Sunday, January 27, 2008

Memory v history

Eric Hobsbawm has published short reminiscences of the Weimar Republic in the London Review of Books. I find aspects of his recent writings problematic and I have posted on them before here, here and here. In this piece, Hobsbawm reflects on whether Hitler’s rise to power could have been prevented and concludes that it was unlikely given the prevalence of anti-Weimar sentiment. As this essay is a memoir it would be hard not to conclude that this perception must have been coloured by his own anti-democratic views as a Communist Party youth activist. Whilst the spectre hanging over the whole argument is that of the disastrous Stalinist policy of “Social Fascism”, which argued that social democracy and Fascism were objectively the same, thereby splitting the left and undermining the opposition to Hitler, a line Hobsbawm may have adhered to at the time.

The heart of his argument is contained in this extraordinary passage,

This was the last time Germany was at the centre of modernity and Western thought. It might have held out better if the Weimar Republic had been followed not by Hitler’s wrecking crew but by a more traditional reactionary government. Yet in retrospect this option was as unreal as was the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union. The fact is that no one, right, left or centre, got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism, a movement of a kind that had not been seen before and whose aims were rationally unimaginable.

There are two elements to this. The first is Hobsbawm's contention that Hitler could not have been stopped by a concerted anti-Nazi coalition. This is a strange view. It would have taken far less to prevent Hitler taking power constitutionally. All that was required was for parties to have continued to refuse to work with the Nazis. As the Nazis were a minority they required support of another party in the Reichstag. Denial of that would have led to their permanent exclusion, meaning that power could only have come from extra-constitutional action, a course of action that was far less likely to succeed. The decision of the traditionalist right to offer support to Hitler must count as the one of the worst mistakes in history, but we should not forget Stalin’s equally disastrous ideological assumptions. It seems that Hobsbawm, whilst not denying the mistake, is excusing the policies of his youth, suggesting that if Stalin had got it right and had instead supported a “popular front” against Fascism, the result would have been the same. Hitler could not have been stopped.

The second element is clearer. It simply says, “OK, we got it wrong, but we weren’t to know. How could we have guessed what they were like; no one else spotted it, did they”? Here he moves from interpretation to falsification. Obscene Desserts has also posted on this article and Will, in comments, demolishes the suggestion that “that no one … got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism”, quoting Sohn-Rethel, Neuman, Gramsci and Laski, whilst forgetting to mention Trotsky. Then there is the response of Ludendorff to Hitler’s accession to power. A firm rightist and an early collaborator with Hitler, he is reported to have written to President Hindenburg,

By appointing Hitler Chancellor of the Reich, you have handed over our sacred German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I prophesy to you this evil man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will inflict immeasurable woe on our nation. Future generations will curse you in your grave for this action.

The nature of fascism could hardly have come as a surprise. Mussolini had been in power since 1922, Japanese militarism was established and the invasion of Manchuria had taken place in 1931. The threat of a militant and murderous right was clearly apparent. Many chose to ignore, misinterpret or excuse that threat but others did not. The Communist Party got it very wrong indeed in 1933, repeated the mistake in 1939 and reaped the consequences when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

This sounds harsh, but when I read Hobsbawm these days I get the sense of an old man who hasn’t come to terms with the fact that the follies of youth were indeed follies. An understandable trait I suppose, though perhaps not for an historian.


mikeovswinton said...

I think that the KPD slogan was something like "After Hitler, us" wasn't it?
Nice meeting up today. Thanks for the rather interesting insights into the arcanae of modern Greek. Grapes will never seem quite the same ever again.

KB Player said...

That's interesting stuff - are you going to send it to the LRB?