Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Evil and historical judgments: more reflections on R.H.S. Stolfi's "Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny"

Historians used to have heroes and villains. Livy's hero was Scipio Africanus for good reasons, though Hannibal was too great to be a villain. Macaulay's wooden hero was the usurper William III. Leopold von Ranke's hero was Napoleon. 

American historians admired another high minded warmonger, Lincoln.

But no man is a hero to his valet and historians these days think like valets. 

Almost everyone has been debunked. They don't usually spend much time painting historical figures as heroic except when race comes into it, as it does with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parkes, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. With them old fashioned history, of the type taught around 1900 and parodied by Sellars and Yeatman, still obtains. 

Because of race,  Lincoln is still a great American hero, even though he wanted to deport the freed slaves to Central America because, as he told the first ever meeting of blacks in the White House, 
"not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours".
Mandela and Gandhi, you note, are the Americans' foreign heroes now. They have replaced the racist and imperialist Churchill.

Historians do not much use the word evil, except about Hitler and the Nazis.

As Lord Bullock said

"If he is not evil, who is?"
Indeed, but is evil a word historians should use?

I am not sure it is.

Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) in any case disagreed. His view that Hitler was "sincere" in his designs, and misguided, rather than evil. 

Does being sincere and idealistic mean you are not evil?

Historians are not really good at moral judgments, which should be left to bishops and moral theologians. Though I would not trust many bishops, even Catholic ones, on political or historical judgments. The Pope admires Lincoln, who could have avoided a war in which perhaps 700,000 in all died, by allowing the South self-determination.

A.J.P. Taylor said:

"Hitler was a rational, though no doubt a wicked, statesman."
Did any historian call Lenin evil? He was as evil as Hitler and as sincere and misguided in his intention to make the world a better place.

Lenin, after all, said that
"If for the sake of Communism it is necessary to destroy nine tenths of the people we must not hesitate."
Nihilism. Like Al Qaeda and Hitlerism.

Still, there are tenured academics who admire Lenin to a greater or lesser degree and who garner honours and plaudits. 

A bit of a disparity there, when compared with attitudes to fascism. Do you imagine Eric Hobsbawm would have been made a Companion of Honour had he been a fascist not a Communist?

Some American universities want to ban people like Ann Coulter from speaking but give tenure to Marxists. Though, to be fair, America has a tradition of freedom of speech for academics and, for example, one or two overtly anti-Semitic academics hold tenure in the USA.

Historians write about their own times when they try to write about the past. This may sound odd, since fascism was comprehensively defeated in 1945, but the war continues, even though the enemy is dead. 

Here we reach the nub of the matter.

Every discussion about Hitler is a discussion about our era. The wholly understandable and justified repulsion from the Nazis is perhaps the most powerful factor in the history of the developed world since 1945 and becomes more not less influential as years to boast. The whole of history since 1945, or at least since the  1950s, is a meditation on the Nazis.

Which is very strange, if you think about it. 

Of course, people always learn the wrong lessons from history and are learning exactly the wrong ones from the war.

Everything nowadays is about race or, by analogy, sexism or homophobia or that curious new concept Islamophobia.

Was President Andrew Jackson, who slaughtered unarmed Indians, kept slaves and, almost as bad, has been compared to Donald Trump, evil?

If Jackson was almost as bad as Hitler, does this mean Hitler is only a bit worse than Jackson?

When I studied American history I found the level of historiography was much lower than the level of British historiography. It reflected the people who wrote history in the two countries and the tradition in which they wrote. Americans are noble people, but they are prone to naivete, idealism, liberalism - and we are all aware that there is a certain provincialism inherent in US culture. 

Professor Paul Gottfried thinks American historians skew their works to favour of modern political agendas. In 'The Managerial President' he notes that, 
"All the major conflicts into which our leaders thrust us from the Civil War on, with the possible exception of Vietnam, are seen as morally desirable actions. … The U.S. is a land of morally driven, energetic presidents who have made us into the envy and dread of the world."
For such historians Lincoln is their great hero. Naturally, they also like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. 

This is the thinking that led to George W. Bush’s foreign policy and would have led to President Hillary invading Syria to topple Mr. Assad, had Donald Trump not unexpectedly prevented her from doing so.

Professor Gottfried also said that, unlike England, with its essentially medieval social structure, America was made by 
"Protestant sectarians who neither had nor desired a medieval past and whose descendants have turned into celebrants of progress, commerce and human rights."
A. J. P. Taylor drily observed that had
“the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbors, as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation."
I think that the great man theory of history was amply validated in the 20th century, by two evil geniuses, Lenin and Hitler, but the word evil does have theological connotations. In Romanian the world for evil is 'diabolic'.

Psychopath is the scientific or semi-scientific word for evil, but I doubt if only psychopaths are evil or that either Lenin or Hitler were psychopaths, though Stalin certainly was. 

All three were idealists, of course, who thought they were making the world a better place, but this is irrelevant. Most of the worst things in recent history have been done by idealists, starting with the Reformation.

A.J.P. Taylor thought Hitler acted in much the same way as Frederick the Great or the Kaiser. But Macaulay had no doubt that Frederick the Great was a very bad man, as indeed he was.
"The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and, in order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America."
An interesting question is: why was Hitler worse than Atilla, Napoleon or Caesar? I think he was, but the question is worth pondering.

But is it a question for historians? 

In British history, after perhaps Bad King John, I don't recall moral judgments being made about anyone except about the pre-war fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Lord Skidelsky in his wonderful biography of Mosley even manages mostly to avoid them about  Mosley, which is part of why the book is so good.

But that was in the 1970s. Paul Gottfried again (by the way he is Jewish), speaking in 2012:
"19th-century historians, as Herbert Butterfield reminds us, took seriously the task of researching and writing “objective” history. I recall seeing traces of this in an Orthodox Jewish lady I had as graduate student in the early 1970s at NYU. This woman had planned to do a dissertation on the fate of Jewish communities in Galicia in the twentieth century but then abandoned her topic. The reason she gave made me respect her forever: She refused to prepare a dissertation on a subject she could not treat with the proper degree of objectivity.
This refusal would now be ascribed in all likelihood to inexcusable moral indifference. Truly sensitive historians, we are told, should have zero tolerance for reactionary rule or for what until recently were considered natural hierarchies. Today’s historians are calling attention to screaming inequality, wherever they chose to notice it, in the past or in the present."
To close this long post (apologies) here are quotations from two close advisers to the British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Here is Seumas Milne, Labour Party's Executive Director of Strategy and Communications.
“For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality.”
And Andrew Murray in an article for the Morning Star.
“Against imperialists, we are all Stalinists”


  1. Mandela and Gandhi, you note, are the Americans' foreign heroes now.

    Although they're careful not to talk too much about Gandhi's views on South Africa's blacks!

  2. I think Lincoln is revered (by many) in the US due to his vision for reconciliation, rather than revenge, after winning the brutal war. And for ending, albeit inadvertently, the great embarrassment of American society - slavery. (It was a divisive issue from the very beginning of the birth of the country). Of course, the history of Lincoln and the war is shrouded in propaganda, but there is a cultural current of "Civil War buffs" who are surprisingly neutral in their analysis of that period. Many had ancestors who fought on both sides.

  3. Should Brexit be called dangerous because a man stabbed a woman MP? Please stop saying liberals all hate their country based on one article by a nobody in the infra-dig Huffington Post, which does not even pay its contributors. Plenty of us liberals love America and want it to prosper. And we know Lenin was an evil leader, too.

    1. Well said. I wrote this whike disgusted with an American historian of the USSR who certainly does not regard Lenin as evil. There are more like her in academia.

  4. Academics, including right-wing ones, are often misguided about a lot of things.

    Although unmistakably evil, Lenin died before he could attempt world domination. Hitler was aggressive and expansionist toward other nations in the wider (and more sophisticated) world. That, his deliberate genocidal aims, and the extensive visual record of Nazism may be why people focus on Hitler as the embodiment of evil.

    I have always thought Stalin made Hitler look like Little Bo Peep. That was a truly evil man with evil aims who destroyed lives en masse.

  5. Lenin did attempt to conquer the world for Communism but was defeated by the Poles. Many on the left still dislike and fear Polish conservatism. Stalin was England's ally in the war and the Soviet alliance made opinion throughout Europe swing to the left. Communism won and Fascism lost the war. Fascism as a result is a dead creed and the evidence of the murder of the Jews meant there would never be a revival Communism still retains a revolutionary glamour because Communists defeated Germany (with limited help from England and America).

  6. Attacking Poland was a limited project compared to Hitler's agenda, and Lenin had no ally like Japan to aid him in his aims.

    I think Communism is a dead creed also. Some may admire It for beating Germany, but no one really wants to revive it. Good riddance to both pestilences.