Stratfor’s George Friedman published an interesting article on September 1, “Pondering Hitler’s Legacy,” to mark the 76th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The first outcome of Hitler’s war, he says, was that it destroyed Europe’s hegemony over much of the world and its influence over the rest:
Within 15 years of the end of the war, Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands lost their empires . . . By the end of the war they had lost the will, the energy and the wealth to maintain their power. After half-hearted and doomed attempts to resist, these countries willingly participated in the dismantling of what they had once thought of as their birthright . . . After the war, Europe faced the task of rebuilding buildings. The ambition to rule had been exhausted.
This assertion is disputable. The dusk of European hegemony started in the aftermath of the First World War. The wealth was largely gone by 1918. A financially crippled Britain abandoned the gold standard in 1931. France was even more severely damaged: the ravages of war on her soil exceeded 100 percent of her 1913 GDP; the national debt rose from 66% of GDP in 1913 to 170% in 1919. High inflation caused the franc to lose half its value against the British pound.
“The ambition to rule” was fatally impaired, too. In 1921 Ireland became de facto independent, light years beyond the provisions of the contentious Home Rule bill of 1914. A year later Britain signed the Washington Naval Treaty, accepting parity with the U.S. Navy – a strategic retreat unthinkable before 1914. Also in 1922 Egypt was granted formal independence. Iraq, a British post-war mandate, achieved independence in 1932, and by 1941 it had an actively pro-Nazi government which necessitated British military intervention. Under the 1931 Statute of Westminster, old British dominions became independent of London’s legislative control. Most importantly, India’s independence movement flourished. By the time the 1935 Government of India Act was passed, it was widely accepted in London that the jewel in the Imperial crown would go its own way at some point in the not too distant future.
Friedman goes on to say that, in his view, Hitler was sincere when he said that he would leave the British Empire intact, along with its navy, if the United Kingdom accepted German domination of the European mainland: “He wanted peace with the British so he could crush the Soviets. But the British as a nation could accept that deal only if they trusted Hitler’s promise. However sincere he was in 1940, Britain couldn’t bet on the endurance of his word.”
The problem was much deeper. In the late 17th century, it had been Britain’s firm strategy to prevent the emergence of a Continental hegemon. Having decisively curtailed the ambitions of the Sun King, Britain fought Napoleon a century later with remarkable tenacity – and continued doing so even when it looked like there were no European allies left to rely upon. Bonaparte’s readiness to accept the Hitlerian deal – let me rule Europe, and I will let you rule the seas – was immaterial. Yet another century later Britain fought the Kaiser for the same reason, even though Germany of 1914 would have been equally happy to agree to the same arrangement. Regardless of whether Britain could “bet on the endurance of Hitler’s word,” after the fall of France in the summer of 1940 she could not accept German domination of the European mainlaind. That would have been contrary to her long established grand strategy. Even in the dark days before Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, there was a remarkable unity among the British political elite on this key issue.
“There was another thing Hitler cost Europe: the metaphysical sensibility,” Friedman continues. Christian Europe has abandoned Christianity for secularism:
It was not Hitler who destroyed the European metaphysical sensibility. In many ways it destroyed itself from the inside, with a radical skepticism derived from the Enlightenment that turned on itself. But Hitler provided a coup de grace to that sensibility by appropriating figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner to his own political ends, thereby delegitimizing not only them but also the tradition from which they emerged . . . The train wreck that Hitler made of Europe created a secularism not only in relation to Christianity, but in all attempts to recreate the depth of European culture.
Again, the process was well under way in the aftermath of the Great War. The carnage on the Somme and at Verdun shattered all of the old certainties, and gave rise to the Spenglerian sense that the European civilization was mortally wounded. The mood was gloomily anticipated by the War Poets even before the Armistice. Paul Valéry reflected it when he said, in 1919, that the war made Europeans realize that a civilization is “as fragile as a life.” A decade later he eloquently summarized the wreckage:
We think of what has disappeared, and we are almost destroyed by what has been destroyed; we do not know what will be born, and we fear the future, not without reason. We hope vaguely, we dread precisely; our fears are infinitely more precise than our hopes; we confess that the charm of life is behind us.
No longer can we “hope to dominate his anxiety, to escape from this impression of darkness,” Valéry concluded. “The Mind has indeed been cruelly wounded; its complaint is heard in the hearts of intellectual men; it passes a mournful judgment on itself. It doubts itself profoundly.” Indeed, 1914 was “Europe’s Last Summer.” In this sense, as well as in geopolitical terms, the war of 1939-1945 was only a horrid sequel to the catastrophe of 1914-1918. This historically unprecedented act of civilizational self-immolation could not be reversed, regardless of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles which planted the seeds of the second, final act of the tragedy.
Friedman is right in his final observation that “perhaps the most important thing that Hitler did was unleash the United States,” and that he “drew the Americans into the heart of Europe and left the Europeans completely vulnerable to the emerging, and quite strange, modes of thought that a nation that holds shopkeepers in great regard can produce.” What he failed to note is that, by helping turn the United States into a superpower permanently engaged in open-ended global quest for power and influence, Hitler also undermined the character of America herself. The resulting pursuit of an American Empire overseas has decisively contributed to the domestic transformation of the United States’ federal government into a Leviathan unbound by constitutional restraints. For all true Americans that is arguably the most destructive element of Adolf Hitler’s legacy.
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