Thursday, December 12, 2002

A few brief remarks on the lessons of history. Which refers, of course, to Gene Callahan's much-touted essay on the lessons of history, as portrayed by avuncular and wildly inaccurate Victor Davis Hanson, preaching the glories of war from the orchards of Fresno. (Yes, clueless right-wing intellectual week continues!).

Callahan's thesis is, roughly this:

In the current debate of what direction US foreign policy should take in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, much reference has been made of the "lessons of history." "History teaches us," we are told, "that we must act with overwhelming force against a terrorist threat." Or, perhaps, "History teaches us that we must stop dictators while they are still weak and unprepared for full-scale war."

However, the very idea that history contains such "lessons" is false, and rests upon a misunderstanding of what history is and what it can achieve. History is the historian's effort to construct a coherent world of the past based on the evidence available to him in the present. (This contention, that the historian constructs history, should not be taken to mean that history is merely a reflection of his whims, political opinions, or social class. If he is faithful to his task as a historian, he constructs the past that the evidence compels him to believe is true.) ...

Because history is a world of detailed, specific events, the idea of 'general laws' of history is self-contradictory.

Which, I think, goes too far, at least implicitly, in at least seeming to claim that the study of history is irrelevant to present conditions, because the present does not, and cannot, replicate the past. But before getting to the reasons why, let's note that he certainly has a legitimate beef with Hanson, who is starting to make a habit of howlers like this:

... hesitation, self-doubt, and bottled piety have derailed even the most successful military operations before their positive results reached full fruition.

We have been at such a cross-roads before --- and sometimes have failed through our moral arrogance and over-sophistication: allowing a weary, bloodied, but ultimately undefeated German war machine to surrender in France and Belgium in 1918 rather than marching into Berlin to humiliate it...

This escapes being outright falsehood by a hair; there were, in fact, no French troops marching through Berlin in 1918. But no one doubted that there could have been, and the Versailles treaty that ended World War I made that point by, among other things:

  • Stripping Germany of all its colonial possessions, and even territory it had controlled in Europe, particularly Alsace and Lorraine.
  • Imposing reparations payments which crippled the German economy.
  • Demanding that the "German war machine" turn over, among other things, just about the entire naval fleet to the allies, dismantle fortifications anywhere near the German border.
  • Requiring Germany to shut down arms factories, and reduce its army and navy to skeleton forces "devoted exclusively to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of the frontiers".

Humiliation was the point of the exercise --- a matter of no small significance, as the humiliation of this treaty, for both Germany in general and the military in particular, was one of Hitler's main rallying points (and his attribution of the humiliating defeat of the "German war machine" to "betrayal" by the Jews was an early and significant rallying point against them).

The result of all this, of course, was World War II. And after that, we could have tried to humiliate Germany even more (American treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau actually proposed destroying German civilian industry, and reducing the country to a nation of peasants); instead the West poured money into at least the sections of Germany under its own control (via the Marshall plan), and actually assisted the Germans in the creation of a military which was at least suitable for territorial defense against an external military force. With, generally, much happier results.

The outlines of this story, if not the details, are familiar to most high school students, if not to Hanson and his editors at the National Review. And it's not as if Callahan, or I, have taken the remark out of a context that might legitimate it; the passage quoted above continues directly with a looking-glass look at Vietnam, where we might have ended the conflict at a stroke by choosing not to "permit" Northern forces to return to the South, but apparently lacked the iron will. So much for the lessons of recent history.

(If you're wondering whether this is perhaps unfair to Hanson, who is generally so focused on important goings-on in the hamlets of ancient Greece that he may be a bit fuzzy on relatively trivial current events like, say, the rise of Hitler, read Callahan, who catches him claiming the speech of one Cleon, described by Thucydides as "the most violent man at Athens", as the wisdom of Thucydides himself. Are you surprised to hear that Cleon was out for blood?)

Clearly, Callahan has a legitimate beef with Hanson. But is it really that he's trying too hard to draw lessons from history, or is it a more basic failure to exercise his responsibility, as a historian, to "construct the past that the evidence compels him to believe is true"?

Callahan does his best to argue the point, posing a counterfactual in which the Western powers decline to engage Hitler in combat, accept all his refugees (avoiding the Holocaust), and let him and Stalin beat each others' brains out, to the general betterment of all. Which has its improbable points (particularly the part where the Western powers accept large numbers of Jewish refugees), but let's leave that aside, and assume that a true oracle has told us that Callahan's scenario works, and that Neville Chamberlain's real goof wasn't cutting a deal at Munich, but declaring war not too many months later. What does that prove?

It would remain the case that Germany posed a danger to England and France (as is established by the actual course of events beyond any doubt!) and that the humiliating provisions of the Versailles treaty played a key role in creating that danger. Whatever the leadership of what were to become the allies decided to do about the danger, it would remain, at least, likely that the danger could have been avoided with less vengeful conduct at the end of World War I. And it would remain plausible to draw the lesson that a humiliated, economically bankrupt, former great power (like, say, contemporary Russia) isn't always a fun thing to have around, particularly if they have reasons to hate your guts (like, say, our continuing failure to even acknowledge, let alone do something about, the damage from American-inspired "shock reform" in the '90s). Or that leaders (like, say Musharraf in Pakistan) who have an established record of fanning ethnic hatred at home while presenting themselves as "people who we can do business with" abroad, can't always be relied on to keep their deals. That is, after all, pretty much what Chamberlain thought about Hitler, right up to the invasion of Poland.

Above all, in the current environment, we might draw the lesson that if humiliating people has caused problems (as is often argued to be the case in the muslim world, believably so --- not so much because the Hansons and den Bestes of the world make the case, as because Osama bin Laden does it himself on his recruiting tapes), then humiliating them more won't necessarily make things any better.

And Callahan might agree with all of that --- but if he does, then he is in fact willing to draw lessons from history, of a slightly weaker sort; it can't provide prophecies, or dictate policy, but it can certainly call out a warning.

Further thoughts: In email, a reader points out that while the German military knew perfectly well that they could not continue fighting, they managed to blow enough smoke that some ordinary Germans might have been legitimately confused. But that's not why the country turned to Hitler --- it turned to Hitler for a variety of reasons (offering hope, though a sick hope, to a desperate electorate, relief from disorder to the business community, etc.), most of which can be traced to the effects of the Versailles treaty, which deliberately didn't leave them with a decent country to live in, humbled and humiliated. And while the military action may not have overtly humiliated the German war machine, the treaty left it not just humiliated, but effectively wiped out; defeat in battle could not possibly have left it any more thoroughly trashed.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the rise of Hitler could have been avoided by sacrificing another few hundred thousand young men in an otherwise pointless march on Berlin. It seems doubtful to me. The Nazis might have needed to modulate their lies a little differently, but the inventors of the Big Lie would surely have been up to the challenge. After all, hundreds of years of unambiguous European military victory over the Arabs, leaving the Europeans in uncontested control of Arab lands, rearranging their governments for sport, weren't enough to convince Osama bin Laden to give up on pipe dreams of military conquest, and stick to the family construction business...


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