Normandy, France — 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.
Buchanan and others, for example, fault the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I as too harsh on a defeated Germany and thus an understandable pretext for the rise of the Nazis, who played on German anger and fear.
Those accords may have been flawed, but they were far better than what Germany itself had offered France in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War, or Russia after its collapse in 1917 — or what it had planned for Britain and France had it won the First World War. What ultimately led to World War II was neither Allied interbellum meanness to Germany nor an unwillingness to understand the Nazis’ pain and anguish.
The mistake instead was not occupying all of imperial Germany after the first war in 1918-19. That way, the Allies would have demonstrated to the German people that their army was never “stabbed in the back” at home, as the Nazis later alleged, but instead defeated by an Allied army that was willing to stay on to foster German constitutional government and its reintegration within Europe. The Allies later did occupy Germany after World War II — and 60 years without war have followed.
Had Nicholson Baker been alive in 1942, I doubt he would have had better ideas for how to stop the Nazi and Japanese juggernauts that had ruined Eastern Europe, Russia, and large parts of China and southeast Asia — other than using the same clumsy tools our grandfathers were forced to employ to end fascist aggression.
A Nazi armored division or death camp stopped its murderous work not through reasoned appeal or self-reflection, but only when its fuel, supplies, and manpower were cut off.
I am currently visiting military cemeteries in France, Luxembourg, and Belgium, some of the most beautiful, solemn acres in Europe. The thousands of Americans lying beneath the rows of white crosses at Normandy Beach, at Hamm, Luxembourg, and at St. Avold in the Lorraine probably did not debate the Versailles Treaty or worry too much whether a B-17 took out a neighborhood when it tried to hit a German railyard.
Instead, our soldiers were more worried that they had few options available to stop Nazi Germany and imperial Japan — other than their own innate courage and valor. The American dead in European cemeteries never bragged that they were eagerly fighting a “good” war; they were reluctantly finishing a necessary war that someone else started.
Those GIs and the leaders who sent them into the carnage of World War II knew that Americans could do good without having to be perfect. In contrast, the present critics of the Allied cause enjoy the freedom and affluence that our forefathers gave us by fighting World War II, while ignoring — or faulting — the intelligence and resolve that won it.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once scoffed at the peacetime wisdom of postwar critics that came across as mass-produced, feel-good “bottled piety.” Others might call it ingratitude.
© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.