History is an angel being blown backwards

6 06 2011

Finally finished Richard Evans’s The Third Reich at War. Yes, I already knew the ending, but still, so, so satisfying.

Not everything about it satisfied. The Nazis grew ever more fanatical as the Reich’s prospects worsened, and so many—tens of thousands—of people were killed by the SS as the Allies pushed the Eastern and Western fronts ever closer together. And the Soviet soldiers, pfft, they raped their way west—gang-raped their way west. American and British forces also abused and raped civilians, but like nothing on the scale of the Red Army.

Given what the Germans had done on their march into the USSR, what the Red Army did was hardly a surprise. Still.

And too many Nazis escaped, either through subterfuge and help from an anti-communist official in the Vatican or because they were useful to the victors or by killing themselves. They—Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, Borman, among too many others—escaped judgment by a shot to the head or a literal poison pill. They got to control their own deaths, just as they controlled the deaths of tens of millions of people.

They did not get what was coming to them.

Two further thoughts: One, while I have mentioned that I am under all circumstances opposed to the death penalty, I am not in any way exercised by the penalties imposed on those brought to trial. However problematic the juridical underpinnings of a victor-imposed war tribunal, I think it was better to have had the various trials than not; is no justice to be preferred to rough justice? (This is a real question, actually, tho’ I ask it only rhetorically, here.)

That my desire to have kept these anti-human genocidaires alive for the sole purpose of tormenting them—forcing them to live in a fallen world, a world where Germans are not the Master Race and Jews and Slavs and leftists and every so-called inferior would be in a position to look down with contempt and derision upon the Leader and his ilk—does point to my less-that-exalted moral position regarding the death penalty and these men. As with the suicides, the death penalty seems too easy a way out.

Second, I felt a great and unexpected rage at those alt-historians and pundits (Niall Ferguson and Pat Buchanan, for example) who spin out fantasies of woulda-coulda-shoulda and call it scholarship. I enjoy alt-history—Robert Harris’s Fatherland is a fine weekend read, and I’ve got Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America on my shelves—but I don’t treat it as anything other than what it is: fiction.

Even reading Ian Kershaw’s first volume of his biography of Hitler I find myself annoyed by his asides of but for this and had this judge not or if only the police had: Hitler wasn’t sent back to Austria to serve in the imperial army and he was allowed to enlist in the Kaiser’s force and the judge didn’t deport him after the beer hall putsch, etc. Again, the woulda-coulda-shouldas get us nowhere beyond dismay, exasperation, and not a little bit of unreflective smugness: We know better.

Maybe time does not constrain us in other quantum realities the way it does so here, in this reality of the 21st century, but since we do live within time, pretending that we can overcome the winds which blow us into the future is just that, pretending—or pretense, if you call it scholarship.

It’s also cheap, intellectually and morally. It’s one thing for, say, military tacticians to say if you had done X rather than Y in this battle, that might have opened up possibilities for Z—to say, in other words, that something limited can be learned about a specific event—but it’s quite another to assert with authority that had the British not joined the battle against the Hapsburgs and Ottomans and Hohenzollerns, say, that Imperial Germany would have imposed a cautious authoritarian rule over Europe, contained or otherwise short-circuited the Bolshevik Revolution, allowed the British to keep its empire, stymied the rise of the Americans, and oh, by the way, prevented the rise of Hitler, the Nazis, and the conflagration of WWII.

It’s quite another, in other words, to spin a whole counter-history which makes it seem as if the abattoir that was Europe in the first half of the twentieth century was, oopsie, all a big mistake, one which could be erased by hopscotching back to 1914 Britain and whispering in the King’s ear. History is made of chalk; let’s erase and start over.

The problem is precisely that history is made of chalk: There is nothing indelible in what happens, and we remember only because we remember. We have to chalk and re-chalk and re-chalk again the contours of our deeds if they are to remain visible to us amidst those blowing winds.

Six million Jews and however many thousands of Roma and hundreds of thousands if not millions of Slavs were murdered by members of the Third Reich,  millions more soldiers killed and were killed in turn, and hundreds of thousands of innocent and not-so-innocent civilians died because Hitler and the Nazis and a fair proportion of the German population thought it only right that they should run riot over Europe and the world.

These are the facts, tethered to us only by intersubjective agreement that they be treated as facts.

Treat them as pieces in your game of counter-factual what-if and whoops, you loosen the tether and allow the pieces to be scattered, lost. You allow all those people to be scattered, lost, again.