Adolf Hitler, Anti-Semitism, Antiwar, Book review., Democracy, Fascism, History, Holocaust, Humor, Imperialism, James Heartfield, Nazi Germany, Opinion, Politics, Stalinism, Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, Winston Churchill, World War Two
[SCENE: The Salisbury Arms.]
James [at entrance]: Ah Biggy, there you are!
Tychy: Quick! I’ve got a table over here…
James: And two bottles of Tyskie. Capital.
Tychy: I’m afraid that I’ve yet to finish that book you’ve asked me to read…
Tychy: An expert?
Pablo [pulling up a chair]: Hi.
Tychy: You’re an expert on the Second World War! But aren’t you a…?
Pablo: I have read many books – hundreds of books! – to find out the truth about the war.
Tychy: But don’t you think that Hitler…?
Pablo [striking the table]: That cretin! Hitler should have finished the job he started!
James: What does the situation demand, Pablo? A Guinness?
Pablo [moments later]: Thank you, James. Yes, this Heartfield book is mostly very good. He has swept a lot of dung out of the Aegean stables – dung produced by the estúpido cattle who count for historians today! But the bullshit of the fucking Jews remains.
Pablo: The Jews have still got to him!
James: Err… have you a hand free to take notes, Biggy?
Tychy: I’m not writing any of this down.
James: Well, let’s try to remember the important points between us. The most vivid thing about this book is its ambition. Heartfield is dreaming about the existence of a great, revisionist history of the Second World War. And he has scribbled a brief sketch to indicate what such a project might look like…
Tychy: So this is more about presentation than research? Rather than heroically sweeping the Aegean stables, he is attempting to herd together some… err… more constipated cattle?
James: Indeed. Heartfield submits a good potted history of how the “official” narrative of WW2 has been corrected step by step up to the point at which it is finally completed, or so he sees it, in the form of his own history. Over the last decade, we have been prepared for Unpatriotic History by the books which Heartfield himself relies upon heavily: Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper’s Forgotten Armies; Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction; Nicholson Baker’s polemical Human Smoke; Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire; Matthew Cobb’s The Resistance; and Madhusree Mukerjee’s history of the Bengal famine Churchill’s Secret War.
Pablo: These are parasites nibbling at the cattle’s cojones. They make out that they are revisioners, but they are not revision enough to say that, eh, maybe Hitler was an okay guy who had a lot on his plate. Unpatriotic History has all been said before in that magnífico book The War of the World by Niall Ferguson! Ferguson says some silly things about the Nazis, but I can understand this. He loves his race and their history. His position is honourable.
James: Perhaps Heartfield undertakes an anti-imperialist scrambling of Ferguson’s history. One can also root around for the origins of Unpatriotic History within WW2 itself – in Paul Mattick’s Living Marxism journal, the writings of the Independent Labour Party’s Fenner Brockaway, and various positions assumed by the anti-war Labour MP Nye Bevan.
Pablo: I have never heard of any of these people. And I have been reading about the war since I was an altar boy with the rosy apple cheeks, and I first began to question what the padre told me, that fucking Communist.
James: But for me Unpatriotic History is too truncated to wholly convince. It is deplorably plain, for one thing. Such a history needs to impose itself with grandeur and a bit of panache – the weightless granite of a commanding history. Heartfield’s writing is sloppy and scrappy. Even without looking I spotted numerous blemishes to the text – starting a new paragraph in the middle of a sentence, uncapitalised proper nouns…
Pablo: What is this crappo? He is writing the truth and you are complaining about his grandma? Very English, eh? Like worrying about the biscuits…
James: Pablo believes that we have never had a revolution in the UK because it might jeopardise the supply of biscuits. But you have read Unpatriotic History once you have seen that John Olday cartoon on the cover in which the world’s poor march to their deaths whilst the opposing war leaders are united in appreciation. Heartfield mocks Britain’s 75 plus volumes of official WW2 history, but his own one volume crunches the same history into a list of epigraphs. Passionate historical debates are resolved in a couple of sentences. Indeed, the “collapse of the German Empire in the east” is reduced to ten bullet points!
Pablo: You don’t like this writing because when it is very clever it stings you in your English arsehole. Like when your Keynes is shown to be a war profiteer.
James: If he had lost all of his money in the war, you would deride him for being a poor economist.
Pablo: Or when we are told about, “Britain’s white supremacists, for whom the problem was always the nationalism of the oppressed.” They should have put that on your fucking Churchill’s gravestone.
Tychy: But you can surely see the war more clearly from further away? Heartfield’s history is liberated from detail?
James: It’s often a problem. Not always, but often. For example, Heartfield will have us believe that rationing was imposed upon Britain’s population to preserve the means of production and distribution for military use, whilst the ruling class themselves still stuffed their faces at restaurants which remained exempted from rationing. I don’t know how distribution in the UK was effected by the Axis blockade, but Heartfield cannot even spare a sentence to answer this question. There is equally not the space to show how the government was eventually pressurised into restricting the ability of restaurants to profit from the black market.
Heartfield is similarly unpersuasive on Dunkirk. He tries to make out that Hitler let the British escape because of some greater strategic purpose and/or a sentimental solidarity with his fellow imperialists. But Heartfield can’t nail down the evidence. We are required to accept the testimony of General Blumentritt, who had a lot at stake after the war in persuading his new captors that the German high command had been pro-British all along. Moreover, the clincher quote in which Hitler reveals that “Germany is not striving to smash Britain” is actually taken from David Irving’s Churchill’s War (1987). I can’t find a copy of Churchill’s War anywhere – and I’m certainly not buying one – but the same quote turns up in the online edition of Hitler’s War (1977). Irving’s source is the diaries of Field Marshall von Leeb, which remain “unpublished” in English and presumably need Irving to assist with the translation. Irving is, of course, famous today for meddling with his sources to author neo-Nazi propaganda.
Pablo: This is unfortunate, I agree. But this David Irving is working for British intelligence. He is paid to discredit those like me who are fighting for the truth. You have never wonder who pays for his researches?
James: You live by the conspiracy theory, you die by the conspiracy theory! Yet we are left with the puzzle of why such an apparently savvy book needs to resort to Irving’s “evidence.”
Tychy: This is a tiny crease in an otherwise presentable uniform…
James: Far from it – Heartfield gives himself so little space to manoeuvre in Unpatriotic History that he inevitably treads all over his own feet. He protests that “American capitalists participated in the Nazi-policed exploitation of German workers,” but a dozen pages later he is complaining that “Nazi protectionism had reduced the German share of US exports” by around five billion.
We find a similar muddle in Heartfield’s point-scoring over the Holocaust. He firstly makes the disappointingly sketchy argument that the “imaginary struggle against the Jew” supplied the Nazis with a bit of existential help once the Russian Untermenschen had proved themselves sufficiently superior to beat the Germans militarily. Later, however, Heartfield quotes the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to suggest that Britain could have rescued Jews from Eastern Europe, although Heartfield has already nullified the prospect that a practically-minded Fuhrer “might well take us up on such an offer.”
Heartfield maintains that Roosevelt and Churchill needed Stalin to occupy Eastern Europe as their approved safeguard against some ultra-democratic pseudo-partisan threat which is never specified. He simultaneously admits that the Allied leaders were obliged to end the war because their armies would have mutinied had it been prolonged beyond Hitler’s death. He can’t have it both ways.
Tychy: But it was hardly a choice between one policy and the other. With your first point, for example, it seems apparent that American-owned companies were operating under autarky as an alternative to exporting to the Nazis.
Pablo: Yes, you are monkeying about here. Eden could not bring the Jews to Britain because he had no sheeps to carry them – the problem was only technical for him. And Hitler’s struggle against the Jews was not “imaginary” anyways. Bernard Baruch had your Roosevelt’s balls in one hand and the Fuhrer’s in the other!
James. Ball, Pablo. Hitler’s ball.
Tychy: This is getting tiresome. You are criticising Heartfield, James, but both of you are as bad as each other. Heartfield quotes Lenin and Trotsky as if they were authorities! And he seems to think that Stalinism would have been acceptable were it not for “socialism in a single country.”
Pablo: He should have taken it just that little bit further with socialism in no country…
James [vehemently]: He did!
Barmaid [entering]: I’m sorry gentlemen but could we please keep the noise down? I’ve had a complaint from the family eating at the far table. The children are very upset by all the shouting.
Tychy: How thoughtless of us. I’m so sorry. [Turning to James] You venerate Churchill because you fancy that under his leadership, Britain had lapsed into being a Communist country – with everybody eating in canteens and digging their allotments together – but without the purges and famines that Stalin had perfected in Russia. Heartfield has acquainted you with the reality. Churchill was a psychopath in a clown costume. Millions perished in the darkness behind his unfunny alcoholic antics. There were indeed famines under Churchill – he found mass starvation in Bengal to be as unobjectionable as a juicy cigar. He refused to allow Jewish immigration to Palestine because he feared that it would undermine his imperialist meddling in the Arab world. And he ultimately threw my people to the wolves at Katyn!
Pablo: This is very good Biggy, eh?
James: I don’t disagree with much of what you say, but it corresponds with a weakness of Heartfield’s own approach. He attempts to incriminate the Allied war leaders by picking out devilish bon mots to illustrate their true racism. He repeats the groaning urban myth that President Warren Harding was a member of the KKK. We swing directly from a paragraph about the systematic extermination of European Jewry to an anti-Semitic remark tucked away somewhere in Harry Truman’s diary. The Bengal famine was a consequence of imperialism – plundering supply regions to feed the empire – and the whole of the system had a stake in this, not merely Churchill. Yes, Churchill is reliably excruciating – he utters gaff after gaff, to use the modern parlance. But even if he had spoken in David Cameron’s language of empty platitudes, it would have made little difference.
Tychy: So Churchill was dealt a bad hand!
James: Heartfield is undone by his ahistorical perspective. His morality actually requires a negation of history. He denounces Churchill and Roosevelt for using the Soviets as a “proxy” – for bankrolling the Soviet military through Lease Lend so that millions of their soldiers would die instead of Western troops. But patriotism was hardwired into Churchill’s fibre – any “unpatriotic” alternative to fighting by proxy would be beyond him, just as he could have never imagined calculating his daily recommended units of alcohol.
People thought like this! Both of my grandparents were brought together as a result of the war, at a time when most people’s lives were the war. People believed in duty and obligation – it was a deferential society long before WW2. My grandparents would have regarded Unpatriotic History as obscenely anti-social or as monstrously impractical. Heartfield himself recounts the sorry fate of the French communists who tried to oppose Marshall Aid, a policy “that made little sense to most people.” The premise of Unpatriotic History can be hardly self-evident if so few people subscribed to it during the war itself…
Pablo: They were not so lucky. After your Churchill gave his orders, nobody had any freedom or privacy. They had to work like machines in his factories for twenty hours a day. They had to eat slurry together as if they were the cattle. They lost interest in their wages, because there was nothing left to spend them on – only saucepans which they would have to give back to the government to be melted down into the Spitfire parts. It was the luxury to be able to cultivate maybe some distance from the war – to get together with your fellow workers and look at the war from the Fuhrer’s side and say “no! we will hold the strike!”
James [hotly]: So this book is “unpatriotic” in the sense that it contradicts the line that “Britons never will be slaves.” Your picture has appeal only as a caricature.
Tychy: So understanding history for you actually requires a negation of morality? People from the past could have only behaved morally by stepping outside of history? If you want to devise an excuse for the apocalyptic carnage of WW2, you will have to do a lot better than that! As for Unpatriotic History being “truncated,” I imagine that ninety percent of those who purchase books about WW2 these days are Highers students. And this book would prove very handy for teenagers who are trying to make some sense of what they are being taught. It is certainly more useful than trying to understand appeasement solely with reference to David Low’s cartoons and extracts from Churchill’s speeches. If I had read this book as a teenager, it would have spared me years of groping about in the dark.
James: Biggy, how could you prescribe Unpatriotic History to teenagers? It would only give credibility to clowns like this who deny the Holocaust.
Pablo: I am invited here as an expert and then you say I am the clown! What is this magic hole in your brain? The more you read about the Second War, the less you seem to know about it. The fucking Jews make up this Holocaust out of garbage and fairy dust – half of them don’t believe in it themselves – and yet there is always somebody stupid enough to pay money for it. [Enraged] If Hitler killed so many of the Jews, then why are there so many around today? The Jews had more fun in Auschwitz than you English ever did working as slaves in your Churchill’s factories making the aeroplanes out of your grandma’s teaspoons!
Angry Father [with the sound of crying in the background]: Excuse me, but I have paid over eight pounds for these salmon nuggets! My children are so upset with your shouting that they won’t eat them! They want to go home!
Pablo: Oh ¡chitón! for the bourgeois fiddlesticks in his library! Your obese war-criminal hero Churchill is no longer sleeping peacefully in the grave because your little piglets are not enjoy their cucumber sandwiches! My friend, you must send a telegram to the Queen! There has been terrible interruption to the supply of English biscuits! Call the Duke of Wellington! ¡Joder! [Exits melodramatically].
Tychy: I am so sorry if you have been disturbed, sir. Please charge your meal at the bar to the Tychy website.
Angry Father: Well, see that this happens! [Exits]
James: I think enough of the war.
Tychy: Yes, enough of the war.
James: Let’s not review Unpatriotic History. None of us can make head nor tail of it.
Tychy [suspiciously]: I thought that we had cracked it in the end…
James: I thought that we said enough of the war.
Tychy: Just one further thing: Heartfield attributes the outcome of war to a tacit agreement between nations upon a policy of military Keynesianism. The Depression left national economies with a surplus of labour and capital – the New Deal did not fix things – and so only the state could supply the necessary demand through military spending…
James: You’re going to ask me about history repeating itself.
Tychy: I was hoping that we would be in agreement. There are no longer powerful sovereign nations – they are too interconnected today for the emergence of “world war” to be feasible – and our societies are less militaristic.
James: But Pablo was correct to diagnose me as a Keynesian. The demand does have to come from somewhere, otherwise there will be inexorable stagnation. If Heartfield is right, WW2 offers a compelling economic model. A state mobilised by a common purpose can supply demand – it can produce all sorts of wonders – only they should not be sacrificed on the altar of war.
Tychy: I am not a Keynesian and I doubt that any state will ever be as democratic as the free market. But let us drink to everlasting peace.
[The previous Noctes dealt with Hunger Games. Ed.]