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Review – Gerd Schultze-Rhonhof: „1939 – The War with Many Fathers“

Schultze-Rhonhof: 1939 - Der Krieg, der viele Väter hatteby Manfred Kleine-Hartlage, first issued october 24, 2009: Gerd Schultze-Rhonhof: 1939 – Der Krieg, der viele Väter hatte.

Translation by War Blogger, revised

[Update september 28, 2011: War Blogger has produced a video with the following text. So if you prefer videos, click here!]

One does not wrong the retired Bundeswehr Major-General Gerd Schultze-Rhonhof, who examines the leadup to the Second World War if one labels him a revisionist. Those, however, who use the label as an accusation should be aware of the ideologic tradition they join in doing so: „Revisionists“, these were the people within the SPD (at that time: Socialist Party of Germany) of August Bebel and later in all other Marxist organizations who sought to revise (from Latin re-videre: look anew) and correct the teachings of Marx and Engels. In countries where communists came to power the stigma of „revisionism“ was to be avoided like the plague if only because at certain times the mere accusation could cost the suspect his head.

Scientific progress, however, is dependent on constant revision, on new approaches and the questioning of familiar perspectives and established paradigms. The word „revisionist“, if used as a reproach, disqualifies only those who use it, not the ones it is meant to label. For those, it may well be an honorary title.

Of course, not every revision, regardless of the scientific discipline, is useful just because it is one such. It must be compatible with the existing data or source material and its explantory power should  at least equal the established theoretical paradigm. By advocating the idea that the Second World War had „many fathers“ Schultze-Rhonhof argues against a view of history (one that professional historians within their trade depict in a lot more differentiated way than it is presented in, for example, school books or news magazines) which can be summarized as follows:

Already the German Empire (before 1914) strived for German domination of at least Europe and, if possible, the whole world. After the defeat in the Great War, this desire, supported by a Social Darwinist ideology, was the program – in moderate and radical variants – of the German Right, most radically embodied in Hitler and his Nazi party. Hitler from the beginning sought to extend Germany’s power base through the successive elimination of neighboring states to gain the strength to fight against Great Powers, to disable France and Great Britain, to destroy the Soviet Union, thereby gaining „Lebensraum“ for Germans and perhaps to create the basis for a war against America and thus finally push forward to world domination.

The fascinating element of this view of history is – even before it comes to sources and facts – its narrative structure: there is a clear division between good and evil, and there is a suspense curve: Evil is built up until it becomes almost, but only almost, overpowering, is then put in its place by  a small Gallic village – the United Kingdom – and finally destroyed by an intrepid white knight, America. And there is a moral of the story.

This structure is doubly familiar: on the one hand, it corresponds to that of a fairy tale, on the other – with the motive of the final battle between good and evil – to that of the Apocalypse. Of course, that does not mean that it cannot be true. You just have to be aware to what extent this established view of history meets the expectations of quality literature, and to what extent it serves quasi-religious needs.

Many years ago pedestrians were lured into a trap by [the German version of] „Hidden Camera“ by a passer-by, apparently with a map in hand who asked for directions to the railway station and had the unknowing test subjects explain the way on his „map“, which in fact was a professional cutting pattern for clothing from a German DIY magazine. The dialogues resulting were something like this:

„So, you must now go straight along here…“
„At ‚yarn’?“
„Yeah, and then right here…“
‚Towards ‚pocket ‚?“
„Yes, yes. And turn left.“
„‚Passing ‚Button hole’?“
„Exactly…“

The willingness to accept the offered definition of a situation (in this case the pattern as a „map“) as „true“ can be so strong that apparent inconsistencies with this definition simply are not perceived. And do not believe that this willingness is limited to the surprised subjects of „Hidden Camera“.

For example, for years I had been convinced that the the so-called Hossbach-Protocol of 5 November 1937 contained Hitler’s declaration of his intention to launch a global war, and as such proved of the correctness of the above-cited view of history. And I had read the protocol several times: it contained Hitler’s announcement to attack Czechoslovakia and Austria, considerations under which circumstances such an attack could be performed and estimates of how the other powers would behave. It was a serious enough document for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials, which indeed were about the charge of planning an „aggressive war“. It certainly was an important piece of evidence, but not a proof of a master plan for world domination. Although I should have known better, it was only Schultze-Rhonhof’s analysis that spurred me to read it more carefully. This is just an example of how strong the influence of an apparently obvious interpretation can be, and how helpful it is sometimes „to consider matters anew „.

Schultze-Rhonhof apparently starts from the assumption that there was no master plan, and that Hitler’s foreign policy was based, above all, on the particular tactical considerations of the moment, and he characterizes the stages of that foreign policy. No doubt this assumption is supported by Hitler’s and his policies‘ erratic character, by the often extreme fluctuations and reversals, by his penchant for improvisation and the generally chaotic nature of the decision-making in the Nazi state.

The opposite point of view of the predominant interpretation of history, that of Hitler having joined strict dogmatism of theory, strategy and planning with maximal opportunism practice, tactics and conduct contains latent contraditions; the two parts of this view do not seamlessly fit together. It needn’t be wrong, but I can not see what speaks against considering the alternative that Hitler might have acted primarily on the basis of tactical considerations. Perhaps to him, it was more about his own place in history than about the realization of the ideas he had laid down in „Mein Kampf“ in 1924, and maybe the thoughts written down therein have more the character of a reservoir of ideas into which he could dip when the need arose, but which he could also ignore as he pleased.

Remarkably, in an adjacent area of research, namely Holocaust Research, fierce opposition exists against the „intentionalist“ theory internalized by wide swaths of the public, and it does so in the center of the field, not on the periphery. Especially prominent is Hans Mommsen’s interpretation of the decision process that eventually resulted in the Holocaust, as a process called „cumulative radicalization“. The Nazi regime – this is the thesis in brief – had entangled itself into constraints that by themselves demanded more and more radical approaches as time progressed, finally ending with the „Final Solution“. I believe it is appropriate to adopt the idea of a similar gradual radicalization for the foreign policy of the regime, at least as a hypothesis. In this context, Hitler’s Social Darwinism takes the same role as anti-Semitism does in the structuralist interpretations of the Holocaust: that is the role of a general ideological framework without which the later developments would indeed be unthinkable, but  which is in itself is not an adequate explanans.

Of course, Schultze-Rhonhof makes those assumptions more implicitly rather than explicitly. He does not have the ambition to create an equally comprehensive counter-proposal to oppose the established historical narrative; theoretical considerations in general are less his business. He tries to describe the situation from the perspective of each actor (Hitler, the European powers, the German generals, the German people), and to understand their actions in order to arrive at an overall picture. This is the strength and the weakness of his approach.

The weakness is evident in that a situational analysis in any case does not reach the consistency of the established view of history. Basically, the author leaves it to his reader to decide in which theoretical framework he would place what he has learned.

What the author achieves, however, is to present the extent of the knowledge, experiences and expectations of the historical actors to the reader: Those who grew up in the post-war era can hardly imagine the existential importance which the question of national minorites had. In the time after the Great War one could lose one’s job, be expelled, disowned or killed simply for being the member of a national minority; and since the right to self-determination of Germans was held in especially low regard by the Allies, and large parts of territories with predominantly German populations were handed over to foreign nations, it was Germans who very often were the victims of such practices. Also, few people will know that the idea of „Lebensraum“ at that time was neither a specifically Nazi nor German concept. As a matter of fact, such ideas were the foundations of many colonial policies. The large colonial powers, of course did not bemoan the lack of „Living space“, for they had solved the problem for themselves. That in nations like Germany, but also Poland (!) the view was wide-spread that an urgent problem needed to be solved was the result of this predominant streak of thought in Europe.

Of course, concepts of „Lebensraum“ met fertile grounds in Germany where the British hunger blockade even after the Armistice of 1918 had resulted in the death of up to a million civilians and thus gave credibility to the thesis of „a people without (enough) space“ (especially industrial ressources and agricultural space) which otherwise would have never reached such popularity. This also is a point Schultze-Rhonhof’s book tries to remind the reader of. His depiction of the Allies at Versailles and the injustices committed thereafter does not have the function of serving as a cheap set-off, but serves to illustrate the background against which policies were considered and undertaken back then to those born of later generations.

The author’s love of detail leads to many a insights which give food for thought. For example, many who deal with matters related to WW2 know the sentence attributed to Hitler in which he states:

„My only fear is that some swine submits a proposal for mediation at the last moment!“ [“Ich habe nur Angst, dass mir im letzten Moment irgendein Schweinehund einen Vermittlungsvorschlag vorlegt.“]

The statement is from Hitler’s speech in front of the German High Command on 22 August 1939, and in its poignancy it is tailor-made to be popularized and completes the picture of a dictator who constantly pressed for war.
It had always surprised me that Hitler should have used such a vulgar language in front of the arch-conservative High Command without causing consternation, and I had written it of as a byproduct of the detrimental influence of the Nazi-Regime leading to a decline even of the manners of the highest Prussian officers. Schultze-Rhonhof however makes a plausible case for the theory that not only was this sentence never uttered as such (not even in the spirit of the statement), but that the version of the protocol of the speech in question is a forgery which was leaked to the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials to make the German generals collectively responsible for the outbreak of the war.

With regard to the reception of the book the ferocity is amazing with which the core thesis – that the Second World War had „many fathers“ – is challenged: less so by the craft of historians who, as expected, ignored the work of an outsider (Schultze-Rhonhof is not a historian), but specifically by reviewers of the FAZ and the „Welt“ newspapers which use the opportunity once again to give food to the suspicion that they serve the media system in the same manner as the CDU/CSU serve the political system: as mere surrogates for conservatism. Interestingly, the question whether what the author states is the truth is of no importance to the two reviews. A higher priority seems to be placed on maintaining a certain kind of official historical narrative for reasons of national education [Volkspädagogik], and be it by defaming the author as a person and pushing him – what else? – into the right corner [in German, the right corner metaphor means you are labelled a Neonazi].

Ironically, the argument that the Second World War had many fathers is far from being a „legend“, as the FAZ reviewer claims:

There is no serious dispute among historians that the Versailles Treaty was a bad design which made German revenge efforts more likely; that Poland was an aggressive power that handled its many ethnic minorities incredibly brutal; that Czechoslovakia protratced her minority issues to the 1930s and made itself become a first class trouble spot; that Poland would rather risk a war with Germany than make any concessions in the Danzig and Corridor questions, and this despite the fact that the quite moderate German demands of late 1938 and early 1939 contained no territorial claims against Poland and were brought forward not with ultimate threats but after years of German-Polish cooperation in a style as it is customary between friendly countries.
And the thesis that Great Britain and its guarantee to Poland and France with its empty promises of military support reinforced Poland’s stubbornness, and perhaps intentionally so, is at least worthy of discussion. Many fathers, indeed.

„But, wait a minute,“ goes the typical objection, „aren’t the actions of the other European powers after Hitler’s rise to power ojectively meaningless since Germany was going to start a war for „Lebensraum“ in any case, as written in „Mein Kampf“?

No, not as far as Poland is concerned. Poland could have made arrangements with Germany even without joining the Anti-Comintern Pact; Schultze-Rhonhof goes to some length to clarify this point, and I know of no historians who have objected to such a view. The question of whether the consequence of such an understanding would have been a great war (against France, Russia or whoever), can in all honesty not be answered. The ease, however, with which it is affirmed by the established historic narrative may however be less the result of irrefutable source evidence but rather be based on the interpretation offered by the grand narrative of rise and fall of the clever devil Hitler, who already knew in 1923 what he would do in 1943. The mere existence of such a „complete“ story seems like a ready-made bed into which one simply has to jump to rest with sweet dreams.

Whether this narrative constitutes a good map or is just equal to another fake pattern of yarn, that is for everbody him- or herself to decide. Schultze-Rhonhof also does not answer that question in the end. He shakes the plausibility of the prevailing interpretation of history in some details by putting the situational and tactical factors in German foreign policy into the spotlight, but he offers no convincing interpretation of his own. The strength of the book of vividly leading the reader into the strange world of the interwar period is paid for by a certain short-sightedness of the book’s general interpretation. The author’s desire to correct a most likely too one-sided perspective of history in turn brings forth a view with blind spots of its own.

Nevertheless: The work offers a wealth of important details that are known to the experts but not to the general public, and which you will most likely not find elsewhere in such a density and clarity. Therefore, it is worth reading and provokes the readers‘ contemplation and further questions. No more, no less.