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  • Myths of Twentieth-Century History August 6, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Seven twentieth century myths follow. Any other contributions or angry rebuttals, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Great War: A Disaster Waiting to Happen, 1914

    The Great War was going to happen sooner or later because two countries, Germany and France, wanted it. However, the consensus that the Great War would have inevitably led to the ‘breaking of nations’ doesn’t stand up. What we all forget, mired in the pale memories of the Somme and Verdun, is that the Germans almost pulled off the Schlieffen Plan in the first weeks of the war. If the French and British had broken on the Marne (as they came so close to doing) Paris would have been occupied, France would have been dismembered, Russia would have been defeated and Britain at best would have taken the war to sea. The war was pretty much inevitable, the carnage was not… Now the awful question. What would have been preferable: a quick German victory in 1914 or the disasters of the war, the Russian Revolution, the postwar German hissy fit, Hitler etc etc?

    Soviet Union: Birth of Another Civilization, 1917

    While the Soviet Union was around there were two groups in the west that defended that ugly miscarriage of history. The first were the intellectuals who actually visited the Soviet Union and did tribute to achieved socialism: ‘I have seen the future and it works’. The second were the rank and file of western societies, and a good few of the leaders, who wanted to be polite, often for pragmatic reasons, about the island of barbed wire that passed for a nation and a neighbour. This all ended with the failure of Lenin’s Dream in the 1980s: was it Hayek who said no industrial society can survive without private property and the family for more than two and a half generations? In the last five or so years, renewed Russian self-confidence and western amnesia has led some to forget just how bad things were in the streets of Moscow c. 1917, 1941, 1956, 1968 etc etc. Expect this to get worse. Expect to be depressed. ‘But Stalin…’

    Versailles an Error, 1919

    Versailles was the attempt of the Allies and the US to create a just peace and to realign the boundaries of Europe. From the Great Depression onwards Versailles became a punching bag for Europe’s intellectuals and the idea grew, and continued to grow after the Second World War, that the peace had been unjust and unnecessarily vindictive towards Germany: that Versailles, in short, had caused the Second World. Versailles was not perfect: it could not have been. But the myth of the Stab in the Back predated Versailles and one of the great problems with postwar Germany was that this was a country that believed it had not been defeated in the field: Germany had been made in the image of Prussia and not Bavaria. There is a good argument to be made that the problem with Versailles was not that the treaty was too harsh, but that the Allies made the fundamental mistake of not occupying Germany.

    Appeasement was a Mistake, 1933 Onwards

    Actually, appeasement really, really, really was a mistake. The UK particularly had two choices in the 1930s, both of which would have been credible in intellectual and geopolitical terms: splendid isolationism (‘if Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea’) or angry interventionism (troops on the Rhine and defiance to Italy in the Med). Britain chose the worst of both worlds and so began the unnecessary war. If Britannia should put on sack cloths and ask for forgiveness this is perhaps her single greatest crime. Sorry, everyone.

    End of Colonialism A Good Thing, 1945 plus

    Colonialism was the unjust and ineffective system whereby European nations (with some help from the US in the Pacific) governed and exploited developing countries in Africa and Asia. Colonialism was not a system that democratic states could run indefinitely and most of those in the colonial countries breathed a sigh of relief when the flag came down and the governor’s palace was handed over to the locals. But the slaughter and the misgovernment of the phase after the end of colonialism proved a depressing coda and many countries who ‘benefited’ from the white man’s burden are only picking themselves up today. In the end, the French model (stand and fight), the Belgian model (run!) and the British model (smile and detach) failed: remember, perhaps two million Indians died in the immediate aftermath of the Raj. It was right to end colonialism, but there had to be a better way to do it. Some have argued that the British dominion system had the most promise, though depressingly that would have taken thirty or forty years longer.

    European Union Prevented War in Europe, 1957

    This one is always given backwards. The European Union did not end war in Europe. The desire to end war in Europe, particularly on the part of the French and Germans, made the European Union possible. The single most important change in Europe in 1945 was the shift in gears in the heads of tens of millions of Germans. Peace between Western European nations was cemented by the creation of a bogey, the Soviet Union, on its borders: and tens of millions of enslaved central Europeans. The EU has two great notches on its belt. First, it provided a haven for Greece, Spain and Portugal as these countries emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s. Second, it provided a rallying point for ex-Warsaw Pact countries  in the 1990s: Bulgaria, Poland, Romania etc. The EU has every right to celebrate these achievements without claiming credit for universal peace.

    The Cold War was a Draw and History Ended

    A moderately competent American team had, by the 1980s, beat perhaps a more competent team in the Soviet Union. This victory was not achieved in the field, but in  factories. Given the economic realities there were only two outcomes possible: a Western victory or mutually assured destruction. If you want to catch the essence of the uneven contest look at photographs from US supermarkets in the 1980s and from supermarkets in Warsaw or Leningrad at the same date. As to the End of History, famously announced by American intellectual, Francis Fukuyama, Beach remembered laughing into his sleeve about this one when it was discussed seriously by all those around him.  Twenty years on the West is facing a new war of deeds and words with resurgent Islamism. Islam, the one true monotheism is being unjustly besmirched and the dark is rising: the end of democracy in Turkey is particularly galling. ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’: and nothing so depressing as an idiot with a beard decapitating innocents on Youtube, save perhaps his enablers in the west.

    An old friend of the Stephen D writes in, 7 Aug, 2017 (my answer follows):

    Re some of your 20th-century myths:

    The Great War. Are you sure the French actually wanted it, as distinct from being prepared to fight if they had to? Can you imagine circumstances in which France would have started a war with Germany rather than vice versa? And do you think the Germans could have continued their advance, and taken Paris, even if there had been no allied counter-attack on the Marne? Martin van Creveld’s analysis, in Supplying War, is that Moltke’s logistics were hopelessly flawed, that his armies were approaching the point of exhaustion and were far too far from their railheads to advance further.

    Versailles. Conversely, did the Allies in 1918 have enough troops, able to be committed for long enough, to occupy and hold all of Germany? Was not their error, rather, to make peace with the German Empire as a whole rather than separately with the kingdoms of Prussia (to be subdivided), Bavaria, Saxony, Wurttemburg, and with the six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities and three free Hanseatic cities?

    Appeasement. There was a plausible argument at first: the Great War had been a catastrophe, another would be worse, should we not try to see if another can be prevented by making reasonable concessions?

    End of (European) colonialism. It was inevitable that it should be ended: a liberal democratic empire is a contradiction in terms, and more importantly it was very much in the perceived interests of the USA that it should end. That there was a better way is not obvious.

    The Cold War was a draw and history ended. I don’t think people in the former Soviet satellites, or in the Soviet states that achieved independence, considered it a draw. Nor, I think, does the current Russian government: rather an incomplete defeat which might be reversed. And I would say that aspects of Islam are enthusiastically besmirching themselves.

    Beach replies. The Great War: I’m confident in what I said about France. It may be true that France did not actively plan for an offensive war, but France’s rhetoric was for war over Alsace and Lorraine and rhetoric, as we all know, matters. As Churchill wrote many years later most of twentieth century history can be boiled down to one question: what flag flies over Strasbourg? I’m less confident in what I said about Germany after a victory on the Marne. But the line of maximum German advance was so close to Paris I find it hard to imagine that they could not have shuffled forward a little more.

    Versailles. One of the most extraordinary thing about the last month of the war is how the German army just melts away. However, it is very possible that had a full invasion of Germany taken place we would now all be blaming that on the fact that Germany became so irascible in the years that followed: ‘unnecessary humiliation etc’. As to a separate peace with the ‘three Hanseatic cities’ etc, fascinating… But surely that would have needed the occupation of Germany.

    Appeasement: British and French statesmen had to do everything possible to prevent a war. It is just that given the unique psychology of Mussolini and Hitler concessions were the worst way to do that.

    End of Colonialism: I agree with this one. It was bad. It had to end. It ended badly. But was there a credible different way? I can’t help but thinking that in some instances, e.g. India, the retreat from Empire could have been managed in the interests of the people, instead of the nationalist politicians who were waiting to take over. But, of course, ‘managing’ these people had been the problem in the first place.

    The Cold War: There is an important strand in academic writing on the Cold War that pushes the idea of a draw. This takes on two aspects, the US didn’t plan for victory (which has something to it); and it really was a draw (which is nonsense).