Britain in 1939 is not the United States in 2008

June 03, 2008

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I read Pat Buchanan’s latest article with interest. We, like most conservatives, can agree that World War I itself was an avoidable and tragic adventure for the Americans, that Versailles had many injustices, that Hitler was unduly popular because of legitimate German grievances, and that Stalin was a significant threat to European peace and the sovereignty of his neighbors, not terribly different from Germany.

But the war in the East did not depend on British involvement, nor did it become more likely because of the Franco-British security guaranty to Poland. Indeed, the war arguably would have been delayed by these measures if they were undertaken with greater vigor. Britain reasonably viewed their diffidence on the eve of WWI as having emboldened the Kaiser; they reasoned that clearer commitments might arrest the conflagration from occurring a second time. This became particularly important after Munich, because Hitler showed his bad faith and moved on to the next item on his list by threatening the weak and recently re-born nation of Poland.

Second, the argument about the justice of liberating millions of Germans under Czech control “proves too much.” Many Germans also lived in Poland, Russia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and France too. Poles lived in Lithuania. Russians lived in Ukraine. Ukrainians lived in Poland. Magyars lived in Romania and Slovakia. Jews and Gypsies lived everywhere. It would have been impossible to align the political and ethnic borders in 1938 Europe. To avoid the real and imagined harms to vulnerable ethnic minorities, either the borders of all of Europe would had to move and at least some of the people would have to be moved en masse, which is more or less what happened post-war. The Germans would not have stopped at Danzig, and there is no logical reason under Pat Buchanan’s reasoning that they should have. For the Germans, any German being ruled by a non-German was an injustice.

In other words, from the Alsace-Lorraine to the Volga, the Germans had a pretext to engage in wars to “liberate the oppressed Volksdeutsch.” Let’s be clear. This was a zero sum game: if the Germans got Danzig, the Poles of Pomerania would be Germanized, expelled, or oppressed, as they eventually were when it was annexed by the Third Reich. It was not a vain or unreasonable measure under the circumstances for the British to guarantee the sovereignty (and geographic accommodation in the form of a sea corridor) of the great victim of European history. Focusing on British actions does not put the blame where it belongs, and it functions potentially to relieve the Germans of the lion’s share of moral responsibility for resorting to a war of conquest.

Further, Britain’s concern for the European balance of power should not be dismissed because Poland was run by its equivalent of Pinochet. Such considerations did not stop Catholics from supporting Franco or the Rexists in Belgium. Sovereignty is a distinct issue from how a nation governs itself, and a nation does not lose its moral right to self-defense of its legal borders on account of being run by a Colonel. Further, Pilsudski was not even in the same league as Hitler no matter what Stalin, Golmuka, and Steven Spielberg have to say about it. I hope this is not debatable.

Focusing too much on Munich and the Sudetenland ignores the German troops occupied the Rhineland in 1936 in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The Allies acted weak and continued to do so afterwards. In other words, German militarization, the violation of treaties, and the resort to force was the context in which all of their “reasonable demands” post-1936 were made. The British could not ignore the other dimensions of context either: an increasing brutality within Germany, the grand vision of conquest laid out in Mein Kampf, and Germany’s extraordinary military rearmament program.

Threats and treaties are an important part of international diplomacy. They are designed ultimately to prevent war, even if they do not always succeed. Any criticism of British actions must depend upon the view that without this or that particular British mistake, Germany would have backed down. Because of the romantic Blut and Boden ethnonationalism of the Germans, and the scattering of Germans through Europe, this seems highly unlikely. And since Germany’s previous expansionist attempts involved both East and West, Britain rightly concerned itself about what would happen if it acted too late: becoming an isolated and vulnerable nation subject to its neighbor’s capricious will—Europe’s island-version of Finland.

The neoconservatives wrongly try to transpose Churchill and the orientation of the British Empire upon the United States today, just as they misread every petty dictator as the equivalent of Hitler and his Wehrmacht in 1939. American conservatives should avoid making the same error in reverse.  The circumstances of the past, whether for Britain or the United States, are different from today.  The United States has a providential capacity for isolation that the British lack. They, unlike we, could not ignore the balance of power in Europe in 1939, and it was perfectly reasonable—if too late—for them to offer protection to Poland in the face of ominous German designs to liberate their “oppressed brothers and sisters” to the East.

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