Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Cold War by John Lukacs

This is how the cold war began : the Russians swallowed up Eastern Europe; and then it went on for forty years during which they had serious problems digesting some of it; and it ended with their disgorging just about all of it. One of the results of the cold war was the American obsession with the evils of Communism that became the principle element in American politics with long-lasting effects. What may belong here is at least a suggestion that the cold war between America and Russia might have been-at least in one important way- due to a reciprocal misunderstanding.

Americans believed, and feared, that, having established Communism in Eastern Europe, Stalin was now ready to promote, and wherever possible, impose Communism in Western Europe, which was not really the case. Stalin, who knew and understood the weak appeal of Communism beyond the Soviet Union, was anxious about America's overwhelming power in and after 1945, and thought that the Americans were ready to challenge and upset his rule over Eastern Europe, which was also not the case.

Was Stalin insatiable? Yes and no. So far as his rule over his own people and over his acquired domains went, yes; but so far as the rest of the world, and particularly Western Europe, went, probably no. There is no evidence that either in 1945 or after he aimed or even wished to have the Red Army march farther into Europe, or to establish Communist regimes in Western Europe or even Western Germany. This was not so only because he was statesman enough to be cautious. It was so, too, because of his knowledge of the weakness of International Communism.

Even in Russia itself, sometime in the 1930s, Stalin – entirely contrary to Marx and Lenin- recognized the importance of the state over an internationalist ideology. There are myriad evidences of this. In this case - as also in others- Stalin's nationalism followed Hitler's. And then, even before the war, his rhetoric of nationalist patriotism, his dissolution of the Comintern, his restoration of the prestige and of some of the powers of the Russian Orthodox Church, his evocation of historic tsarist generals, and other precedents were the results not of his calculations but of his genuine inclinations.

That – the weakness of international communism and the strength of Russian nationalism- was the reason of the “iron curtain”. The increasingly rigid separation of Eastern Europe from the West. Had he agreed ( as some in the U.S. State Department hoped as late as 1946) to an interpretation of the Yalta Declaration of Liberated Europe and of his sphere of interest to allow governments in Eastern Europe that would be categorically and necessarily pro-Russian but not necessarily Communist, there might not have been much, or any, of a cold war. We may even plausibly speculate that if something like that had occurred, Russia could have been a recipient of American generosity, perhaps even of a super-Marshall plan. But could Stalin agree to something like that? No- he was not that kind of man. No: but not because of his Marxist or Communist or ideological extremist, as so many still believe and say and write.

Stalin knew that sooner or later a non-Communist Poland or Czechoslovakia or Hungary, no matter how carefully their governments stayed and kept within their categorical requirements of a pro-Russian policy, would be gradually growing closer to the West, connected by a thousand small threads, some more important than others. It was safe, and to him better, to impose on these people rulers who were totally subservient to and [economically] dependent on Russia – and to close them off from the rest of Western Europe, no matter how Americans and others might protest.

The odd thing is that in Europe the turning point of the cold war came in 1956, at the time of the Hungarian Revolution, which stunned and shocked the Russian leadership; but it also gave them a recognition of relief: the Americans were not ready or willing to really challenge or even attempt to alter the division of Europe. That is turning point of American-Russian relations in Europe. That it coincided with a peak of - understandably because of the brutal Russian suppression of Hungary – American popular hostility for Communism and Russia is, again, another instance of the irony of history ( or, perhaps, of the melancholy history of what goes under the name of “public opinion”).

After 1956 in Europe the enmity of the two Superpowers was gradually winding down, until the political division of Europe and of Germany ended with the withdraw of the Russian Empire in 1989 – and the end of the cold war meant also the end of an entire historical century, of the twentieth century, dominated by the effects and the results of two world wars.

* * * *

Somewhere, in the middle of the heart of Europe, in the black shadows of the Alpine mountains, in a small town along a quick flowing cold river, amid a gnarled and dark-browed people, with their minds less and less dependent on the tattered shroud of their Catholic religion or on their sense of loyalty to a once old-German but now tattered monarchy, a lonely sullen boy came into this world, his heart bitten with rage and ambition, desperately alone as he grew more and more conscious of his destiny of being a German. And then discovering – relatively late, in his thirtieth year- that his bitterness and rage and hate were there in the hearts and the minds of thousands of other people around him, too; that God ( a God of history? Or the God of Germandom?) had given him the power to speak, a talent to touch their minds and hearts, for the sake of something large and hard.

And then this odd and uneasy young man, surer of his ideas than of himself, became the solitary leader of a small party. And then of a larger party. And then of a veritable movement. And then of the largest national party athwart Germany. By then he was convinced that he could – democratically, legally, and inevitably – step over all the obstacles to become chancellor of Germany.. the unquestioned and unquestionable head of a great nation, largely united behind him, becoming the strongest and greatest power in Europe as he subdued and silenced each of his opponents, older men of an older world.

He was not one fortunate person riding atop a great wave; he was more than a figurehead of a nation; more even than a standard dictator. A strange phenomena, breaking through myth and mist on occasion with hoarse cries, unfathomable by many of his enemies, matching them with the force of his hatreds, with his instincts that were powerful enough to make him a master of war and even a statesman of a kind, on occasion. And thus he and his Germans withstood the greatest empires of the world, the British, and the Russian and the American Empires, perhaps as many as five hundred million people ranged against a Germany of eighty million – until the very end, here and there even for a few days and nights after his immolation of himself under the ruins of his capital city of Berlin.

He alone began the Second World War. It also ended with him. Not only in Europe. Had he not conquered Western Europe there would have been no Japanese thrust against the French and Dutch in the Far East, had there been no Atlantic war between Germany and Britain there would have been no Pacific war of Japan against the British Empire and the United States, surely not in 1941. The Second World War was Hitler's war. So was the cold war: even before his final assault on Moscow Hitler counted on the enmity between the liberal democracies and 'the devouring monster of international communism” to wrestle his ambitions from jaws of defeat. But for him, the cold war came too late!

And now I must proceed to this dismissal: to a dismissal of a widespread and untruthful view of the twentieth century. This belief that this century was marked by the struggle of Democracy against Communism ( or of "Freedom” against “Totalitarianism”. If that were so, then the Second World War, the war against Hitler's Nationalist Socialist Germany, was but an unnatural episode, interrupting the greater “epic” confrontation of Democracy against Communism.

What nonsense this is. The two great world wars were the two mountain ranges that dominated the entire history of the twentieth century. Communist rule in Russia was a result ( and only one of the results) of the First World War. The so-called cold war between Democracy and Communism (more precisely: between the United States and the Soviet Union) was a consequence of the Second World War. Hitler's war. ( So was the dissolution of the great colonial empires, of the British, French, and Dutch, a consequence of the two world wars). And then, hardly more than forty years after victory ( and there could have been no victory without Russia), the Soviet Empire fell apart, one Communist government disappearing after another, the Russian empire reduced to a size smaller than it had been more than three hundred years ago. Had Hitler's Germany won the war in 1940 or 1941 (and it came very close to that), there is no reason to believe that the Third Reich, that Germany's empire, would have collapsed by 1989 (exactly one hundred years after Adolf Hitler was born).

Consider something else, too: that comparing the quantity of Stalin's or Mao Tse-tung's victims with that of Hitler's results in a, necessarily imprecise, list of numbers – and it tells us nothing. Germany was in the heart, in the center, part and parcel of European and Western civilization, culture, traditions.
Russia (and of course China) were not. Stalin had a predecessor-, Ivan the Terrible. Hitler had none. His and German Nationalist brutality were unprecedented. Russian brutality was not.


  1. 'The Legacy of the Second World War” by John Lukacs; Yale University Press 2010

    A retrospective on the author's prodigious body ( more than thirty) of historical work. Included are some very interesting asides and footnotes. For example:

    One of Hitler's most important convictions lives on. This was his recognition that that a nation is more important than a state. He believed and, on occasion, said that the state is a framework dictated by necessity, while the essence of history is the nation, Volk, whose existence both precedes and survives that of states . The author also points to Hitler's idealist determinism, a recognition that ideas are more important than matter, indeed, that ideas determine matter which was the source of many of his stunning achievements and of his disasters and Germany's ultimate defeat. In this connection the author suggests, therefore, that Hitler's “racism” ought to be examined more closely. He was an extreme nationalist rather than a racist. He posits a distinction between 'folkish” and “racists” types of thinking.

    National Socialism was in large measure a reaction against Communism, but perhaps even more against international capitalism, and against the liberal and democratic intellectual ideas and political practices of the 19th century that, from many angles of views, seemed antiquated and corrupt. It was a mistake of many German conservatives to view National Socialism as a natural swinging of the pendulum of history backward ( i.e. reactionary), away from the ideas of 1789, of the French Revolution. They did not see or wish to see that Hitler and National Socialism were populist and modern ( and even democratic, in the narrow sense of the word, extolling popular sovereignty).

    The author also suggests that in regard to both Hitler and Stalin it is not accurate to use the word 'totalitarianism' , the meaning the total police rule of a state. The rule of everyday life, even in Hitler's Germany or in Stalin's Russia, was never “total” or complete. An it is certain that extreme nationalism- the “Volk” taking precedence over the State and its 'rule of law'- became a crucial component of the 'final solution'.

    In discussing contemporary attitudes toward the Third Reich Lukas suggests that various polls and even results of elections that include extreme nationalist parties to do not necessarily provide an accurate picture of what the sentiments of citizens are with respect to the basic political principles of National Socialism.

    So what he is suggesting, somewhat between the lines, is that while the “monumental” struggle between Democracy and Communism ( never much of a conflict in the first place ) has been fairly put to rest, the problem posed by Hitler and extreme nationalism (whereby the contest between Communism and Democracy got its wings in the first place) has not.

    Food for thought.

  2. World War II and the Cold War have never been great intellectual interests of mine, but I've enjoyed your comments. Lukacs is a great historian.

  3. My Father's Older brother was killed in the Battle of The Bulge, a truck driver who served in North Africa and Italy with no combat experience , thrown into the breach, caused by the arrogant and precipitous, forward movement of the American generals. For this my father was never very forgiving either of the Generals or the Germans- for fighting on long after any hope of victory was gone.

    He himself served as an air traffic controller for Pan Am in the Pacific ( later relegated to to a dead-end post for trying to organize a Union), where he became buddies with a fellow ( subsequently my Godfather) who became Assistant Deputy to the Secretary of Defense, president of the the CIA front Asia Foundation and chairman of the D.C. W.W. II memorial- who had to be persuaded not to obliterate the reflecting pool in front of the Capital.

    The game when I was a kid was to sit on Mr. William's knees while he queried : " Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?". When I replied "NO!", he would gently slap me across the face saying "You lie, You Lie!"

    I don't have any hard feelings about this. It sure stimulated a lifetime interest in "The Great and Cold Wars!" When my kids were young and I was in a conservative phase- disgusted by the antics of "The Left" in the early 80s- I saw Mr. Williams and comforted him somewhat by admitting that, to a certain extent, our protests against the War in Vietnam were a bit misguided. Now I would say they probably didn't go far enough, we were having too much of "a high ole time".