The London bombings have occasioned many comparisons with the 1940 Blitz. This is usually cited as evidence of British fortitude -- the attitude exemplified by cockneys in the heavily bombed East End who told Winston Churchill, “We can take it, but give it ‘em back.” That is indeed the dominant British (and American) attitude, then and now, but it is important not to ignore a streak of timidity there (and here) that may get stronger in the years ahead and that was present even when civilization faced an existential threat from Nazism.
Appeasement did not end with the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Even afterward, many in Britain (and even more in the U.S.) opposed active resistance. Conservative worthies like Lord Halifax sought a negotiated settlement. Fascists like Sir Oswald Mosley sought to bring Nazism to Britain. And communists and their fellow travelers opposed fighting Stalin’s ally until Hitler invaded Russia.
Even in January 1942, when German armies were at the gates of Moscow, George Orwell wrote in Partisan Review that “the greater part of the very young intelligentsia are anti-war ... don’t believe in any ‘defense of democracy,’ are inclined to prefer Germany to Britain, and don’t feel the horror of Fascism that we who are somewhat older feel.”
As if to illustrate Orwell’s point, a pacifist poet named D.S. Savage wrote a reply in which he explained why he “would never fight and kill for such a phantasm” as “Britain’s ‘democracy.’ ” Savage saw no difference between Britain and its enemies because under the demands of war both were imposing totalitarianism: “Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.”
Savage naively wondered, “Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?” Savage thought the real problem was that Britain had lost “her meaning, her soul,” but “the unloading of a billion tons of bombs on Germany won’t help this forward an inch.” “Personally,” he added, with hilarious understatement, “I do not care for Hitler.” But he thought the way to resist Hitler was by not resisting him: “Whereas the rest of the nation is content with calling down obloquy on Hitler’s head, we regard this as superficial. Hitler requires, not condemnation, but understanding.”
When applied to the embodiment of pure evil, the usual liberal tropes about “understanding” not “condemnation” have an air of Monty Python about them. Yet there are uncomfortable echoes of Savage’s sermonizing in the attitude of many modern-day intellectuals toward the Islamo-fascist threat.
The BBC now refuses to refer to the London terrorists as “terrorists.” They are to be known by the more neutral term “bombers,” lest the public be deceived by “the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgments.” Value judgments about blowing up innocent commuters? How gauche!
Enlightened opinion ranging from Amnesty International to Dick Durbin joins in this moral relativism by suggesting that the United States has become no better than its enemies through the actions it has taken to prevent terrorism. Just as 1940s pacifists could see no difference between Nazi concentration camps and British wartime curtailments of civil liberties, so today’s doppelgangers equate the abuses of renegade guards at Abu Ghraib with the mass murder carried out by Stalin or Pol Pot.
There is also an enduring tendency to blame the victim. George Galloway, Saddam Hussein’s favorite member of Britain’s Parliament, suggests that Londoners “paid the price” for their government’s “attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.” The implication is that Al Qaeda has reasonable grievances and if only we could satisfy them -- by, for instance, exiting Iraq -- we would have peace. The same thing was said about Hitler, who complained that Germany had been wronged by the Treaty of Versailles.
The problem was that Hitler’s stated demands were a pretext for his maniacal ambitions. He was unappeasable. So is Osama bin Laden, who wants to avenge centuries of humiliation supposedly suffered by Muslims at Christian hands and who dreams of establishing a Taliban-style caliphate over all the lands once dominated by Muslims, from western China to southern Spain. Pulling out of Iraq would only whet his insatiable appetite for destruction, just as giving up the Sudetenland encouraged Hitler to seek more.
Orwell’s words, written in October 1941, ring true today: “The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact. As I have said, it is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality.”