Darkest_Hour_poster
This is a really weird poster. It looks like they are all hovering in the sky like Mary Poppins or something.

I’ll skip my usual plot-point-by-plot-point synopsis for this one–I think most readers are already familiar with World War II. Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s armies are advancing through France and closing in on British forces at Dunkirk.

The film depicts Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) attempting to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill argues with them repeatedly, as the Nazis draw ever closer to Dunkirk, and the news grows more bleak by the day,

Churchill is on the point of giving in to the calls for negotiations when he makes a spontaneous (and apparently completely invented for the sake of the film) visit to the London Underground, where all the passengers he talks to are strongly in favor of fighting to the bitter end–bricklayers, new mothers, and children all are fiercely opposed to the idea of negotiating.

This is a major over-simplification of how public opinion works. I understand the scene was intended to convey that Churchill was in tune with the spirit of the people, but it just seemed ham-handed and unbelievable, which raises the question of why they bothered to invent the scene at all. Why make something up just to have it be the weakest part of the drama?

His faith in the British fighting spirit restored, Churchill makes his famous “We shall fight on the beaches”  speech to Parliament. The evacuation of Dunkirk he ordered is a success, and the film ends with Churchill receiving overwhelming applause for his resolve.

The plot may be a bit thin, and of course, like all historical dramas, is hampered by the fact that we know what’s going to happen, but the performances of the major roles are all quite solid. Oldman does a terrific job, portraying Churchill as a flawed, temperamental man, capable of brilliant oratory as well as moments of confusion and depression. Kristin Scott Thomas is also very good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, although it seemed at times like the writer and/or director didn’t know what to do with her.

The big problems with the film were immersion-breaking things like the scene in the Underground, or another scene where they are playing a film reel to brief the Prime Minister, and the images displayed are fairly obviously what you get if you ask for “stock footage of Nazis”. (Why would Churchill, at a briefing about Dunkirk, need to see footage of Hitler giving a speech?)

Also, the cinematographer applied that grayish blue washed-out color filter that apparently everything set in England is supposed to have these days. This is far from the only movie to do this, so I don’t mean to single it out, but this desaturation business is getting tiresome. Can’t we just have normal colors?

Still, this is one of those movies that hinges on the performances, and those are certainly good enough to make it enjoyable.

Historians are familiar with the “Miracle of Dunkirk”: the fact that Hitler ordered a halt to the Nazi advance, allowing the British time to evacuate men from the port.  Some argue that had the British been annihilated at Dunkirk, they would have surrendered to Germany.  At any rate, saving all those men was obviously a huge boon for the Allies.

What’s less clear is the reason for the Nazi “halt” order.  Some say it was given because Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, wanted a chance to demonstrate that air power could annihilate the enemy, and wanted ground forces to halt so eh could make his point. (Which he then failed to do.)

Others argue that the order was given because Hitler, being a megalomaniac, wanted to make it clear that he was the one in charge, and by ordering his generals to halt, he could demonstrate supreme authority.

Still others say it simply came down to a matter of logistics.  German armor had advanced so far so rapidly that their supply lines were stretched too far, and they needed to stop to be re-supplied.

Still others argue it was because the Nazis, caught up in their pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical racial delusions, saw the British as being of the same or similar “race”, and were reluctant to annihilate them, preferring they should surrender with few casualties and become part of the Aryan empire they envisaged.

Whatever the reason, the order was given, and it was obeyed.  And that’s the part I find interesting.

Heinz Guderian
Image via Wikipedia

The German advance through France had been led by the rather sinister-looking fellow pictured at right, Heinz Guderian. Guderian was famously a proponent of advancing very fast and unrelentingly surprising the enemy with speed. It’s probably partially thanks to his style that the term blitzkrieg got so famous.

Guderian was also not hesitant to ignore orders.  Higher-ranking officers were shocked by just how quickly he was moving through France, and ordered him to halt.  Guderian would ignore them and advance anyway, looking to press his advantage and not give the French time to regroup.

So, my question is: why did Guderian finally obey the order to halt at Dunkirk, when he had a golden opportunity? It seems wildly out of character for him. Was it simply that an order from Hitler himself he felt he had to obey? Had he in fact stretched his supply lines to the breaking point, and really was incapable of continuing to press the attack?

It’s nothing more than a footnote in the larger historical context, but it’s very interesting to me.

For the second time in a week, I’m posting something I wrote years ago.  This one isn’t nearly as fun as “The King”, though. 

But first, some background: I got into a debate with someone the other day about the treatment of Germany after each of the world wars.  To summarize: her position was that Germany was treated harshly after World War I, leading to the rise of the revenge-based Nazi party, which in turn led to World War II. After that war, the Allies didn’t punish Germany as harshly, to avoid another Nazi-like revenge effort. The lesson, she argued, was that it was better to be charitable to defeated enemies, rather than being vengeful and vindictive.

My view is a little different.  And I know a bit more than most about this, because I had to write a term paper about it in college. I’m going to post a section of it here to give my thoughts on this topic. (Be warned, it’s full of irritating jargon as a 19-year-old undergrad tried to write like the professors he’d been reading.)

***

There are several potential reasons for the differences in the treatment of Germany after World War II compared with World War I. The first and most obvious is that Germany suffered far more direct damage as a result of World War II. Many German cities were destroyed in addition to the number of lives lost. In addition, the destruction of the German government was more complete than after World War II; the elites could not be said to be left intact this time. These facts alone may explain in large part why the allies felt the need to aid the German recovery more than they did post-World War I. Also, it may have been thought that in the wake of this utter defeat, the German people had, in essence, learned their lesson. The allies may have felt they had “finished the job”, unlike after World War I.

Another reason is the dynamics of Europe after World War II. The Soviet Union and the United States, though allied in the war, immediately were at odds by the end of it. As the Soviet Union comprised Eastern European countries and even had control of East Germany, the U.S. felt that West Germany was an important strategic zone in the coming “Cold War”, and that Germany could not simply be abandoned but needed instead to be rebuilt in order that the West could have a presence in Europe to counteract the Soviet Union.

A third potential reason is the results of the treatment of Germany in the aftermath of World War I and the now apparent results. The harsh treatment of the German population after the first war had been a major factor that led to the second one, and the allies did not wish to repeat those mistakes by once again giving Germany a reason to want to acquire more territory. Of course, it is questionable, in my opinion, whether this would have been a realistic goal of Germany no matter how they were treated after the war. The devastation brought upon the infrastructure during the war was such that it would have suppressed German aggregate supply. This would mean that, far from wishing to acquire more resources, the Germans would have, without considerable help, been reduced to a poor, almost less-developed country that would be unable to rebuild for war. Furthermore, the demise of much of the population would have a decreasing effect on aggregate demand—the opposite of the scenario described above, in which a growing population increases aggregate demand, thus fueling the desire for “lebensraum”.

Because of the factors outlined above, it was imperative that the allies, led by the U.S., aid in the reconstruction of Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, the allies ordered many businesses in Germany to close. These only slowly, after a licensing process, were reopened. (Berge & Ritschl, 1995, p.9) Initially, a program of “de-Nazification” was implemented, though scholars have questioned both its effectiveness and the allies commitment to it in view of the Soviet threat. (Herz, p.1) The allies disbanded the German army in 1946. The Morgenthau plan was proposed, which essentially would have “returned Germany to a rural state”, in the words of Jeffry Diefendorf.  (Diefendorf, p. 244.)  The goal of this plan had been to make all industrial centers of Germany “international zones”, with all German territory becoming farmland. This plan was implemented to some extent initially, though later it was phased out, in favor of the Marshall plan. From 1948 to 1951, the U.S. contributed an estimated $1.4 billion to west-occupied parts of Germany under the Marshall plan. (Delong & Eichengreen, 1991, p.14)

[NOTE: I’ve cut out a lengthy section on the economic details of Germany both pre- and post-war. It uses a bunch of jargon and data unrelated to my present point. If you wonder why you see some stuff in the references that’s not cited in-text, that’s why.]

As mentioned above, after World War I, the United States’ desire to get out of the war quickly had led to a Peace that left the German elites intact, with the burden of the punishment for the war falling mainly on the civilian population. In contrast, in the wake of World War II, the German leadership was forced to suffer much more, and the population was given aid to rebuild. This is another key shift in attitude that contributed to the difference in treatment.

It would be remiss to omit the Soviet policy towards East Germany form this paper altogether. The Soviet Union’s treatment of East Germany was fairly harsh, as dismantling programs—discontinued in the West after 1947—continued past that point in the East. From this alone it appears that the Soviet Union, whether due to the nature of economic limitations, or else an unwillingness to do so out of a desire to punish Germany—the Soviet Union approved of and benefited from the harsh Morgenthau plan (Dietrich, p.14)—it appears that the Soviet Union’s treatment of East Germany was unable produce them same results as those produced in the West.

My own analysis, very broadly speaking; is that there are two points of view with regard to the reasons for the difference in treatment—one is of a more optimistic tone, the other pessimistic, or at least cynical. The optimistic explanation is that the allied forces decided that it was necessary to help the Germans to avoid again fostering a sentiment that they had been unjustly punished in some way. In this view, the lesson is that simple defeat is not enough; it is necessary to build relations and help the defeated enemy.

The pessimistic view is that it was necessary that Germany first be indisputably defeated militarily. While it may have helped matters, in the wake of the first War, if, for example, France had not demanded such exorbitant reparations; it would nonetheless be true that Germany had not suffered direct, total defeat, and thus any armistice would have seemed like a surrender. In this view, it was necessary that Germany suffer firsthand the effects of a large war on its own soil, and be defeated completely. In economic terms, the costs of war needed to be extremely high before Germany would ever abandon it. Only after this had occurred could Germany be rebuilt.

References

Berger, Helge & Ritschl, Albrecht. Germany and the political economy of the Marshall plan. 1947-1952: a re-revisionist view. In Europe‘s Post-war Recovery by Barry J. Eichengreen 1995. Published by Cambridge University Press,

Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 96.

Burdekin, Richard C.K. & Burkett, Paul. Money, Credit, and Wages in Hyperinflation: Post-World War I Germany. 2007. Economic Inquiry. Volume 30 Issue 3, Pages 479 – 495

DeLong, J. Bradford & Eichengreen, Barry. The Marshall Plan: History’s Most Successful Structural Adjustment Program. In Postwar economic reconstruction and lessons for the East today by Rüdiger Dornbusch. Published by MIT Press

Diefendorf, Jeffry M. In the wake of war 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 244.

Dietrich , John The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet influence on American postwar policy 2002. Algora Publishing.

The Economist. Loads of money December 23, 1999. http://www.economist.com.hk/diversions/millennium/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=347363 Accessed May 3 2009.

Statisitsche Reichsamt, Zahlen zur Geldentwertung in Deustchland 1914 bis 1923. Quoted in Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 95.

Fischer, Conan. The Ruhr Crisis, 1923-1924 Oxford University Press, 2003

Eichengreen, Barry. Institutions and economic growth: Europe after World War II. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945. Crafts N. F. R, Toniolo, Gianni. 1996 Cambridge University Press.

Heinz-Paque, Karl. Why the 1950s and not the 1920s? Olsonian and non-Olsonian interpretations of two decades of German economic history. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945 by Crafts, N. F. R, Toniolo , Gianni 1996.

Herz , John H. The Fiasco of Denazification in Germany. 1948 Political science Quarterly. Vol. 63. No. 4. pp. 569-594

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace 1920. Harcourt, Brace & Howe. Inc.

Klein, Fritz. Between Compiegne and Versailles: The Germans on the way from a Misunderstood Defeat to an Unwanted Peace. In The Treaty of Versailles: A reassessment after 75 years. By Manfred Franz Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, Elisabeth Gläser Pages 203-220.

Myerson, Roger, B. Political Economics and the Weimar Disaster Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 160 (2004), 187–209

Ritschl, Albrecht. An exercise in futility: East German economic growth and decline 1945-90. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945 by N. F. R, Toniolo , Gianni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1996.

Ritschl, Albrecht. The Pity of Peace. Germany’s economy at War 1914-1918 and Beyond. December 2003. In The Economics of World War I by Broadberry, S.N. and Harrison, Mark. 2005. Cambridge University Press.

Svenson, Jakob The institutional economics of foreign aid Swedish Economic Policy Review Vol.13 (2006) 115-137

Shuster, Richard J. German disarmament after World War I: the diplomacy of international arms inspection, 1920-1931 2006. Published by Routledge. Page 56.

Taylor, A. J. P. The origins of the Second World War 1996. Simon and Schuster

Footnotes

  1. MV = PY where M = Money in circulation, V = the Velocity of money, P = the Price level, and Y = index of goods. i.e. GDP.
  2. “Militaristic Keynesianism” is the concept of boosting aggregate demand through increasing military expenditures.

 

Counter-factual history novels almost always seem better in theory than in practice.  They always sound interesting at first, but too often they end up feeling very contrived and ham-handed, at least in my experience.

In any event, there is one entitled Dominion by C.J. Sansom, about an alternate history wherein Britain and Nazi Germany are allied.  I have not read it.  I have only heard about it because of Peter Hitchens’s column addressing the book’s controversial portrayal of Enoch Powell. If you don’t know who Enoch Powell was in real life, the short answer is that he was a British politician who got a reputation as a racist because in 1968 he said:

A week or two ago I fell into conversation with a constituent, a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man employed in one of our nationalised industries. After a sentence or two about the weather, he suddenly said: “If I had the money to go, I wouldn’t stay in this country.” I made some deprecatory reply to the effect that even this government wouldn’t last for ever; but he took no notice, and continued: “I have three children, all of them been through grammar school and two of them married now, with family. I shan’t be satisfied till I have seen them all settled overseas. In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation? The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that his country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else…

The most famous part of the speech is his conclusion:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.

I don’t know if he was a racist or not, but I think on the evidence of that speech, we can safely say that he had an intense dislike of immigrants.

So, that’s real-life Enoch Powell for you.  Meanwhile, in this book Dominion, Powell is portrayed as very friendly to the Nazi-government that fictional Britain is allied with.   Peter Hitchens–though not really a Powell fan–doesn’t like this one bit, writing:

Powell was one of the first to volunteer for war in 1939. He was , as it happens, deeply opposed to the policy of ‘appeasement’ .  It is infantile leftism to imagine that there was anything in common between his conservative opinions and the exterminationist Judophobia of the German National Socialists. In fact, I think it typical of the unthinking modern Left, that they cannot see the difference, and indeed do not want to see it.

Well, now this is kind of an interesting question.  If we conclude that Powell was an ardent nationalist, who opposed foreigners mixing with the native population, I think it is fair to say there is something in common with the ardent nationalism and protection of German soil that characterized the Nazi party.  You could say they are not the exactly same thing, and that Powell would never have gone to the same violent and evil lengths in service of his views, and by all appearances this is true.  But still, there is something in common.

But again, this in itself proves nothing.  The Nazis also wore uniforms and had weapons, thus giving them “something in common” with every other military in the world.  This does not automatically mean that they are all the same thing.

In his book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote:

By its nature, nationalism, especially a virulent strain like Nazism, is difficult to export. When Britain went to war, Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists, volunteered at once to fight for Britain. [p.346]

Exactly.  Fanatical nationalists will ultimately end up fighting against any foreign influence, including attacks by other fanatical nationalists.  (Mosley, by the way, also is apparently in Dominion, also as a pro-Nazi.) You may disagree, but Buchanan seems like a good person to consult about this, since he and Powell seem, based on their writings, to be almost of one mind on the immigration issue.

So, Hitchens is probably right, although not in the way he thinks. A nationalist like Powell would naturally have fought the Nazis–after all, they were foreigners!  This is the thing about nationalists: not only do they fight other people who are not nationalists, they also frequently end up fighting each other as well.