Are there any parallels to draw between the aims of Adolf Hitler and those of the EU?:
Boris Johnson, in a speech made last weekend (14 May) has created a perfect storm in his party and more widely in Britain, by claiming that the EU is trying to achieve exactly the same as the Third Reich but by different means. Continental domination. In fact, Hitler’s aims were, through the Axis alliance, global domination, hence the reasons for his turning on the Soviet Union in 1941. It controlled the Caucasus, the gateway to the Middle East. By this time, if not sooner, he was clearly bent on destroying the ‘two pillars of Jewish-Communist power’, the USSR and the UK, even though he had failed in his bid to bring Britain to its knees, along with the rest of Europe. He could, nevertheless, proceed with his destructive plan by isolating Britain while carrying out ‘the Final Solution’ of ‘the Jewish Question’ worked out by his henchmen by the end of that year. This remained the Reich’s priority until the very end of the war. In the early spring of 1944, with the Red Army already crossing the Carpathians, he even chose to occupy an allied country, Hungary, mainly because its government was doing little to support his chief aim, one which had been demonstrated across occupied Europe, the extermination of the Jews. His determination to pursue the twin policies of genocide and ‘lebensraum’, as set out in ‘Mein Kampf’, were clearly evident from the coming to power of the Nazi Party in 1933, first in the building of concentration camps within Germany, and then through his maniacal pursuit of a war on two fronts. It was a war which was clearly not fought in any strategic manner, but simply as a means to an end, the ultimate victory and domination of the ‘Aryan race’ over all others. It was a racial war in aim and purpose, means and ends, and by comparing the aims of the EU to those of the Führer, Boris Johnson has surely given up any right he had to be considered as any kind of serious biographer (of Churchill), ‘historian’ or, most importantly, future potential leader of his party and the British people, whether ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the European Union. More than this, by making a racist slur against the current German people, he should be sacked immediately from the Tory cabinet, if he doesn’t fall on his own sword, to use an imperial phrase. In the same way, Ken Livingstone, another former London Mayor who has made similar statements against German Zionists working to help Jews escape Hitler, should also be sacked for his anti-Semitic ‘troping’ of the past. Racism cannot hide behind history.
The Importance of ‘the Subject’:
Let’s not leave it there, though, because his desperate supporters in the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign and his backers for next Tory leader within his party have already been out on the various airwaves telling us that he has been misquoted, and that he was ‘a historian making a historical point’. So, let’s look at what the historians have to say about Hitler’s aims about which, it is always fair to say, there has always been much debate about. The following extract provides a neat summary of the opinions of an eminent British historian who held similar views to those of Boris’ hero, Churchill. The passage is significant because although written in the wake of war it yet offers a sophisticated statement of the origins of the conflict and therefore carries the ‘weight’ in evidence of both a primary provenance and a secondary source. It comes from Sir Lewis Namier’s ‘Diplomatic Prelude, 1938-39’ (Macmillan, 1948):
The second German bid for world domination found Europe weak and divided. At several junctures it could have been stopped without excessive effort or sacrifice, but was not: a failure of European statesmanship. Behind the German drive were passionate forces, sustained by obsessionist, sadistic hatreds and by crude ideology; to these the Germans, whom defeat had deprived of their routine of life, showed even more than their normal receptivity, while the rest of Europe had neither the faith, nor the will, nor even sufficient repugnance to offer timely, effective resistance. Some imitated Hitler and hyena-like followed in his track; some tolerated him hoping that his advance would reach its term – by saturation, exhaustion, the resistance of others, or the mere chapter of accidents – before it attained them; and some, while beholding his handiwork, would praise him for having ‘restored the self-respect of the Germans’ . Janissaries and appeasers aided Hitler’s work: a failure of European morality.
Namier’s approach fell out of favour among later historians, but his argument merits closer reading, particularly in the light of the current debate over European security. He was saying in 1948 exactly what A J P Taylor wrote in his better-known ‘Origins of the Second World War’ thirteen years later. He was not content with the simple explanation that Hitler’s will alone caused the war, though he clearly believes that Hitler’s was the primary impulse to war. He suggest that in fact a large share of responsibility rested with Germany’s opponents. Taylor summed this up as follows:
My book has really very little to do with Hitler. The vital question, it seems to me, concerns Great Britain and France. They were the victors of the First World War. They had the decision in their hands. It was perfectly obvious that Germany would seek to become a Great Power again; obvious after 1933 that her domination would be of a peculiarly barbaric sort. Why did the victors not resist her?…
If we substitute ‘Putin’ for ‘Hitler’, ‘the EU’ for ‘Britain and France’ (thereby adding in today’s federal Germany) and ‘Russia’ for the ‘Germany’ of inter-war Europe, we might see more clearly the true historical parallels between the 1930’s and 40’s and the 2010’s and 2020’s in Europe. The lessons from the last century to the present are not just about the determination of dictators to dominate, but the disunity, divisions and disintegration of the democracies of western Europe.
The Causes of the Second World War and the EU Today:
There is much to be said for the view that if Britain and France had agreed upon a common policy towards Germany, the so-called ‘German Problem’ might have been controlled and a second European conflict averted. Instead the two countries followed very different policies throughout the 1920’s so that, after 1931, their disunited attempts to conciliate Germany only served to encourage Hitler’s ambitions and brought into the open the latent instability of the international system. Whilst today, NATO is responsible for the overall security of Europe, and each country retains control over its own foreign policy, the EU does provide a framework for the pooling of sovereignty as a means of resisting aggression. Neither of these systems existed before the Second World War since, without the USA, USSR and Germany, the League of Nations was powerless to act, but if EU member states were faced with a real threat, it is surely inconceivable that the EU would have no role to play in the diplomatic efforts to prevent a third (potentially nuclear and therefore global) war from beginning within its frontiers.
Hitler and his party’s ideology of National Socialism obviously played some part in the causation of war, but historians differ in their interpretations of Hitler’s aims and ideas. Most historians would wish to stress the driving force of Nazi ideology as the basic ideas of ‘Lebensraum’ – the drive for living-space in the east, racialism, especially in its anti-Semitic aspects, anti-Bolshevism and ultra-nationalism. Others have gone further in emphasizing the ideological nature of German Foreign Policy. Tim Mason argued in a radio programme for the Open University in 1973 that by 1939 the economic, political and social tensions within the Reich had grown to such a point that war seemed the only remedy:
The Second World War… had profound causes; but it also grew out of specific events, and these events are worth detailed examination… National Socialism was perhaps the profoundest cause of the Second World War, but Mr Taylor’s book is not informed by any conception of the distinctive character and role of National Socialism in the history of twentieth century Europe.
In an integrated European Union, it is unlikely that Mason’s ‘boiling pot’ scenario would repeat itself in any particular member country, which are stable democracies. However, it could re-emerge in relations between Russia, the Ukraine and/or the Baltic States. Although Taylor’s thesis leaves little scope for Hitler’s contribution to events and one question which we must consider is whether the Second World War was not simply a direct consequence of the First, but caused by Hitler’s warlike ambitions which deliberately stretched a weakened international system to breaking point. Of course, a full Anglo-French alliance was not practical in the inter-war years. But, supposing for the sake of argument that such an alliance had been forged, what would have been its impact on events? Well, if it had come early enough, in the 1920’s, the “German problem” might have been contained and controlled, if not checked, though the longer-term danger of a European war would have remained. It is also unclear what practical action Britain and France could have taken against Germany if and when diplomacy failed. As Tim Mason pointed out, there was a ‘powerful expansionist dynamic’ at work in Germany in Germany in the 1930’s, of which National Socialism was a major component. The serious weakness in Taylor’s general interpretation of the origins of the war was his omission of Hitler’s beliefs and movements. Europe was divided by intense national hatreds before 1914, yet left-wing and right-wing forces presented a new challenge after 1918 because they cut across national political frontiers and their doctrines had international appeal. The danger of Nazism and Fascism arose from their peculiar combination of ultra-nationalism, political messianism and totalitarianism. By the 1930’s there was no European country without a native Fascist party of some kind and by 1936 a Fascist Europe seemed possible. The nineteenth century model of nation states had failed to contain the growth of both communism and fascism. A new model Europe emerged from the ashes of World War II, one which we would now abandon at the peril of returning to the hegemony of populist-nationalist dictatorships.
The divisions in both French and British public opinion between Left and Right, especially in France, helped to explain why no real effort to resist Germany was made before 1939. These divisions encouraged Hitler to believe that Britain and France were too weak to resist him. In addition, the Spanish civil war served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in 1936-38. In 1973, Tim Mason wrote about the need for an analysis of the economic causes of the Second World War alongside these ideological divisions:
The Third Reich was the first modern state to face the many new problems raised by permanent full employment, and was totally unfitted to solve them… The economic, social and political tensions within the Reich became steadily more acute after the summer of 1937… The only ‘solution’ open to this regime of the structural tensions and crises produced by dictatorship and rearmament was more dictatorship and rearmament, then expansion, then war and terror, then plunder and enslavement. The stark, ever-present alternative was collapse and chaos… A war for the plunder of manpower and materials lay square in the dreadful logic of German economic development under National Socialist rule. The sequence of international events was not thereby predetermined, but the range of possibilities was severely circumscribed.
Germany itself was not, of course, over-populated, and had adequate supplies of raw materials for its own self-sufficiency, but Hitler convinced himself, by the late thirties, that Germany could never become a ‘world power’ with her own economic sources alone, and that these must be expanded through conquest. The belief in ‘Lebensraum’ may not have made much sense – economically or politically – but it was, in the main, what drove Hitler to advance to conquer Russia in 1941. The key to understanding his policy lies in an appreciation of the fact that for Hitler war was an extension of both economic development and diplomacy by other means. Britain and France were slow to realize this unpleasant truth. From 1938 onwards Hitler faced Europe with an undeclared war in which all means – diplomatic, economic and military – were deployed to achieve certain political ends. It was a war of nerves in which Hitler, though at first seeking a political solution, was in the last resort prepared to use force on a massive, unprecedented scale.
Warnings from History & Frameworks for the Future:
There is therefore no analogy to be drawn between the Nazi conquest of Europe and anything that happened before or since, and certainly not the development of free trade areas, democratic institutions and diplomatic initiatives across a broadening European Union. However, the warnings from history of inter-war Europe are clear, and ones which we fail to heed at our peril. They tell us that we must keep building new economic, social, political and diplomatic frameworks across the continent which can withstand future aggression and lead to permanent peace between the diverse nations which compose it.