One reason to continue to read history after the educational institution has granted you its certificate of completion is because it is an interesting topic to read; but another reason, not to be scorned by any means, is to find analogies, historical analogies, which help the reader to make sense of what is happening at the present time, understood in historical context.
The mental universe becomes richer and more vibrant, not to say, more alive, as a result.
I give you an example and a half.
In 1972 the New York Review of Books published an extraordinarily long article, extending over three separate issues, the burden of which was that the standard explanation for the Third Reich [and let me, perhaps for frivolous reasons, replace that usual term, a German word, with another German word, Hitlerszeit] was no longer a helpful or useful historical study.
The Oxford University professor of modern history Geoffrey Barraclough regarded the scholarly search for the key element of German history that made the Hitlerszeit possible to be a waste of time and attention.
“Search the libraries and you will find hundreds of obscure Germans who scribbled obscure and incriminating thoughts, among them Ernst Haeckel, the once famous exponent of an exploded pseudo-scientific mythology. Eventually his forgotten corpse was bound to be exhumed and exhibited as still another archpriest of German infamy. . . And then there is the great anonymous cohort of professors, the ‘mandarins’ of the German academic establishment. As a body, perhaps, they were more conformist than wicked; but were they not, nevertheless, through their abandonment of ‘intellectual responsibility,’ the gravediggers of the Weimar Republic [the constitutional republic overthrown by Hitler]? . . .
“To me, I confess, it sounds suspiciously like blaming the defects of American education for My Lai. In a vague, trascendental way it may even be true, but it is not very illuminating.”
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I could talk at this point in the classic academic trope, On the One Hand, . . . and On the Other . . .
On the one hand, the Sonderweg [Special Road — that is to say, that German history exhibits an exceptionalism not present elsewhere] school of German history by no means died out following Barraclough’s pronouncement. The claim of historians such as Daniel Goldhagen, that there was an especially murderous anti-Semitism in Germany, an anti-Semitism which marks modern German history as unusual and unique, is backed up by an entire Holocaust industry. Nor has the view that the crucial focus rests with politics receded: the recent ongoing exhibit, in Berlin, of German history since 1800 from the point of view of the German Bundestag, introduced, and very likely assembled in part, by the distinguished historian Lothar Gall, makes use of the very “turning points” that Barraclough judged concealed as much as they revealed about the dynamics of modern Germany: 1870; 1918; 1933; 1945.
While on the other, there really has been, in the nearly 40 years since Barraclough’s call, a growth and development of a significantly different sort of history of Germany. That call looked for several changes, not all of which I will be able to detail. First, a longer time perspective: “In the longer perspective of German history . . . it is possible that the social revolution the Nazis set in motion will appear as the most enduring legacy, perhaps the only enduring legacy, of the Third Reich [or, as I have it, Hitlerszeit].”
Second, historical episodes ought to be examined without the rose-colored glasses blaming the Nazis for everything: the Reichstag Fire, for example, was not set by them, but rapidly and decisively used politically.
Finally, and most significantly, a new periodization seemed in order.
“[The] real beginning [of ‘modern German history’] was 1879, when Bismarck, in a sharp reaction to the economic crisis and the social antagonisms it called forth, particularly the growth of social democracy, engineered the coalition of Junkers and industrialists . . . which was to exert so powerful an influence for the next 60 years.
The reason 1879 is a significant date and 1871 is not is that 1879 saw a radical redistribution of social and economic power, and 1871 did not. . . . The alliance between Junker agrarians and heavy industry, preceded in 1879 by Bismarck’s attack on social democracy, was the beginning of the ‘conservative counterrevolution’ which came to a head in 1930 and reached its dismal end in 1944.”
The installation of the Hitlerszeit was the outcome, in this frame, of a sustained effort, over the course of four or five decades, to avoid the transfer of power from the hands of the old elites to the broadly-based political parties, organized along modern lines. The Weimar Republic could have succeeded in accomplishing that transfer peacefully, but for the economic collapse of the Great Depression, striking a German economy made vulnerable by defeat and reparations. As the celebrated economist Paul Krugman pointed out in his New York Times blog recently, economists generally agree that the disastrous policies of the BrÃ¼ning chancellorship opened the way for Hitler (even though public commentary tends to neglect that consensus).
To quote Barraclough one last time:
“The Great Depression and the divisions and hesitations of the Left in confronting it gave the forces of reaction their chance and ushered in the period of conservative counterrevolution. Overshadowed as it is by the Nazi dictatorship, it can easily be regarded simply as the prelude to Nazism; but it has its own place in German history as the last fling of the old order, the last attempt by the forces Bismarck had put in the saddle in 1879 to turn the clock back. After 1930 National Socialism was certainly an important factor; but Hermann Mau is right to emphasize that the “central figure” during the period 1930-1934 was Hindenburg, not Hitler, just as in 1923 [in the ‘Beer-Hall Putsch’] it was not Hitler but Ludendorff. The destruction of parliamentary democracy was the work of the conservatives, not of the Nazis, who were called in at the last moment when it looked as though without them the counterrevolution would not succeed [emphasis added — MM].”
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Barraclough is no longer with us (he died in 1984), but the outline of present-day German historical scholarship is in large measure where he placed it. A retired secondary schoolteacher such as I cannot hope to prove, in the scholarly sense, such an assertion, but I can illustrate it, perhaps with a degree of persuasiveness. I cannot, as did Barraclough, survey virtually every serious book in English, and most of the more important ones in German, on the Hitlerszeit published in the last 25 years or so; but I can take a close look at a prominent article in a leading academic journal.
The most recent number of the prestigious scholarly journal, the Journal of Modern History, which its publisher, the University of Chicago Press, claims “is recognized as the leading American journal for the study of European intellectual, political, and cultural history,” contains a 30-page article aiming “to develop the general outlines of the relationship between Catholic conservatives and the establishment of the Third Reich . . .” The general outline which the article develops confirms the statement I just emphasized.
When in the first sentence of the piece Larry Eugene Jones says that Catholic conservatives “joined forces with other right-wing groups to overthrow the Weimar Republic and replace it with a more authoritarian political system,” it is not just any small-college academic speaking, but one who can quote three previous articles of his — in Jahrbuch fÃ¼r deutsche Geschichte, Historisches Jahrbuch, and German History — in the first twelve footnotes; and it was his 1989 book on the decline of the Weimar Republic that won the German Studies Association prize for the best history book in German studies that year.
Catholic conservatives were, Jones says, a very small minority of German Catholics, “between 8 and 10 percent.” They were the most favored of the population, nobles, intellectuals, and clergymen, but they were unalterably opposed to the popular sovereignty incorporated into the political life of the Weimar Republic. It was for them a profoundly moral issue, based on a religious conception of the world.
“From the perspective of the Catholic conservatives, the source of all evil was the French Revolution and the secular forces it had unleashed against the crown, the church, and the social hierarchies that had been ordained by God.”
Compromise with parliamentary politics was out of the question. When “[i]n March, 1930” — the occasion of Barraclough’s ‘conservative counterrevolution’ coming to a head, as he termed it — “Heinrich BrÃ¼ning, a profoundly conservative Catholic politician . . . was summoned by Reich President Paul von Hindenburg to the office of chancellor, the highest executive position in the German [government],” this effort to govern separate from the parliamentary coalitions in the Reichstag was still unacceptable to the Catholic conservatives, who wanted not to adapt the democratic institutions of the republic, but to abolish them. Jones quotes Baron Ferdinand von LÃ¼ninck’s 1930 letter to a member of the BrÃ¼ning cabinet damning the entire effort:
“It is downright impossible to establish a governmental structure that claims to be conservative on the basis of a system that is liberal to its very core and that represents the logical culmination of the ideas of the French Enlightenment and Revolution. Improvement in the existing system will never be possible through reform but only through its total elimination. . .”
The German Center Party, which BrÃ¼ning represented, was, according to Jones, “the very instrument of political Catholicism” [that is, adaptation to constitutional democratic order — MM] “to whose destruction the Catholic conservatives had dedicated themselves.” What Jones’s account makes clear is that the circumstances at the week-by-week, day-by-day level were considerably worse than Barraclough’s outline of 40 years ago had it. I won’t attempt to follow events in detail. Jones’s account, based on decades of study and using archival materials, shows that Catholic conservatives actively sought to undermine, and to destroy, any arrangement that the conservatives under Hindenburg hoped to put together. They promoted, starting from the 1920s and making effective use of their connections after 1930, the same aims as the Nazi party, and materially supported its promotion to governmental power. They wished to use the Nazis, and to sweep them aside once their usefulness had come to an end (the Catholic conservatives just happened to be the ones swept aside).
The United States at the present time does not have a charismatic, rug-chewing megalomaniac contending for supreme power, based upon hatred of the Jews. But the country is in the grip of a decades-long movement by its political and economic elites to reverse the course of popular sovereignty; it is subject to a religious-based movement, with scant sense of reality, advocating a return to a Romanticized past way of life. The United States is getting more militarized by the hour, brutally suppressing dissent from its corporate rule, both internally and externally. It is true that our universities are second to none. But at the turn of the last century, that was true of Germany. To pick but one example among many, in his two-volume magnum opus A History of European Scientific Thought in the Nineteenth Century, the British historian John Theodore Merz in 1896 concluded his survey of German science with the words,
“No really unselfish effort can perish, and whatever the duty of the future may be, it will have to count among the greatest bequests of the immediate past that high and broad ideal of science which the life of the German universities has traced in clear and indestructible outlines.” Merz then cites, in support of his praise, the words of the English public intellectual Matthew Arnold, written in 1868:
“If true culture ever becomes at last a civilizing power in the world, and is not overlaid by fanaticism, by industrialism or by frivolous pleasure-seeking, it will be to the faith and zeal of this homely and much-ridiculed German people that the great result will be mainly owing.”
If we see an analogy with the last industrialized, highly educated country which was inundated with irrational savagery, and if the decades of professional study of the origins of Hitlerszeit since Barraclough’s days have given us a more valid explanation of that catastrophe than the uniquely malevolent influence of a mustachioed madman, then we may use it to guide our view of the recent history of the United States.
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But what did happen to our country? Michael Moore correctly points to the attack on unions in 1981 as the turning point in modern U.S. political history; the question that arises is, What Caused It? Why did, in his terms, the middle class die? Why did “we” not protest and obstruct the attack on unions? Was it because The Great Communicator misled the populace? Because Evil Reagan was followed by Evil Bush, who, after a short hiatus, was followed by Doubleplusbad Bush Junior?
That personalization of the historical development of the last few decades has lost, by now, any force at all: the present Administration is carrying on, just as the Clinton Administration did, the very policies of increasing the concentration of economic and political power into the hands of the wealthy that characterized the three Republican administrations I just cited. We have one effective political party, not two. Moore has the correct sequence of events, but they are not historical; they are not within a web of causal explanation. They just happened; and “we” failed to protest sufficiently. Somehow it is “our” fault, I guess; but before we go to discussing fault, perhaps we ought to look more deeply at the causes of the events we find so significant. Just as Barraclough warned against finding some obscure ranter against Jews, and blaming him for the Hitlerszeit, so saying that “we” or “the voters” caused the descent into barbarism of the last 30 years in this country is interesting, but not explanatory.
Very similar problems of historiography beset the history of the brutalization of the political course of the United States in the last three decades as affected the discussion of Hitlerszeit forty years ago; the so-called “liberal approach to history,” privileging political discourse, concentrating on individuals to the exclusion of programmatic continuity, ignoring the social and economic foundations for policy choices, predominates. It is not that liberal histories are false, but that their monopoly on the historical frame distorts what we know about the past. I take as an illustrative example the very successful effort, within the liberal historical tradition, to explain the last few decades — Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland.
Published in 2008 to widespread praise and blame, Perlstein’s history of four elections — “told in four sections, corresponding to four elections: in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972” — interprets the history of the conservative recovery of power in US politics as a story of Nixon’s personal mentality becoming more and more widely shared among the social and economic victims of change. Perlstein has dozens, if not scores, of quotations indicating working-class whites resenting gains by African-Americans, emphasizing the strength of racism in our recent national past.
Even more important, however, is Perlstein’s focus. Nixon eloquently expressed the resentment of working-class families facing liberal policies. Listening and learning from Ronald Reagan’s construction of a mythical past, Nixon gave his audiences the self-image of an unfairly attacked majority, one which must fight for political power in self-defense. Of broader trends such as economic structure or corporate policies there is no hint. Speeches, emotional appeals, and voting blocs constitute the whole. The real change since the 1970s, however, has not been resentment of liberals, but the bipartisan shift towards the interests of the wealthy.
Specialists have been aware of this for quite some time. The political analyst who in 1968 provided the overview guiding Nixon’s successful electoral strategy, Kevin Phillips, looked back at the 1980s — the book was written in 1989 — and its resultant social and economic consequences:
As Phillips noted, the jump in Social Security tax, falling most heavily upon those of lowest income, had been passed in 1977, under Democratic Party control of both the White House and Congress. “In the wake of 1978 capital gains tax reductions,” Phillips indicated, “and the sweeping 1981 rate cuts, the effective overall, combined federal tax rate paid by the top 1 percent of Americans dropped from 30.9 percent in 1977 to 23.1 percent in 1984.” (p. 11, Politics of Rich and Poor) Again, we’re talking about a bipartisan process, begun under Carter and pushed further, but not initiated, under Reagan, of privileging the wealthy.
“In the 1980s the emergence of four dozen U.S. billionaires, some virtually overnight, with a supporting cast of a hundred thousand decamillionaires, represented a plutographic revolution comparable to that of the late nineteenth century. From 1981 to 1988 the ranks of the ‘rich’ jumped by factors of three, six, and even ten, duplicating the leading indicators of the Gilded Age and the Twenties.” (p. 160)
As a historically informed commentator, Phillips drew an explicit parallel between the policy choices made in 1880-1892 and 1920-1929 and those of what for him was the recent past. “When wealth is in fashion, national Democrats have gone along.” (p. 27, emphasis in original) “[T]here was no way to argue with the official government portrait of a shift of income between 1980 and 1988 away from the bottom 80 percent of the US population toward the most affluent fifth.” (p. 16) Nonetheless, [Democratic Party Presidential nominee in 1988 Michael] Dukakis avioded the subject. Upper-bracket [income-tax] increases were rejected at the Democratic National Convention. Tax issues were ignored in 1988. . .” (p. 84)
Phillips relies for causation on the trusty old clichÃ© of pendulum swings: Republican small-government deregulation produces — in the decades 1880-1892, 1920-1929, and now 1977-1988 — wealth and excess, followed by periods of reform and social welfare. The problem with that periodization, however, is evident: we are now more than 20 years down the road from Phillips’s warning of a destabilization in the political structure, and the pendulum swing has not only not turned, it has in all that time gotten ever worse.
If we turn to social and economic causes for the epochal change in the mid-70s we need not go very far: there was an Arab Oil Embargo in 1973 and 1974 which touched every living citizen of the U.S. The United States did not choose to reform itself economically to conserve oil (and here is a recent book to document that), but — notably in 1980, with the Carter Administration — chose to announce its unchallengeable right to a secure flow of Persian Gulf oil.
Five years after Phillips, the distinguished journalist Nicholas Lemann, writing in the prominent New York Review of Books, gave the briefest of acknowledgements to the factor.
“For a long time after World War II the middle-class American family, consisting of a working husband, a housewife, and their children, seemed to be moving on a steady, upward economic course. But in the early 1970s, at about the time of the OPEC embargo, family income leveled off. Partly to maintain their standard of living while inflation was high and earnings were stagnant, millions of married women went to work.” [emphasis added — MM]
In Lemann’s telling, it just happened to have happened simultaneously; it may or may not have been a causal factor.
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