Green Room

It wasn’t a very good year: 1938 – Hitler’s Gamble by Giles MacDonogh

posted at 5:38 pm on April 3, 2010 by


Considering the centrality of “Munich” to American thinking on foreign policy – and the centrality of the war that followed to what America has become – there’s an argument for considering 1938 to be as important to our understanding of ourselves as other American milestone years – 1776, 1787, 1860, 1929, 1945, and so on.

What makes 1938 unique on such a list is our own absence from the critical scenes.  The effect in Giles MacDonogh’s month by month, sometimes day by day and hour by hour, chronicle of the year is a portrait of American leadership traced out as though in a photographic negative.

The cloudy, black and gray surface reveals the following:  A world without American leadership is a world that can fall prey to the “gambles” of upstart second-raters and maniacs. A world without American leadership is a world in which secretive, shifting alliances, immoral deals, territorial larceny, and brute force lead, step by step, to chaos and conflagration. It’s a world in which everyone can choose to look the other way when a monster and his brood are appeased, and appeased again, at the expense of races, religions, and nations. It’s also a world in which anyone can get in on the action while the getting seems good, not daring to think that he might be next.

In other words, 1938 marks the last historical moment up to the present day during which other nations could pretend to solve matters of great importance without significant American involvement.  For nearly three more years, the U.S. avoided formal entry into the developing conflict, but the last pretense that the world could take care of itself on its own ended a few months into 1939.  Soon, the argument for acting “while dangers gather,” instead of waiting for whatever day of infamy, would have 60 – 100 million direct casualties and the rubble of nations weighing on its side.

That cataclysm is the other negative subject of this chronicle, which, like many histories focusing on Nazi Germany, makes for fascinating yet agonizing reading.  At the beginning of the year, Adolf Hitler was Chancellor in a rightwing coalition government.  The country and the National Socialist order spent the year on the verge of bankruptcy and economic chaos. German borders were still defined by the Versailles Treaty, and Germany’s range of action was constrained by, supposedly, firm commitments of France and Great Britain. The military establishment, still dominated by aristocrats and a special target of the Nazi power structure, spent much of the year planning and preparing a coup.  According to much evidence, and for good reason, the German masses were uncertain and fearful, and still capable of resistance.

By the end of the year, following a series of successful, highly improvisational acts of acrobatic brinksmanship on the world stage, Hitler was the unchallenged leader of an empire at dawn set for further expansion, the nation having already absorbed and to some extent exhausted its newly acquired financial, material, and human resources.  The internal opposition had been silenced and humiliated. The officers around General Ludwig Beck put plans for rebellion, which at times had been mere days from irrevocable execution, on indefinite hold (many of the same conspirators would be involved in the Valkyrie plot six years later).

In the meantime – and this story takes up a large portion of 1938 - the oppression of the Jews and the suppression of dissent escalated. For the first time, a policy that foisted second-class status on law-abiding citizens took on a literally mass murderous shape, and in a widening transnational orbit, thanks to the collaboration of allies and opportunists.  Someone should have been able to do the math: Millions of Jews to be forcibly dispossessed, under orders of expulsion from a continent increasingly under Nazi domination… minus thousands of spots grudgingly made available for immigration around the world. The final solution of this simple equation was something that either no one was willing to imagine or, a much darker thought, very many people, not just German-speaking people, were happy to write off on their own personal balance sheets.

Another piece of inexorable math might have been less obvious, but was critical to all that followed. The fascist economic system, contrary to the PR, was a total failure. Without larceny and enslavement on an international scale, it couldn’t survive. Combine economic compulsion with a culture of self-superiority and an ideology that celebrated the remorseless use of force, and war was inevitable.

These equations also expose certain schools of historical revisionism for the dreary obscenities they are.  By 1938 there was already ample moral and, certainly for the Versailles signatories, legal justification to act against Hitler’s Germany.  There was also opportunity:  The regime was vulnerable to the point of desperation – to the point of having to gamble everything.  Nothing succeeds like success, however, and the world, by cooperation and by omission, gave the Nazis one triumph and rescue after another. By the end of the year, the message sent and received was “barbarism works” and “no one can stop it” – as a new set of even greater wagers were readied.

For 70 years, we’ve been committed to sending the opposite messages, and have mostly succeeded, but are we still doing the math?

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions

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The cloudy, black and gray surface reveals the following: A world without American leadership is a world that can fall prey to the “gambles” of upstart second-raters and maniacs. A world without American leadership is a world in which secretive, shifting alliances, immoral deals, territorial larceny, and brute force lead, step by step, to chaos and conflagration. It’s a world in which everyone can choose to look the other way when a monster and his brood are appeased, and appeased again, at the expense of races, religions, and nations. It’s also a world in which anyone can get in on the action while the getting seems good, not daring to think that he might be next.

I wasn’t aware one could reach such self congratulation density in a single paragraph!

All of this, of course, ignores the fact that with or without American leadership, foreign policy and the actions of other nations are downright nasty. There has never been a Pax Americana. This uber-patriotism borders on the delusional.

ernesto on April 3, 2010 at 11:18 PM

In the meantime – and this story takes up a large portion of 1938 – the oppression of the Jews and the suppression of dissent escalated.

Hmmmmm “suppression of dissent escalated.” – this implies that this suppression started small and was “escalated.”

Could it be that Statist regimes take time to ramp up their suppression of dissent, that it’s not some sort of totalitarian police state on day 1?

One also wonders HOW they suppressed dissent – did they start by deeming words of the opposition to be ‘Hate speech’?

Chip on April 4, 2010 at 12:21 AM

The fascist economic system, contrary to the PR, was a total failure. Without larceny and enslavement on an international scale, it couldn’t survive.

Have economic systems based on some form of Statism ever succeeded?

Chip on April 4, 2010 at 12:23 AM

Have economic systems based on some form of Statism ever succeeded?

Chip on April 4, 2010 at 12:23 AM

Do you call China a success? Seems Dr Zero and others measure the success of an economy by growth… by that measure, China is wildly successful and has been for many decades.

lexhamfox on April 4, 2010 at 1:29 AM

The point about “shifting alliances” being immoral shows up your utter confusion about world affairs. For instance, should England have maintained a permanent alliance with Germany following the Anglo-Prussian victory at Waterloo in 1815? Was its decision to shift its alliance to France with the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 an example of ultra-cynical maneuvering?

You can’t imagine a non-US-led world order being anything other than fundamentally immoral. Persumably this accounts for the especially cloying, self-serving tone of this dribble.

aengus on April 4, 2010 at 9:52 AM

Have economic systems based on some form of Statism ever succeeded?
Chip on April 4, 2010 at 12:23 AM

Do you call China a success? Seems Dr Zero and others measure the success of an economy by growth… by that measure, China is wildly successful and has been for many decades.
lexhamfox on April 4, 2010 at 1:29 AM

Only because they are turning to Capitalism.

Statism sucks no matter what form it’s in – it’s just a matter of how much Capitalism they allow to mitigate the ‘Suck’.

The best contrast between the success of Capitalism and the Supreme Suck magnitudious of Statism is the Korean peninsula.

It has the same geographic area and peoples and yet one society prospers and one starves, why is that?

Chip on April 4, 2010 at 11:41 AM

Chip on April 4, 2010 at 11:41 AM

NO… China is not a free market economy. Government owns vast majority of business and buys out or closes new private firms as they want.

lexhamfox on April 4, 2010 at 2:20 PM

aengus on April 4, 2010 at 9:52 AM

Please strive to read what’s actually written, rather than project straw men you find it easier to condescend to.

CK MacLeod on April 4, 2010 at 2:41 PM

lexhamfox on April 4, 2010 at 2:20 PM

I wrote:

Only because they are turning to Capitalism.

Kind of interestingly, they’re turning towards Capitalism and becoming successful, while we turn away from that and to National Socialism and running our economy down the tubes.

I note you had No response on the example of the Korean peninsula.

Chip on April 4, 2010 at 9:02 PM

Firstly, I think we need to use correct terms. China’s economy is not statist… no economy is. China’s economy is an example sate capitalism rather than free market. China is actually less liberal now than it was ten years ago and the state has increased its presence in recent years and private ownership is even more circumscribed than ten years ago.

North Korea does not have state capitalism. It is it’s own mix of kleptocracy and necrocracy. It is not germane to any discussion of economics since it is an anomaly rather than part of any ongoing economic debate. That is why I ignored the comment.

I wish that the border of North and South Korea did represent some sort of divide between free markets and state capitalism but it does not.

I dispute your use of national socialism to describe our current direction. National socialism is when the economy is organized to promote/ benefit one national or ethnic group. The US economy is not organized that way and the state intervention was not planned but was an emergency response to a specific event. The sale of interests in the financial sector is proof that this is unlikely to be a permanent feature here.

I would direct you to excellent and informative writing in Foreign Affairs from May/ June of last year by Ian Bremmer which goes into some detail as to why state capitalism is reaching a high tide globally now and the history its use.

I am not a fan of state capitalism. I was merely pointing out that the best performing economies in terms of growth are mostly state controlled. The notion that free markets are the only way to sustainable growth is incorrect in the face of facts.

A more interesting example of two similar societies going down different paths is between South Korea and Mali. It is a case study since their starting points are remarkably similar. When I looked at this as a student I thought the difference was culture.

My earlier brief response was the result of having about 2 minutes available rather than ignoring your point about North Korea. Your arguing against statism misses the point since statism is way to vague a term to argue over. China is on course to be huge economy and it is statist in the sense that the government controls the social and economic levers there but state capitalism is the term I assume you are looking for. I have enough professional experience with China to know that the government is more rather than less involved in the economy. Deng’s legacy is even being written out of their history and the trend is less liberal rather than more and transparency is harder to come by nowadays. It’s growing very very fast, however.

lexhamfox on April 5, 2010 at 3:30 AM

Yippee! Some much to address and so little time – you’ll have to excuse me – there is some much in you’re response that I’ll have to chew on it in a couple of different parts.

Just to get some of the more ancillary items out of the way:
“National socialist” – The current situation is that we have a National party that is dominated by Socialists.

Part of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definition of: national

Of or relating to a nation

Part of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definition of: Socialism

A stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.

Note that last definition and the phrase transitional between capitalism and communism.

Again, we have a National (Of or relating to a nation) party that is dominated by the proponents of Socialism.

Hence the term “National socialist” .

I could go on further, talking about the fact that this same far-left wing of the democrat party also has a tendency to want to ‘Nationalize’ more an more of the country, but you get my point.

Chip on April 5, 2010 at 10:29 AM

lexhamfox on April 5, 2010 at 3:30 AM

Okay, now to tackle some of the larger issues:
Again, lets make sure we define our terms:

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Statism Date: 1919

Concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry.

That definition can be applied to China, North Korea and sadly to an ever increasing degree to the US.

One can readily understand why Statists always want to exclude the Korean Peninsula from the discussion of Statism, it is a perfect contrast between that and Capitalism, but let’s address the larger issue the rhetorical shell game on definitions for various forms of Statism.

The is how the game “progresses” – a group of people come up with a means to subjugate the people with promises of ‘free healthcare’ and other kinds of plunder from the rich.

For simplicity, call it Statist system A, as is with every other statist system, it inevitable fails and is discredited.

So the next time around the Statists come up with a “new” system – call it Statist system B, when people notice the many similarities between A and B, the statists respond – no this is a new system.

System B fails and the cycle repeats with System C, each time the names and definitions are changed to protect the guilty.

Each time the cycle repeats with various changes on the main theme of Statism, and each time it’s claimed to be different . Often just the names changes, but each time the Statist system fails, and has to be relabeled with some other name to fool people into accepting subjugation and inevitable failure once again.

The plain fact is that IF Statism were such a wild success, it wouldn’t have to be renamed. This wondrous system would succeed and people would sing the refrain:

Then come comrades rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale
Unites the human race.

Right?

But it doesn’t, it has to be renamed as something else and we have to repeat the horrible cycle once again. Often with silly rules about whether one can discuss certain forms of Statism, but I digress.

The ultimate question is: Why can’t advocates of Statism stick with one name for it and let it stand or fall on it’s merits?

Chip on April 5, 2010 at 10:35 AM

The notion that free markets are the only way to sustainable growth is incorrect in the face of facts.

lexhamfox on April 5, 2010 at 3:30 AM

Depends on how you define “sustainable.” Very un-free economies of different types going back to the dawn of civilization have managed sustained periods of growth, especially during relatively early stages of development. This is true even for the US. The relevant question for is whether a developed economy – which China is still in the process of becoming – can achieve truly sustainable growth, not whether it can achieve sustained growth under certain circumstances.

Since the jumping off point for this discussion was the reference to the German economy under National Socialism, it’s worth understanding that, though Hitler had some talented and intelligent economists working for him, like Schacht, they had mostly thrown up their hands and had either resigned or had been fired by the end of 1938.

It’s very much like looking for a coherent “economic theory” governing the behavior of a mafia family. The typical response of Hitler and his coterie to an unpleasant economic fact was to order it imprisoned or executed – and then look for some source of wealth, foreign or domestic, that they hadn’t stolen yet. It was an international “bust out” operation. The long-term economic vision, to the small extent there was any coherent vision at all, was of continent-spanning quasi-agrarian slave economy, implicitly under overall reduced population.

CK MacLeod on April 5, 2010 at 12:24 PM

The notion that free markets are the only way to sustainable growth is incorrect in the face of facts.
lexhamfox on April 5, 2010 at 3:30 AM

Depends on how you define “sustainable.” Very un-free economies of different types going back to the dawn of civilization have managed sustained periods of growth, especially during relatively early stages of development. This is true even for the US. The relevant question for is whether a developed economy – which China is still in the process of becoming – can achieve truly sustainable growth, not whether it can achieve sustained growth under certain circumstances.
CK MacLeod on April 5, 2010 at 12:24 PM

Excellent point.
I’ll readily admit that my assertions are somewhat simplistic in nature – I would prefer to keep an eye on the “Big picture” rather than deal with trivial issues, but you are making a very good point on the developments in society and how Statism bears on these developments.
Up to a certain point, a society essentially built on slave labor can grow – but once it has developed past where the majority of the work is physical labor there have to be other incentives besides the whip and the lash.
A developed society relies more on Intellectual labor rather than physical labor – people inventing, building and running machinery that actually does the physical labor. And it becomes more and more difficult to force people in these intellectual pursuits.

It would be very difficult to use the whip to get students to become Doctors, Engineers, etc; and then use force to have them do their work.

You can use the whip to get unskilled and uneducated peoples to harvest crops or mine coal, but you can’t really use the whip to get educated and skilled people to build and maintain machines to do these tasks instead.

Chip on April 5, 2010 at 1:10 PM

National socialism is when the economy is organized to promote/ benefit one national or ethnic group.
lexhamfox on April 5, 2010 at 3:30 AM

Isn’t that what Barry is doing right now? What’s the dispute?

Insert witty screen name here on April 6, 2010 at 8:54 AM

A world without American leadership is a world in which secretive, shifting alliances, immoral deals, territorial larceny, and brute force lead, step by step, to chaos and conflagration. It’s a world in which everyone can choose to look the other way when a monster and his brood are appeased, and appeased again, at the expense of races, religions, and nations. It’s also a world in which anyone can get in on the action while the getting seems good, not daring to think that he might be next.

Oh good freaking grief! I’ve seen plenty of examples of American exceptionalism, but this takes the cake and runs to Alaska!

With a description like this one almost wonders how the heck the world got by before the USA came to be.

Dark-Star on April 6, 2010 at 10:18 AM

With a description like this one almost wonders how the heck the world got by before the USA came to be.

Dark-Star on April 6, 2010 at 10:18 AM

One bloody war after another, made ever bloodier by improved technology and industrial economies.

Really odd how that one paragraph stuck in so many craws – as though there’s some controversy here over whether there’s some point to US leadership in the modern world.

Judges 21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

CK MacLeod on April 6, 2010 at 11:50 AM

Judges 21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

CK MacLeod on April 6, 2010 at 11:50 AM

And yet oddly enough, the Israelites received dire warnings* when they demanded to be ruled by a king. In essence their argument was, like some spoiled child, “But everyone else has one!”

http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/0908.htm

In Judges 8, Gideon was offered the throne over Israel. He refused it, saying “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” (Judges 8:23) This was the heart of all the judges, and why Israel went some 400 years in the Promised Land without a king.

“But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”

*So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

Dark-Star on April 6, 2010 at 12:37 PM

Dark-Star on April 6, 2010 at 12:37 PM

We could have a long discussion of the relations between the Israelites and God, but it’s beside the point here. Israel had its reasons for wanting a king, and, as the book of Judges I referred to points out in rather stark and even repellent detail, it wasn’t just because the Israelites had a childlike desire to be like other nations. It’s because, among other things, they didn’t want to fall into chaos and genocidal civil war. Even the commentary you point to doesn’t propose as an alternative a kind of holy anarchy, just an alternative system (a League of Priests, you might say, rather than a King). Drawing too literal a comparison between those tales and the global order strikes me as an error: The verse I quoted speaks to a valid concern about human nature in states of disorder – or what Hobbes would have called a state of nature.

A global state of nature in the industrial age is ungodly dangerous, and it’s a lesson we can ill afford to re-learn, yet sometimes seem on the verge of undertaking to re-learn.

CK MacLeod on April 6, 2010 at 12:59 PM