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More dispatches from an imaginary WWII

June 28, 2011

There are plenty of other good critiques of Pawlenty’s speech, but this comment from the question and answer section reflects not just an awful use of history, but a downright wrong reading of the historical evidence:

Following his speech, Pawlenty was asked if he was concerned that new democratic governments in the Middle East would harbor greater anti-American sentiment than the dictators who were removed.

“People didn’t ask, ‘What comes after Hitler?’” Pawlenty responded. “Hitler was awful and needed to go.”

Regardless of whether Assad or anybody else in the Middle East is as dangerous to their own people, the region, or the United States as Hitler was (BLUF: they aren’t), Tim Pawlenty is just downright wrong. People did ask what comes after Hitler, because it was not just enough to depose him, or else the US just would have packed up and left once Doenitz broadcasted news of his death on May 1st. Heck, maybe we would have aided the German resistance against Hitler and let German non-Nazi fascists and conservative revolutionaries keep fighting on the Eastern Front.

We were so concerned about what came after Hitler because the Allied powers had already defeated Germany before, and, thinking, “what could be worse than the Kaiser?” found themselves on the wrong end of a bloodthirsty leader and an even larger war. The Allies decided on unconditional surrender in Casablanca in January 1943 in part for this reason – they were going to make sure that Germany did not launch a third world war. At OCTAGON in Quebec 1944, the British, Canadians and Americans mulled the Morgenthau plan for precisely this reason. We were, in fact, so concerned with “what comes after Hitler?” that we considered de-industrializing Germany and dismembering it even further than did historically occur. The Allies were gravely concerned with the possibility of Germany rising again, which is even reflected in the legal intricacies behind the conclusion of the war. To avoid a new Dolchtosslegende, they ensured the German military surrendered and ignored Doenitz to multilaterally abolish any German civilian authority and conduct total occupation of Germany.

You do not totally occupy a country, abolish its civilian authority, sever from it not just the territories it gained in the most recent wars but ones dating to the conquests of Frederick the Great or the dynastic politics of Brandenburg and then keep the country occupied, divided, and then enmeshed in a series of multilateral military, political and economic agreements unless you are really concerned about what that country was going to do. The Allies were not just concerned about the revival of German militarism and nationalism, although this fear colored Atlantic geopolitics and institutions (consider NATO’s threefold purpose of keeping the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down), but that Soviet control or influence over Germany might pose a similarly dire threat to the liberal democratic Western world. Thus when Stalin sent his infamous 1952 note suggesting the reunification of Germany (whether it was sincere or not), the NATO states balked. The fear of a reunified Germany not wholly integrated into the West remained quite potent. This was quite valid, considering the unreconstructed Nazis of the Socialist Reich Party and other fascist groups actually received more support than the West German communist party, since they were the most credible force there to create a “neutralist” Germany that would in fact, as per Bismarck’s dictum, make a “good treaty with Russia” and align against the West, whether Berlin was red or brown.

Now, we could interpret Pawlenty’s statement charitably, in thinking that he, like other relentless advocates of regime change in the Middle East, simply thinks that whatever the risks of regime change, Assad, like Hitler, is bad enough that we cannot allow him to stay in power. Unfortunately, he’s expecting the American government not simply to reject Assad, but to charge headlong into regime change – possibly with military force – in Syria because some leaders are so awful that we do not need to worry about what happens afterward. In the case of Hitler, this was downright false. We spent years worrying about what was going to happen after Hitler. It was not some question that just dawned on the world later. The debates about what kind of surrender to seek, what sort of peace to be imposed, and what kind of Germany should follow after were subjects of intense and meticulous debate.  The Allies were concerned that regime change, poorly done, could have disastrous consequences for the Western world, and remained tied up in Germany’s future for decades afterwards.

These points about World War II would be obscure and esoteric if the mythology of the conflict did not appear nigh constantly as a rhetorical showstopper  in foreign policy debate. When American politicians invoke WWII, the critics are expected to shut up and follow the obvious moral imperative, as if there need be no interpretation or debate about that vital part of our history. It should be, at this point, quite obvious that there are worse possibilities in Syrian political thought than Assad. Take, for instance, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the actual Nazi-inspired group. Or take the possibility of a Syrian political vacuum which entangles the security interests of Pawlenty’s favorite Middle Eastern state, Israel, along with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and essentially Egypt as well. Unlike Hitler, Syria’s armies are not threatening the existence, territory, or prosperity of America or its Allies. This means that American policymakers have even more luxury to do what the Allies did when they confronted the problem of a post-Nazi Germany: debate, plan, and prepare. If simply settling at a Germany without Hitler was not enough for the Allies, then settling for whatever catastrophe of a foreign intervention, military or otherwise, gets rid of Assad is not enough for Americans today. Certainly Americans have the luxury of not settling for a candidate whose seriousness on foreign policy has no more behind it than the benefit of the doubt and some decent polling data.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. caidid permalink
    June 30, 2011 8:54 am

    I think you might give Pawlenty too much credit by intimating that he undertook a “reading of the historical evidence.” I’m pretty sure Godwin’s Law (not to mention the laws of whatever media game running for president constitutes these days) frees you from any obligation to use that stuff.

    • June 30, 2011 1:35 pm

      Probably, but misuse of WWII history is one of my major pet peeves (as you can probably tell from the recent posts). It’s doubly annoying because not only are the invocations of WWII usually totally inappropriate, but the actual WWII history trying to be analogized is deeply flawed.

      Pawlenty probably didn’t do a “reading of the evidence,” but the speechwriters, advisers, brain trusts, and writers who he draws on probably do. But yeah, mostly I’m just pretty frustrated with how Americans view WWII and the way they use that excuse in politics.


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