Pat Buchanan: Knave and Fool

September 1 marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The day was marked with solemn remembrances from governments and survivors. They recalled the unprovoked German invasion of Poland that led to Britain and France honoring their defense guarantees, which plunged the planet into its second great conflict in as many generations.

Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan acknowledged the day a little differently.

"Pitchfork Pat" wrote a column in which he reiterated his long-held contention that Adolf Hitler did not want to start a general war, that he was only trying to unite the German-speaking peoples of Europe, and that he was generally misunderstood in his intentions toward France and Great Britain.

He has also insisted over the years that we're missing something about the Holocaust. What we're missing is that the whole thing was just a big mistake. The Nazis didn't mean to kill millions of Jews; it just kinda happened accidental-like:

The Holocaust was not a cause of the war, but a consequence of the war. No war, no Holocaust.

And then there's this monumental dishonesty about the Final Solution:

Not until midwinter 1942 was the Wannsee Conference held, where the Final Solution was on the table. That conference was not convened until Hitler had been halted in Russia, was at war with America and sensed doom was inevitable. Then the trains began to roll.

What Buchanan fails to mention -- or more likely is just plain ignorant of -- was that the SS was already all over Poland and eastern Russia by the fall of 1941, with death squads (the dreaded Einsatzgruppen) who were conducting mass executions of Jews. They had even been inventing a special truck that would direct the exhaust into the rear of the vehicle that the SS would stuff to overflowing with Jews. The means of genocide had not been perfected yet, as it took too long for the victims to die and it wasted precious fuel in the process. The poison Zyklon B, which was used to gas death camp inmates, was a few years down the road from being suggested.

The simple point: the Holocaust may not have been a "cause" of World War II, but Hitler's obsession with Lebensraum was. His plans were to enslave the Slavs and murder the Jews. This was proven at Nuremberg as the "big fish" Nazis were convicted of coldly planning "aggressive war" against humanity in the 1930s.

What was the proof? Millions of documents were found after the war in salt mines, caves, and other hidden enclaves that contained the whole shocking story. Nazi party archives, Wehrmacht files, personal papers of Hitler subordinates -- an unprecedented event in world history (and a godsend for historians) where the secret deliberations of a government's workings were known in a near contemporaneous time frame. Nothing like it happened again until the archives were thrown open when the Soviet Union collapsed. And nowhere near the access was granted when that occurred.

Pat Buchanan's faulty, ludicrous notions of the history of that time are bad enough. But it is his curious, depressing revisionism of Adolf Hitler's motives for starting the conflict that make him stand out from other revisionists, some of whom have added substantially to the debate over the origins of World War II. There have been thoughtful reassessments of the role the British played in the tangle of European politics prior to World War I that have enriched our understanding of the century's two great convulsions. But Buchanan's analysis of British motivations and especially Winston Churchill's role in history have not added much value to the discussion.

Buchanan's anniversary piece is chock full of rhetorical questions, many of which he tried to answer in his 2008 book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. In that book, the polemicist tried to play historian and was roundly criticized for his effort. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his thumbnail review of the book in Newsweek, Buchanan's thesis about German innocence in starting World War II depends entirely on ignoring most of the rest of history of that time:

[I]n order to believe his thesis one has to be prepared to argue that Hitler was a rational actor with intelligible and negotiable demands, whose declared, demented ambitions in Mein Kampf were presumably to be disregarded as mere propaganda.