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Post on Historical "Fairy Tales"
Created by John Eipper on 07/21/12 3:11 PM

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on Historical "Fairy Tales" (Cameron Sawyer, USA, 07/21/12 3:11 pm)

Paul Preston wrote on 21 July:

"I always enjoy and am enriched by Cameron's posts and, while I agree with most of his note of 20 July, I think he goes a tad too far in dismissing Nigel Jones's (and that of others, including Churchill and the great classic work by Gott and Gilbert) as a fairy tale."

I would hasten to say that I did not intend to dismiss Nigel's or anyone's account of anything as a fairy tale, and my apologies to Nigel if anyone read my post that way.

I was awkwardly attempting to separate the fairytale elements of Churchill's account of how WWII started from real historical facts. When I say "fairy tale," I don't actually mean that in any pejorative sense--the fairy tale is one way of conveying a story. I was just trying to point out that Churchill approaches the story of Hitler and Chamberlain very much as a story of heroes and villains, of great and weak personalities, acting on the historical stage. I am not a Hegelian; I do not believe that everything historical which happens is inevitable, I do not believe in any Zeitgeist, and I do not agree that personalities in history are unimportant. Nevertheless, historical events are usually much more complicated than what can be conveyed in any schematic story of vividly drawn personalities. I don't think that it is a historical argument, for example, that Chamberlain was a "frightened rabbit" or a "pinhead." And once we get soaked in these schematic stories of the events--and this mostly affects those of us who have read only popular histories like Churchill's, Keegan's, and the like (however good they may be), not of course real historians like Nigel--our minds start to close to the complexities of the story and indeed we miss the whole point, as in the case of the nonsense which is circulated about the Soviet Union being entirely unprepared for war with Hitler.

Because these schematic, personalized stories sound so good (especially when a really talented writer like Churchill is formulating them), the events fall into place in our minds according to a simple schema. But often these simple, satisfying, personalized schema are not only misleading oversimplifications, they may turn out to be wrong altogether.

We could make a long list of misleading oversimplifications about WWII. Another one, widely believed even by well-educated people, is that the Nazi economy was a powerhouse (well, Hitler eliminated unemployment, didn't he?), the German Army was practically invincible, but Hitler simply bit off more than he could chew, interfered too much with his brilliant generals, and got the Wehrmacht frozen to death outside of Moscow and, fatally, would not allow them to retreat, to eventually succumb to the barbarian hordes of the Red Army, fighting more or less with pitchforks but attacking in such inexhaustible masses that the frozen Germans were eventually overwhelmed. Well, practically none of this is true at all. It just didn't happen like that. And the key fact, which Churchill and few other popular historians understood at all, was the economic side. The Nazi economy was not a powerhouse. It was roughly equivalent to the Soviet economy in 1939 in terms of GDP (bearing in mind how hard it is to measure the output of command economies), with the Soviets unable to produce civilian goods quite as well as the Germans and the Germans unable to produce military goods, particularly mass produce them, as well as the Soviets. Someone (sorry, I don't have my library with me) actually did a deep study of the caloric intake of the German population before and during the war, and came up with the surprising fact that the Germans were practically starving to death, even before the war started. This is the key fact behind the war, although it makes much less rousing reading than the exciting stories of the dashing exploits on the field of Guderian or Model or Patton or Rokossovsky, or of the cravenness of Chamberlain or the genius of Churchill or the bloodthirstiness of Stalin. We are instinctively attracted to personalities, but personalities are not everything which makes history, at least, not the small number of personalities which can be drawn up in a popular history of the war. In fact whole societies make history, and millions of people acting over often long periods of time.

On another note, I was walking along a road outside Roscoff in North Brittany a few days ago on a failed foraging expedition after making landfall from Fowey in Cornwall (even supermarkets close at 14:00 in France on Sundays) and saw this M4 Sherman tank (below) just standing forlornly on the side of the road without its tracks, as if the war had ended just last year. A time-warp moment.

JE comments: Here's the Sherman--did the two stones on the ground contain any inscription?



M4 Sherman tank, Roscoff, France.  Photo Cameron Sawyer

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