I recently listened to an old lecture (c.1979) that economist and historian Jeff Hummel put on his webpage.  It’s a one-hour intro to World War II revisionism.  While I’m sympathetic to the conclusion that U.S. participation in WWII actually made the world less free, I found Jeff’s arguments awfully unconvincing.   It’s possible that over the past thirty years, he has modified his views; in fact, since he’s a voraciously well-read historian, I’d be surprised if he didn’t have some second thoughts.  But since he posted the lecture without caveats, I’ll treat it as fair game.

Jeff begins (around the two-minute mark) with three generalizations.  He doesn’t actually call them “laws of history,” but I will:

First Law. “[I]t is empirically almost never the case that one state or the other is unambiguously the bully.”

Second Law. “When war occurs… it’s usually because all warring parties desire it.”

Third Law. “Either opponent state could have avoided the war without sacrificing the liberties that it permits its citizens.”

I tend to agree with Jeff’s outlook – see e.g. my defense of appeasement in Public Choice.  Our understanding of the past would be more insightful if historians took Jeff’s laws seriously.  Nevertheless, when he tries to apply them to the outbreak of World War II, they fall flat.  I’m going to devote one post to each of his laws, starting with Hummel’s First Law.

Let’s begin with three conceptual problems.

1. Suppose you’re trying to rebut the charge “Government X is a bully.”  It isn’t enough to point out that X has some complaints that, taken in isolation, seem reasonable.  You would want to see how X tries to remedy its grievances – and how X responds to comparable grievances of militarily weaker countries.  If X threatens war over minor incidents, and stonewalls comparable criticism of its own behavior, it is fair to call it a bully even if some of its complaints aren’t per se crazy. 

2. The domestic actions of X are relevant for its “bully” status.  Suppose a known wife-beater knocks on your door and tells you to turn your stereo down.  From a normal neighbor, it’s a fair request.  From the wife-beater, you could plausibly take this “request” as a violent threat.

3. If you’re trying to judge whether X was a bully in 1939, it is perfectly fair to bring up its subsequent behavior.  In fact, this is one of the best ways of adjudicating whether earlier charges of “bullying” were reasonable.  If two teen-agers mutually accuse each other of “bullying,” but one later goes to jail for rape and murder, common sense suggests that latter was probably to blame for the earlier conflict as well.

Now I’m perfectly aware that there are problems with analogizing individual and national behavior.  But Jeff didn’t say that it is meaningless to charge a country or government with “bullying”; his claim is explicitly empirical.

So let’s consider the empirics of Nazi Germany’s pre-war foreign policy. 

1. Jeff insists that the 1938 unification with Austria was reasonable.  He doesn’t consider that (a) a free trade and migration agreement between Germany and Austrian would have mostly solved the problem of Austrian economic isolation, or (b) that given Hitler’s internal policies and rhetoric, neighboring countries (and Austrians!) had plenty of reason to fear the union. 

2. Next, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland.   Jeff argues that given the inequities of the Versailles Treaty, this demand was at least plausible.  But this is only true if you take the demand in isolation.  Given Hitler’s past behavior, it was (a) almost certain that his mistreatment of non-Germans in the Sudetenland would be very harsh, and (b) reasonable to worry that he would make further demands.  Not only did he threaten war if his demands were not met; he demanded near-instant redress of a minor grievance.  If Nazi Germany’s treatment of Czechoslovakia wasn’t bullying, what would be?

3. A few months after the Munich Agreement, Hitler did exactly what the Czechs feared, invading the Czech rump state and setting up Slovakia as a satellite.  Jeff barely touches on these events, which provide a simple explanation why his subsequent targets (Stalin excepted!) didn’t trust Hitler or take his grievances as more than pretexts.

4. Jeff doesn’t mention the Memelland annexation of March, 1939.  This is pretty obviously a case where the Lithuanians did exactly what Hitler asked out of sheer terror.

5. After all this, Jeff patiently explains German complaints about Danzig and Polish refusal to negotiate with Hitler.  This is frankly astonishing.   By this point, the reasonableness of German complaints taken in isolation was irrelevant.  Every sensible person was asking, “After we give him Danzig, what’s next?”  As it turned out, the crudest caricature of Hitler’s intentions was correct.  Just months after the Poles started refusing his demands, he gave his generals a pitch-perfect bully’s speech:

I have given the command and I shall shoot
everyone who utters one word of criticism, for the goal to be obtained in the war is not
that of reaching certain lines but of physically demolishing the opponent. And so for the
present only in the East I have put my death-head formations in place with the command
relentlessly and without compassion to send into death many women and children of Polish
origin and language…

The attack upon and the destruction of Poland begins
Saturday early. I shall let a few companies in Polish uniform attack in Upper Silesia or
in the Protectorate. Whether the world believes it is quite indifferent.
The world believes only in success.

6. Jeff briefly mentions the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, without ever admitting that it might shed some light on the whole “bully issue.”   In the secret protocols of this Nazi-Soviet deal, the two military giants divided up the weaker countries that lay between them.  They also quickly worked out a system of cooperative repression, dissident exchange, etc.

7. Jeff dismisses Hitler’s behavior during WWII as irrelevant to the question of whether he was a bully before the war.  This is pretty silly.  Yes, leaders do stuff during war that they wouldn’t ordinarily do.  But very few act like Hitler consistently did – answering even mild defiance with massive reprisals.

None of this shows that Hummel’s First Law is usually wrong.  But he doesn’t do himself any credit by overextending it.  Nazi Germany really was an archetypal international bully – there’s no denying it.