Rethinking The Causes of World War II
As we approach ANZAC remembrance in New Zealand, thoughts will be turning once again to war, and in particular, New Zealand’s involvement in World Wars I &II, along with lots of smaller actions since the Korean War to which New Zealand has contributed soldiers.
We have been ruminating once more on whether World War II could have been averted. Now, a disclaimer is required: hind sight is always 20/20 vision, which means that it is speculative to one extent or another. But the matter has assumed more relevance, given that Hitler turned out to be the wild-card which led Europe into armed conflict. In our days, we face similar kinds of threats. Replace Hitler with Kim Jong-un and we all get the point.
Therefore, re-thinking how Britain failed to avoid the conflagration which exploded when Hitler unleashed his legions, is not as academic today as it was three or four years ago. Historian Robert Tombs provides a list of some things, which, in hindsight, Britain got wrong during what he calls the “Twenty-Year Truce” between the two world wars. These become potential lessons for the future.
1. A Nation Ought to Keep Its Friends Close
A closer relationship with France, bedevilled throughout the interwar period by mistrust and misunderstanding, might have deterred Germany–rulers, people and army–from embarking on aggressive adventures: but Lloyd George had backed out of alliance in 1920. [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2015), p.692.]
2. Beware the Trap of Self-Projection
Politicians, pundits and public in Britain and France grossly overestimated German strength and underestimated Hitler’s monstrous ambitions–an enfeebling combination of errors. They wanted to believe that he was a normal human being, and, despite his bombast, a politician who had rational aims, with whom a deal could be reached, and who would keep his word. [Ibid.]
Ah, yes, it is so blindingly obvious now. But then? The lesson is that we ought not to assume that leaders of other nations are “just like us”. As someone once observed, ideas have consequences. World-views guide, if not control, actions. And world-views differ. By extension, nation states, under the influence of a profoundly different world view, cannot be expected to conform to our “normal”. Kim Jong-un, for example.
A corollary of this lesson is that our national leaders ought to be severely self-critical, and self-aware of the pre-commitments of another party due to their dominant world-view held by rulers, people, and army. Don’t fall into the trap of naive personalism, whereby our leaders think that if they can develop personal relationship connections with other leaders, all will be well all the time. There is far too much of the “hail, well met fellow” kind of diplomacy these days, which can wilfully prevent seeing duplicity on the other side.
How many leaders, statesmen, pundits, and politicians commented at the time on Stalin’s charming hospitality, and Hitler’s bon hommie–only to find, in hindsight, they had been gulled. The reality is that both men were marching respectively to the beat of very different drummers, which British leaders and opinionistas failed to discern.
3. Beware the False Security of Hindsight
These days appeasement is a dirty word. Neville Chamberlain has been mocked, derided and vilified as a myopic, idealistic dope. We see this clearly, now that we have the twenty-twenty hindsight into Hitler’s true intentions and ambitions, and into the fact of his carefully planned and executed deception. But this may lead to another trap: we forget that Chamberlain was doing none other than what we normally applaud and endorse–and ordinarily rightly so.
So “appeasement” became a dirty word: but only hindsight makes it possible to distinguish it from things we today approve of–“engagement,” negotiation, peaceful compromise. At the time, there was a marked lack of agreement or consistency in suggesting alternatives to Chamberlain’s policy. [Ibid., p. 693.]
The implication here is that there are limits to negotiation and peaceful compromise. Even worse is to draw Red Lines, then allow one’s bluff to be called, and do nothing. Even worse still is to make up foreign policy or conduct military actions for partisan political gain, as Obama so frequently did, and, we fear, Trump will also do.
4. The Long Term Damage of Peace-Movement Idealism
The peace movement was the largest popular mass movement in Britain between the wars. Reconciliation with Germany had been seen as morally and materially necessary. War had been rejected as dooming civilization, and rearmament as barbarity. It seemed impossible that anyone, even the most brutal dictator, did not, deep down, share these sentiments.
“Appeasement” was this belief in practice: seeking the reasons for German discontents and working together to resolve them peacefully. This might have worked–or at least conflict might have been contained or limited–had it not been for the Great Depression and the rise of the Nazis. Hitler crystallized and gave direction to all that was sick in German society. Wishful thinking and fear–not admiration for or sympathy with Nazism, which hardly existed in England–then caused “appeasement” to continue until Hitler’s repeated aggression made it irrelevant and finally contemptible. [Ibid., p. 691.]
The Christian believes in the ethic of a Just War. The Christian state, out of love for its citizens and the holy duty to defend its people, must therefore maintain armed preparedness and readiness to go to war, if it be just.
Evil is real. States may be ruled and led by evil human beings. There are limits to negotiation and compromise. Conceptually, therefore, Red Lines are inevitable. Beware the naive seduction of thinking that all others think and act as we do. Know who your friends are. Talk softly and respectfully, and in good faith, but carry a very big stick.
Some may argue that if Hitler were bent on war, as increasingly became the case, nothing would have prevented the outbreak of World War II. This may well be true. But, there was a period of time when Hitler and the Nazis faced considerable opposition from within Germany itself during the period of Nazi control of of the German government prior to the outbreak of war (1933-1939). A much stronger resistance from England may have tilted the scales in favour of the anti-Nazi groups and interests, leading to an overthrow of Hitler from within Germany.
These are some possible lessons from the past for this ANZAC memorial season. One take-out is clear: there is no room for simplistic nostrums, nor grand slogans, such as, “Peace in our time”.
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