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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 8, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Third Reich, 1914, History

History is always anachronistic. That is, the account of the past is, by definition, written down from the point of view of the present, and the history becomes at once an account of the era it is about and an inadvertent record of the era from which it is viewed.

For instance, I am listening to William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, downloaded from Audible.com. I first read the book when I was ten years old; my older sister had been required to read the book for her high school history class, and she passed it along to me in the correct belief that it would interest me.

The Rise and Fall became one of the formative experiences of my life. What stuck most clearly in my memory were five things:

1. The agony of the vivid and personal terms in which Shirer told of the holocaust, so that I not only wept at the time of reading, but was haunted by the knowledge of how readily human beings descend to levels of barbarism that had been unthinkable to me up to then.

2. The grim knowledge of how those who are determined to rule over others will say whatever they think will achieve their purposes, with neither honor nor honesty -- no sense that their words must be connected to reality, that having made a promise they must keep it, or that having declared a friendship they must be loyal.

3. The eagerness with which those charged with defending the free countries conspired to give Hitler everything he wanted, and in the name of "keeping the peace" threw away the freedom and national aspirations of other nations, only to be left to fight a much more difficult and costly war later.

4. The short-sightedness and stupidity of partisan politicians in Germany who refused to unite to oppose the obvious danger of the Nazi thugs. At no point was it anything less than obvious that Hitler intended to destroy democracy, brutally crush and kill his opponents, and take Germany to war. Yet industrialists, military leaders, and rival politicians actively supported Hitler's cause in the foolish belief that they could somehow influence or control him.

5. Hitler's self-story, which grew into megalomania as he was proven right again and again. Even though in the moment of action he was often tormented with fear that he might be wrong, he nevertheless did act boldly, based upon his conclusions about the weakness and stupidity of his rivals and foes, and was right so often that his eventual arrogance can be understood.

Fortunately, this overweaning self-confidence became the achilles heel that brought him to utter ruin; but I learned that it is the person who acts boldly and, yes, courageously who changes the world, for good or ill; and I learned that even (or especially) the most evil person is the hero of his own self-story.

Those lessons have openly shaped my understanding of world and national affairs from the age of ten onwards. Now, however, rereading the book fifty years later, I have realized that it shaped me in ways that I did not remember.

First, Shirer constantly refers to and evaluates the sources of his information. Sometimes two different diaries tell of the same account, while a memoir and contemporaneous notes offer competing versions. Shirer will typify a source as "usually reliable" or "often self-serving," as "designed to defend himself at Nuremberg" or astonishingly candid.

I have spent the rest of my life reading history in exactly the same manner, constantly asking myself, How could the writer possibly know this? What was the source he relied on for this conclusion?

Second, Shirer constantly shows us the contrast between Nazi propaganda and the actual events, and reminds us that incredible as the Nazi version was, the German people believed the propaganda.

However, he is fair about this: He himself was a leading American journalist (for UPI, CBS, and others) during that time, and was often an eyewitness.

Even though he detested and feared Hitler, he still took many government lies at face value, unable to conceive of a government lying on such a scale. He was only able to find out the truth about many things after the war, when the whole archive of the Third Reich was laid open for examination.

Because of his account of Nazi propaganda, I have remained skeptical my entire life, realizing that I am rarely being told the whole story and assuming that stories are always being spun or outright lied about. Thus I have watched for the signs that should have told the German people they were being lied to.

I have also watched with sadness as the American people, too, swallowed obvious lies and propaganda and continue to do so, whether it emanates from the Right or the Left, from religious leaders or politicians, or even from absurd rumors that fly with the speed of viral web legends.

Until this week, though I had often told people that Shirer's Rise and Fall was one of the most important books in my development as a writer and thinker, I had not really understood how very deeply these lessons had penetrated my worldview and shaped my analysis of world affairs.

However, because fifty years have passed, I now see other things about Shirer's work that I could not possibly have noticed in 1961.

For one thing, Shirer has his own biases. The obvious one is his loathing for Hitler and the Nazis. He freely uses adjectives and characterizations that are hardly the language of the impartial historian. The Nazis behaved monstrously and he condemns them frequently.

But in 1961, this was such a universal view that it was almost obligatory to speak this way, and no reader would have taken it as excessive; indeed, Shirer is rather restrained in his condemnation of evils that had ended only fifteen years before his book appeared.

Still, writers who have a particular worldview will inadvertently or deliberately "bear witness" to the beliefs that they have in common with their intended readers. When I see writers "bear witness" to global warming, to hating George Bush, to the evils of the Patriot Act, or to this or that shibboleth of their thoughtgroup, I may shake my head in despair; but I must also suspect that I am no less likely to be bearing witness to my biases in ways I do not see.

What I learn from this book now, after all the years of watching world and national politics and policies during the intervening decades, is that people have democracy only as long as they are willing to look past their own partisanship in order to cooperate in good government.

The Nazis could have been kept from power quite easily, right up to the very moment when they seized absolute control of Germany, had short-sighted groups and individuals only been willing to compromise with their sane rivals in order to prevent the Nazi takeover.

But each group only looked at what they feared to lose or what they hoped to gain. As long as the Nazis promised to crush the trade unions (a promise they kept), the industrialists helped them. As long as the Nazis promised to rearm Germany, the military helped them.

The judiciary cooperated by imposing light sentences on right-wing traitors and heavy ones on far lesser offenders from the Left; thus Hitler served a ludicrously brief sentence for his attempted putsch in the early 1920s, a crime for which, had he been a Social Democrat, he would have spent decades in jail, if he had not been executed.

And so on, and so on. That is why I watch with despair both Right and Left in American public life as they destroy any chance of good government or good public policy by their uncompromising insistence on ideological purity. Buying into absurdly rigid dogma sets merely because one's thoughtgroup insists on it makes the individual stupider and the group more dangerous to everyone.

The Germans of the 1920s and 1930s were no less and no more human than Americans today, or than people of any culture or any nation.

While different cultures choose from different menus of available stupidities and evils, they are all dining from the same underlying list of ingredients, and the meals that result have a numbing sameness in every era of the world.

The lies, hatreds, and relentless evil of the Nazis are no less obvious in Muslim extremists today, yet intellectuals in Europe and America embrace the hate-filled rhetoric and actions of terrorist groups exactly the way that Nazi sympathizers saw the "justice" in Nazi claims and actions right up to, and even after, the German invasion of Poland, though atrocities were already plainly visible in their actions in Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Deliberate stupidity is the only possible explanation for the way that Poland cheerfully joined Germany in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the Poles gleefully seizing their piece of the broken nation -- even though it was obvious to everyone that Germany would do the same to Poland, whose "Polish corridor" had once been an integral part of Germany.

Then, when Poland was about to be dismembered, Russian joined in the conquest of Poland even though it was obvious (especially to those who had read Hitler's Mein Kampf) that it was only a matter of time before Hitler turned to attack the USSR.

In both cases, Poland and Russia willingly helped Hitler destroy another country which, had they instead helped it to survive, could have made it much harder for Hitler to invade and conquer them.

Thus do nations behave against their own obvious self-interest, inventing specious reasons why they should behave very badly.

Another lesson is that war is not the ultimate evil. Had France and Britain taken military action when Germany occupied the Rhineland and Saar, or when Germany forced itself on Austria, or when Germany threatened to invade the impregnable defenses of Czechoslovakia; had they even taken immediate action when Hitler invaded Poland, Hitler's armies would have been crushed, and whether or not his generals removed him by coup, World War II, as we experienced its horrors, would not have happened.

In other words, sometimes a small war, fought when the enemy is weaker and disunited, is better than endless deferment of a war that the enemy is determined to fight, for such delay, especially when accompanied by unilateral disarmament, invariably leads to much more terrible struggles later.

And there were few citizens of the captive countries under Nazi rule who would not have declared, with all the fervor of their hearts, that it would have been better to have lost many thousands of soldiers on the battlefield in the effort to prevent Nazi rule.

Being ruled by evil is worse than dying and killing in the cause of freedom, of defense of home and family.

The problem is that, because we cannot see the future, those who are wilfully blind to the openly stated intentions of aggressive enemies are able to pretend to themselves that their "peaceful" actions are not, in fact, a foolish and cowardly postponement of war, or a decision to be ruled by evil.

Contrary to myth, it does not take two to tango, when the dance in question is war. If one side wants war, then the other side has only two choices -- to fight back, or to surrender. Deciding not to fight in such circumstances is surrender.

In 1960 and 1961, when The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich sold millions of copies and was widely read, when the memory of World War II was still fresh and our country was led by the people who had sacrificed to win the bitter struggle to destroy Nazism, these lessons were obvious and clear.

But today, I am 61, and am among the youngest of those who learned that history and remember it today. I see the generation after me -- and a good many of my own -- believing lies and propaganda no less obvious and no less pernicious than the lies believed by the German people and by the people who appeased or admired the Nazis.

I see us make heroes out of idiots, causes out of lies, while often vilifying the few who have the vision, courage, and wisdom to lead us in defense of our freedoms.

Because others fought for those freedoms, we do not know how easily they can be lost; because we ignorant Americans do not know about life in countries without freedom, we make ourselves weak against our real enemies, while condemning people within our own society whose offenses are trivial or imaginary.

*

In case you are among those who agree with me that there is no subject of study of study more important to the citizens of a free nation than history, let me point out a few interesting and valuable books.

Jack Beatty, The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began.

This book will come out in paperback next February with a revised and improved subtitle: Why the Great War Was Not Inevitable. But I'm glad I'm reading it now, as Veterans Day approaches; remember that 11 November is commemorated as the day of the armistice that ended World War I.

Often World War I is spoken of as if the arms race and system of alliances in the years leading up to 1914 made it impossible to avert war.

This fits in with the frequently stated belief that history is the result of great forces. And the great book Guns, Germs, and Steel makes a sound case for the fact that great empires and civilizations can only arise where, geographically and culturally, they are possible.

Yet within those "movements of great forces," there are still individual decisions and actions that determine whether a nation will go to war or remain at peace, whether they will behave aggressively or cooperatively.

We take it for granted now, for instance, that France and Britain acted cooperatively in the years after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870; but for centuries beforehand they had been bitter rivals, with much blood shed in nearly constant warfare. Someone made the decisions necessary to change that relationship.

Beatty points out, with a useful level of detail, exactly why the Great War, as World War I was called until it was reignited by Hitler in 1939, did not have to take place, and was in fact caused by the decisions of individuals who had complete freedom to choose otherwise.

For instance, Britain was on the verge of civil war over the Irish question, as the Liberal Party tried to grant Home Rule to Ireland, the Protestants of northern Ireland (Ulster) threatened to go to war to prevent it, and the British Army and Navy was riven by mutiny as officers and men made it plain they would not obey orders to attack the Ulster Protestants in order to grant Home Rule to the Catholic majority in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary was an empire that desperately needed to reorganize itself as a federation in order to accommodate the nationalism of its members. Both Britain and Austria-Hungary seized upon war as a way of temporarily uniting their own divided nations against a common enemy.

Beatty does a splendid job of giving far more detail than I had known before about incidents that led toward World War I, each of which makes fascinating reading. Despite much reading about the period, I had known little about Woodrow Wilson's myopic intervention in the Mexican revolution, where he bought into Pancho Villa's self-created image as a hero of the people.

Then, in the effort to aid the revolution, Wilson committed exactly the same mistake that he deplored in his predecessors -- he sent American troops into Latin America to make sure that the "right" man won.

I wish I could say that Beatty is reliable in his historical accounts. I trust his sources -- that is, I believe that everything he says happened, actually happened. But he reveals his own biases very early on, when he absurdly equates German militarism with American "militarism" today, on the basis that America spends far more of its GDP on its military than Germany did.

It required a special kind of blindness for Beatty to make such an assertion, a confusion of definitions of "militarism" that approaches deliberate self-deception. In Germany in 1914, the military was given extraordinary respect by the general population -- it was taken for granted that college professors would step off the sidewalk to allow uniformed soldiers to pass, and the soldiers felt themselves entitled to give a beating to anyone who did not show them such respect.

Can you imagine such an attitude in America today, when smug professors often feel themselves as superior to any military person as German officers felt themselves superior to any civilian in 1914? The intellectual elite of America today is so disdainful of the military that they think themselves polluted by the presence of the ROTC on their campuses.

Yet Beatty thinks that somehow we are even more "militaristic" than Germany then.

This kind of apples-to-elbows comparison is routine among what passes for "intellectuals" in America today -- so that it is tempting to take Beatty's account of the misbehavior of the German military prior to World War I and compare it, not to our own diffident military, but to the arrogant stupidity of the American university professoriate of modern America, of which Beatty's statement is a symptom.

But the scholar Beatty trumps the groupthinker Beatty in this book; as long as you read carefully, to allow for the selection bias that colors almost every page, you can still learn much that is useful and valuable about the lead-up to World War I, and about the way that individual choices, made for immediate reasons, can have disastrous unintended consequences.

William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861. Like Beatty's Lost History of 1914, this is a treatise on the triggers of war.

Many books have dealt with the underlying causes of the American Civil War. Cooper takes these for granted, and instead looks at the decisions, week by week and day by day, that led to the actual beginning of hostilities between the North and South.

This book is written at such a level of detail that one can feel a bit lost in it, a feeling that is greatly magnified by Cooper's decision to write "impartially."

This is an illusion, of course. Cooper, a biographer of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, partakes of two obvious biases -- toward the Confederacy, with whose desire to be "left alone" Cooper obviously sympathizes; and against anyone who decides to wage avoidable offensive war, like Lincoln and, one must say, George W. Bush.

Thus Cooper manages to simultaneously partake of the "anti-war" groupthink of modern academia and the moral blindness of those who think that the Civil War can be considered without looking at the institution of slavery as an abhorrent practice that had to be eliminated for America to consider itself civilized.

Yet, as with Beatty, the bias -- which pretends to be an utter lack of bias -- can be overcome, leaving behind a very useful collection of details that are often skipped over in other books.

Oddly, though this book seems to have the same theme as the excellent1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart, the overlap between the books is surprisingly slight. But the contrast in attitudes is plain. Goodheart writes without condemnation, but it is clear that awful as the Civil War was, he thinks the morally right side won; and that is not at all clear in the Cooper.

History is a tricky business. The stories we believe about ourselves and other nations, about rulers and societies, shape our present decisions. History cannot be written or read without bias; that is why it is important to read a lot of history, including multiple histories about the same or overlapping events.

Only by looking at much evidence and many treatments of the same events and people can we hope to arrive at conclusions true enough to be useful.


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