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Patrick Buchanan and the perils of forgetfulness

June 16th, 2008 - 8:13 am

Plato thought that all knowledge was a sort of recollection, anamnesis. I older I get, the more wisdom I discern in that elusive idea–not, perhaps, as an epistemological datum but as a plain statement of political truth. Let me explain. It has often been observed that one of the distinctive achievements of the species homo sapiens sapiens is its ability to pass knowledge down from one generation to the next: the great repositories of technical know-how and scientific insight into the workings of nature are eloquent testaments to this awesome process. Unfortunately, the operation of tradition, of handing down, is less successful in the realm of morals and politics (which is one reason that traditions in the civilizational sense of the word are so important: they are safeguards against the anarchy of innocence). A child born today receives as his birthright the past’s accumulated warehouse of technical knowledge, from reading and writing to the recipe for scones, penicillin, suspension bridges, internal combustion engines, and nuclear weapons. There is an important sense in which a clever 18-year-old knows more physics than Newton, more chemistry than Lavoissier, more mathematics than Euclid. But is he wiser about politics than Madison or Tocqueville? Does he know more about the question, “How should I live my life?” than Socrates?

To ask these questions is to answer them. What prompts me to raise them in the first place is the melancholy reflection that, when it comes to the field political-historical experience, almost nothing is finally settled. Every generation, it seems, has to recollect the vital, hard won lessons of the past. When it comes to political wisdom, forgetfulness is all-too-often mankind’s inheritance. Hence the pertinence of Plato’s arresting image.

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.

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