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In 1961 AJP Taylor published his book The Origins of the Second World War, which caused quite an outcry. Taylor’s account dismissed the argument of the historians Hugh Trevor Roper and Alan Bullock that Hitler had planned the war from long before his ascent to power. ‘Much to my surprise The Origins of the Second World War proved to be the most controversial and provocative of all my books’. ‘It did not occur to me that anyone would see in it an apology for Hitler or praise for appeasement’. In the ‘Second Thoughts’ published in the 1963 edition Taylor said ‘I make no moral judgement of my own’, but only ‘to understand what happened and why it happened’.66 Against the argument that an outline of Hitler’s
conquest could be found in his speeches, Taylor argued for some perspective:
Hitler certainly directed his general to prepare for war. But so did the British, and for that matter every other government. It is the job of general staffs to prepare for war.67 Hugh Trevor-Roper was outraged, and characterised Taylor’s argument ‘Hitler was a statesman who merely sought to reassert Germany’s “natural weight”’, the war was ‘not Hitler’s fault’. Trevor-Roper saw any surrender of the doctrine that Hitler planned world conquest from the start as too great a concession to doubts about British imperialism. He replied sarcastically that The Origins of the Second World War’s lesson for the 1950s is clear, caricaturing Taylor: ‘Mr Khruschev, we should recognise, has no more ambitions of world conquest than Hitler’ and that the proper response to his ‘limited aims’ is ‘unilateral disarmament’.68 Bullock answering Taylor summed up by saying that ‘Hitler and the nation which followed him still bear, not the sole, but the primary responsibility for the war which began in 1939’.69
Replying to his critics, Taylor dodged the issue by defending one position he was arguing loudly, and the other only quietly. With some justice, looking back over the debate Taylor wrote ‘everyone now agrees that Hitler had no clear-cut plans and instead was a supreme opportunist, taking advantages as they came’. More, Taylor wrote ‘the Origins, despite its defects, has now become the new orthodoxy’. Taylor says Alan Bullock ‘argued in the original version of his Hitler that Hitler planned every step towards war and knew exactly what he was doing’, but ‘when the book went into paperback Alan revised it, now asserting that Hitler had no idea what he was doing and moved from one expedient to another’.70 While Taylor laid claim to victory on the argument that Hitler had no blueprint for world domination, he was more guarded about the second argument in the book, which is a restatement of what in international relations theory is known as the ‘realist’ case.
In the 1963 ‘Second Thoughts’ Taylor wrote:
I have never seen any sense in the question of war guilt or war innocence. In a world of sovereign states, each does the best it can for its own interests; and can be criticized at most for mistakes, not for crimes.71 Tim Mason objected to Taylor’s argument that by seeing Germany as just another state whose ‘foreign policies are determined’ by ‘raison d’état and the need to respond to international pressures’, and because in Taylor’s work ‘international relations are portrayed as largely autonomous from other spheres of politics’, he fails in his declared goal of identifying the causes of the Second World War by leaving out the main one. ‘National Socialism was perhaps the profoundest cause of the Seconf World War, but Mr Taylor’s book is not informed by any conception of the distinctive character and role of National Socialism in the history of twentieth-century Europe’.72 Replying to Mason, Taylor wrote He is suggesting, if I understand him aright, that without Hitler and the National Socialist party there would have been no German problem – no unrest, no disputed frontiers, no shadow of a new German domination over Europe.73 … a position which to Taylor makes no sense, because the cause of the war is not to be found in the personality of Hitler, or even in the special nature of Fascism, but in the unresolved balance between the Great Powers. On this argument, though, Taylor did not carry the day. Even the celebrated Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm abandons all pretense to a social scientific analysis of the war, writing dismissively: ‘the question of who or what caused the Second World War can be answered in two words: Adolf Hitler’.74 Taylor was of course right to insist that Germany under National Socialism was not qualitatively more belligerent than the other Great Powers. It was not Fascism that led to war, but the unresolved inter-imperialist conflicts among them. Taylor quotes E.H. Carr to underline the point: ‘Those who defend the status quo are as responsible for a war as those who attack it’.75 But also in ‘Second Thoughts’ Taylor made it clear that if he was criticising the Allies, it was for not standing up to Germany: ‘It was perfectly obvious that Germany would seek to become a great power again; obvious after 1933 that her domination would be of a peculiarly barbaric sort’. In that case ‘Why did the victors [of the First World War] not resist her?’ 76 To that extent, Taylor was not really willing to stand apart from the case for the British war effort, and his attempts to argue a disinterested, scientific attitude to the causes of the Second World War could not be seen through to its conclusion.
Taylor was of course reaching back to an earlier analysis of international relations undertaken before the Second World War. In the aftermath of the Versailles settlement many people had tried to analyse its weaknesses. Taylor’s objection to the ‘War Guilt’ attached to Germany after the Second World War echoes the many protests against the ‘War Guilt’ clause in the Versailles settlement, Article 231, which held Germany responsible for the First World War. Two authors in particular made the case against the Versailles Treaty and its blaming of Germany for a war that all the powers had fought: John Maynard Keynes and Edward Hallett Carr. Keynes’ short book The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) which outlined the likely negative effects of reparations, warning that it could only help Lenin ‘to destroy the capitalist system’. Keynes polemic against the ‘Carthaginian Peace’ did much to turn the American public against the Versailles settlement.
E. H. Carr, in his book International Relations Since the Peace Treaties (1937), could see that the post-First World War settlement was unstable, not just because of the war guilt clause, or the reparations, but because the buffer states that had been created at the end of the war, carved out of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were fundamentally weak.
As Carr explained the end of 1936 saw the world ‘divided into two groups, one led by Germany, Italy and Japan, the other by France and the Soviet Union’. But according to Carr ‘the rival groups were linked not so much by a common political faith’: ‘The fundamental division was between those who were in the main satisfied with the existing international distribution of the world’s goods and those who were not’.77 More shockingly, Carr wrote that that ‘the war-mongering of the dissatisfied Powers was the “natural, cynical reaction” to the sentimental and dishonest platitudinising of the satisfied Powers on the common interest in peace’.78 Carr and Keynes between them were analysts of international relations who wanted to move beyond the atavistic name-calling that characterised the Versailles peace. In their world people were not so naïve as to imagine that one person could start a war, or indeed that one country could. Instead their generation tried to understand the social processes that lay behind the war drive. Carr often talked as if the drive to war was inherent to the history of all nations, but really it is a special feature of capitalist societies, that necessarily take the political form of rival nation states. Keynes, even less willing to look into the abyss than the more cold-blooded Carr, only hoped that the rivalries could be managed by some financial wizardry. After the Second World War scholars fell backwards from the rational approaches of these scholars into a pre-modern understanding of the war, as Taylor discovered in the outraged reaction to his modestly rational investigation into the causes of the Second World War. Still, the impact of Taylor’s book showed that the official version of the Second World War was straining at the seams.
The historians of the New Left
The official version of the Good War was called into question by a younger generation of historians, who were allied to the New Left that grew up outside of the communist and Social Democratic traditions. In particular, opposition to America’s war in Vietnam persuaded the New Left historians to ask new questions about the Good War.79 US militarism might have been tarnished in South East Asia, but the record of the good fight in the Second World War seemed unassailable. The historians of the New Left discovered that there were some gruesome skeletons hidden in Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s closet. Todd Gitlin, a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, whose essay ‘Counter-insurgency: myth and reality in Greece’ (1967) uncovered the dirty secret that Britain and the US had sided with the proNazi forces to crush the radical partisan forces of ELAS. Gitlin’s criticism of western policy during the war was sharpened by his assessment of it afterwards: ‘Greece was the Vietnam of the 1940s’.80 Gitlin’s fellow student radical Gabriel Kolko’s comprehensive The Politics of War (1968) drew together those themes of bad faith amongst the British and American allies, with wider examples of the conservative impulse of the western armies in France, Italy and Greece, drawing on a close reading of the National Security Documents. The linguistics professor Noam Chomsky joined the project of re-examining the good intentions behind American foreign policy during the Vietnam War. Kolko, Gitlin and Chomsky in particular showed that American policy was primarily motivated by a desire to open European and colonial markets to US exports and investment rather than any commitment to freedom.81 The War Aims turned out to be liberty for US exports, first, whereas political freedom was strictly limited to what could be reconciled with the restoration of the market is Western Europe. Later these researches were bolstered by Kees van der Pijl, in his book The Making of the Atlantic Ruling Class (1984) and by the former intelligence officer William Blum. The New Left historians were inspired by the work of William A. Williams, who had served in the Pacific, and in 1959 published The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.
The New Left were not allied to the Communist left and so had fewer historical ties to the campaign for the People’s War. They were also focused on America’s rise to global preeminence, of which they were critics, and to cross that bridge meant looking hard at the event that turned the US into the World’s policeman, the Second World War. It helped too, in an odd way, that America did not have the same entrenched Social Democratic left that Europe had, since those movements were wedded either to the war effort (in the case of the British Labour Party) or to the post-war reconstruction, as was the German Social Democratic Party. America’s footloose leftists had much less commitment to the flag-waving patriotism of the English and French left, and were less neurotic than the Germans. They also had an indigenous tradition of cool, even cynical, criticism to draw upon, in the writings of C. Wright Mills, I.F. Stone, Charles and Mary Beard, Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain.
Marxism was a thin influence in America, but given the way that Marxism had yoked itself to the Great Patriotic War in Europe, that might have been an advantage.
The post-war settlement did not only come under fire from the left, but also from the right.
Many conservatives in America opposed alliance with Britain, let alone the Soviet Union.
The alliance with the USSR caused considerable difficulties for the Anglo-American ruling class. Within the alliance, Churchill and Roosevelt never considered Stalin an equal partner
- just as he distrusted them. Throughout the war, the clash of Soviet and Western interests was barely concealed.
The pragmatism of the alliance has preoccupied right wing critics ever since.
Specifically, the agreement between Stalin and Churchill at Yalta to divide Europe into ‘spheres of influence’ has been challenged as a betrayal of the peoples of Eastern Europe.
A number of populist right-wing tracts, like Felix Wittmer’s The Yalta Betrayal (1953), or US ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane’s I Saw Poland Betrayed (1948) challenged the official histories and hagiographies.82 The characterisation of the alliance with Stalin as a betrayal found a resonance among the east European émigrés who were attacking the new ‘Soviet Empire’ from America and West Europe.
Count Nikolai Tolstoy took up the cause of the ‘Cossacks’ – actually Russians, Ukrainians, Caucasians and Cossacks – who were forcibly repatriated at the end of the war, of whom many were executed. Tolstoy’s campaign to embarrass British ministers was silenced through the libel courts, though historians have since acknowledged that his points were broadly true. Polish émigrés in the West took up the cause of the massacred officers at Katyn, and were supported by the English historian Norman Davies, most fulsomely in his book Warsaw ’44.