Saturday, 23 March 2013

The perils of using WW2 as a guide to past conflicts

So thanks to the incapacity of Belfast International airport to maintain normal service during snowfall I've come into possession of the latest 'New Statesman' - a publication I enjoy but don't get around to reading regularly.

The cover story is a rather interesting, but slightly implausible, attempt to link the current economic back-biting in the Eurozone to a consideration of the 'German question' as a driver of European history and international relations. Despite the tenuous linking of these themes it was a good read and I always appreciate any public debate that encourages an engagement with German history beyond the much picked over periods of the World Wars and the Nazi dictatorship.

However, as usual in such a sweeping history there were a couple of historical simplifications that jarred a little. Periods of German history and especially major wars were (possibly merely for reasons of space) characterised mainly in relation to one burning issue or theme. We find that the Thirty Years War was mainly concerned with the ambitions of the European powers in a time of religious turmoil while WW1 was caused by the alarming concentration of power in a unified Germany.

Of course such motivations were indisputably real. The Protestantism of the rebellious Bohemians was as influential in the origin of the Thirty Years War as France's fear of Spanish encirclement. Yet creating such a meta-narrative ignores the chaotic unpredictability of history. Where does the ambitious personality of Gustavus Adolphus or the territorial antagonism of the (universally Protestant) Scandanavian states fit into such an unnuanced narrative? If such awkward questions can be asked about the characterisation of a single war then how can five hundred years of German history before and after unification be tied together into any sort of consistent narrative?

In explaining this phenomena one could focus on the virtues of simplicity and a strong central argument or the political uses of easily understandable historical themes. However, in this post I will instead consider the effects on historical views of conflict caused by the centrality of the Second World War to British teaching of German history.

The dominant narrative and focus on World War II in the classroom and seminar hall allows teachers to focus on the horrors of war while absolving most of the blame from the victors of the conflict. The occurrence of ethnic cleansing and brutal attacks on civilians can be acknowledged by a focus on the mass killing of Jews and minorities during the Holocaust. The suffering of the ordinary soldier can also be emphasised through a focus on the discomfort of conscripted American soldiers, thousands of miles from home, and the privations of Allied paratroopers behind enemy lines.

However, such grim descriptions of the consequence of war are stripped of much of their subversive content by the ascription of the majority of the blame to the losers of the war. The ethnic cleansing and totalitarian acts of Germany can be used to obscure any war crimes or mis-treatment of non-combatants by the Allies. For example, the abandonment of Dutch resistance forces to German repression is justified by the need to end the war (and thus the killing of the Jews and other persecuted groups) as quickly as possible. The American use of nuclear weapons on civilians is condoned by the need to avoid the greater horror of clawing back island after island from fanatical Japanese troops. Such events are portrayed as horrific and distasteful but are ultimately justified by the necessity of combating the evil of Nazism and totalitarian expansionism.

In making this argument I am not sticking up for the Nazis and their authoritarian allies. I would far rather live in a world where the Allies won the war through pragmatic measures than in one where Hitler's grisly extermination of minorities continued beyond 1945. However, such standard justifications of Allied behaviour do influence our perception of previous conflicts. When we consider earlier wars we are conditioned to adopt an equally pragmatic approach in ascribing motivations. We assume that wars must have been fought for a central reason and that the actions of involved states must be explicable by rational necessity. In identifying such central and all-encompassing rationales for past conflicts we risk jettisoning large amounts of necessary historical context. We fail to consider such temporally and geographically specific factors as the difficulty of communicating with distant armies during the Thirty Years War or the incentive for soldiers to continue fighting when their only methods of logistical support were looting and extortion. Similarly we neglect the differences between a war initiated by a (theoretically) unchallenged Monarch and those directed by elected and (theoretically) easily replaced politicians.

This is not to say that there is no place for wide narratives in an understanding of past conflicts. However, care must be taken to avoid smuggling in assumptions by organising analysis around overarching motivations. The context of particular historical situations and motivations should always be considered and a meta-narrative only sustained if it can be extrapolated from an in-depth study of each considered historical example.

No comments:

Post a Comment