World War II Revisionism

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Adam Kirsch of The New Republic discusses some new books about World War II in the New York Times, bringing up a number of revisionist points:

Americans who learn about the war in Europe from a book like Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers” (1992), for instance, could be forgiven for thinking of the defeat of Germany as the work of doughty G.I.’s. Yet in “No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945” (2007), the British historian Norman Davies begins from the premise that “the war effort of the Western powers” was “something of a sideshow.” America lost 143,000 soldiers in the fight against Germany, Davies points out, while the Soviet Union lost 11 million.

And if the main show was a war between Hitler and Stalin, he wonders, wasn’t World War II a clash of nearly equivalent evils? “Anyone genuinely committed to freedom, justice and democracy is duty-bound to condemn both of the great totalitarian systems without fear or favor,” he concludes. As a historian of Poland, Davies is especially aware of what few Americans remember: that World War II began with a joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of that country. For the first two years of the war, Hitler and Stalin were allies; the fact that they then turned against each other, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, doesn’t change the moral equation. “If one finds two gangsters fighting each other, it is no valid approach at all to round on one and to lay off the other. The only valid test is whether or not they deserve the label of gangsters.”

Davies’s deliberately provocative book had a mixed reception, in part because of the way his account of the war in Eastern Europe seemed determined to minimize the importance of the Holocaust. No such objection can be made to Timothy Snyder’s morally scrupulous book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (2010), which also spotlights Eastern Europe — in particular the region comprising the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus, Western Russia and Poland that Snyder calls “the bloodlands,” because they were the greatest killing field of the Second World War. This was the site of the titanic battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army: it was also the scene of 14 million noncombatant deaths between 1933 and 1945. This figure encompasses 10 million civilians and prisoners of war killed by the Nazis — including six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust—and four million civilians and P.O.W.’s killed by the Soviets.

By grouping German and Soviet casualties together, Snyder is making an implicit point. The Soviet Union was America’s ally, Germany our enemy; but both regimes were guilty of killing millions of people for ideological reasons. Weren’t the three million Ukrainians starved by Stalin in 1932-33 deliberate victims of state aggression and ideological terror, no less than the three million Soviet P.O.W.’s starved by Hitler in 1941-42? “Only an unabashed acceptance of the similarities between the Nazi and Soviet systems permits an understanding of their differences,” Snyder maintains.

I suppose modern “liberal” progressives have distanced themselves enough from their pro-war, pro-Communist past that they can make such paleo-conservative points:

The New Republic was founded by Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann through the financial backing of heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney and her husband, Willard Straight, who maintained majority ownership. The magazine’s first issue was published on November 7, 1914. The magazine’s politics were liberal and progressive, and as such concerned with coping with the great changes brought about by America’s late-19th century industrialization.

The magazine is widely considered important in changing the character of liberalism in the direction of governmental interventionism, both foreign and domestic. Among the most important of these was the emergence of the U.S. as a Great Power on the international scene, and in 1917 TNR urged America’s entry into World War I on the side of the Allies.

One consequence of World War I was the Russian Revolution of 1917, and during the inter-war years the magazine was generally positive in its assessment of the Soviet Union and its communist government. This changed with the start of the Cold War and the 1948 departure of leftist editor Henry A. Wallace to run for president on the Progressive ticket.

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