“History is philosophy from examples.” —Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ars Rhetorica

The “disruptive decade” referred to in the title of this collection of essays is the 1960’s, when Eugene Davidson served as editor of Modern Age. Although the 60’s ended only 30 years ago, Mr. Davidson’s writing (the prefatory editorials to each issue of the conservative quarterly journal) breathes the spirit of a different world and of a different kind of American conservatism from that we have grown used to in the intervening years. These essays—mature, informed, and balanced—are written with a coherence and lucidity that put the author more on a level with Paul Elmer More and Albert Jay Nock than with either the glib editorialists of New York magazines or the perpetual graduate students of conservative academe.

A German historian by profession and the former head of Yale University Press, Eugene Davidson is best known as the author of two splendid volumes on the making and unmaking of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party. Republished by the University of Missouri Press, these books are not only fair-minded and judicious distillations of research but classic history narrated with the sure touch of a master storyteller. Still, Mr. Davidson also found time to be the first successor to Russell Kirk, the founding editor of Modern Age.

The range of interests displayed in this collection is unusually broad, from the favorite themes of Cold War conservatism—the Soviet Union and the betrayal of liberal intellectuals—to his own specialty (the Third Reich), to contemporary concerns about civil rights and racial conflict. He tackles every subject with a moderation and restraint that was once regarded as the hallmark of the “conservative mind.” On what was then called the “Negro question,” Davidson took a moderately liberal position, acknowledging that wrong had been done while questioning the price (to be paid by black as well as white Americans) of the proposed remedies. In a 1963 editorial, “Black and White,” he draws attention to the curious fact that black academics from the Caribbean are as literate and competent as their white colleagues, while the writing of black American scholars is often “illiterate and confused.” He concludes that integration is obviously a good thing, but

an integration that lies outside court decisions and the automatic rifles of the federal marshals and the army. It is an integration by voluntary association, by individual action, by way of self-discipline and by content. The Negro in the United States has the same right and need to be judged and treated as an individual as anyone else, to attend, if he is qualified, the best schools and universities in the country, but he himself bears the responsibility for forwarding the changes in the segregationist tradition by his own performance, his own contribution to the society, and for this honorable goal he will have countless white allies.

By 1969, however, Davidson had become convinced that black intellectuals were, for the most part, following a different path: the whining self-justification and abnegation of personal responsibility advocated by “revolutionaries.” He shrewdly deduced that these cowardly and self-dramatizing rebels were the advance guard of a broader movement:

With the Negroes in American colleges demanding freedom from white tutelage, keeping to themselves, looking to themselves to win their place in a white environment despite the attempts of the authorities and of undergraduates to break through the barriers and to return to the good old arm-linking days, we have obviously come to a new phase of the race problem and one that will not be as accessible to the television cameras. These dissident Negroes, like their dead heroes, Malcolm X and Dr. Fanon, reject the white society lock, stock, and barrel although they make use of its opportunities, and by their violent rejection of it they become an avant garde not only of Negroes but of the radical white wing that has no revolutionary drama about them. They are in fact in the front line of the left-wing environmentalists [in the psychological sense] who believe we can change anything we will to change, aptitudes, intelligence, athletic ability—all we have to do is to expend enough energy and money and transform our economic and political system, and the job will be done.

Eugene Davidson displayed prescience on the evils of affirmative action and multiculturalism that would sweep through universities in the 70’s like the plagues of Egypt; he also saw through the false claims made at the Nuremberg Trials. Some of his best editorials were devoted to Albert Speer (an essay also collected in George Panichas’s fine anthology of Modern Age articles, published by Liberty Press) and to the “prisoner of Spandau”—Rudolph Hess, the last Nazi leader to remain in prison. Hess was already delusional when he flew to Britain on his famous peace mission, and he soon lapsed into what appears to be genuine insanity with intermittent periods of remission. Although considerations of both justice and mercy dictated Hess’s liberation, our gallant Soviet allies insisted upon his continued incarceration. This was the same Soviet government that had demanded the prosecution of the Germans for the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, knowing full well that the Poles had been killed by the Soviets, not the Nazis.

Hess left Germany in 1941, before Hitler invaded Russia and at a time when communists and their leftist stooges were still openly collaborating with the Nazis. His crime was the novel Nuremberg charge of conspiracy to wage war, and the evidence included a military-conscription bill he had signed in 1935. “How could it be criminal,” asks Davidson, “for any member of a government. . . to sign a bill establishing compulsory military service when every country in Europe had conscription?” The hypocrisy should have been particularly evident in the postwar world in which dozens of nations were routinely conducting aggressive wars and committing war crimes with scarcely a peep from the “international community.”

Davidson drew the obvious conclusion:

The Allies who put him in prison have long since abandoned any notion of bringing post-Nuremberg aggressors to trial. . . Only this extraordinary precedent of the case of Rudolph Hess, who flew off to stop the war and so landed in prison for the rest of his life, remains, for a time at least, a living reminder of the mental aberrations of those presumably sane people in high places who were building a world order of law and peace no wider than the Nuremberg courtroom.

This was not his last or only word on the hypocrisy of Nuremberg. Davidson’s The Trial of the Germans (1966, republished in 1997 by University of Missouri Press) is a masterpiece of balanced historical analysis. After an introductory chapter on the trial itself, Davidson takes up, chapter by chapter, the individuals and groups (e.g., militarists, diplomats, and bureaucrats) who were on trial; the whole book is written so well that it might serve as an introduction to the Nazi movement. Davidson never minces words on the sins of the defendants, but he is equally careful to stick to actual facts and to the legal grounds of the prosecution. In a few pages, he deflates Goering’s vanity, delineates his crimes, and acknowledges the validity of some of his legal argumentation. Cautiously concluding that Nuremberg was better than a lynching, he nonetheless challenges the grounds of the tribunal, pointing out that only losers may be indicted in such a trial and conceding a central point of the German defense: that individuals cannot “commit a crime against international law, which is binding upon states.”

In his 1969 editorial on Hess, Davidson had more than indicated the hypocrisy of continuing to speak of the Nuremberg principle while tolerating war crimes committed in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. The Nuremberg Fallacy (first published in 1973 and republished by the University of Missouri Press in 1998) follows up on this hint and documents the war crimes being committed by the Soviet Union and all parties to the Middle East and Southeast Asian conflicts. This book may be the nearest thing to a balanced account of the conflicts of the 1950’s and 60’s. He does not attempt to minimize the wrongs done by his own government (though the evidence of American complicity in the murder of the Diems is fairly certain) and its French allies in Vietnam, but he is also the very opposite of the type that has come to be known as “blame America first.” He is merciless on the Soviet Union’s crimes, but in narrating and analyzing those brutal conflicts, he never loses sight of his central purpose: to expose the Nuremberg fallacy.

Thirty years ago, even Davidson probably did not realize that a triumphalist America would resurrect Nuremberg in the form of The Hague Tribunal and apply—almost exclusively to one side of a three-way civil war—the principles that had been used to convict and execute the architects of the Third Reich. The Nazi leaders were, admittedly, a hard case to ignore; but, as the legal proverb goes, hard cases make bad law, and the American propaganda of the past ten years seems to make it impossible to walk away from the evil precedent. Conservatives and liberals who wish to understand these matters can spend their time on nothing better than Eugene Davidson’s essays and histories, and we owe a profound debt of gratitude to the University of Missouri Press for making them available.


[Reflections on a Disruptive Decade: Essays From the Sixties, by Eugene Davidson (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press) 245 pp., $29.95]