In WWII reflection, the battle lines blur

John Lukacs is the author of numerous books, including "At the End of an Age," "The Hitler of History" and "Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian."

The history of American plans, policies, politics, sentiments, tendencies and attitudes involving Germany during and immediately after World War II is not simple. It is a very large theme, replete with powerful mainstream evidences but also with many countercurrents. (Democratic history may be easy to write but only generally and superficially: In reality, its proper reconstruction is not easier but more difficult than the history of aristocratic societies.)

Consider one very important duality that Michael Beschloss does not mention in "The Conquerors": Many months before Pearl Harbor, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in accord with the president, decided, rightly, that in the event of a two-ocean war, the defeat of Germany must have a priority over the defeat of Japan. At the same time in American popular sentiment, the war against the Japanese was more popular than the war against the Germans. This was particularly so in 1944 and 1945, when a new element was added: the seldom publicly expressed but increasingly felt concern over Russia and communism together with the attendant belief that Germany ought not be destroyed.

But note that I refer to American "popular sentiment" rather than "public opinion." This concern, more and more evident among certain Republican politicians today, seldom surfaced in the press or in other media -- but its evidences were beginning to appear here and there.

On the other hand, there were influential minorities and lobbies, foremost and understandably Jewish, who proposed that the unconditional conquest and punishment of Germany must be an American priority. Such different and increasingly divergent currents existed within the Roosevelt administration. There were, for example, Henry Morgenthau and his plan: But there was too, Allen Dulles, who negotiated with a top S.S. general in Italy, to the anger and dismay of Stalin. And the minds -- the mental habits and their inclinations, their intentions, the latter eventually but only eventually maturing into acts -- of the two presidents, Roosevelt and Truman, were not simple either.

Of this multitude of matters a number of partial studies by competent historians exist; but its overall treatment by a superb historian is still wanting. Beschloss' "The Conquerors" treats mostly the German policies of FDR and Truman (of the latter mostly in 1945), which of course is not enough. But there are many other grave shortcomings in this work. Beschloss' references to and descriptions of Hitler and the Germans are often a repetition of cliches, often mistaken. On the very first page, Hitler, defying his generals, cries: "Victory or death!" (he did not); after July 1944, Beschloss writes, "Fearing for his life, Hitler never again spoke in public" (he did); and "the more Hitler felt in danger of losing the war, the more the Nazi extermination mills were speeded up" (in October 1944, Himmler, with Hitler's tacit agreement, stopped the gassings in Auschwitz). "One of the most controversial aspects of Roosevelt's World War II leadership is the American failure to bomb Auschwitz." (It is one of the least controversial of matters: An American bombing of Auschwitz would have killed hundreds, perhaps thousands more Jewish prisoners than their German guards.)

Beschloss concludes: "Today, any scholar trying to explain why Hitlerite Germany was uniquely evil would naturally start with Hitler's zeal, shared by many Germans, to murder an entire people." Before late 1941 Hitler's wish was to expel and deport Jews, not yet to liquidate them; and there were not many Germans who wished to murder an entire people. Instead, they closed their eyes and stopped their ears -- which is not to excuse them. The Holocaust (neither this word nor the extent of it were known in 1945) was a horrible part of the history of World War II, but not the other way around.

Besides the many mistakes in this book, its very concept and construction is awry. Nearly half of the book is devoted to Morgenthau's relationship with FDR and to the Morgenthau Plan. Indeed, the underlying theme of the book is the transition of America's German policy from vengeance to generosity: how Morgenthau got up his plan, how it was tacitly accepted by FDR; how it was opposed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and by others; how it was not implemented and finally abandoned. In reality, in a good, short, compact history of World War II, the Morgenthau Plan hardly deserves more than a footnote, perhaps even less.

The same condition largely applies to Morgenthau, a neighbor and friend of the Roosevelts (which was the only reason for his appointment to the government), who eventually became secretary of the Treasury: He was a very limited man who, at times, succeeded in worming his way into important places and scenes, to the dismay of other more competent public servants. Morgenthau's relationships with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and with Harry Truman are a mildly interesting sub-story, at times on the level of a novel of manners but not more than that, and certainly not the key to the evolving and changing American policy regarding Germany.

Beschloss is an often successful popular historian of the kind whom academic professionals tend to deprecate or dismiss. They are often wrong. History is not a science and it does not have a definite method. Some of Beschloss' books are informative, measured and unpretentious. But here he is entirely out of his depth. I regret to say that "The Conquerors" is a book he should not have written.

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