Ralph Raico, Great Wars & Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal (Auburn, Alabama: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), 246 pages.
The greatest leaders, according to conventional appraisals, are usually those who draw the most blood. Most opinion makers distance themselves from Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and their ilk, although even here who can doubt they tower over modern history precisely because of their bloodletting? But in the West and especially the United States, historians, journalists, pundits, and especially politicians tend to admire leaders in proportion to the powers they claimed and exercised, which almost always corresponds with war making and killing.
“One of the most pernicious legacies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao,” writes Ralph Raico, “is that any political leader responsible for less than, say, three or four million deaths is let off the hook. This hardly seems right, and it was not always so” (163). This is an astute observation, and it has relevance even in considering the “civilized” leaders of the United States and its allies, to say nothing of the second tier communist butchers who continue to enjoy a cult following.
Historians, conservative and liberal, when asked to rank U.S. presidents, consistently put war presidents around the top and the ones who oversaw relatively peaceful years for the republic near the bottom. Across the spectrum, commentators adore both Presidents Roosevelt and swoon over the idea of another Truman in the White House. Poor Warren Harding, whose years were prosperous and relatively free, is universally ranked as one of the greatest disappointments. Woodrow Wilson, his predecessor, whose reign yielded over a hundred thousand dead Americans, a pulverized First Amendment, a nationalized economy, not to mention cataclysmic diplomatic consequences throughout the world, was one of the best, everyone seems to agree.
In the 20th century, it was Democrats who did the most to expand power, from the Progressive Era and New Deal to the Great Society. And, perhaps not coincidentally, they were most responsible for America’s biggest wars – the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Yet certainly by the time of the George W. Bush administration, if not much earlier, the Republican line was to claim the most power-hungry of Democratic presidents as their own proper antecedents, and in fact to criticize modern Democrats for betraying their 20th century roots as the party of power.
Right after Bush gave his second inaugural address in January 2005, championing an active Wilsonian role for U.S. foreign policy in the new century, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh had this to say:
[W]hat the president did today was make the case for spreading human liberty, defending human dignity, which were once largely the preserve of liberalism. If you go back and look at FDR’s speeches and look at the number of times he mentioned God in his inaugurals. Go back to JFK. “We will fight any foe. We’ll go anywhere. We will do whatever it takes to spread freedom and liberty.” Hey, he couldn’t be a liberal Democrat today. JFK couldn’t be. Truman couldn’t be. They were committed to the triumph of liberty in the world, and that’s what this speech was about today, the triumph of freedom and liberty in the world – and it is now conservatism that is propelling this.
For years, libertarians were accustomed to describing this brand of conservatism as “neoconservatism” – a bastardization of the breed that had adopted its interventionist thirst for democratic revolution from the left, and particularly from Trotskyite Marxists. Yet throughout the Cold War, official conservatism from William F. Buckley on down was not particularly inclined toward the Old Right antiwar position, and in today’s world most conservatives do seem much more attracted to FDR-style governance, especially abroad, than they do toward anti-interventionism. Even when the price of war is domestic liberty, and conservatives are presented with this trade-off, most choose the glories of war and empire over the simple serenity of peace and republicanism, as witnessed in the fact that nearly all prominent conservative pundits would prefer one of the warmongering big-government Republicans to Ron Paul in the Republican primary.
There is no question that one’s comprehension of the nation’s history determines one’s outlook on foreign affairs. The United States is currently involved in nearly half a dozen wars, and it is widely seen as nothing unusual. A whitewashed understanding of U.S. history is in play in Americans’ acceptance of their empire. All the major wars are sold to the public with warnings about the need to stop the world’s next Hitler. In the mythology of American war-making, Hitler is at once the greatest enemy of human decency ever to walk the earth and yet also the perennial threat who will resurrect in the form of a Noriega, a Milosovic, a Saddam, or a Gaddaffi, if America does not stand guard. Hitler is simultaneously beyond comparison and yet the demon against which to compare all other dictators.
Yet just as important as the demonization of America’s greatest arch nemesis in history is the glorification of America’s greatest superheroes on the world stage. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and – perhaps we can call him an honorary American at the least – Winston Churchill stand as giants in the usual narrative of international progress, and despite their flaws, some of which historians quickly concede, proud of the balance and sophisticated nuance of their work, these men represent goodness nearly so much as Hitler represents evil. Just as important, the great wars these allegedly great men presided over have come to represent virtue and redemption nearly inasmuch as the Nazis have come to symbolize barbarity.
Ralph Raico dissents. In his terrific book Great Wars & Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal, the venerable historian acquaints the reader with the dark side of such revered great leaders. His volume could be called an anti-hagiography, yet that is perhaps a grandiose descriptor for what is in ways not so presumptuous a project. All it takes is a fair account of what these men in power actually did to destroy the textbook interpretations. But Raico has done this deed masterfully, with a keen grasp of an enormous amount of literature and a deep understanding of the domestic history, foreign entanglements, shifting alliances, power politics, and sound economics. This combined with the author’s obvious fondness for the great traditions of Western civilization and his alluring writing style, which is accessible, artful, and scholarly while being just often enough polemic, makes for a terrific addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in modern history, U.S. foreign policy, or the story of human freedom.
Making the World Safe for Death and Destruction
World War I was the defining moment in the modern era, marking the death of monarchical Europe, the introduction of modern warfare to the global scene, the dawn of a frightening new system in war making and governance. For the United States, it was more transformative than any other event, other than perhaps Lincoln’s war or maybe World War II. It was as unspeakable tragedy, consuming almost 20 million lives and opening the door to the totalitarian takeover of Russia and later Germany. Nothing in history is more important to study, which is why it is particularly sad that in America’s government schools, it tends to be poorly taught or deemphasized in comparison to its more popular sequel.
Raico calls World War I “The Turning Point” in the first chapter of his book. At just fifty-two pages, this chapter is the best World War I summary of its length I have read. For everyone very familiar with the war, this chapter is still worth reviewing, with many rich footnotes, containing nuggets that are bound to be new for almost anyone. Yet for someone who hasn’t read many full books on the war, this chapter provides as good an overview that can be read in one sitting as one is bound to find, particularly with an emphasis on the American experience.
Raico traces the roots of World War I back to the rise of the German empire in the age of Bismarck, describes the emergence of the mutual defense pacts that soon proved horribly disastrous, discusses the evolving diplomacy between Germany, France and Russia, as well as German’s naval arms race with Britain, the importance of war in the Balkans, and the tensions among the various European powers playing out in colonial exploits in Africa. He touches on the violent rise of the Karadjordjevic dynasty in Serbia and its territorial hostility toward Austria-Hungary culminating in the assassination of the Archduke France Ferdinand and a game of chicken between Russia and Germany where, tragically, neither side flinched.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, all guilt was pinned on Germany, a blame game that continues in some scholarly circles to this day. Yet Raico finds that “there is no evidence whatsoever that Germany in 1914 deliberately unleashed a European war which it had been preparing for years – no evidence in the diplomatic and internal political documents, in the military planning, in the activities of the intelligence agencies, or in the relations between the German and Austrian General Staffs” (14).
The belligerent goals of Russia, on the other hand, have been much less emphasized. Yet Russia was at least as bent on war: “Russia regarded Germany as an inevitable enemy, because Germany would never consent to Russian seizure of the Straits or to the Russian-led creation of a Balkans front whose object was the demise of Austria-Hungary” (8). Nor do many focus on Great Britain’s role in widening the bloodshed and determining the outcome. “Britain’s entry into the war was crucial. In more ways than one, it sealed the fate of the Central Powers. Without Britain in the war, the United States would never have gone in” (17).
What’s more, Britain’s brutality in the war at least rivaled that of Germany. Due to the propagandistic Bryce Report, grossly exaggerating German atrocities in neutral Belgium, the impression at the time – and one that continues to linger – was of a Germany out of step with the civilized world in its engagement in the Great War. Yet London was responsible for “the single worst example of barbarism in the whole war, aside from the Armenian massacres” – the starvation blockade directed against Germany, which killed perhaps fifty times as many people, particularly civilians, as Germany’s more often discussed submarine warfare against Britain (198, 202). This all occurred in a context where Britain had designated the whole North Sea a war zone “in blatant contravention of international law” (24). In a book review on this topic, Raico notes that in “December 1918, the National Health Office in Berlin calculated that 763,000 persons had died as a result of the blockade by that time” (201).
All in all, the war amounted to an unfathomable massacre on the European continent. In another chapter, Raico writes:
In 1916, “the butcher’s bill,” as Robert Graves called it, came due at Verdun and at the Somme. Ill-educated neoconservatives who in 2002–2003 derided France as a nation of cowards seem never to have heard of Verdun, where a half-million French casualties were the price of keeping the Germans at bay. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, the brainchild of Field Marshal Haig, the British lost more men than on any other single day in the history of the Empire, more than in acquiring India and Canada combined. (232)
About half of the World War I discussion focuses on the United States. As usual, here Raico puts the lie to the two-dimensional casting of events as typically given, dispelling the common myths. For examples, although not a proximate cause of U.S. entry, one of the key rationales was and continues to be Germany’s sinking of the Lusitania, which carried American passengers. Yet in a plea to the United States, “the Germans observed that submarine warfare was a reprisal for the illegal hunger blockade; that the Lusitania was carrying munitions of war; that it was registered as an auxiliary cruiser of the British Navy; that British merchant ships had been directed to ram or fire upon surfacing U-boats; and that the Lusitania had been armed” (27).
Despite the urgings for peace by such luminaries as William Jennings Bryan, the president happily entered the war on the side of his beloved Britain. Wilson, who once said, “I cannot imagine power as a thing negative and not positive,” used war as an opportunity to expand vastly power in the center (18). The whole time he did so with the bizarre Colonel Mandel House – “Wilson’s alter ego” – hanging in the backdrop. Raico serves his readers well by acquainting them with this rascal. “Never elected to public office, [House] nonetheless became the second most powerful man in the country” (20). Wilson himself verified the centrality of this mysterious figure: “Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one” (21).
During World War I, the U.S. debt climbed from about $1 billion to about $25 billion, a whole assortment of industries were nationalized, thousands of government bureaus were erected, and top income tax rates hit seventy-seven percent. American economic liberty would never again be restored to pre-war levels. Civil liberties took the greatest hit since Lincoln’s War. Raico discusses the imprisonment of Eugene Debs and others merely for criticizing the war or draft or America’s ally Britain. Free speech took a beating in many nations during the war, but there were unique aspects to Wilson’s crackdown on dissent: “In 1920, the Untied States – Wilson’s United States – was the only nation involved in the World War that still refused a general amnesty to political prisoners” (41).
The Treaty of Versailles, a Germany burdened by war guilt and a resentful, demoralized, brutalized population, and the territorial changes resulting from the peace resulted not in worldwide democracy or an end to war, as promised, but more conflict, brutality, authoritarianism, and eventually a war even much worse than World War I. Even more politically incorrect to mention, the old order of Europe, as inequitable as it might have been, was swept away, allowing for far greater evils:
Had the war not occurred, the Prussian Hohenzollerns would most probably have remained heads of Germany, with their panoply of subordinate kings and nobility in charge of the lesser German states. Whatever gains Hitler might have scored in the Reichstag elections, could he have erected his totalitarian, exterminationist dictatorship in the midst of this powerful aristocratic superstructure? Highly unlikely. In Russia, Lenin’s few thousand Communist revolutionaries confronted the immense Imperial Russian Army, the largest in the world. For Lenin to have any chance to succeed, that great army had first to be pulverized, which is what the Germans did. So, a twentieth century without the Great War might well have meant a century without Nazis or Communists. Imagine that. (1–2)
Raico’s discussion of this turning point in the history of humanity alone makes the book worth reading. His review essay on several new books on World War I, and his favorable review of T. Hunt Tooley’s The Western Front, are also included inGreat Wars & Great Leaders, and demonstrate his appreciation of this crucial topic.
The Celebrated Killers of World War II
Franklin Roosevelt is surely more lionized than Wilson. The liberals love almost everything about him. The conservatives can’t help but admire his leadership in America’s bloodiest foreign war. Raico’s book has no extended discussion of Roosevelt. For more of Raico’s insights on FDR, I must recommend his great series of articles for the Future of Freedom Foundation, “Fascism Comes to America.”
Peppered throughout the book, however, are some gems for the FDR-hater. One chapter is a tribute to John Flynn, liberal hero of the Old Right through the story of whose opposition Raico undercuts the myths of the New Deal. Originally a progressive, Flynn became horrified by the centralization of power in the 1930s. “Instead of opening up the economy to competitive forces, Roosevelt seemed bent on cartelizing it, principally through the National Recovery Act (NRA), which Flynn regarded as a copy of Mussolini’s Corporate State” (209). In response to criticism from Flynn, that man in the White House morphed into a shameless despot: “The President of the United States wrote a personal letter to a magazine editor declaring that Flynn ‘should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine, or national quarterly’” (210). Citing Robert Higgs and others, Raico explains that the New Deal did not, indeed, end the Great Depression, thus validating Flynn’s contemporary critiques of his president.
Raico discusses Roosevelt’s behind-the-scenes trickery to engineer American intervention in World War II when the American people wanted nothing to do with it, particularly through the backdoor via war with Japan, as well as FDR’s nefarious intention to be in the war even before he was reelected on the platform of keeping Americans out of it: “On June 10, 1939, George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, visited the Roosevelts at Hyde Park. In private conversations with the King, Roosevelt promised full support for Britain in case of war” (73). One chapter discusses the America First movement – the country’s largest antiwar movement ever, which mobilized to prevent a repeat of Wilson’s calamity. Many had suspected FDR of deceit in the run-up to U.S. entry, and they were smeared at the time for it. But “[t]oday Roosevelt’s record of continual deception of the American people is unambiguous. In that sense, the old revisionists such as Charles Beard have been completely vindicated. Pro-Roosevelt historians – at least those who do not praise him outright for his noble lies – have had to resort to euphemism” (222).
Although Roosevelt is more adored than his successor, he is probably also more despised. Yet if there are any modern presidents worse than FDR, one of them would have to be Harry Truman. Raico does a great service in shining light on this president’s reign of tyranny.
The author explains how Truman’s Fair Deal was a fascistic advancement of FDR’s ruinous policies. He discusses Truman’s attempt to draft striking railroad workers into the Army and his dictatorial seizure of the steel mills. He compellingly explains how Truman’s legacies in foreign aid, the development of NATO, and the postwar U.S. stance toward Israel are all blights that continue to burden America.
But Truman’s greatest sins have to be in the arena of war. First, we must consider how he ended the conflict with Japan: by introducing nuclear warfare to the world. Raico’s treatment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is excellent, dispensing with the usual arguments about how these were cities of military import and focusing on the utilitarian and terroristic calculus of mass murder. We continue to hear the nukings saved lives. Raico notes:
The ridiculously inflated figure of a half-million for the potential death toll – more than the total of U.S. dead in all theaters in the Second World War – is now routinely repeated in high school and college textbooks and bandied about by ignorant commentators. (136)
But Raico hones in on the moral principle: “Those who may still be troubled by such a grisly exercise in cost-benefit analysis – innocent Japanese lives balanced against the lives of Allied servicemen – might reflect on the judgment of the Catholic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, who insisted on the supremacy of moral rules” (138).
In any event, Raico explains that the Japanese were ready to surrender, only wishing to retain their emperor, which they got to keep anyway. He cites the top officials who opposed the act as unnecessary and barbarous. He concludes: “The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime worse than any that Japanese generals were executed for in Tokyo and Manila. If Harry Truman was not a war criminal, then no one ever was” (142).
Also in the end of World War II did the world witness Truman’s despicable cooperation with Stalin in conducting an unfathomable atrocity: “In the early months of Truman’s presidency the United States and Britain directed the forced repatriation of many tens of thousands of Soviet subjects – and many who had never been Soviet subjects – to the Soviet Union, where they were executed by the NKVD or cast into the Gulag. (132)”
Yet it was not enough for Truman to gruesomely end one world conflict, butchering hundreds of thousands in alliance with Stalin. He then had the audacity to turn against Stalin and use his former ally as a pretext to launch the next global crusade. A fact that is obvious to Raico but that liberals sometimes forget is, Truman was responsible for starting the Cold War and securing the modern American empire and military-industrial complex:
Most pernicious of all, Truman’s presidency saw the genesis of a world-spanning American political and military empire. This was not simply the unintended consequence of some supposed Soviet threat, however. Even before the end of World War II, high officials in Washington were drawing up plans to project American military might across the globe. To start with, the United States would dominate the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Western Hemisphere, including through a network of air and naval bases. Complementing this would be a system of air transit rights and landing facilities from North Africa to Saigon and Manila. This planning continued through the early years of the Truman administration. But the planners had no guarantee that such a radical reversal of our traditional policy could be sold to Congress and the people. It was the confrontation with the Soviet Union and “international Communism,” begun and defined by Truman and then prolonged for four decades, that furnished the opportunity and the rationale for realizing the globalist dreams. (105–6)
In the midst of America’s bloodiest foreign war, instead of restoring a stance of peace, Truman solidified America’s global role as an imperial one. His aid to Greece and Turkey occasioned the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, which haunts us to this day. And then there was the first major hot war undertaken by the United States, not five years after the cessation of World War II.
The Korean War established the modern imperial presidency even more than previous wars. For one thing, Truman didn’t consult Congress but launched the war on his own. Before Truman, the principle that Congress, not the president, declared war was “[s]o well-established. . . that even Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, no minimizers of executive prerogatives, bowed to it and went to Congress for their declarations of war” (120). Ever since Korea, the president has unilaterally opted to wage war after war after war.
Truman’s war in Korea was among the deadliest of America’s foreign adventures, unleashing horrible short-term effects and carrying terrible long-term consequences. Raico sums it up:
The Korean War lasted three years and cost 36,916 American deaths and more than 100,000 other casualties. Additionally, there were millions of Korean dead and the devastation of the peninsula, especially in the north, where the U.S. Air Force pulverized the civilian infrastructure – with much “collateral damage” – in what has since become its emblematic method of waging war. Today, nearly a half-century after the end of the conflict, the United States continues to station troops as a “tripwire” in yet another of its imperial outposts. (122)
Even more than either Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman, another Allied leader in World War II has risen as the most admired man of the hour, if not the century. This of course would be Winston Churchill, who to this day is adored by Americans, particularly nationalistic conservatives, as some sort of emblematic example of bold and heroic leadership. The central myth surrounds his willingness to stand up to Hitler, in comparison to the supposedly weak Chamberlain whose capitulation allegedly emboldened the Nazi regime. But in all admirable talk of Churchill there is a more basic assumption: that he was an insightful, courageous, and decent human being. Once again, we have to thank Raico for coming to the rescue.
“Winston Churchill was a Man of Blood and a politico without principle,” Raico writes. The British leader’s “apotheosis serves to corrupt every standard of honesty and morality in politics and history” (101). Moreover,
That Churchill was a racist goes without saying, yet his racism went deeper than with most of his contemporaries. It is curious how, with his stark Darwinian outlook, his elevation of war to the central place in human history, and his racism, as well as his fixation on “great leaders,” Churchill’s worldview resembled that of his antagonist, Hitler. (59)
Harsh words. Raico backs them up.
Churchill started as a conservative, became a liberal, and then went back to being a conservative, yet throughout his political career, his one constant principle was bolstering power. First, to explain to conservatives why they should question the Churchill legacy, Raico points out that, even before World War I, “Churchill was one of the chief pioneers of the welfare state in Britain” (61). In league with Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Churchill went on to oversee the Board of Trade, where, “[b]esides pushing for a variety of social insurance schemes, Churchill created the system of national labor exchanges: he wrote to Prime Minister Asquith of the need to ‘spread . . . a sort of Germanized network of state intervention and regulation’ over the British labor market’” (64). Decades later in the early 1950s, Prime Minister Churchill continued to shore up the welfare state and placate the unions.
Yet war was Churchill’s greatest love, and, becoming First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, “he quickly allied himself with the war party” (65). He was an enthusiastic leader in the starvation blockade, candidly boasting, in his own words, that the goal was to “starve the whole population – men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound – into submission” (198). In recalling an episode concerning Herbert Hoover’s food aid to Poland, Raico notes Churchill’s move to cut aid to the Poles to manipulate them: “Churchill’s cherished policy of inflicting famine on civilians was thus extended to ‘friendly’ peoples. The Poles and the others would be permitted food when and if they rose up and drove out the Germans” (203).
Some scholars suspect that Churchill engineered the sinking of the Lusitania. But “what is certain is that Churchill’s policies made the sinking very likely. The Lusitania was a passenger liner loaded with munitions of war; Churchill had given orders to the captains of merchant ships, including liners, to ram German submarines if they encountered them and the Germans were aware of this” (67).
A generation later, Churchill was involved in dragging America into war with Germany again. British leaders considered a negotiated peace with Germany, once hostilities began, which might have conceivably spared many lives. This wasn’t good enough for Churchill, whose “aim of total victory could be realized only under one condition: that the United States become embroiled in another world war. No wonder that Churchill put his heart and soul into ensuring precisely that” (74). In 1940, Churchill sent his intelligence agent, codename Intrepid, to New York to wiretap and infiltrate the anti-war movement. He sponsored pro-British and anti-German propaganda in American films. He also “threw his influence into the balance to harden American policy towards Japan, especially in the last days before the Pearl Harbor attack” (78).
This shouldn’t seem the least bit implausible, given Churchill’s complete insensitivity toward human life, particularly non-British life, during the war. This lack of compassion extended to allies:
After the fall of France, Churchill demanded that the French surrender their fleet to Britain. The French declined, promising that they would scuttle the ships before allowing them to fall into German hands. Against the advice of his naval officers, Churchill ordered British ships off the Algerian coast to open fire. About 1500 French sailors were killed. (89)
But Churchill was much more enthusiastic in killing Germans, particularly in “the terror-bombing of the cities of Germany that in the end cost the lives of around 600,000 civilians and left some 800,000 seriously injured” (89). Raico’s account of the deliberate destruction of dozens of German cities is potent and heart-wrenching.
As for Churchill’s alleged bold foresight and boldness compared to Chamberlain’s presumed craven foolishness:
For all the claptrap about Churchill’s “farsightedness” during the ’30s in opposing the “appeasers,” in the end the policy of the Chamberlain government – to rearm as quickly as possible, while testing the chances for peace with Germany – was more realistic than Churchill’s. (71)
As with the other great leaders, Churchill always admired power more than liberty. During World War II, only Churchill possibly rivaled Roosevelt in the sickening admiration for history’s worst murderer, Stalin. “The symbolic climax of his infatuation came at the November, 1943, Tehran conference, when Churchill presented Stalin with a Crusader’s sword. Those concerned to define the word ‘obscenity’ may wish to ponder that episode” (57).
At the end of the war came the ethnic cleansing, the divvying up of the war spoils, the tightening of Stalin’s grip over his newly expanded empire. Churchill was complicit in the Soviet expansion and forced relocations. Many atrocities transpired.
Worst of all was the expulsion of some 12 million Germans from their ancestral homelands in East and West Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and the Sudetenland, as well as the Balkans. This was done pursuant to the agreements at Tehran, where Churchill proposed that Poland be “moved west,” and to Churchill’s acquiescence in the plan of the Czech leader Eduard Beneš for the “ethnic cleansing” of Bohemia and Moravia. Around one-and-a-half to two million German civilians died in this process.
Facts like these bring into question the morality of World War II, the “good war,” and they also undermine the typical treatment we see of such great leaders as Roosevelt, Truman, and Churchill, whose actions enabled such war crimes and mass slaughters.
Slamming Marxists and Defending German Culture
As the victorious Russian forces swooped in at the end of World War II, they conducted one of the greatest and least discussed wartime atrocities in modern times. “The riot of rape by the Soviet troops was probably the worst in history. Females – Hungarian, even Polish, as well as German, little girls to old women – were multiply violated, sometimes raped to death” (95–6).
We all know that Stalin’s regime was brutal, and yet among the academic and journalistic circles there has long been a favoritism toward the communists that cries out for explanation. It is almost as though Soviet acts of mass murder are weighed on a different scale as Nazi atrocities. Certainly, Americans with sympathies for the Soviet regime have generally been given a pass compared to those thought to have sympathies for the Nazi regime. Raico compares the way historians today regard the McCarthy era to their treatment of the Roosevelt-era demonization of America Firsters:
For many conservatives who supported Senator McCarthy in the early 1950s, it was essentially payback time for the torrent of slanders they had endured before and during World War II. Post-war conservatives took deep satisfaction in pointing out the Communist leanings and connections of those who had libeled them as mouthpieces for Hitler. Unlike the anti-war leaders, who were never “Nazis,” the targets of McCarthyism had often been abject apologists for Stalin, and some of them actual Soviet agents. (226)
No defender of the American Cold War, as is evident in his trenchant critique of Truman, Raico runs against the popular grain in his wholesale critiques of communism. In the era of Lenin, American intellectuals frequently whitewashed the Bolshevic regime. And during and after World War II, war propaganda fostered a common tendency to view even Stalinism in a more nuanced light than Hitlerism. But Communism, in theory as well as in practice, is an all-out attack on liberty. “Marxism, with its roots in Hegelian philosophy,” writes Raico, “was a quite conscious revolt against the individual rights doctrine of the previous century” (144). Thus it is no surprise that the first communist state became totalitarian immediately.
Raico dispenses with the implicit notion, pushed by left-liberals and neoconservatives (and certainly Marxists), that Stalin had betrayed the socialist project, rather than simply continuing where Lenin left off. There is a soft spot for Lenin in the writings of many modernists, who seem to think he represented, at least in some way, an improvement over the old Tsarist order. This is nonsense. The brutality of Communism was seen right away:
The number of Cheka executions that amounted to legalized murder in the period from late 1917 to early 1922 – including neither the victims of the Revolutionary Tribunals and the Red Army itself nor the insurgents killed by the Cheka – has been estimated by one authority at 140,000. As a reference point, consider that the number of political executions under the repressive Tsarist regime from 1866 to 1917 was about 44,000, including during and after the Revolution of 1905 (except that the persons executed were accorded trials), and the comparable figure for the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror was 18,000 to 20,000. Clearly, with the first Marxist state something new had come into the world.
And this was not all:
In the Leninist period – that is, up to 1924 – fall also the war against the peasantry that was part of “war communism” and the famine conditions, culminating in the famine of 1921, that resulted from the attempt to realize the Marxist dream. The best estimate of the human cost of those episodes is around 6,000,000 persons. (150)
Speaking of war communism, it “was no mere ‘improvisation,’ whose horrors are to be chalked up to the chaos in Russia at the time. The system was willed and itself helped produce that chaos,” Raico writes in a great chapter on Leon Trotsky (169). Trotsky “has always had a certain appeal for intellectuals that the other Bolshevik leaders lacked” (165). But Raico explains why, just as Lenin was only better than Stalin as a matter of degree, Trotsky too represented an ideology of evil and should not be looked upon favorably.
Despite the attempts by many to defend his vision as one of intellectualism rather than brutality, Trotsky had no excuse not to understand what communism in practice would yield. “[T]hat Marxism in power would mean the rule of state functionaries was not merely intrinsically probable – given the massive increase of state power envisaged by Marxists, what else could it be? – but it had also been predicted by writers well known to a revolutionary like Trotsky” (168). He knew a ruling class would have come to dictate society in the name of the workers, and he saw himself as part of that ruling class. “When Trotsky promoted the formation of worker-slave armies in industry, he believed that his own will was the will of Proletarian Man” (175). He was a killer and tyrant who only slaughtered fewer than Lenin and Stalin for lack of opportunity. Nevertheless, Stalin does take the cake: “The sum total of deaths due to Soviet policy – in the Stalin period alone – deaths from the collectivization and the terror famine, the executions and the Gulag, is probably on the order of 20,000,000” (155).
If even Soviet killers have been treated rather charitably, Raico does not see this to be the case for the Germans, who as an entire people have often been unfairly smeared due to the twelve-year period of Nazi rule. In “Nazifying the Germans,” Raico humanizes one ethnic group that it remains politically correct to ridicule and dehumanize.
[T]here are a thousand years of history “on the other side” of the Third Reich. In cultural terms, it is not an unimpressive record (in which the Austrians must be counted; at least until 1866, Austria was as much a part of the German lands as Bavaria or Saxony). From printing to the automobile to the jet engine to the creation of whole branches of science, the German contribution to European civilization has been, one might say, rather significant. Albertus Magnus, Luther, Leibniz, Kant, Goethe, Humboldt, Ranke, Nietzsche, Carl Menger, Max Weber – these are not negligible figures in the history of thought.
And then, of course, there’s the music. (158)
“Nazifying the Germans” is but one jewel in a glittering crown of great writing. Raico’s book reviews are all well worth reading, as is the Foreword by Bob Higgs. The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the great state criminals of the modern era, in particular the first half of the 20th century, in many ways the darkest period in human history. Demystifying World War I, taking Churchill down a notch, summing up the case against Truman, and explaining the practical horrors of communism in light of its theoretical degeneracy, are each very worthy endeavors warranting a great scholar, well-versed in history, fluent in economic theory, familiar with the words of the court intellectuals as well as the revisionist dissenters, morally committed to human dignity and freedom and willing to defend them against their great historical enemy: war and state power. Raico very uniquely qualifies on all these fronts and his book is a treasure.
November 16, 2011
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