Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why William Shirer Drives Me Nuts

Ben comments on last Thursday's post about the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939:
Incidentally, you might be very interested in a talk Max Hastings gave at Pritzker Military Library recently. At the end he gets asked some obnoxious question by a Stalin apologist and reminds the slug of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact to shut him up. The MP3 is here.

Max Hastings is a British military historian, and the subject of the talk was Armageddon, his book about the end of World War II. I have not read the book, but the talk is excellent; and if the war interests you at all, you should spend the hour to listen to the talk. In the talk, Hastings makes a number of points about Stalin, the Red Army, its leaders, and its conduct in Poland after the war. Stalin, he says, was a far more effective warlord than was Hitler, largely because the Red Army's debacle to start the war taught him to leave all but the highest-level military questions to the men who actually knew about them, whereas Hitler never realized that he wasn't a military genius. He was a much more dangerous man for a general to work for, though, because he had a propensity for shooting generals, both because they failed and because they succeeded too well; Hitler, by contrast, didn't execute many of his army officers. The leaders of the Red Army by the end of the war, especially Georgy Zhukov, were the most effective generals of World War II, but they were effective largely because they were brutal and utterly unconcerned about the lives and well-being of their men. The Red Army was the most effective of the Allied armed forces, killing far more Germans and destroying far more German materiel than the Western Allies. Of course, their conduct in Germany at the end and after the war was nothing short of bestial, and they conducted a similarly brutal campaign after the war in Poland to exterminate all Poles who might object to Soviet domination. Listening to all of this, strangely enough, reminded me of why I can't stand William Shirer.

Shirer was the German correspondent for CBS radio for many years, ending with his expulsion from Germany in 1940. His Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, first published in 1959, remains the most widely-read popular history of the rise of the Nazi Party and the German conduct of World War II. Critics at the time and since have dismissed it as crude oversimplification of the Nazi era, but it is extremely readable; and I think that Shirer's opinions about the why the war came, even if not particularly original, were at the time and remain influential among the moderately well-read and well-educated American population. For Shirer, the causes of World War II are very simple: Germany fell under the control of a bunch of ruthless gangsters bent on world domination, and Britain and France were too cowardly to oppose them and too benighted by anti-Communist prejudice to recognize that alliance with the Soviet Union was, by the late 1930s, the only way to stop German aggression. He's certainly right about the first part: Germany did indeed fall under the control of a bunch of ruthless gangsters bent on world domination. The other two parts of his formulation are much more problematic. His account of British and French motivations for the policy of appeasement is much too simplistic and cartoonish, but that's not what I want to talk about here. It's his portrayal of the Soviet Union as the last, best hope of averting war.

On one level, Shirer is probably correct that an alliance between Britain, France, and the Soviet Union would have averted or at least delayed the beginning of World War II: had Hitler thought that the Soviets would have fought him if he invaded Poland, he probably wouldn't have invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. But what Shirer doesn't really address is whether the Soviets were negotiating with the Western Allies in good faith in 1939, whether it was really possible for them to have concluded an alliance on terms that would have been acceptable to both sides, and what the consequences of such an alliance would have been on the countries of Eastern Europe.

Was Stalin negotiating with the Western Allies in good faith in 1939? I doubt it. Leave aside the fact that Stalin had contemplated an accommodation with Hitler as early as 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, the fact that there was a history of German-Soviet cooperation dating to the 1920s, when the Soviets allowed the German army to train on Soviet territory to evade the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, and the fact that German and Soviet intelligence and espionage services began cooperating and sharing information as early as 1937. Stalin's sine qua non for an alliance with Britain and France was that Poland give the Red Army transit rights across Polish territory to engage the German Army, and he knew very well that that was a condition that the Polish government could never agree to. This reluctance by the Polish government to allow Soviet troops into their territory, far from being the obstinate ineptitude that Shirer portrays it as, was entirely rational. The Poles were in an impossible situation in 1938 and 1939. Their only legitimate hope to defend against German aggression was to get help from the Soviets, but they knew that Soviet help would inevitably mean Soviet domination. Shirer never mentions that the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw during the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1921 (Stalin was one of its commanders during that war) and that only a miracle comparable to that of the Battle of the Marne prevented them from taking the city, nor does he acknowledge that the Soviet domination that the Poles feared actually happened after World War II. And remember that almost half of inter-war Poland was territory formerly belonging to the Russian Empire. The Polish government knew that their position was impossible, and they chose to deal with their predicament with dignity: they refused to cave in to German bullying, and they refused to hand their country over voluntarily to the Soviets. It was stubbornness, I suppose, but it was a noble stubbornness, regardless of what Shirer says. An alliance with Stalin would have meant British and French complicity in Soviet aggression against Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It was one thing for Britain to agree to this when it was a fait accompli, as it was by the time of the Yalta conference in 1945. It was quite another for them to do so in 1939. A British government that agreed to such an alliance would have fallen, and it would have deserved to do so.

Shirer's basic problem is that he doesn't regard Stalin and the Soviet regime as being evils on the same plane as Hitler and the Nazi regime. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to try to determine which was the more evil, but it is unquestionable that both were directly responsible for the intentional infliction of huge amounts of death and human suffering. It is perfectly natural that any government not evil would have shrunk in the late 1930s from allying with either regime, and Shirer's refusal to understand that renders him obnoxious and his book tendentious.

(I am too lazy to quote from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in support of my arguments, but see the chapters "The Turn of Poland" and "The Nazi-Soviet Pact".)


Ben W. Brumfield said...

Shirer's basic problem is that he doesn't regard Stalin and the Soviet regime as being evils on the same plane as Hitler and the Nazi regime.

John, I've got to disagree with you here, as I think you're blinded by hindsight.

Shirer's problem wasn't the failure to recognize the evils of Stalin, but rather the fact that he'd experienced history forwards. His experience during the thirties had been the same as that of hawks like Churchill -- trust in the system of mutual alliance to contain Germany. France's failure of nerve during the occupation of the Rhineland was not a fatal blow to that system, but Munich was.

Attempting to patch together an eastern counterweight to Germany after abandoning (and losing) Czechoslovakia was an entirely reasonable thing for mutual-defence advocates to do. After all, that system was what they'd counted on since Versailles, and they saw few alternatives to it.

Was it futile to try to a new eastern partner out of Poland and the USSR? Certainly. But you couldn't really expect anything else from those men at that time. After Munich, they were staring at a busted flush.

Ben W. Brumfield said...

Mind you, my goal here is not to argue about what Britain and France should have done, but rather to defend Shirer's perspective as a product of his generation (and specifically the anti-fascist wing of the Western left), rather than the intellectual contortions of the latter-day ,Chomskyesque Stalin apologist you paint him to be.

Soletrain said...

Frankly, that's a gross caricature of my argument, Ben. It's not as if grave doubts about Stalin's sincerity or motivations weren't current in the late '30s. In fact, those doubts (along with doubts about the efficacy of the Red Army after the Purge, also entirely reasonable) were among the major reasons that Chamberlain, Daladier, and Beck were not eager for Soviet alliance. Shirer ignores or mischaracterizes their real motivations because he has to in order to tell the morality tale of cowardice and blindness that he wants to write. The most charitable thing that I can say about him is that he's a bad historian.

Shirer is obviously not a Chomskyite, and your suggestion that I claimed that he was is either hyperbolic or disingenuous. But he does have the same blind spot that FDR and so many New Deal liberals had; namely, the conviction that the Soviet Union really couldn't be that bad and that whatever evil it did do paled in comparison to the evil of Nazism. The evidence to the contrary was there in the 1930s, and Shirer ignored it then. I can forgive him for that. The evidence to the contrary was present in even greater quantities in 1959 when he was writing Rise and Fall, and he still ignored it. I can't forgive that.

Look, Shirer's moral condemnation of the British and French (and Polish) leadership for their actions before World War II is sweeping and unequivocal. Not only did they do the wrong thing, he says, but they also did the wrong thing because they were morally small and stupid men. Such strong criticism requires strong evidence; and Shirer not only does not present it but ignores bountiful evidence to the contrary.

Ben W. Brumfield said...

Look, tell me how Shirer's charge of moral cowardice is incorrect for the period until and including Munich, and then we'll discuss his view of the Soviets. It's difficult for me to see the efforts to forge a western/soviet alliance as anything besides a futile attempt to recover from the mess that Munich made.

Yes, opponents to an Anglo/Franco/Soviet alliance had valid concerns about Stalin's intentions, and they also had valid concerns about Soviet military power. But certainly some of those opponents raised invalid objections to the alliance based on ideology or anti-Bolshevik propaganda.

I'm willing to grant your point when it comes to the Polish leadership, however. They may have been stupid or shortsighted per se, but not because of their fear of the USSR nor lack of confidence that the UK/France wouldn't sell them down the river. Shirer does go over the top in his rants about "the Colonels"

Soletrain said...

Shirer's appeasement narrative suffers from the same sort of problems that his Case White narrative suffers from. It is true without a doubt that Chamberlain's appeasement policy before Munich was disastrous and misguided, but Shirer's contention that the source of this policy was simply moral cowardice on the part of the Western governments is not supported by the evidence. Chamberlain and his government had many motivations, from the fact that the British military was in bad shape and that the British treasury didn't have the money to rearm and expand it to the reality on the ground in Czechoslovakia: Britain and France could offer no direct assistance to the Czechs should they decide to fight. It was largely the same situation as confronted them in Poland in 1939: the only effective possible assistance for Czechoslovakia against the Germans was the Red Army, but securing the assistance of the Red Army involved other potentially catastrophic risks. Yes, it is true that significant numbers in the British and French governments had no stomach for fighting in any circumstances; but Shirer's portrayal of that as the only or by far the most important motivation for British and French conduct is crude, cartoonish, and unfair.

Demolition said...

I keep getting confused with what your main point is. Shirer accuses Fr/UK of moral cowardice? This does not hold up under the evidence due to the lack or armament? This has been the case with almost every war fought on the Continent in 500 years. Yet in the end, the armies fight. The conditions for the Allies in September 1939 was little better than it had been around the time of Munich, at least in terms of strength relative to Nazi Germany. They WERE moral cowards, up to declaring war due to the invasion of Poland.

The USSR Was the best hope for averting war? This was true post-Munich, so what is wrong with that assessment? The loss of Czechoslovakia eliminated the only real defense against Hitler in the east aside from the Soviets. Once Chamberlain sold out the Sudetenland, it was all over for the East in terms of stopping Nazi aggression. The Czechs at that point could have fought and lost. If they had been allowed to keep the Sudetenland and man those mountain bulwarks they had spent decades fortifying, an Eastern standstill was a real possibility.

But they didn't, leaving Stalin to, as he so cynically stated, standing there to pull the West's chestnuts out of the fire.

But aside from this, I get the feeling you think Shirer is engaging in Soviet hero-worship. Is that the case, or am I misreading?

Finally, about Shirer assaulting the moral cowardice of the Allies (again, a term I never see him use): Blum, Daladier and Chamberlain, as well as their cabinets and assemblies were horrified at the idea of war. This was a generation vividly bloodied by the excesses of WWI, and they were quite willing to grasp at almost any straw to avoid further war, and projected their very reasonable repulsion against another war onto the leader of Germany. If he were sane enough to achieve high office, he had to be sane enough to want to avoid war; so went their reasoning/wishful thinking. That doesn't allow for the removal of a label of moral cowardice, but it does allow for empathy for their position and their logic.