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Works and Days

History Down the Danube

May 25th, 2010 - 11:51 pm

(Nuremberg)

Triumph of Will

A German remarked today to some of us that he found it odd that, given all the graffiti one sees, there is never any defacement on the great stone stage at Nuremberg (patterned by Albert Speer after the Pergamon altar) that is immortalized in so many film clips of Hitler screaming to the masses in the 1930s.

The German government has done a wonderful job in creating a museum inside the uncompleted Speer-design coliseum not far away from the parade ground. One leaves Nuremberg with the reminder that the fantastic and impossible are just a blink away when the planets line up.

Had I suggested a year ago that the euro would be in freefall and the entire union on the verge of implosion, one would have suggested I was unhinged. Today such an assessment is mainstream to conservative. I think the European debt crisis is far worse than let on, Iran far more likely to get the bomb than we think, and a North Korea far closer to trying something stupid. If we are not careful, there is going to be a Mideast nuclear arms race that will spill into Europe itself. (I take nothing back from the last posting on a seething Germany, and still insist that should an Iran go nuclear, and after it, an Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and should there be real doubt about the reliability of the United States [and I think there is already], then a great nation like Germany amid a financial meltdown in southern Europe would quite quickly dispense with its utopian UN rhetoric and take measures to defend itself from third-rate thugs with missiles that could hit Berlin.)

Europe and immigration

If we revised immigration policy and predicated legal entry on education and skill, ten million Europeans would arrive tomorrow, replete with degrees, expertise, and capital. There is a great unease over here, mostly in worry that no one knows the extent of aggregate debt, only that it is larger than let on and will result in higher taxes and fewer benefits without resulting in budget surpluses. It is always difficult for a government to ask its citizens to pay more than ever, receive less than ever, and end up nevertheless with greater debt than ever.  We’re next.

Here and there a few Germans seem to wonder what Obama is doing, but they are torn: “We are flattered the U.S. wants to emulate our system” versus “Why would you wish to get yourself into the jam we are in?”

World War II (near Regensburg)

We are heading down the Main-Danube canal to meet the Danube with stops and lectures in Regensburg and Vienna, today and tomorrow. There is much discussion in the group on World War II and especially Operation Barbarossa, a lunatic gambit that ensured a war largely won (by May 1941, Europe from the Atlantic to the Russian border was mostly subdued, allied, or neutral) would be largely lost. But one must not fall into the fallacy of hindsight: to us it seems ridiculous for the Wehrmacht to have sent 190 of its divisions into Russia when Stalin was granting all of Hitler’s requests for strategic materials, when a far easier and smarter route (with implications for hampering the British fleet in the Pacific), would have been to send 100 divisions into Egypt, take Suez, and go into the Middle East — Russia and Turkey remaining quasi-allies eager for a share of the spoils.

But again, at the time remember the Nazi logic, not all of it quite so unhinged as it is in light of the subsequent disaster: the full actualization of the dark ideas in Mein Kampf could only take place in the east. The Wehrmacht was largely undefeated and had little worries of losing anywhere. Britain was a relatively quiet front; and victory in the east was seen as a way of turning back again in more confidence to the west. Russian strategic materials in hand would ensure that a British sea blockade as in World War I would have no effect. Stalin had sort of cheated on of his deals with Hitler and was carving up territory in the Baltic states and Romania. The World War I calculus (4 years and defeat in the west versus 3 years and victory in the east) loomed large in 1941, and so suggested Russia would fall even more quickly than had France.

The Soviet Union had also done poorly in Poland both in the 1920s and again in 1939 and was undistinguished in its “victory” over Finland. Its officer corps had not long earlier been wiped out by Stalin. Hitler added all that up and with some evidence felt the Red Army would fold when 200 plus divisions of Germans and allies surprised it with complete air superiority.

Germany was not at war with the U.S. in June 1941, and had no idea that it would be in the immediate future — much less that Russia would ever be supplied by the full American industrial colossus via Iran. To Hitler, perhaps, more likely than a Pearl Harbor was the scenario that Japan might get over its bruising from the Red Army in 1939, forgive the Axis treachery of the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact, and thus return to an offensive on Russia’s eastern front, ensuring Stalin an eventual two-front war.

By late 1941 Operation Barbarossa (Hitler could not have invented a more give-away codename for the invasion) was revealed as the flawed and suicidal plan that it inherently was; but in June 1941, if one were a demonic Hitler, there were logical reasons to think it would work (even with his lunatic intrusion into daily command decisions and the winter of 1941-2).

As a general rule when reviewing historical idiocies, it is always wiser to understand the thinking of the time rather than just the post-facto realities. (e.g., Bin Laden after the first World Trade Center attack, the east-African embassy bombings, the USS Cole and other unanswered assaults could reasonably expect two big holes in the otherwise indestructible Twin Towers, a brief retaliatory cruise missile shower, and a Clintonian speech from a new and unknown president — and more such attacks on the agenda. That both towers collapsed from the enormous explosive force killing 3,000, that the American dragon was aroused, and that Bush was not Clinton seems logical to us, but not necessary to our enemies.)

A Final Note

As much as we suspect the pretensions of the European Union, Americans must appreciate its achievement in lessening European tensions after the fall of the Cold War, the end of a common enemy in the Soviet Union, and the gradual diminution of a U.S. presence. If this implosion begins to unravel the EU, I think we will be once again right in the middle, rather than at the end, of history. There is simply too much history, too much memory, too many players over here to think a post-EU continent is going to always look like the Netherlands rather than from time to time the former Yugoslavia. Just think of Cyprus, the Turkish-Greek rivalry in the Aegean, the rise of radical Islam within Europe, Russia energy extortion, the large number of nuclearly capable but now non-nuclear states, and a hundred other scenarios that would have been unthinkable a year ago (but then so was the current meltdown).

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