GRAHAM FREUDENBERG. Revising history – A REPOST from June 16 2017

Jan 13, 2018

For octogenarians like me, the most astonishing development since the collapse of the Soviet Union is that so much of the West’s hopes for international sanity, civility and peace should now rest with, of all countries, Germany.  

As an Australian of German descent (we came to Queensland in 1870, just before Bismark proclaimed the German Empire) I have more or less distanced myself from all things German (Beethoven etc. excepted). I feel, however, entitled to speak freely on these matters. My father was wounded at Gallipoli and my uncle was killed at Messines.

Between the madness of Trumpery * (see the Oxford definition below) and the stupidity of Brexit, where is the West to look to uphold our values if not Germany?

I predict that the new relevance of Germany will involve considerable historical revisionism.

There can never, of course, be revisionism about Hitler or the complicity of the German people in the worst crimes in human history or the absolute necessity to fight and destroy Hitler and Nazidom. But there will be a clearer understanding of Germany’s own ordeals since 1914.

The works of Ian Kershaw and, in particular, the new generation of German historians, have already de-mystified the rise of Hitler. It is appalling to see how easily a combination of circumstances can lead to the destruction of democracy. These lessons have never been more relevant than today.

The first target of the new revisionism will be the over-weening self-righteousness of the United States and its pretensions to ‘exceptionalism’.

This need not be and I hope will not be, a new form of anti-Americanism. But there will be, and should be, a re-balancing of perceptions about the world role of the United States since 1914.

The current campaign in Australia to glorify our part in the First World War has been a wasted opportunity to restore our fading sense of the horror and folly of modern war. In all this expensive campaign on TV, nothing has been presented that helps the new generation, or older generations for that matter, to understand better what George Kennan rightly called ‘the seminal catastrophe’ of Western civilization. As in 1914, hate, not the removal of its causes, is once again becoming the ruling political mindset.

I predict the new revisionism will involve these questions:

  • Germany’s so-called ‘war guilt’ in July-August 1914.
  • Britain’s failure to prevent the crisis extending beyond the Balkans after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.
  • The baleful role of the German High Command, especially General Erich Ludendorff, in prolonging the war, and raising war itself to new and unprecedented levels of inhumanity.
  • Why the German people were so susceptible to the ‘stab in the back’ theory (i.e. that the German Army was never defeated in 1918 but was undermined from within (compare with the US right-wing and Vietnam).
  • The ambiguous role of the United States from 1914 to 1919, and again from 1933 to 1941.
  • The myths surrounding Munich.
  • The fateful consequences of ‘America First’ between 1936 and 1941. Whatever Roosevelt’s inclination, ‘America First’ kept the United States neutral and impotent – despite the over-running of Poland, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway, despite the Fall of France, the deadly threat to Britain, the invasion of the Soviet Union and despite the plight of the Jews, until Hitler himself declared war on America after Pearl Harbor. Lend-lease was never the generous substitute for combat forces Roosevelt made out. Churchill, wisely, went along with this chest-beating in order to coax the United States into the war.

The best of the many books published around 2014, the centenary of the First World War, is The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. But the title is quite misleading. Europe did not ‘sleep walk’ its way to war in 1914. The decision-makers were a small group – perhaps as few as fifty who really counted. Almost all of them were drawn from the aristocracy of Europe, statesmen, diplomats and generals, the ‘best and brightest’ of their time. They all knew the risks of a general European war. They all knew that the system of alliances and secret undertakings made localization of war almost impossible. They all knew that industrialization would make a 20th Century war unprecedented in its violence and cost. They all knew that the railway systems made mobilization unstoppable once it started. They went into it with eyes wide open.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, in particular, makes a most unsatisfactory villain. He was volatile, unbalanced, and torn by his love/hate relationship with England. He was Queen Victoria’s grandson and, in many ways, behaved much as she might have if she had not reigned under a strong parliamentary system, and been restrained by strong Prime Ministers like Peel, Palmerston, Russell, Gladstone, Disraeli and Salisbury. Disraeli controlled her waywardness by unashamed and systematic flattery – ‘laying it on with a trowel’ – but was always in charge. Germany, be contrast, despite well-established liberal and socialist elements, had an underdeveloped parliamentary system, with the political parties kept away from real power by Bismark’s constitution. When the Western front reached its first-year stalemate as early as December 1914, the German military made the Kaiser increasingly irrelevant.

There is no more conclusive proof of the fundamental, indeed, existential importance of strong, effective, stable and durable political parties than the tragic history of Germany between 1914 and 1945. Hitler understood this perfectly. That is why he made his first priority in 1933 the destruction of the parties and the unions.

For the last century, Germany’s unique responsibility for the war has been deemed to be the ‘blank cheque’ which the Kaiser is supposed to have given to Austria to deal with Serbia as Austria saw fit (ostensibly to punish Serbia for its alleged part in the assassination, but in reality to prop up its ramshackle empire). There was no such thing. The blank cheque is a myth. All that Germany gave Austria was their promise of firm support to her only reliable ally on the Continent, in pretty much the same way France gave it to Czarist Russia, and indeed Britain had given, secretly, to France long before the war.

Britain’s role between the assassination on 28 June 1914 and the declaration of war on 4 August was, at most, perfunctory. The reason: the British Cabinet was almost totally pre-occupied with the threat of civil war over Ireland. The ‘Home Rule of Ireland’ crisis had been on and off for thirty years. But it came to a head in July 1914 when at last the Liberal Government had the power and the numbers to pass it. The senior command of the British army had made it clear to the Asquith Government that it could not rely on the army to fight against Protestant Ulster to support Home Rule for Catholic Ireland. There was a real prospect of mutiny. King George V, who was to say years later ‘What fools we were not to accept Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland in 1886’, was convening an abortive bi-partisan conference in Ireland on the very day Austria sent its deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia at the end of July. Parliamentary Cabinets are not good at dealing with more than one crisis at a time. The British Cabinet turned with relief from what Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) called the ‘boys and fogs of Ireland’ to the new much bigger crisis in Eastern Europe. And it was too late.

Germany solved Britain’s dilemma by invading Belgium on 1 August. Britain, France and Prussia had each pledged to respect Belgium’s neutrality in 1839. Britain was not bound, however, to go to war over it. But the invasion, long known to be part of Germany’s war plan if she was at war with both Russia and France, provided the British Government with the moral issue it needed. In short, Britain declared war on Germany for two reasons: to avoid civil war over Ireland and to keep the Liberal Party united and in government.

Germany’s real criminality in 1914 was the conduct of the German Army in Belgium after its invasion. This was not merely British propaganda, as the Germans long claimed. It was the beginning of officially sponsored terror against the civilian population. This state terror against civilians has characterized war-making ever since, ever-increasing with our power and will to do it. This was the real genesis of the ‘war guilt’ clause inserted by the victorious ‘peace-makers’ in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

The real difficulty the Germans had in accepting this clause, and indeed the rest of the Versailles Treaty including onerous reparations, was that they could never bring themselves to believe that they had actually been defeated. They believed their generals like Ludendorff – that they had been betrayed at home not beaten in the field. This was the so-called ‘stab in the back’. And in the search for scapegoats, German conservatives in the 1920s willingly joined Hitler in putting the Jews at the head of the list of traitors, along with all those, mainly socialists, who had accepted the armistice and signed the Treaty.

Yet there were semi-valid reasons why the German people were so ready to accept the ‘stab in the back’ theory. In fact, Germany had won the war in the East, against Russia, – for them, the most important part of the whole struggle. They may have hated the British and despised the French, but they feared the Russians. When Lenin took Russia out of the war after his revolution in October 1917, Germany imposed a draconian ‘peace’ in March 1918. Russia lost a third of its country (including the Ukraine) and its population. This was the most decisive victory of any of the combatants in the whole of the war- and it was won by Germany. Then, from March to August 1918, Ludendorff, the most disastrous German figure until Hitler, launched his offensives on the Western front, convinced he could destroy the British and French armies before the Americans could arrive in strength (18 months after President Wilson had declared war.) This colossal effort exhausted the German Army; but for months the German people were fed news of victory after victory.

The Allies made two terrible mistakes: they allowed the German Army to retreat back home, burning, destroying and killing on the way, as if they still had the means and morale to continue the war. The Kaiser abdicated and the generals like Lukendorff and Hindenburg just melted away to their estates in Prussia, never once admitting military defeat or collapse.

This led to the second great mistake: the Allies accepted the Armistice and later the Treaty of Versailles from the civilian Government, led by socialists. Ever after, they were identified – and not only by Hitler – as the ‘November criminals’. Thus, in the eyes of a majority of Germans, the Weimar Republic could never establish its legitimacy, despite its remarkable efforts toward recovery right up to 1933.

The Germans saw what they wanted to see, and what Hitler wanted them to see: that they had never been defeated fair and square and that their humiliation, their suffering, attempted revolution, super-inflation of 192 and the Depression of 1930 were all the work of the Jews, the socialists and the communists – Hitler’s ‘international Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy against Germany’.

Hitler came to power, appointed Chancellor in January 1933 by President Hindenburg, by constitutional and legal means, although the Nazi Party never won an electoral majority, until he confirmed his absolute power by plebiscite. But his exploitation of the ‘stab in the back’ theory was the real key to his power over the German people right to the end. By 1936, he was beyond challenge.

These facts make nonsense of the claims, fostered nowadays by the American neo-cons, that Hitler could have been stopped when he occupied the Rhineland unopposed in 1936, and of course, at Munich in 1938.

I am convinced (I was a long time reaching this conclusion) that America’s present attitude against appeasement – used to justify all its wars since 1945, springs largely from a bad conscience over the ‘America First’ policy from 1936 to 1941. It is an attempt to blame the Western Europeans, especially the French, for America’s own self-serving acquiescence in these years. After all, Roosevelt himself responded to Chamberlain at Munich with a telegram: ‘Good man!’.

The fact is there was never the political will in Britain or France, (much less the Dominions) to go to war over the Sudetenland in 1938, and certainly not over the Rhineland or Anschluss (union with Austria) in 1936. By then, nobody was willing to defend the Treaty of Versailles, and certainly not to fight for it.

The Munich Agreement merely ratified what Chamberlain, to universal applause, had already agreed to – the incorporation of the three million Germans of Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich. Hitler never forgave Chamberlain for robbing him of the war with the Czechs he planned and wanted. Churchill’s notion that the German general staff might have staged a coup against him at the time of Munich is nonsense. But Churchill’s later authority (to which I myself may have contributed in my book Churchill and Australia) is treated as gospel.

Again, it was a matter of political will, or its absence. If Britain and France had gone to war in 1938, they would have made no more than a token gesture to help the Czechs and Hitler would have emerged triumphant and even stronger.

The real point about Munich is that Hitler repudiated his agreement in March 1939 and gobbled up the rest of Czechoslovakia. It was this repudiation that turned Chamberlain and more important, the people of Britain (and Australia) against him and led to the guarantee to Poland and ultimately our declaration of war in September 1939. The wonder is not that Britain and France did not go to war in 1938, only twenty years after the terrible conflict of 1914-18, but they went to war just a year later.

If it had been left to the American majority and its ‘America First’ line, whatever Roosevelt’s sympathies, they would never have gone to war until Hitler was well and truly master of Europe. And it is moot whether America would ever have gone to war at all except for Pearl Harbor.

Changing attitudes about the United States will be the hardest and most wrenching revision of history of them all. Nobody who grew up, as I did, in Brisbane during the Second World War, wants to deny American generosity and power, or forgo American friendship and leadership. I managed to write scores of speeches denouncing the war in Vietnam without doing that. Nor do I forget, or want to forget, that the same electorate which has made Trump president also made Barak Obama president – twice. I am not yet ready to assert, as Malcolm Fraser did, that the United States is ‘a dangerous ally’. But I will place on record for the first time the last serious thing Gough Whitlam ever said to me, based on his experience with the Americans at UNESCO:

Either they must run the show or ruin it.

That is the real meaning of ‘America First’ in 2017.


*          The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary defines ‘trumpery’.
TRUMPERY, noun (from the French ‘to deceive’).
(1) deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery;(2) something of no value; (3) trash, rubbish.

Graham Freudenberg AM is an Australian author and political speechwriter who worked in the Australian Labor Party for over forty years. He has written over a thousand speeches for several leaders of the Australian Labor Party at the NSW state and the federal level. These have included Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth, Bob Carr and Simon Crean.  In 1990 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to journalism, to parliament and to politics.  In 2005 he was inducted as a life member of the NSW ALP.

He is the author of four books to date:  A Certain Grandeur – Gough Whitlam in Politics, Penguin 1977;  A Cause for Power – the Centenary History of the NSW Labor Party, Australian Labor Party, 1991;  A Figure of Speech (autobiography), John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2005; and Churchill and Australia, Pan Macmillan, 2008. 

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