There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom. —Garet Garrett
While this elegant string of words was meant to correct the misguided assumption that socialism may one day be upon us— arguing that the socialist revolution in America had already taken place with the New Deal— it seems particularly applicable to the decline of the west. Western civilization may soon collapse, warn the dissenters of our age. But working through the introduction once again in my third rereading of Buchanan’s tale of Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, I was struck anew by the recasting of the World Wars, not as an irrelevant scuffle between ancient enemies, but as a breaking apart of a people— the Europeans, bringers-forth of the great modern legal, economic, and social orders.
World War I was the turning point. With it, the world changed forever and the West began its descent. The great and noble family houses of Europe fell into despair, their ashes scattered into the violent winds of history. The tradition of sound money was sent to the death bed, tax rates soared, the allocation of resources shifted toward war and destruction, policies of progressivism took root, and the era of total statism was brought forth onto the world scene. Europe itself splintered and general peace among nations was replaced by angst, racism, nationalism, and revolution. The 20th century was the century of war, of statism, of conflict. It began the era of fulfillment for the statist intellectuals.
World War I was the turning point.
It’s difficult to encapsulate the sheer number of areas affected by the winds of change brought about by World War I. Hans Hoppe offers a glimpse:
Nonetheless, although increasingly emasculated, the principle of monarchical government remained dominant until the cataclysmic events of World War I. Before the war only two republics existed in Europe: Switzerland and France. Only four years later, after the United States government had entered the European war and decisively determined its outcome, monarchies had all but disappeared, and Europe had turned to democratic republicanism. With the involvement of the U.S., the war took on a new dimension. Rather than being an old-fashioned territorial dispute, as was the case before 1917, it turned into an ideological war. The U.S. had been founded as a republic, and the democratic principle in particular, inherent in the idea of a republic, had only recently been carried to victory as the result of the violent defeat and devastation of the secessionist Confederacy by the centralist Union government.
At the time of World War I, this triumphant ideology of expansionist democratic-republicanism had found its very personification in then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Under Wilson’s administration the European war became an ideological mission—to make the world safe for democracy and free of dynastic rulers. Hence, the defeated Romanovs, Hohenzollerns, and Habsburgs had to abdicate or resign, and Russia, Germany, and Austria became democratic republics with universal—male and female—suffrage and parliamentary governments. Likewise, all of the newly created successor states—Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia adopted democratic-republican constitutions, with Yugoslavia as the only exception. In Turkey and Greece, the monarchies were overthrown. And even where monarchies remained in existence, as in Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, monarchs no longer exercised any governmental power. Everywhere, universal adult suffrage was introduced, and all government power was invested in parliaments and ” public” officials.
A new era—the democratic-republican age under the aegis of a dominating U.S. government—had begun.
From the perspective of economic theory, the end of World War I can be identified as the point in time at which private-government ownership was completely replaced by public government ownership, and from which a tendency toward rising degrees of social time preference, government growth, and an attending process of decivilization should be expected to have taken off. Indeed, as indicated in detail above, such has been the grand underlying theme of twentieth century Western history.
Since 1918, practically all indicators of high or rising time preferences have exhibited a systematic upward tendency: as far as government is concerned, democratic republicanism produced communism (and with this public slavery and government sponsored mass murder even in peacetime), fascism, national socialism and, lastly and most enduringly, social democracy (” liberalism” ). Compulsory military service has become almost universal, foreign and civil wars have increased in frequency and in brutality, and the process of political centralization has advanced further than ever. Internally, democratic republicanism has led to permanently rising taxes, debts, and public employment. It has led to the destruction of the gold standard, unparalleled paper-money inflation, and increased protectionism and migration controls. Even the most fundamental private law provisions have been perverted by an unabating flood of legislation and regulation.
Simultaneously, as regards civil society, the institutions of marriage and family have been increasingly weakened, the number of children has declined, and the rates of divorce, illegitimacy, single parenthood, singledom, and abortion have increased. Rather than rising with rising incomes, savings rates have been stagnating or even falling. In comparison to the nineteenth century, the cognitive prowess of the political and intellectual elites and the quality of public education have declined. And the rates of crime, structural unemployment, welfare dependency, parasitism, negligence, recklessness, incivility, psychopathy, and hedonism have increased.
Buchanan’s Introduction makes the case that “Historians will look back on 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 as two phases of the Great Civil War of the West, where the once-Christian nations of Europe fell upon one another with such savage abandon they brought down all their empires, brought an end to centuries of Western rule, and advanced the death of their civilization.” I hope, in the following month, to write more on Buchanan’s book— but the important piece to the puzzle, that few popular level overviews will take into account, is the relationship between World War I and the historic Churchill/Hitler standoff. It was World War I that offered a death blow to the gut of Western Civilization; a death blow that pummeled the small monarchies and noble houses of Europe and opened the path for the “fanatic and murderous ideologies of Leninism, Stalinism, Nazism, and Fascism….”
Without World War I, “There would have been no Lenin, no Stalin, no Versailles, no Hitler, no Holocaust…. For it was the war begun in 1914 and the Paris peace conference of 1919 that destroyed the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires and ushered onto the world stage Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. And it was the war begun in September 1939 that led to the slaughter of the Jews and tens of millions of Christians, the devastation of Europe, Stalinization of half the continent, the fall of China to Maoist madness, and half a century of Cold War.
What is interesting is the extent to which these horrific ideologies of statism replaced the Old Order, where so much was in common. The ideologies of statism, far from offering hope and security to a Europe in disarray, became, immediately, a terror to the entire globe. The deadly and disastrous Civil War between the Central Powers and the Allies was a shocking turn of events in light of the fact that Germany’s World War 1 era Kaiser himself was the grandson of the British Queen Victoria! Even during the second world war, there were members of the British monarchy on good terms with their German relatives– so much so that the once-King Edward himself (uncle to Elizabeth II) was nearly forced by Churchill back into British territory from Portugal to prevent him from working with the Germans. Edward made it clear that he was fond of the Germans, though disliked Naziism and Hitler. And why wouldn’t he? They were related! The noble houses of Europe were friendly toward each other because they had a long and peaceful history.
The noble houses of these areas had much in common historically and culturally. But they were replaced by the ideology of democracy and public rule, as per Hoppe’s thesis. It was the rise of democratic statism and socialism that tore Europe apart at the seams. What might have been a family skirmish was instead the initiation of the century of Total War.
Buchanan makes the case that, in the present, we are treated to a Churchill cult— the idolization of the Man who Stood up to Hitler. It is a dangerous thing to idolize politicians, especially with they represent the state-intellectual complex that writes the histories. Buchanan wisely observes:
There has arisen among America’s elite a Churchill cult. Its acolytes hold that Churchill was not only a peerless war leader but a statesman of unparalleled vision whose life and legend should be the model for every statesman. To this cult, defiance anywhere of U.S. hegemony, resistance anywhere to U.S. power becomes another 1938. Every adversary is “a new Hitler,” every proposal to avert war “another Munich.” Slobodan Milosevic, a party apparatchik who had presided over the disintegration of Yugoslavia—losing Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia—becomes “the Hitler of the Balkans” for holding Serbia’s cradle province of Kosovo. Saddam Hussein, whose army was routed in one hundred hours in 1991 and who had not shot down a U.S. plane in forty thousand sorties, becomes “an Arab Hitler” about to roll up the Persian Gulf and threaten mankind with weapons of mass destruction.
This mind-set led us to launch a seventy-eight-day bombing campaign on Serbia, a nation that never attacked us, never threatened us, never wanted war with us, whose people had always befriended us. After 9/11, the Churchill cult helped to persuade an untutored president that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam would be like the liberation of Europe from Hitler. We would be greeted in Baghdad as our fathers and grandfathers had been in Paris. In the triumphant aftermath of a “cake-walk” war, democracy would put down roots in the Middle East as it had in Europe after the fall of Hitler, and George W. Bush would enter history as the Churchill of his generation, while the timid souls who opposed his war of liberation would be exposed as craven appeasers.
This Churchill cult gave us our present calamity. If not exposed, it will produce more wars and more disasters, and, one day, a war of the magnitude of Churchill’s wars that brought Britain and his beloved empire to ruin.
Thus, while certainly interesting from a historical development standpoint, the lessons to be drawn from the pre-Hitler era and his subsequent rise are many. Among the establishment Churchill cult, which trickles down and is reflected in the opinions of the populace, Churchill and FDR are simply treated as unlikely heroes who stood up to Hitler when the call of duty was trumpeted across the free world. No doubt, the elimination of Hitler was a positive event. But what few are courageous enough to consider is why such an event became necessary in the first place. How did the German people come to a place of reception toward the horrific ideas of Adolph Hitler? What caused their attraction to him? What motivated Hitler? What caused the struggle between Germany and Britain in the decades prior to 1939? Even before we ask whether there were better ways to deal with Hitler before he did his inter-national damage and before we even consider the unfortunately radical notion that there were more peaceful ways to deal with Germany than was taken up by the Churchill-led British government, we must ask why did it all take place? This is what Buchanan’s book seeks to answer.
Was it all truly necessary?
The sadness of the collapse of Old Europe is encapsulated in the pain felt by Ludwig von Mises himself.
For all his heroism and courage, Mises too felt the deep pain and loss of the beloved culture of his ancestors. It was not just that Hitler was a bad man. It’s that socialism and revolutionary leftism destroyed an entire Old World culture that pulled deeply at Mises’ heart. In fact, his wife Margit reflected on this pain when she wrote:
From the day of our marriage he never talked about our past. If I reminded him now and then of something, he cut me short. It was as if he had put the past in a trunk, stored it in the attic, and thrown away the key. In thirty-five years of marriage he never, never– not with a single word– referred to our life together during the thirteen years before our marriage.
The decade before their marriage was their time in Austria, before they were forced to flee as the Nazis raided his apartment and burned his books and writings. It was too painful, what became of his beloved homeland. Indeed, for Mises, the rise of socialism and the German statism was a reflection of a “world that was fading away.” Margit:
Lu followed the political situation in Germany and Austria with passionate interest. He saw the slippery road the Austrian leaders were forced upon. He knew Hitler’s rise to power would endanger Austria, and he knew exactly what the future would bring. Only the date was a secret to him. Lu was a typical Austrian. He loved his native country, the mountains, the city of Vienna, the beauty of the old palaces, the crooked streets, the fountains-but this, too, was something so deeply imbedded in his soul he rarely would talk about it. But I knew how he felt and how deeply he was hurt.
War is the stepping stone to cultural and academic upheaval. Hence why Progressives love war and true conservatives despise it.
Consider then Margit’s remembrance of Mises’ pain:
In retrospect I judge these attacks differently, and I believe I understand the reason for them. Lu wrote some notes in 1940, and I read them again and again. He wrote of Austria and of Carl Menger, who as early as 1910 recognized that not only Austria but the whole world was getting nearer to a catastrophe. Lu, thinking alike, tried to fight this with all the means he had at his disposal. But he recognized the fight would be hopeless, and he got depressed– as were all the best minds in Europe in the twenties and thirties.
He knew that if the world would turn its back to capitalism and liberalism (in the old sense of the word) it would tumble into wars and destruction that would mean the end of civilization. This terrible fight against corruption, against the foes of liberty and the free market had broken the spirit of Menger, had thrown a dark shadow over the life of Lu’s teacher and friend Max Weber, and had destroyed the vitality and the will to live of his friend and collaborator Wilhelm Rosenberg.
Theirs was a fight for a world that did not want to be helped. Few people recognized the danger, and even fewer were readyto fight alongside Lu. It was like being on a sinking ship on which people were dancing though the end was near. Lu recognized the danger. He knew how to help his fellow passengers. He tried to lead them to the right exit, but they did not follow him– and now doom knocked at the door.