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Hitler’s swerve

Published on 03 September 2015
Updated on 06 March 2023

George Friedman specializes in the analysis of international conflicts and is CEO of the renowned private intelligence corporation STRATFOR. His credentials notably include studying the potential for a U.S.-Japan conflict after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and co-authoring The Coming War with Japan. This year, he has written a piece on “Hitler’s legacy,” claiming that he is now in a position to “extract the real meaning of the man.” In the following, I shall discuss the three changes that, according to Friedman, Hitler brought about. I shall use the term “swerve” rather than “legacy,” which somehow suggests benevolent intentionality.

A liminary consideration

History is a flow of events without beginnings. Analysts tend to fashion narratives by choosing a beginning event, from which all consequences are made to flow. In so doing, they are likely to replace the post hoc by the propter hoc. In this article, the seminal historical event from which all consequences flow is Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which indeed opened the hostilities in Europe in 1939. One could frame the narrative quite differently, however.One could argue that with the Non-aggression Pact of 23 August 1939 Stalin conned Hitler into storming West, hoping for Hitler unwittingly to blaze the way for the ensuing worldwide Communist revolution (in this case, it would have been “Stalin’s legacy”). Indeed, there is circumstantial evidence that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union just a month before the latter was ready to roll to Berlin. I say this in good spirit, just to underline the limits of our ability to know “what truly happened” – Rahnke’s dream of writing history.

The end of European empires

“[Hitler] destroyed Europe’s hegemony over much of the world and its influence over the rest.” According to the author, Europe exhausted after fighting Hitler relinquished its role in world affairs. There is good reason to question this assertion.

In many historians’ view, Europe’s hegemony came to an end after WWI, which exhausted the European powers economically, financially, and worst of all, humanly. The US rescued the Allies from defeat in the field just in the nick of time (the Germans had developed ways to break through the lines of trenches). Throughout the war, the US (while neutral) bankrolled the fight and delivered to the Allied Powers both food and weapons, becoming in the process the economic and financial center of the world. The 1920s witnessed the concealed shift of economic and financial policy-making from London to New York – it was a period of uncertainty, which led to the Great Depression.

Under the impact of Wilson’s 14 points, old-style European imperialism came to an end at Versailles (and surroundings peace sites). German colonies were not handed over to the winners as a prize of war: the winners got them in the framework of League of Nations (LoN) Mandates that included eventual independence for the domains. It was a signal to the world that colonialism was on the wane. Even at Sèvres, where the US were absent because not involved in a war against the Porte, LoN mandates were issued, e.g. on Palestine. China’s long march to world power began 5th May 1919 when the content of the Versailles peace treaties became known in Peking. Even tiny and distant Samoa rebelled against New Zealand’s LoN mandate in 1929. In Delhi, the Raj was busy during the 30es fanning communal flames to justify hanging on.

More profoundly, the European empire system had always stood on wobbly feet. First of all, the empires had been mostly a hodge-podge proconsular affair, rather than a centrally planned drive. Ambitious generals at the periphery ignored instructions of the center for restraint (and often common sense, as in Afghanistan in 1839). Each time they painted in red or blue ever wider portions of the world map, hoping their military success would validate their disobedience. This is nothing different from what Sulla or Caesar did in Roman times, and even Alexander was a pro-consul of himself, having left his kingdom in the hands of his scheming mother. The economic promise of modern empires never quite materialized, and the colonies were always strapped for cash (though private fortunes were of course made) and run on a shoe-string. “Breaking” is the easy part of the adage “you break it, you own it.”

WWI brought about a professionalization of the states’ bureaucracy in the Allied states and a belated realization that running an empire was complex and demanding, and far from a self-financing proposition. The center half-heartedly tried their hand at the task of consolidating empire rashly cobbled together by the periphery. As multi-cultural constructs, empires tend to be unstable. Imperial consolidation goes hand in hand with forging an integrating ideology. Constantine picked Christianity, and so did the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas. The Soviets tried Communism, and the French the mission civilisatrice de la France (now Francophonie). Nothing of the sort was at hand for Britain, or Japan. In any case, the mayonnaise did not take – anywhere. As a result, by 1940 some major parts of the world’s imperial system were breaking up already. But not all: Russia’s more ruthless imperial system lasted until 1991.

European religious attendance

The second claim: “It was not Hitler who destroyed the European metaphysical sensibility. In many ways, it destroyed itself from inside, with a radical skepticism derived from the Enlightenment that turned on itself. But Hitler provided a coup de grace to that sensibility by appropriating figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner to his own political ends, thereby legitimizing not only them but also the tradition from which they emerged.” is a tortured non-sequitur bordering on slander of the Enlightenment.

Nietzsche and Wagner were not children of the Enlightenment, but rather bastards of idealism, which entered the skeptical world of Enlightenment with Rousseau. The main difference between the American and the French Declaration of Human Rights, one could argue, is the emergence of the concept of a transcendent “nation” in the latter, with Robespierre as its incarnation. Napoleon rode with a copy of Werther in his pack, not Descartes or Spinoza. From there, the path to nationalism and the totalitarian state (Social Darwinism was another bastard picked up on the way) was set.

Be what may, any collapse of “vulgar Enlightenment” after WWII should have brought Europeans back to their “metaphysical sensibility,” not vaccinated them against it as the author posits. Indeed, both in WWI and WWII the horror of the slaughter erased the traditional religious trope: “War is God’s punishment for the world’s sins” and replaced it by “War is fulfilling God’s hidden design.” Unsurprisingly, the US, with its tradition of manifest destiny, was the only country to be easily convinced. Europe fell back on tired consequentialism – or being a region of shop-keepers (even this would have been only half-true: the demise of philosophical idealism only came with the collapse of Communism).

The train wreck that Hitler made of Europe created a secularism not only in relation to Christianity, but in all attempts to recreate the depth of European culture.” One surmises that the author is pining for Europe’s refusal to declare Christianity the source of its “deep culture,” thus humming the “clash of civilizations” trope. The author here is going down deeper into the muddy water of cultural history and coming up thoroughly dirty. This is history-writing with an attitude.

The power of the United States

On the face of it, next to attacking the Soviet Union, Hitler’s declaration of war on the US was his greatest blunder. Both giants were spoiling for a fight with him, and he gave them the opportunity. He succumbed. A believer in the survival of the fittest nation, Hitler committed suicide and tried to take his country with him.

Still, the Führer unwittingly succeeded in one of his primary goals – the destruction of totalitarian Communism. Admittedly, the Soviet Union survived WWII, but just barely. Exhausted, it fell intoiImperial ways, exploiting Eastern Europe to its benefit, rather than reviving the modernizing élan of the inter-year wars. After history had played itself out, the US was the only one left standing.

The power of the US had already agglutinated by the end of WWI. Invidiously, one could argue that power came to the US because it outsourced its imperial wars to others – the Allied Powers in WWI, and mainly the Soviet Union in WWII. The US practiced military Keynesianism (with apologies to the economist). More relevantly, it could draw on enormous natural resources and the work of its millions of (European) immigrants. The supremacy of the US was not Hitler’s gift; it was a giant coming into its own.

Hitler had little respect for the US” the author opines. A fan of the German Wild-West author Karl May (a favorite of German children), Hitler argued from analogy that Germany had to “go East” to become a power akin to the US. Hitler knew full well about the strength of the US, so its eventual ascendancy would not have surprised him.

A final point to ponder

The author’s grand finale reminds me of the French political gadfly Jean Baudrillard at his best orgasmic insights: “Hitler destroyed the dams that Europe had built around itself.” And “Hitler drew the Americans into the heart of Europe and left the Europeans completely vulnerable to the emerging, and quite strange, modes of thought that a nation that holds shopkeepers in great regard can produce.” Through the dam rushed the US: “The United States redefined European culture. As I have written in Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, it was not Coca-Cola but the computer that was the carrier of American culture. The computer had nothing to do with metaphysics or with the true or beautiful. It had to do with the narrowest form of instrumental reason: It simply got things done, and in doing so, it justified its existence. The computer dominated the world — and Europe — and with it came a mode of thinking, contained in programming, that was so radically different from what European culture consisted of as to almost be from another planet. Of course, Europeans helped found the culture, but they bequeathed it to their heir, the United States. Paradoxically, the United States remains the most religious of countries, with church attendance at its height. Religiosity and instrumental reason are compatible in the United States — a point to ponder.”

I am pondering… is the author pandering?


[1] Pondering Hitler’s Legacy. Geopolitical Weekly SEPTEMBER 1, 2015 https://bit.ly/1KLFYC7

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