“Great Men” and the Great War

Stay Strong and Delude OnMaybe I’m just an iconoclast and everything else follows from that. But I’ve caught a bit of this three part series that The History Channel is doing, The World Wars—I assume for Memorial Day. But the little I’ve seen has been nothing short of pathetic. It is all the usual stuff with Neville Chamberlain portrayed as weak—completely disregarding the thirty-year rule and what we learned about his administration in the late 1960s. I wrote about this to some extent before, so I won’t belabor the topic, Neville Chamberlain Was Right.

But what most annoys me is the presentation of Winston Churchill. You would get the idea that Churchill won the war based on nothing but his will power. And of course, Churchill, a war monger always, was not surprisingly always pushing for more military funding. That’s all fine, but at the same time, the depression was still on and Keynes had not been fully embraced. But based upon the series, you would think that Chamberlain was doing nothing but fighting against Churchill, even though we now know he was engaged in a very large (but not large enough) buildup of the military. But then Churchill is in charge and announces, “Stay strong and carry on!” And victory is theirs!

What really bugs me about it is that it is totally the “great men” theory of history. This is about the most brain-dead approach to history I have ever seen. When I was younger, I used to wonder, “Who thinks this kind of claptrap?” And then I started reading Ayn Rand and I found out. It’s all this Nietzsche superman stuff with neo-Romantic ideas as though Agamemnon was a real guy. I remember Rand writing something along the lines of, “Who do you think does these things?!” The idea is that, well, of course, Hitler was the leader of Nazi Germany. But that isn’t the point. The point is that there are social and economic pressures that bring men like Hitler to power. This is why I’ve always thought the “go back in time and kill Hitler” game was stupid. If it hadn’t been Hitler, it would have been someone else. He might have been better than Hitler, he might have been worse. But something bad was going to happen.

The third episode is tomorrow night. I will have to avoid seeing even a minute of it because I know it will make me apoplectic. Because I already know the narrative. Two of the “great men” are George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. So it will be Patton’s tanks and Churchill’s iron will that defeat Germany with a minor assist from Stalin. And MacArthur and two atomic bombs defeat Japan. Even though we know it was basically the Soviet Union that defeated Germany, allowing England to survive to claim victory. And as I discussed last year, it was Stalin’s re-declaring war on Japan that caused that nation to surrender.

I’m sure the show will do a more evenhanded job than it would have done in the 1970s, when I used to hear that World War II didn’t start until the United States entered it. But it is still the case that it will be a whitewash where the good guys (Churchill and Patton) and the good nations (England and America) defeat the bad guys (Hitler and Mussolini—I haven’t heard Hirohito mentioned) and the bad nations (Germany and Japan). Stalin was as great a villain as Hitler, but given he was on our side, they’ll have to hedge. And since Americans now seem to believe the only thing wrong with Fascism is that it was antisemitic, it’s hard to hate Italy very much.

This isn’t history. This is just bedtime stories for a nation that doesn’t want anything complicated and certainly doesn’t want to consider anything that might chip away at our myths. After all, before the rise of Nazi Germany, America was the big country for eugenics. We conducted a far bigger genocide on the native peoples here before Hitler was even born. The point isn’t that we are especially terrible. The point is that history is a mess and there’s lots of blame to go around. And what is the point of trying to understand history if you are just going to turn it into trite stories that make you feel good? Just read Pride and Prejudice instead.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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