Coming Soon: World War II, The Director's Cut Edition
This Just In: The National Socialists were socialists -- as they told their supporters in the 1920s. And then once in power, followed up their talking points with monstrous wealth distribution schemes:
According to Götz Aly’s Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, most previous treatments of German complicity in genocide overlook a significant aspect of Nazi rule. Aly, a historian at the Fritz Bauer Institut in Frankfurt and the author of more than a dozen books on fascism, urges us to follow the money, arguing that the Nazis maintained popular support—a necessary precondition for the “final solution”—not because of terror or ideological affinity but through a simple system of “plunder,” “bribery,” and a generous welfare state. When first published in 2005, Aly’s book caused a minor sensation in Germany, with critics accusing him of everything from sloppy arithmetic (a charge he vigorously denies in a postscript to the English translation) to betraying his soixante-huitard roots by implicitly connecting West German social democracy to fascism. After the massive success of books like Günter Grass’ Crabwalk and Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire, two bestsellers stressing that Germans too were victimized by fascism, Hitler’s Beneficiaries shifts the brunt of the blame back toward ordinary Germans.
Far from being victims of Nazism, Aly argues, the majority of Germans were indirect war profiteers. Requisitioned Jewish property, resources stolen from the conquered, and punitive taxes levied on local businesses insulated citizens from shortages and allowed the regime to create a “racist-totalitarian welfare state.” The German home front, Aly claims, suffered less privation than its English and American counterparts. To understand Hitler’s popularity, Aly proposes, “it is necessary to focus on the socialist aspect of National Socialism.”
While underemphasized by modern historians, this socialism was stressed in many contemporaneous accounts of fascism, especially by libertarian thinkers. F.A. Hayek famously dedicated The Road to Serfdom to “the socialists of all parties”—that is, Labourites, Bolsheviks, and National Socialists. “It was the union of the anti-capitalist forces of the right and the left, the fusion of radical and conservative socialism,” Hayek wrote, “which drove out from Germany everything that was liberal.” Ludwig von Mises agreed, arguing in 1944 that “both Russia and Germany are right in calling their systems socialist.”
The Nazis themselves regarded the left-right convergence as integral to understanding fascism. Adolf Eichmann viewed National Socialism and communism as “quasi-siblings,” explaining in his memoirs that he “inclined towards the left and emphasized socialist aspects every bit as much as nationalist ones.” As late as 1944, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels publicly celebrated “our socialism,” reminding his war-weary subjects that Germany “alone [has] the best social welfare measures.” Contrast this, he advised, with the Jews, who were the very “incarnation of capitalism.”
Instead though, note the incredible tweet atop this post from self-described "green and leftwing schoolteacher," as spotted by David Thompson, who quips in response, "Not of History, I Hope."
Meanwhile, Ed Schultz of MSNBC, that Comcast-owned socialist redoubt, employs a little World War II revisionism of his own, in a tweet he quickly deleted:
Of course, Ed's far from the only person who forgot the primary victims of the Holocaust:
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Last week while he was otherwise on vacation, Glenn Reynolds retweeted the following item:
History Channel ad in metro: "WWI made Stalin a man. WWII made him a tyrant." I'm pretty sure Stalin was a mature tyrant before WWII.
— Carissa Mulder (@Carissa_ND) May 8, 2014
I'm kicking myself for not taking a photo of it, but last week in New York, I saw an ad for the same History Channel series, The World Wars posted on the entrance to the Lexington Ave. IRT with similar verbiage. It was something along the lines of World War I made Hitler into a man or solider -- I forget what the first noun was, but the second half of the equation was tough to forget: "World War II made Hitler into a monster." (If you've seen the ad, post the language in the comments, or point me to a photo of it.)
To paraphrase Carissa's tweet above, Hitler was a monster long before September 1st, 1939. Both ads imply that the war passively transformed these men, instead of their roles in shaping the conflict. Shades of the infamous response from a Hollywood studio executive when Lionel Chetwynd, Roger Simon's sparring partner on PJTV's Poliwood, attempted to pitch a World War II-themed film on the battle for Dieppe, the prototype for the D-Day invasion, in which 3,600 Canadian soldiers were killed by the Nazis:
Many years later, when Chetwynd was a successful Hollywood writer specializing in historical dramas, he told the Dieppe story during a Malibu dinner party — as a sort of tribute to the men who died there so people could sit around debating politics at Malibu dinner parties. One of the guests was a network head who asked Chetwynd to come in and pitch the story.
"So I went in," Chetwynd told me, "and someone there said, 'So these bloodthirsty generals sent these men to a certain death?'
"And I said, 'Well, they weren't bloodthirsty; they wept. But how else were we to know how Hitler could be toppled from Europe?' And she said, 'Well, who's the enemy?' I said, 'Hitler. The Nazis.' And she said, 'Oh, no, no, no. I mean, who's the real enemy?'"
"It was the first time I realized," Chetwynd continued, "that for many people evil such as Nazism can only be understood as a cipher for evil within ourselves. They've become so persuaded of the essential ugliness of our society and its military, that to tell a war story is to tell the story of evil people."
Unlike the wars that preceded and followed it, World War II appeared for decades to be the one modern conflict whose narrative was largely settled. In recent years though, in addition to the above bits of revisionism, we've seen the EU dubbing it the "European Civil War," Hollywood chucking WWII's moral imperative for nihilism, the Smithsonian insulting those dropped the atom bombs on Japan, and the left calling into question the character of the American people in general during WWII.
Like the citizens of Oceania being told on one day they're fighting East Asia and the next they're fighting Eurasia, how World War II will largely be remembered should be fascinating to survey in the coming decades. I can't wait to see how the Director's Cut Edition completely changes the ending...