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Revising The Twentieth Century
THE GREAT STRUGGLES of our century have all been followed by tides of revulsion: Americans decided we were mad to have entered World War I; Russia should have been our enemy in World War II; the United States started the Cold War. Now another such tide has risen in Europe, and it may be on its way here.
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
These books are more scholarly in their equipment than are the productions of pamphleteers who, among other things, deny the existence of the Holocaust. Excessive attention directed to such fanatics may be as useless as the criticism aimed at the new revisionists’ theses without a detailed analysis of their sources and a careful refutation of their methods. Three years ago in my The Duel: May 10–31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler I could write that “we are at (or, more precisely, already beyond) a watershed in the political and intellectual history of the world because of the evident collapse of the reputation, and consequently, of the influence of Marxism as well as of ‘Leftist’ liberalism; and this is bound to lead to all kinds of novel, though not necessarily salutary, tendencies of historical interpretation.” This is a symptom of the rise of a New Right, not only in Germany and Britain but throughout Europe and Japan, when people, disillusioned with the malfunctioning liberal and socialist policies of their governments, project their disappointments backward, to the Second World War; when, for example, the condemnation of Churchill’s statesmanship, at least indirectly, suggests some kind of a rehabilitation of Hitler’s. During the Reagan years in this country we saw, here and there, a tendency to question not only the evident problems of the American welfare state but the establishment of its tenets by Roosevelt and the New Deal, and there is reason to believe that new indictments (and I fear not always well-warranted or judicious ones) of Roosevelt’s foreign policy before and during the Second World War are also due to appear—in sum, that this newest wave of revisionism about the war will spill over to this side of the Atlantic too.
W HAT revisionist historians claim, or at least emphatically suggest, is that their scholarship is better and their intellectual independence stronger than that of the majority of their opponents. Yet this has seldom been true. To the contrary, few of the revisionists have been immune to the ideological tendencies of their times. In the preface to The American Revisionists , Warren I. Cohen, the careful historian of what I have called the first wave, wrote in 1967: “I am equally convinced that if I had graduated from Columbia College in 1925 instead of 1955, the revisionist cause would have had one more adherent. It is not a question of the logic of the revisionist argument but… largely a matter of the prevailing climate of opinion.…” Or as W. J. Ghent (cited by Cohen) wrote in his 1927 attack on the revisionists in an article called “Menckenized History”: “Vociferous and sweeping denunciation of existing beliefs, customs, standards, and institutions is the current mode, and ‘revisionism’ is merely one of its phases.” After the First World War there was a growing revulsion to war and an embracing of new ideas, including pacifism. After the Second World War there was another reaction, against Roosevelt and the sometimes unspoken question of whether America should have entered the war against Germany, and on the side of Russia, at that. During the sixties there was the reaction against the Vietnam War and against the ideology of the Cold War. During the nineties nationalism is on the rise, and we shall see…
In 1917 Beard was an extreme interventionist: The United States “should help eliminate Prussianism from the earth. …” Germany represents “the black night of military barbarism … the most merciless military despotism the world has ever seen.” By 1926 he was a Germanophile, influenced not only by the revelations of the German diplomatic documents but by German philosophies of history. Beard was not an opportunist, and even in the 1930s he insisted that he was not really an isolationist; rather, he was struggling with that seemingly concrete but, alas, often malleable concept of national interest. (In 1932 Beard received a twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant—a very large sum then—from the Social Science Research Council for the precise definition of “national interest.” The result was one of his few unreadable books.) At that time he was a fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, but soon he turned even more fervently against him. The case of Barnes is more telling. His first revisionist articles appeared in 1924, arguing for a division in the responsibilities for the outbreak of the war. By 1926 he was going farther: France and Russia were responsible. Thereafter he became more and more extreme and violent. He was invited to lecture in Hitler’s Germany, as was Tansill. In 1940 Barnes volunteered to promote the circulation of German propaganda volumes. After the war he became an admirer of Hitler: “a man whose only fault was that he was too soft, generous and honorable.” The Allies had inflicted worse brutality on the Germans “than the alleged exterminations in the gaschambers.” This, of course, was the extreme case of a once talented but embittered man, driven to such statements by what he called The Historical Blackout , one of his later pamphlets. Everything was grist to his mill, including the most dubious of “sources” and “evidences.” The same was true of Tansill, who in 1938 wrote in his introduction to America Goes to War : “Crusading zeal is hardly the proper spirit for an impartial historian.” Yet Tansill was the prototype of a zealous crusader, in both of his big revisionist works about the two world wars. Eventually he became a member of the John Birch Society.