Peter Hitchens writes:
During some recent long train and plane journeys I’ve read three powerful works of modern history. The first is Michael Burleigh’s Moral Combat, often advanced as an answer to the doubts of people like me about the moral purity of World War Two. Then I turned to The Third Reich in Power by Richard Evans, the second volume of his trilogy which examines the Hitler period. This is particularly interesting because most general books on the subject concentrate on Hitler’s coming to power and on the war. This one goes into rather more detail about how National Socialism operated and achieved its ends. Finally, I read To End All War by Adam Hochschild, a revelatory and almost wholly fresh study of opposition (such as it was) to the First World War.
The first thing I’d like to say is that Hochschild actually made me change my mind. I have for many years crabbily resisted attempts to rehabilitate the soldiers shot for desertion during the 1914-18 war. I took the view that the great majority did what they believed to be their duty, and that those who didn’t couldn’t and shouldn’t be accorded the same status. But his account of the treatment of several of these cases completely overturned my view. I now feel that I was quite wrong, and withdraw what I have said in the past. These men most certainly deserve to be honoured. The truth is that I have suspected this for years, and should have shifted long ago, but it took the incidents in this book to push me over the hump.
I would also say that Hochschild more or less demolishes any remaining justification for fighting this war at all. My only disappointment is that he gives far less space than he ought to Viscount Lansdowne’s attempt to call for a negotiated peace, which if heeded might have saved the world from much (there is a moment in Huxley’s Brave New World where Lansdowne’s failure is noted as a turning point of modern history, a vast conservative failure and one of the reasons for the Fordist revolution which wiped out history, privacy, the family and religion). I realised as a small boy in late 1950s Britain that the First World War had destroyed an order that was in many ways admirable. It was obvious, from studying the ancient pre-1914 volumes of Punch in my prep school library, that the world before the battle of Mons was calmer, sweeter, more settled and in many important ways happier than what followed. These books were not trying to give this impression. Like old advertisements and guide books, they gave a disarmingly frank impression of how people actually felt and lived at the time.
People will tell me about slums, the crudities of empire, malnutrition and so forth, and they will be right. But isn’t it false to imagine that the world would have remained exactly the same in all ways? Without the war, we could have made plenty of social progress, perhaps more. Above all, we would not have lost all those men, the flower of their generation, who volunteered for what they thought was a fine cause. Not to mention avoiding the Russian coup d’état - and Hitler, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mussolini remaining obscure and unknown failures till their lives’ ends.
Here I’ll turn briefly to The Third Reich in Power, which seemed to me to show that the National Socialist regime was far more socially radical than its present-day critics like to acknowledge. Its cult of youth was a particular menace to proper education, as it stripped power from teachers – and parents - and gave it to aggressive Hitler Youths. I still feel the lack of a really thorough look at this movement in English (if anyone knows of one, I’d be grateful) as it played a huge part in undermining religion and destroying parental influence, and was also pretty relaxed (as were most of the Nazi hierarchy) about premarital and extramarital sex. Though it is from Michael Burleigh’s book that I learned that Nazi Germany’s 1936 divorce laws accepted ‘irretrievable breakdown’ as a ground for divorce, 33 years ‘ahead’ of Britain’s decision to do the same. The idea that National Socialism was a form of conservatism, or allied to it, really does not stand up to much examination.
It had, in these areas, plenty in common with the Communist regime in Stalin’s USSR. And it could not progress without coming into severe conflict with the churches, a conflict which would have been far more virulent had Hitler and his government survived longer than the 12 years they actually had. It was also deeply hostile to the rule of law, and to the independence of the courts. Likewise the universities, the professions, the newspapers, were all ingested in much the same way that a left-wing totalitarian regime would have used. The mass robbery of the Jews was, as in all revolutionary expropriation, a convenient way of rewarding the revolutionary party’s supporters, with money and jobs. The conduct of political conservatives was often shameful and generally mistaken, though they could not know the horrible future. Many of the clergy were too narrowly concerned with their own interests and never widened their attacks to encompass the regime as a whole. Mind you, nor did anybody else.
But Franz von Papen’s Marburg speech, and the Vatican’s secret distribution of its Mit Brennende Sorge document, were both startlingly bold challenges to the National Socialists, which infuriated Hitler and provoked severe reprisals. The left were also often courageous (I have mentioned here the extraordinary courage of the Social Democrat Otto Wels in the final hours of a free Reichstag) , but the Communists in particular behaved as stupidly (if not more so) than the German conservatives. I think it important to note that conservatives and Christians resisted, and were attacked for their resistance. I still gasp with sheer astonishment at the aristocratic scorn for the Gestapo repeatedly shown by Cardinal Archbishop Graf von Galen, whose story should be better known. He defied Hitler over many subjects, in public, but I would like to note here that one of his fiercest battles was against the National Socialist euthanasia programme.
This brings me to Michael Burleigh’s disappointing book. Far from being a thorough retort to (say) A.C.Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities, which I discussed here last year, it seems to me to miss the point made by most of those who condemn the bombing of German civilians. What we are not saying is that this bombing was the moral equivalent of the massacre of the Jews. It was not, and those in Germany or elsewhere who have attempted to suggest any such thing are not my allies. What we are saying is that war fought in this way, and in alliance with the wholly immoral USSR, cannot continue to be exalted as some sort of holy conflict. This alleged holiness obscures an honest assessment of its rights and wrongs, leads to an emotional rather than a rational analysis of Britain’s part in it, and leads to silly evasion of responsibility for actions which ought never to have been taken. It also leads to the perpetual misuse of the 1939-45 war as the model for modern interventionist diplomacy – a model based on a wholly wrong understanding of why and how we fought the 1939-45 war.
In my attempt (last year) to discuss the timing and purpose of Britain’s entry into the war, so mistimed that it nearly got us subjugated, I ran into an emotional blockage from many readers who simply could not get past the frayed and increasingly insupportable myth of the ‘Finest Hour’. This is always coupled with a standard set of beliefs about the occupation of the Rhineland and the later Munich crisis, in which it is assumed that a serious alternative policy was a) available at the time and b) practicable at the time and c) would have led to a better outcome. Thus they could not properly examine the incompetence of British diplomacy in the late 1930s, and its absolute nadir, the ludicrous and dishonest guarantee to Poland, which allowed Colonel Beck, at his desk in Warsaw, to decide when or if we went to war with Germany (and why).
One of my critics was reduced to inventing non-existent declarations by Hitler and non-existent intelligence documents, in trying to show that Hitler would have attacked Britain in 1940 whatever we had done. Unflattering as it is for our national ego, I don’t think he cared enough. Until we can start looking at 1939 with the dispassionate coolness rightly used to examine the 1914-18 war, we won’t be able to make sense of it and (in my opinion) we will not cure ourselves of the urge to go out and bomb countries such as Libya for their own good.
A few thoughts about the Burleigh book. First some quibbles. He says (on page 489) that German bombers ‘achieved a firestorm’ in Coventry on 14-15 November 1940. I had never heard this before and do not think it true. Coventry was a filthy massacre, but not a firestorm. He also (I am genuinely baffled by this in someone who spends so much time researching German history) states (on page 550) that ‘FDR’ stands for the Federal Republic of Germany. It doesn’t, in English or German. The error is repeated in the paperback. These are minor niggles, but they made me uncomfortable. It is more important when he uses words as he does about those who disagree with him, for example (p.487) ‘Sir Arthur Harris, bête noire of the moral-equivalence claque’. Well, if there is such a claque, Sir Arthur may well be its bête noire. But he is also the bête noire of people who compare the casualty rate among his airmen to that at the Somme in 1916, and to those who, having no belief in moral equivalence, and are not a ‘claque’, even so think that the deliberate bombing of German civilians in their homes was wrong in itself (and also that it was ineffectual, though it would have been wrong even if it hadn’t been).
The same rather blustering tone is to be found when he (on page 501) attacks ‘Moralistic arguments that selected some but not all aspects of war fighting’. In a book entitled Moral Combat, it seems a bit odd to be so dismissive. Aren’t such arguments simply ’moral’ rather than moralistic? Isn’t that how they are conducted? Isn’t the existence of a moral rule about just war the whole reason for his book? In another baffling passage he praises Archbishop Cosmo Lang on the grounds that he ‘had the good sense to know that clerics had no special competence to comment in these issues’ (area bombing). He says this was: ‘a humility lost on some of his contemporaries and successors’.(502-3). Surely the ‘competence’ involved was as guardians of the national religion, whose merciful character was presumably one of the reasons why Mr Burleigh thinks it a good thing that we won the war rather than the other side. I am not quite sure what ‘competence’ is needed to judge the morals of a military or other government action.
But he then launches (p.503) an extraordinary assault on George Bell, Bishop of Chichester and the principal opponent of the bombing of civilians. He attacks Bell’s belief that not all Germans were bad as ’an idea that primarily appealed to those who had hobnobbed at All Souls with well-mannered aristocratic Germans rather than with Nazi thugs’. Did it? Bell is also attacked (p. 504) for being ‘more than slightly in love with his self-image as a brave dissenter’. Was he? He is also accused of ‘vanity’. Was he vain? How do we know? Bell’s Church critics, on the other hand, are presented as ‘thoughtful’, possessing ‘common-sense realism’ and ‘tinged with a theologically coherent pessimism about the human condition, denied to such as Bell’. Well, if Bishops aren’t competent to discuss war, then are historians competent to issue judgements on theological coherence? And aren’t historians, especially the sort who write mass—market books about war, ever the teeniest bit vain? There’s a very handsome study of Mr Burleigh on the back cover flap. This is polemic, not history, and it doesn’t really face the arguments made by Grayling, let alone refute them.
Actually, the book is still rather good, and everyone should read it. Its facts, especially on the squalid, savage nature of our Soviet ally, are often powerful. In fact, as long as he sticks to the facts, Mr Burleigh is a great read with much new and interesting research well-assembled . I just don’t think his book really answers Bishop Bell, who for all his alleged vanity, said at the time and at his own considerable cost, what he believed to be right – and what future generations will come in time to believe was right.