Ed Driscoll

'Forget the Good War'—Reframing World War II

At least until the tail end of the first decade of the 21st century, World War II always seemed like pretty settled history to me; but it’s obvious that the Second World War–particularly the conduct of the Allies–is being reframed by a surprising number of groups. As Victor Davis Hanson wrote last month:

Questioning the past is a good thing, but rewriting it contrary to facts is quite another. In the latest round of revisionism about the Second World War, the awful British and naive Americans, not the poor Germans, have ended up as the real culprits.Take the new book by conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World. Buchanan argues that, had the imperialist Winston Churchill not pushed poor Hitler into a corner, he would have never invaded Poland in 1939, which triggered an unnecessary Allied response.

Maybe then the subsequent world war, and its 50 million dead, could have been avoided. Taking that faulty argument to its logical end, I suppose today a united West might live in peace with a reformed (and victorious) Nazi Third Reich.

On the Left, novelist Nicholson Baker’s nonfiction title, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, builds the case that the Allied bombing of German cities was tantamount to a war crime.

Apparently there was no need to, in blanket fashion, attack German urban centers and the industry, transportation, and communications concentrated within them. From Baker’s comfortable vantage point, either the war was amoral or unnecessary — or there must have been more humane ways to stop the flow of fuel, crews, and equipment for the Waffen SS divisions that invaded Europe and Russia.

In the luxury of some 60 years of postwar peace and affluence — and perhaps in anger over the current Iraq war — Buchanan and Baker and other revisionists engage in a common sort of Western second-guessing. The result is that they always demand liberal democracies be not just better and smarter than their adversaries, but almost superhuman in their perfection.

That’s the theme of a new mini-series written by moderate historian Niall Ferguson, but aired on the otherwise typically liberal PBS, as Adam Buckman notes in an article whose subtitle says it all: “PBS Show To Argue Allies As Bad As Nazis:”

MEMBERS of the Greatest Generation – especially those with weak hearts – might want to steer clear of an upcoming PBS documentary that suggests the Allied victory in World War II was “tainted” and questions whether it can even be called a victory.Moreover, the documentary, titled “The War of the World: A New History of the 20th Century,” asserts that the war could only be won by forming an unholy alliance with a dictator – Joseph Stalin, who was as brutal as the one they were fighting, Adolf Hitler – and by adopting the same “pitiless” and “remorseless” tactics practiced by the enemy.

The three-part documentary is a companion to the best-selling book, “The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West” by Harvard and Oxford historian Niall Ferguson. The one-hour Part One of the documentary premieres Monday night at 10 on Ch. 13. The other two parts air the following two Mondays. World War II is the focus of Part Two.

His thesis: Instead of looking at the 20th century as having been disrupted by two world wars with periods of relative peace before, between and after them, it is more appropriate to view much of the history of the century as a continuous bloody conflict that was interrupted occasionally for a few short, exhausted catnaps of relative calm.

It is an illuminating viewpoint, and Ferguson does an effective job tying all of the century’s mass deportations, enslavements, ethnic cleansings and genocides together so that you can’t help being won over to his view that the violence of the 20th century was virtually never-ending.

I think Austin Bay once quipped to me (and possibly wrote about the theme in a column as well) that you could make a pretty good case that the First World War didn’t actually conclude until 1991, (and arguably, not even then) so that’s not an unreasonable point, though as Buckman notes:

But it is Ferguson’s revisionist view of the tactics applied by the Allies in World War II that is likely to raise the hackles of those who have always believed in the “necessity” of bombing German and Japanese civilians, culminating in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to end a war we did not start.”I think it’s very hard for those who have imbibed the idea of a ‘great generation’ that what the Allies did to defeat the Axis was in some measure to adopt totalitarian tactics,” Ferguson says in a Q&A on PBS’s Web site.

Sort of a Liberal Fascism, to coin a phrase originally spoken, favorably, three quarters of a century ago by the same author also who inspired the title of Ferguson’s miniseries, which Dorothy Rabinowitz reviews, and in an essay titled “Forget the Good War,” adds:

Russian troops had liberated Auschwitz, yes, but we’re reminded that Stalin had imprisoned and murdered millions. Does this mean the liberation of Auschwitz was nothing? A good question with no answer. Mr. Ferguson is content to have delivered another in his long stream of accusatory ironies and contradictions, all in support of the claim that the morally tainted Allied armies should not be credited as liberators.The Americans and British had adopted the totalitarian techniques of their foes, Mr. Ferguson contends in a series of arguments ranging from the strange to the simply inflated. Japanese combatants kept fighting to the very end, he explains, because they feared the cruelty of their American captors. Undoubtedly some American troops were guilty of killing Japanese prisoners. In this film’s version of events, the slaughter was wholesale. By way of support Mr. Ferguson summons testimony from Charles Lindbergh — pro-Nazi icon of American isolationists. He proceeds to reminds us that Lindbergh had complained, in the 1940s, that Americans thought nothing of killing Japanese prisoners. Noteworthy to be sure — the first and last time, perhaps, that the world was privileged to hear Lindbergh express outrage over the commission of atrocities.

The catalog of Mr. Ferguson’s stranger arguments is too long to go into, but here’s a hint — don’t miss the part about Kursk, the greatest of all tank battles. Here the U.S. seems to stand accused of providing material help that made it possible for the Russians to prevail. Were the Germans supposed to win? Mr. Ferguson doesn’t say, but the question hangs in the air — for good reason.

Meanwhile, regarding Pat Buchanan’s new book, at Pajamas HQ, Sheryl Longin writes:

The left is currently the home of some of the worst forms of cultural relativism, but let us not forget that the right houses its own equally dangerous revisionist historians who attempt to use their false history to influence current events. Now is not a time when America can afford to be fuzzy with the truth. Facts are facts. Ideology blinds people. We forget that at our own peril.

But in the afterward of Liberal Fascism, titled, “The Tempting Of Conservatism,” which documented several examples of how the modern right is also susceptible to fascism, Jonah Goldberg wrote:

In the 1990s liberal anger about Buchanan’s “right-wing” fascism reached a fever pitch. As Molly Ivins wrote in response to Buchanan’s 1992 Republican National Convention speech: “It probably sounded better in the original German.” The irony here is that Buchanan was actually moving to the left. For years Buchanan’s opponents called him a crypto-Nazi for his defense of Ronald Reagan and the GOP. In reality, the only thing that kept his fascist instincts in check was his loyalty to the GOP and the conservative movement. After Reagan and the Cold War, Buchanan abandoned both in a leftward search for his true principles.Buchanan calls himself a “paleoconservative,” but in truth he’s a neo-progressive. During the 2000 election he denounced free marketeers and flat taxers, saying that they spent too much time with “the boys down at the yacht basin.” He came out in favor of capping executive pay, in support of higher unemployment benefits, and against any kind of free-market Medicare reform and backed a “Third Way” approach to government activism. Buchanan’s neo-Progressivism has even caused the onetime Reagan aide to rail against the social Darwinism of the free market.

And Buchanan’s magazine, despite its American Conservative sobriquet, is pretty darn cozy with the far fringes of the American left, and it appears that World War II is yet another issue where Pat and the far left, both then and now are remarkably simpatico.

Could Hollywood beckon next?

Update: Did Pat cook the books? “Busted!… Nazi Sympathizer Pat Buchanan Accused of Plagiarism, Hacked Quotes & Wrong Dates.”