Red Menace Civilization

Many years ago, for a reason I cannot remember, I read In Darkest Germany, a brief account of a visit by British left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz to Germany immediately after the war. He found the country devastated and the people were starving.

I’ve long since forgotten most of the content, but one episode has stuck with me since then. Someone told Gollancz that he believed that the Germans deserved to suffer and starve to death. Gollancz replied: “And what about the children?”

In these three simple words, Gollancz brilliantly exposed the cruel folly of blaming entire populations for collective guilt. In his most recent study of Europe’s post-war recovery, Ruin and Renewal, Professor Paul Betts, mentions Gollancz and his propaganda campaign to get Western allies to treat Germans with humanity rather than punitive severity. Overall, this was not a popular thing at the time, but the campaign was all the more effective given that Gollancz was Jewish and had published a large number of books on the danger posed by Nazi Germany before the war. His view soon caught on, allowing West Germany not only to recover economically (by 1953, its exports were higher than those of Great Britain or France), but also to rejoin the community of nations.

In so far as this rather incoherent, informal and meandering history of Western and Eastern Europe from the post-war years to the present has any organizational principle, it is the concept of civilization and the uses for which it was used. The meaning of the word has shifted because it is inevitably loose, as has the meaning of the word culture; but as Aristotle tells us, we shouldn’t ask any precision of words than they can stand.

From the archive of Soviet propaganda

Regardless of its precise meaning, the word civilization has a positive connotation; nobody wants to be considered uncivilized. To label their opponents as barbaric means to humiliate them and deprive them of moral legitimacy. And while civilization may not be perfectly defined, it is generally agreed that mass massacre is detrimental to it. The Allies called the Nazis barbaric; the Nazis called the Allies barbaric; the communists called the capitalists barbaric; the capitalists called the communists barbaric; the colonialists called the colonized barbarians; The colonized called the colonialists barbaric. So I’m not sure how useful the various civilization terms are as a heuristic means of telling post-war history. Anyway, I didn’t find it very illuminating.

Aside from this flaw, the book is riddled with elemental flaws that even a non-historian like me (the author is professor of European history at Oxford) would notice. It placed Aztec ruins in Peru. There is a photo of Haile Selassie describing him as the President of Ethiopia. I knew he was an emperor at the age of ten by collecting postage stamps. The writer JB Priestley is called a philosopher whom not even his most ardent admirers (who are now few in number) would call him. Campaign-oriented, communist sympathetic journalist and historian Basil Davidson is known as an archaeologist. At the very beginning of the book is a highly dubious assertion: According to the author, the Second World War was “the first war in modern history in which the number of civilian casualties was far higher than that of soldiers”. That claim depends, of course, in part on how you define modernity, and perhaps also on how you define war. In the Thirty Years War, for example, far more civilians than soldiers died, as in the Peninsula War and the American war of occupation in the Philippines. If the Russian Civil War is considered a war, this is another example of more civilians than soldiers dying in a modern war.

Falsus in UN, falsus in omnibus? Not necessarily; But such mistakes undermine the reader’s confidence.

More important than these mistakes is a fundamental lack of understanding of how terrible the communist system was, and a total lack of resourceful understanding of how that system works. As an example, I will take a passage about the so-called peace movement in the Soviet Union after the war.

Soviet peace policy was not limited to international diplomacy and had domestic resonance. In the late 1940s, the “struggle for peace” became a common phrase in the Soviet popular press, allowing citizens to be more directly concerned with foreign policy goals. . . . The “Struggle for Peace” media campaign was stepped up to mobilize popular support against the West after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and to bring home the point that the USSR was an advocate of the oppressed and the global defender of peace. Many letters from factory workers, housewives and ordinary citizens have been sent to the Committee for Defense of Peace in support of them.

This passage is straight from the Beatrice and Sidney Webb School of Sovietology, as if neither Nineteen Eighty-Four nor Animal Farm had ever been written. The non-profit interpretation is that the author apparently buried in archives between documents and books and took what he found without critical evaluation or consideration of the absolute face value. It does not seem to have crossed his mind to search the Soviet “popular” press for articles or letters from citizens who argue against Soviet policies, or acknowledge that North Korea has started the war, or wonder why it was none were. Here is the difference between the letters in support of North Korea written by factory workers in the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time and the letters of resignation from their neighbors written by what the author calls “ordinary people” to the Nazi Gestapo Germany and occupied France, as examined, for example, in Robert Gellately’s Gestapo and the German Society or in André Halimi’s La délation sous l’Occupation. It takes very little imagination to grasp the difference, but the author doesn’t have it.

The atrocities of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes were not hypocritical in the sense of their ideology: they were the logical and practical consequences of that ideology.

When I read this passage to a friend whose formative years had been spent in the Soviet Union, he reacted with contempt. Either the author did not understand anything, he said, or he was a Soviet sympathizer: and indeed the author seems to relativize the horrors of the Soviet Union several times in the book in order to reduce them. Here, for example, the author mentions rape by Allied soldiers:

Mass rapes took place on a shocking scale. In Vienna, 87,000 women are said to have been raped by clinics after the liberation; In Berlin the numbers were much higher, and up to 2 million women are said to have been brutally victims across Germany. Most of the attacks were by Red Army soldiers, although it is often forgotten that the US Army was accused of raping up to 17,000 women in North Africa and Western Europe between 1942 and 1945.

Of course, even just one rape is a terrible experience for the victim, and the 17,000 rapes figure, if true, is a shame. However, such a number, committed over three or four years in a very extensive geographic area, varies in intensity from 2,000,000 rapes committed in a part of a country in just a few months. Where would a woman prefer: in an American-occupied or a Soviet zone? The question is absurd. It is true that the Soviet Union suffered incomparably more under the Nazis than under the United States, but at most it would be more of a partial explanation than an excuse.

Here is another example:

On the one hand, Westerners used human rights as a club to beat Soviet despotism behind the Iron Curtain. . . . On the other hand, the USSR never tired of pointing out the hypocrisy of the West by portraying Western poverty, unemployment and neglect of welfare as human rights violations of various kinds.

As a mere statement, this is correct. So went the argument. But it certainly requires an assessment of justification on both sides, with some weighing the scales. It is true that the West was often hypocritical, politics and hypocrisy are inextricably linked. Appalling atrocities were committed by European countries during the wars of decolonization (strangely enough, he does not mention one of them, the repression by France of a nationalist emerging in Madagascar in 1947, which for some reason is normally under the radar of critics of colonialism). The Vietnam War, however justified in trying to stop the march of communism, was not only incompetent but also waged with appalling indifference to human life. But the atrocities of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes were not hypocritical in the sense of contradicting their ideology: they were not only greater, but also the logical and practical consequences of that ideology.

Scold the West, but not the rest

Despite his title, there is very little in his book about the amazing economic recovery of Europe, especially West Germany, after the war: The economic miracle is not mentioned, Dr. Erhard either. The prerequisites for this recovery are and were certainly worth considering, which they do not get here. No doubt Marshall Aid helped, but no matter how much water you pour in sand, it won’t turn into granite. Another ingredient is required. What?

The most interesting chapters of the book, aside from Western reactions to the human and physical ruins that took place in Germany in 1945, relate to decolonization, particularly Africa. Here, too, the author does not reflect the ironies of the story. He mentions Nkrumah from Ghana, Nyerere from Tanganyika, and Sekou Touré from Guinea as anti-colonial leaders several times, without also mentioning that Nkrumah inherited a relatively thriving economy which he ruined in a short period of time while introducing far less free politics than that that he introduced started with; Nyerere set up a dictatorship in which about 70 percent of the farmers (90 percent of the population) were driven against their will into semi-collectivized villages, so that the country became unnecessarily poorer. and Sekou Touré’s reign of terror and economic collapse were so dire that a large percentage of the population fled. Worth mentioning, you might have thought.

There aren’t many jokes in this book, but some humor can be found: “Aid for Africa was a popular thing in Eastern European countries and found its way into everyday Eastern European life …” Try telling this to a Romanian who often spends money has three hours in line for a couple of potatoes and who has never seen an orange in his life!

This is not a good book. His historical sensitivity seems to be that of the office and the political class, at least in certain areas of politics. It’s poorly organized, without much guidance, and it reads like a collection of essays that stick together pretty tightly.

Europe’s recovery from devastation deserves better.

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