created incentives for Britain to avoid European war - "Britain's mainfest strategic overstretch was a major factor in Hitelr's judgment of British willingness to use force against him."
  5. France's strategic dependence on Britain.
  6. Misgivings especially in Britain over the mistakes of the Versailles Treaty that ended the Great War, among them being rejection of the principle of self-determination for Germans in Austria and the Sudentenland (in Czechoslovakia); as noted above, up until the seizure of rump Czechoslovakia in early 1939, Hitler Germany's military conquests could be seen as efforts to reunite the core German lands and population.
  7. Overestimation of the power of strategic bombing and overestimation of Germany's air force capacity (thanks in no small part to the reports of Hitler's admirer Charles Lindberg); such threat inflation is scarcely unknown today, and not just in the Iraq War - it was a chronic feature of American Cold War policies.
  8. Public opinion in Britain and France was opposed to war; neither the publics nor the governments were looking for excuses to go to war, they were trying to avoid another European war, in itself an healthy instinct.
  9. American isolationism, which minimized American involvement in European power politics.
  10. Fear of Communism and the USSR.
Record's description of the military logic of an alliance between the Western powers and Soviet Russia against Hitler prior to the Munich Agreement provides important background to the German-Soviet Nonagreession Pact signed August 24, 1939, aka, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact after the foreign ministers, the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Record writes:

The last but by no means least factor contributing to appeasement was distrust of the Soviet Union and fear of Communism. The alternative to appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s was the formation of the kind of grand alliance that crushed Nazi Germany 1945. This alternative, however, was never more than theoretical until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and declared war on the United States the following December. Domestic politics precluded war or military alliance with threatened states in Europe as voluntary policy choices for the United States. But this was not the case for the Soviet Union, which Hitler both reviled and targeted for German racial expansion. Stalin clearly understood Nazi Germany for the deadly foe it was, and in 1934 the Soviet Union entered an alliance with France as a means of checking German expansionism. Russia and France had been close allies against Imperial Germany, and the Soviet Union in the 1930s constituted the only great power east of Germany. It fielded the largest standing army in Europe and possessed war production potential second only to that of the United States. The same logic that underlay the Anglo-French-Russian alliance of World War I against Imperial Germany applied to stopping Hitler from plunging Europe into another world war, and this logic should have been glaringly apparent after Hitler removed any doubt over his trustworthiness and territorial intentions by invading what remained of Czechoslovakia after Munich.
With the possibility of an alliance with the Western powers against Germany removed, Stalin decided to cut his own deal with Hitler in order to buy time and acquire additional territory. It was a ruthlessly pragmatic deal. George Kennan once commented that the Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had for years been pursuing foreign policies much in the spirit of Chicago gangsters. (For a stalwart of the Realist school of foreign policy thought like Kennan, that wasn't necessarily a criticism!)

The Nonaggression Pact had a secret protocol that essentially carved up Poland between Germany and the USSR, along with other German concessions to the Soviets in the Baltics and other parts of eastern Europe. Strenthened substantially by access to the massive Skoda arms works and free of immediate worry of a Soviet-Western alliance against Germany, Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, nine days after the Nonaggression Pact was signed.

Germany did go through the motions of claiming that Poland attacked them first. They took some Polish prisoners in German jails, dressed them up in Polish army uniforms and shot them. They left their bodies on the ground near a border radio station to "document" their claim that Polish troops had attacked the radio station on German soil. No one fooled. Germany had been carrying on a campaign over access to the city of Danzig, a German port city that lay within Poland, and over the alleged horrible persecution of ethnic Germans in Poland. In an interesting footnote, the Polish uniforms for the staged attack at the radio station had been provided by a Sudeten German businessman who sometimes did task for German intelligence named Oskar Schindler. Schindler would later develop a very different relationship to the goals of the Nazi regime.

Today, as Sonja Zekri writes, "Im Osten Europas ... ist die Geschichte virulent wie kaum anderswo." (In eastern Europe, history is virulent as hardly anywhere else.) Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in ceremonies in Danzig, Poland, this past week commemorating the beginning of the war and explicitly denounced the Hitler-Stalin Pact. But that followed a period of polemics between the present-day Russian government and the Poland over the question of who's guilty for the beginning of the war. The Russian government in recent years has put renewed emphasis in its role in the Great Patriotic War (their name for the Second World War) as a matter of historic pride and national legitimation.

Putin's statement on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact explicitly recalled an official statement from 1989 under the Soviet government of Michael Gorbachov condemning the "immoral character" of the treaty, so this position is not new. But Putin's latest affirmation of it was responding to current diplomatic pressures, as well.

But along with his condemnation of his own country's role, he also repeated the reproach against Western governments over the Munich Agreement for trying to turn Hitler's aggression eastward.

Putin also acknowledged the Polish outrage over the Katyn Massacre of 1940, in which the Russians murdered around 15,000 Polish officers and for decades blamed it on the Germans.

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