Tag Archives: Nazism

Empowering and Sustaining Fascism



David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini:
The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

      Italy’s fascist government, led by Benito Mussolini between 1922 and 1943, was the 20th century’s first to be characterized as “totalitarian.” By some accounts, Mussolini himself coined the term and boastfully applied it to his insurgent regime.  That regime came to power in 1922, after Mussolini and a small band of activists from the unruly Fascist party engineered the famous March on Rome in October 1922, which resulted in Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister in Italy’s constitutional monarchy.  Once in power, the charismatic Mussolini, a master of crowd manipulation known as the Duce, eliminated his political opposition and dropped all pretensions of democratic governance in favor of one-man rule. He recklessly took Italy into World War II on Hitler’s side, was deposed by fellow Fascists in 1943 prior to Italy’s surrender to the Allies, and was executed by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.

     In The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, David Kertzer reveals the surprising extent to which the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church empowered and sustained fascism in Italy.  Mussolini had his counterpart in Pope Pius XI, appointed head of the Catholic Church in 1922, the same year Mussolini came to power. Pius XI remained pope until his death in February 1939, months before the outbreak of World War II in September of that year.  Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, shines the historian’s spotlight on the improbable but mutually beneficial alliance between Mussolini and Pius XI.

     The Vatican under Pius XI considered Mussolini and his Fascist party to be the only force that could preserve order in Italy and serve as a bulwark against Russian inspired socialism, which the Vatican considered an existential threat to itself and the church. The Vatican benefitted from the explicitly anti-democratic Fascist regime’s measures to reinstate the church’s privileged position within Italian society.  Its support in turn played a major role in legitimizing Mussolini’s fascist regime, allowing the Duce to cast himself as Italy’s “champion of law and order and national pride” (p.26).  Mussolini and Pius XI “came to be disillusioned by the other,” Kertzer concludes, “yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end” (p.407).

      Kertzer’s story has two general parts. In the first, he explains how Mussolini and Pius XI pieced together in 1929 what are known as the “Lateran Accords,” agreements that reversed the strict separation between church and state that had existed since Italian unification in 1861 and had been arguably the most salient characteristic of Italy’s constitutional monarchy. The second involves Hitler’s intrusion into the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship after he was appointed Germany’s chancellor in 1933, with devastating effects for Italy’s small Jewish population.

   Mussolini and Pius XI met only once. Their relationship was conducted primarily through intermediaries, who form an indispensable component of Kertzer’s story.  Most noteworthy among them was Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XI’s Secretary of State and the pope’s principal deputy in 1930 before being named Pope himself, Pius XII, when Pius XI died in 1939.  Kertzer begins and ends with an account of how Pacelli and like-minded subordinates conspired with Mussolini’s spies within the Vatican to prevent dissemination of the dying Pius XI’s most important final work, an undelivered papal speech condemning racism, persecution of the Jews, and Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany. The undelivered speech was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords and would have marked an irreversible rupture to the improbable alliance between the Vatican and Mussolini’s fascist government.

* * *

     Mussolini, born in 1883 as the son of a small-town blacksmith, started his political career as a socialist and adhered to the strong anti-clerical positions that characterized early 20th century Italian socialism.  As a young rabble-rouser, Mussolini was “part left-wing wild man and part Don Juan” who “always seemed to know how to become the center of attention . . . [H]e was someone you would rather have on your side than against you” (p.21).  More opportunist than ideologue, Mussolini broke with socialism sometime after World War I erupted in 1914. In a transformation that his former socialist colleagues viewed as “inexplicable and traitorous,” Mussolini “kept the revolutionary’s disdain for parliamentary democracy and fascination with the possibilities of violent action” but “jettisoned much of the rest of Marxist ideology” (p.22).

     The period after World War I was a time of great unrest in Italy, when a violent revolution similar to the one that had recently toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia seemed imminent. The chaos surrounding the end of the war created an opportunity for Mussolini. He had “always committed, above all, to himself and to a belief in his own ability to rise to the top. Now he began to see a new path that could allow him to realize those dreams” (p.22). That path involved presenting himself as the protector of the Catholic faith. In his first speech to parliament in late 1922, without any previous consultation with Vatican authorities, the irreligious Mussolini pledged that Fascism would restore Christianity in Italy by building a “Catholic state befitting a Catholic nation” (p.27).

     Mussolini’s protagonist throughout Kertzer’s story, Pius XI, was born Achille Ratti in 1857, twenty-six years before Mussolini.  Ratti seemingly came out of nowhere to become the head of the Catholic Church in 1922.  For most of his career, he had worked as a librarian, in the Vatican and elsewhere. But Pope Benedict XV unexpectedly sent Ratti to Poland in 1918 as his emissary to the heavily Catholic country, where he witnessed the invasion of the Red Army in the wake of the Russian revolution and developed a “lifelong loathing of Communism” (p.xxii).  Ratti then became a cardinal and was a surprising choice for the prestigious position of Archbishop of Milan.  He had barely begun that position when Benedict XV died. After 14 ballots, Ratti was elected pope in February 1922.

     Once in office, Pius XI assumed a manner that was imperious even by the standards of popes.  Compared to his predecessors, Pius XI was “cold and curt” (p.85) and “lacked any hint of diplomatic skills” (p.85).  He insisted that his own brother address him as “Holy Father.”  He had a proclivity for longwinded speeches and frequent outbursts of a volatile temper.  He was a detail oriented, hands on manager who sought to be informed and involved in even the most minor of Vatican administrative matters.  His love of order and deep sense of obedience to authority “set the tone for his reign” (p.39). His commands were to be followed “sooner than immediately,” he liked to say (p.39).

      Pius XI denounced the French Revolution as the “origin of much evil, spreading harmful notions of the ‘rights of man’” (p.84).  He contested the secular, modernist notion that in turning away from the Church, society was advancing; rather society was lapsing back into a “state of barbarism” (p.49). The pope’s vision of the role for the Vatican in society was at heart “medieval” (p.49), Kertzer contends.

     Although Pius XI and Mussolini seemed to have little in common, Kertzer notes that the two men were nonetheless alike in many ways. “Both could have no real friends, for friendship implied equality. Both insisted on being obeyed, and those around them quaked at the thought of saying anything that would displease them” (p.68). The two men also shared important values. “Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat. Both thought Italy was mired in a crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation.” (p.48). Like Mussolini, Pius XI believed that Italy needed a “strong man to lead it, free from the cacophony of multiparty bickering” (p.29).

     Never under any illusion that Mussolini personally embraced Catholic values or cared for anything other than his own aggrandizement, Pius XI nonetheless was willing to test Mussolini’s apparent commitment to restore church influence in Italy.  Mussolini moved quickly to make good on his promises to the Vatican. By the end of 1922, he had ordered crucifixes to be placed in every classroom, courtroom, and hospital in the country. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He required that the Catholic religion be taught in elementary schools and showered the Church with money to restore churches damaged during World War I and to subsidize Church-run schools abroad.

      Through a tendentious back and forth process that lasted four years and forms the heart of this book, Mussolini and Pius XI negotiated the Lateran Accords, signed in 1929. The accords, which included a declaration that Catholicism was “the only religion of the State,” ended the official hostility between the Vatican and the Italian state that had existed since Italy’s the unification in 1861.  The Italian state for the first time officially recognized the Vatican as a sovereign entity, with the government having no right to interfere in internal Vatican affairs.  In exchange for the Vatican’s withdrawal of all claims to territory lost at the time of unification, Italy further agreed to pay the Vatican the equivalent of roughly one billion present day US dollars.

      The historic accords offered Mussolini the opportunity to “solidify support for his regime in a way that was otherwise unimaginable” (p.99).  Pius XI saw the accords as a means of reinstating what had been lost in the 1860s with Italian unification, a “hierarchical, authoritarian society run according to Church principles” (p.110). Newspapers throughout the country hailed the accords, emphasizing that they “could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and Fascism, had made it possible” (p.111).  Yet, neither Mussolini nor Pius XI was fully satisfied with the accords. The pope “would not be happy unless he could get Mussolini to respect what he regarded as the Church’s divinely ordained prerogatives.  Mussolini was willing to give the pope what he wanted as long as it did not conflict with his dictatorship and his own dreams of glory” (p.122).

     In the aftermath of the accords, Mussolini became a hero to Catholics in Italy and throughout the world and his popularity reached unimagined heights.  With no significant opposition, his craving for adulation grew and his feeling of self-importance “knew no bounds. His trust in his instincts had grown to the point where he seemed to believe the pope was not the only one in the Eternal City who was infallible” (p.240), Kertzer wryly observes. But as Mussolini’s popularity in Italy soared, Hitler came to power in nearby Germany early in 1933. The latter portion of Kertzer’s book, focused on a three-way Hitler-Mussolini-Pius XI relationship, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism throughout Italy and within the Vatican itself.

* * *

     Hitler had been attracted to Mussolini and the way he ruled Italy from as early as the 1922 March on Rome, and Mussolini sensed that when Hitler came to power in 1933, he had a potentially valuable ally with whom he had much in common. Pius XI, by contrast, abhorred from the beginning Hitler’s hostility to Christianity and his treatment of German Catholics. He viewed Nazism as a pagan movement based on tribal nationalism that was contrary to the Church’s belief in the universality of humankind. But Pius XI initially found little that was objectionable in the new German government’s approach to what was then euphemistically termed the “Jewish question.” Pius XI’s views of world Jewry were in line with thinking that was widely prevalent across Europe in the early decades of the 20th century: Jews were “Christ killers” bent upon destroying Christianity; and Jewish influence was behind both the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the amoral, godless capitalism centered in the United States.

     Prior to the Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, Mussolini’s views on Jews had been more liberal than those of the Pope. He did not regard Italy’s small Jewish population as a threat to the Italian state.  After Hitler made a triumphal trip to Italy in 1938, however, Mussolini pushed through a series of “racial laws” which in many senses mirrored measures Hitler was taking in Germany to resolve the “Jewish question.” The racial laws defined the “Jewish race” to include those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. They excluded Jews from the civil service and revoked the citizenship of foreign-born Jews who had become citizens after 1919.  All Jews who were not citizens were ordered to leave the country within six months.  All Jewish teachers, from elementary school through university, were fired.

     In a second wave of racial laws, Italian Jews were expelled from the Fascist Party; banned from the military; and barred from owning or directing businesses having more than a hundred employees, or from owning more than fifty hectares of land.  In pursuing the racial laws, Mussolini had obviously fallen under the sway of Hitler. Yet, Kertzer refrains from probing  the motivations behind Mussolini’s thorough and sudden embrace of Nazi approaches to the “Jewish question,” noting simply that Mussolini was “eager to impress the Nazi leadership and undoubtedly thought nothing would please it more than taking aim at Italy’s Jews” (p.293).

     The racial laws were presented to the Italian public as a reinstatement of traditional Catholic teachings on the Jews.  Pius XI and the Vatican initially criticized only their application to Jews who had converted to Catholicism.  Neither the Pope nor anyone else in the Vatican “ever voiced any opposition to the great bulk of the racial laws, aimed at stripping Jews of their rights as Italian citizens” (p.345).  Yet, as his health deteriorated and war appeared ever more imminent in Europe in late 1938 and early 1939, Pius XI began to see the racial laws and the treatment of Jews in Italy and Germany as anathema to Christian teaching.

     Kertzer’s story ends where it begins, with Pius XI near death and seeking to deliver a speech condemning unequivocally Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, racism and the persecution of the Jews on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Lateran Accords.  The speech would have marked the definitive break between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  During Pius XI’s final days, Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope, worked feverishly with other Vatican subordinates to preclude Pius XI from delivering the speech. After the pope’s death, at Mussolini’s urging, they sought to destroy all remaining copies of the undelivered speech.

     Their efforts were almost fully successful. The words the pope had “so painstakingly prepared in the last days of his life would never be seen as long as Pacelli lived” (p.373).  The speech did not become public until 1958, when Pius XII’s successor, John Paul XXIII, in one of his first acts as pope, ordered release of excerpts.  But passages most critical of Mussolini and the Fascist regime were deleted from the released text, “presumably to protect Pacelli, suspected of having buried the speech in order not to offend Mussolini or Hitler” (p.373).  The full text did not become available until 2006, when the Vatican opened its archives on Pius XI.

* * *

     Kertzer’s suspenseful account of Pius XI’s undelivered speech demonstrates his flair for capturing the palace and bureaucratic intrigue that underlay both sides of the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship.  This flair for intrigue, in evidence throughout the book, coupled with his colorful portraits of Mussolini and Pius XI, render Kerzter’s work highly entertaining as well as crucially informative. Although his work is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of Mussolini’s regime, his emphasis upon how the Vatican abetted the regime during Pius XI’s papacy constitutes an invaluable addition to our understanding of the nature of the Fascist state and twentieth century totalitarianism under Mussolini.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 11, 2016


Filed under European History, History, Italian History

When the Boot Was on the Other Foot


R.M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane:
The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War 

          R.M. Douglas’ Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War tells the little-known story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans, Volkdeutsch, primarily from Czechoslovakia and Poland, and secondarily from Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania in 1945 and 1946, into a battered and beaten Germany. By virtue of Article 13 of the Potsdam Decree of August 1945, the victorious allied powers – the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union — specifically mandated “orderly and humane” expulsions of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. The Volkdeutsch populations of Romania and Yugoslavia were not covered. Article 13 provides Douglas with his title Orderly and Humane, used with forceful irony throughout this engaging work.

        In 1945 and 1946, approximately 12 million ethnic Germans were uprooted from the lands where they had lived, sometimes for generations. Their expulsion was not only the “greatest forced migration in human history, but may well constitute the greatest single movement of population” (p.65), Douglas writes. It gave rise to a “massive state-sponsored carnival of violence” (p.129), resulting in a death toll that Douglas estimates to have been somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million. As such, the expulsions were “unique in the peacetime history of twentieth-century Europe” (p.129). Yet, Douglas notes, this was an episode in European history that “escaped the notice of most Europeans, and practically all Americans, other than those physically present on the scene” (p.129).

        The want of attention given to this episode in the United States and Great Britain may be attributable to what Douglas describes as the “dominant narratives about the nature and meaning of the Second World War” (p.353) – the “good war” notion — in which the Western democracies, allied with the Soviet Union, fought and defeated an irrefutably evil enemy. In the abstract, the thought of uprooting 12 million people on account of their ethnicity and sending them to another country would make most of us recoil.  But there was nothing abstract about the circumstances of ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia, Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe in 1945 and 1946.

       These were lands which Nazi Germany invaded and went on to commit uncountable and unspeakable atrocities. Whether the Volkdeutsche should be regarded as “perpetrators,” “victims” or “by-standers” of Nazi atrocities is, Douglas writes, a “question without an obvious answer” (p.59). Yet, he writes elsewhere that during World War II, the Czechoslovak German ethnic population, Sudetendeutsche, “whether enthusiastic Hitlerites or passive anti-Nazis, continued to serve the Greater Germany of which they considered themselves a part” (p.38). In this respect, they “did not differ from any of the other ethnic German . . . communities in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states and elsewhere who, regardless of their individual political leanings, either aligned themselves with the Reich or did nothing to oppose it” (p.38).

       Douglas must therefore address a variant of the notion of collective responsibility: to what extent should those of German ethnicity be held accountable for the crimes that another government committed? Czechoslovakia and Poland argued that the Volkdeutsche were “even more guilty that the people of the ’old Reich’ by virtue of having added treachery to barbarity” (p.287). Although the Allies never explicitly issued a finding of collective responsibility of the Volkdeutsche, there was little dissent in 1945 to the view that Nazism was at bottom an extreme manifestation of “brutal pan-Germanism” with which the “minds and hearts” of ethnic Germans, like those within Germany, had been “thoroughly imbued” (p.287). Moreover, does calling attention to the multiple human rights violations committed during the expulsions risk disparaging those who suffered because of the still greater crimes of Nazi Germany? Wasn’t there room for what Douglas terms “cathartic cruelty” (p.370) toward all Volkdeutsche once the heinous Nazi enemy was defeated and the “boot was on the other foot” (p.9).

       These questions lurk behind Douglas’ methodically written yet passionately argued work. His work is not easy to read. Douglas’ prose sometimes seems dense, but that is largely a consequence of his comprehensive coverage, in which he presents his subject matter from every conceivable angle and delves deeply into each angle. There are full chapters dedicated to the place of the Volkdeutsche in countries outside Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; prior European experiments in mass expulsions; Nazi Germany’s forced expulsions during World War II; camps utilized as holding grounds for expellees (sometimes the same camps the Nazis had utilized); treatment of Volkdeutsche children; administration of territory formerly occupied by Volkdeutsche and confiscation of their property; resettlement and integration of Volkdeutsche into Germany; application of principles of international law to the expulsions; and vestiges of the expulsions still with us today.

        Throughout, Douglas emphasizes how expulsion of the Volkdeutsche out of other states and their absorption into the ruins of Germany was undertaken with shockingly little advanced planning — remarkable for the “deliberate refusal of those who carried [the expulsions] out . . . to make any preparations, of however rudimentary a character, for an enterprise whose disruption to the normal life of central Europe was second only to that caused by the war itself” (p.65). Douglas painstakingly documents numerous other failings of the public authorities who participated in or condoned the widespread human rights abuses resulting from the expulsions. But he reserves his harshest judgments for the indispensable roles played in the expulsions by the Western Allies, the United States and Great Britain who, he writes, “disavowed any responsibility for the suffering that resulted, which was, they asserted, entirely the concern of the expelling states or of the Germans themselves” (p.285).

* * *

      Two terms were used to describe the expulsions of Volkdeutsche during the height of the expulsions — roughly the 20 months between May 1945 and December 1946 – “wild expulsions,” putatively spontaneous actions of feed up citizens ridding their country of all vestiges of Nazism; and “ordered expulsions,” those expulsions sanctioned by the Potsdam accords in August 1945 for Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, designed to put an end to wild expulsions. One of the many contributions which Douglas makes to our understanding of the period is his demonstration that there were very few actual “wild expulsions.” Most were not carried out by mobs but rather “by troops, police, and militia, acting under orders and more often than not executing policies laid down at the highest levels” (p.94). Yet, the expelling governments encouraged the notion of wild expulsions, which amply suited their interests.

       The most notable exception occurred in Czechoslovakia immediately after the Nazi capitulation, when Czechs hunted Germans across Czechoslovakia throughout May and into June 1945. The prime movers were local civilians, “albeit highly politicized ones” (p.100). But, Douglas cautions, “[f]ew of the misnamed ‘wild expulsions’ that took place later during the summer [of 1945] followed this pattern” (p.99-100). Most had at least the tacit support of state authorities.

          Czechoslovakia and Poland receive most of Douglas’ attention. The Czech expulsions in the aftermath of the war were carried out with a ruthlessness not exceeded elsewhere. In the typical case, Douglas writes, Czechoslovakia’s Volkdeutsche, were “rounded up, normally at an hour’s notice, permitted to gather together some hand baggage; searched for contraband; and then marched on foot either to the border or to a holding camp” (p.100). Ridding the country of its Sudentland Germans had been a project of Czech leaders since the country’s creation in the aftermath of World War I.

        Czechoslovak leader Edouard Beneš was convinced that the Second World War presented his country with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete the Czechoslovakian national project” by ridding itself of unwanted minority populations through mass expulsions (p.16). By 1942, the Czechoslovak government in exile was “openly committed to the removal of all or most of its Sudetendeutsch population after the war. . . no more than 600,000 or 700,000 Sudeten Germans, or a fifth of the prewar population, would be allowed to remain” (p.21).

        Poland’s ethnic German population was far smaller than that in Czechoslovakia, only about 3% of its pre-war population. By September 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London had determined that those Germans “who do not leave Polish territory after the war will have to removed from it” (p.25). This applied equally to the area of the Polish state in 1939, and what was termed the “recovered territories” — the territories “whose incorporation into Poland will be demanded as a result of the present war” (p.25).  Although Poland’s record of respecting the rights of Jewish, German and Ukrainian minorities between the wars was “thoroughly undistinguished” (p.and Nazi occupation had been “infinitely more savage and inhumane” in Poland than in Czechoslovakia, Polish expulsions were “not marked by the kind of violent reprisals seen in Czechoslovakia” (p.108). )

       As ethnic Germans were removed from Poland’s recovered territories and Czechoslovakia’s Sudentland — termed the “Wild West” in both countries (p.257) — Czechoslovak and Polish citizens’ “enthusiasm for the expulsions owed a great deal to the prospect that that they would profit from the confiscation of their German neighbors’ wealth” (p.255). Douglas describes the “locust cloud of ‘gold diggers,’ ‘gleaners,’ or ‘prospectors’ who descended on the cleared areas, either to seize the most desirable houses and businesses or simply to loot vacated premises and carry the goods away for use or resale” (p.267). Neither country had drawn up a detailed plan to determine the method by which German property was to be confiscated and redistributed and, in both, “all kinds of moneymaking schemes and scams proliferated” (p.181). The central governments “lost control of the process of redistributing confiscated German properties from the very outset, and never fully regained it. . . ‘gold digging’ permeated the whole of Czechoslovakia and Polish society, from the very bottom to the highest echelons” (p.267). Such “gold digging” even extended to Christian churches, which “enthusiastically embraced the opportunity both to acquire property and to eliminate the local influence of competing sects” (p.267).

         The removal of the ethnic Germans was not just an enormous logistical undertaking. It was also the source of a highly disruptive economic and social transformation of the affected areas. Yet, proven cases of opposition to forced removal in Czechoslovakia and Poland were “nowhere to be found. The uniform, almost eerie, meekness of the German population was recorded in report an after report in both Czechoslovakia and Poland” (p.115). The lack of opposition was due in part to the demographics of those expelled. Although the justification had been to remove the most dangerous ethnic Germans, those likely to comprise a subversive fifth column, in fact the opposite occurred. The least dangerous ethnic Germans, predominately children and the elderly, were expelled “while the fit men were being held back for forced labor, and in many cases pressured to take out Polish or Czechoslovak nationality against their will” (p.193). In Poland, “[v]irtually every report remarked upon the extraordinarily high proportion of elderly people included in the transports. . . [T]he Polish authorities were taking the opportunity to rid themselves of the unproductive element of the German population, retaining employable males for compulsory labor” (p.169).

        Up to sixty-five thousand Hungarian ethnic Germans were removed from Hungary by February 1945, about one third of whom died in Soviet camps. Hungary was the “only country in which expellees felt confident enough to display more than negligible resistance to their expropriation and removal” (p.215). Although the Soviet Union opposed expulsion of the Volkdeutsch population from Yugoslavia into their zone of Germany, Yugoslav leader Tito was willing to risk alienating his Soviet ideological allies by expelling Yugoslavia’s Volkdeutsche population. The deportations from Romania were carried out in as chaotic a manner as those in Czechoslovakia and Poland. As many as seventy-five thousand Volksdeutsche were removed. Others were taken up into internment camps, to “facilitate the redistribution of their property” (p.112). Although most ethnic Germans from Romania were not formally deported, they were “confronted with conditions that made it impossible for many of them to remain” (p.112).

         Douglas’ devotes a full chapter to camps set up to temporarily house Volkdeutsche prior to their expulsion to Germany. In Poland, the infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz was quickly made available for Volkdeutsche.  Douglas also devotes a full chapter to the effect of the expulsions on children. Although the expelling countries and the Western Allies had subscribed in 1926 to the International Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which stipulated that children were to be the “first to receive relief in times of distress” without taking into account “considerations of race nationality, or creed,” the convention remained a “dead letter” throughout most of 1945 and 1946 (p.240).  With a few exceptions, there is “little evidence to suggest that the authorities exerted themselves to shield children from the harsher aspects of camp life” (p.236). Rather, the response of authorities to humanitarian appeals on behalf of children was “almost without exception to ignore them” (p.235). Between 160,000 and 180,000 of the children who became separated from their parents in the course of the transfer operations had not been reunited with them by 1950. Despite some general sympathy for children, Douglas concludes, “Western opinion in general was not ready to deviate from the established narrative of Germans as ‘perpetrators,’ regardless of the age or exact status of the ‘Germans’ concerned” (p.240).

       Early in 1947, Great Britain became the first of the three Allies to call for an end to the Volkdeutsche expulsions, with the United States following shortly thereafter. The Western Allies did not withdraw their support for the expulsions they had authorized on humanitarian grounds. Rather, they “found themselves confronted with a first-class social, economic, and humanitarian crisis that threatened to undo whatever plans they had made for German reconstruction, as well as to disrupt the economics of the expelling states for years to come” (p.193). What had changed by the end of 1946 for Britain, Douglas argues, was not the “degree of suffering caused to the expellees, but the enthusiasm of British administrators and politicians for a project that was creating an accelerating, open-ended, and ruinously expensive social crisis in their occupation zone [of Germany], for which taxpayers at home would have to pick up the bill” (p.196). Thus, after “coping—or failing to cope – with the ‘wild expulsions’ of 1945, and finding the ‘organized expulsions’ of 1946 from their perspective to be less satisfactory yet, each of the Allied powers entered 1947 with the same overriding objective: to put an end to what was proving to be an intolerable burden to it as quickly as possible” (p.193).

       Critics of the expulsions had argued that the Volkdeutsche would never be successfully integrated into Germany, their new homeland, and would remain a glaring social problem that could affect the overall health of the country as it tried to rebuild after the devastating war. On this score, surprisingly, the critics were wrong. Douglas stresses how little social upheaval could be attributed to the Volkdeutsche immigrants in post-war Germany. Fears of widespread juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity, and educational underperformance were “not borne out by events” (p.253). Within an “incredibly few years,” the expellees had become “effectively – if not quite completely – integrated into the larger society in both West and East Germany” (p.302). Roughly one-fourth of Germany’s population today is descended from expellees from neighboring countries in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

* * *

         There are few heroes in this prodigiously researched account. Although Douglas meticulously demonstrates the wholesale violations of human rights committed by the expelling countries, above all else his book is a searing critique of the policies pursued by the Western Allies, Great Britain and the United States. One of the most disturbing aspects of the expulsions, he writes, was “how little those Britons and Americans directly involved in their oversight were disturbed by them” (p.369). Many “derived a degree of vicarious satisfaction from the anguish the expellees were undergoing. They also regarded the deliberately cruel way in which the expulsions were often conducted as not only forgivable but cathartic for the expelling societies themselves” (p.369-70). At several points, Douglas suggests that the Western Allies sanctioned policies that invite comparisons to the methods of Nazi Germany. In a particularly impassioned summation, he notes that the Western Allies had:

not just ignored, but consciously and after mature consideration rejected, the unanimous advice of experts who had predicated with great accuracy the state of affair their policies would produce. They had knowingly opted to pursue a course that would cause greater rather than less suffering, so as to generate what they regarded as an “educational” effect upon the defeated German population. They had dismissed as irrelevant distinctions between the innocent and the guilty, far less any effort to distinguish between degrees of guilt. They had encouraged their allies to carry out, and promised their cooperation in accomplishing, deeds for which they would later prosecute their enemies as war crimes (p.92).

         Douglas categorically rejects the notion that addressing the massive human rights violations attributed to the post-war expulsions might in some sense discount or downplay the “unprecedented barbarities of the Hitler regime” (p.157). Most certainly, he argues, the “connection between the expulsions and the Holocaust, as well as to the Hitler regime’s numerous other atrocities, is both inescapable and appropriate.” But a frame of reference that measures acts of violence and injustice in the expulsions against the “supreme atrocity of our time and assesses the former as being unworthy of notice in comparison with the latter makes such violations more rather than less likely to be repeated” (p.347). The focus of any historical or commemorative treatment of the expulsions, as with the other tragedies of the era, “must remain squarely on the human person,” which during both the war and the post-ear expulsions was “reduced to an abstract category rather than recognized as an all too vulnerable individual” (p.361-62).

* * *

         With the exception of the war years themselves, Europe west of the Soviet Union “had never seen, nor would it again see, so vast a complex of arbitrary detention – one in which tens of thousands, including many children, would lose their lives” (p.156-57). For Douglas, the “most delusional aspect of this entire tragic episode” was the supposition that the expulsions could be “directed against a single group of perceived enemies and then never again resorted to for any of other purpose, that afterwards it would be possible to return to a peaceful, ordered existence in which individual rights would once more be upheld and respected” (p.228). That the post-war expulsions largely escaped the attention of contemporaries elsewhere in Europe and the notice of history today is, Douglas writes, a “chilling commentary on the ease with which great evils in plain sight may go overlooked when they present a spectacle that international public opinion prefers not to see” (p.157). Douglas’ comprehensive and provocative account of this unhappy yet understudied aspect of post-war history provides hope that some lessons can still be derived from it.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 1, 2015


Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, United States History

Grotesquely Unthinkable


Tony Judt, with Timothy Synder,
Thinking the Twentieth Century

           Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, Tony Judt became what I term colloquially my “main man.” I tried to read everything Judt wrote. I was smitten by the enormous insight he brought to the subjects that most interested me – 20th century France and 20th European history and political theory. His best known work is a magisterial text about Europe since World War II, entitled simply “Postwar.” But his background also fascinated me. A near contemporary, born in 1948 in Great Britain of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Judt was raised in South London, educated at Kings College, Cambridge, with formative years in Israel, France and California, before he wound up teaching at New York University. He also had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage. All of the above is written in the past tense, as Judt succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in August 2010, at the age of 62. “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is likely the last book to bear Judt’s name as an author. An “Afterword” is eerily dated July 5, 2010, slightly over a month prior to his death.

           But “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is no conventional book. Rather, it is an extended series of conversations between Judt and Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Twenty years younger than Judt, Snyder is the author of “Bloodlands,” a highly-acclaimed chronicle of mass killings in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Judt notes in his afterward that Snyder is one of the first Americans to rise to prominence as an historian of Eastern Europe. Previously, most distinguished Eastern European historians were refugees from that part of the world. Snyder interjects himself into the discussion, but is more like an interviewer, or at least close to it. His portion of the conversation is plainly overshadowed by that of Judt, almost certainly deliberately so.

           The two scholars range widely but, as the title suggests, their focus is what to make of the murderous 20th century in Europe. Their reflections center on Europe’s multiple 20th century ordeals, including two devastating world wars, the rise and fall of authoritarian ideologies – communism, fascism, Nazism – and, above all, the Holocaust, the still unfathomable destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Interspersed with the authors’ conversations on these ponderous themes are Judt’s touching and poignant personal reminiscences of aspects of his life. Judt undoubtedly knew that this was likely among his last opportunities to speak publicly about himself and the ideas he cared about.

           The reason for the title Judt and Synder chose for their book does not become clear until about the half way point, where they indicate that thinking the 20th century requires a capacity to set aside traditional Enlightenment notions like the primacy of reason and the inevitability of progress. In their place, we must imagine conspiracies, plots and the “grotesquely unthinkable,” and treat them as real (p.194). They cite Koestler, Orwell and Kakfa as among the few thinkers who were “able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent” (p.194). To be able to think the twentieth century in this way, Judt says:

was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries. For the same reason, many people reassured themselves that the Holocaust could not be happening, simply because it made no sense. . . [I]t made no sense for the [non Jewish] Germans. . .Since they wanted to win their war surely the Nazis would exploit the Jews, rather than kill them at great expense. This application to human behavior of a perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus, self-evident to men raised in the nineteenth century, simply did not work in the twentieth (p.194).

           The Holocaust thus hovers over the European 20th century, it hovers over this book, and it hovered over Judt as a Jew. The “Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he says. But as he grew older, he found it intruding, “inevitably, and with ever greater force” (p.12). For Judt, thinking Europe’s 20th century unavoidably requires trying to account in some manner for the Holocaust, an exercise for which our normal processes of reasoning and empirically based critical thinking are likely to prove insufficient.

           Judt’s insights into the 20th century’s totalitarian impulses –fascism, Nazism and communism — by themselves, make the book worth reading. Communists and fascists after 1917 shared, Judt contends, a “profound attraction to mortal struggle and its beneficial social or aesthetic outcomes” (p.102), along with distaste for modernist culture — both were “extraordinarily wary of innovation or imagination” (p.165). In Italy, fascism was not so much a doctrine as a “symptomatic political style” (p.65), which appealed by its contrast to liberal bourgeois democracy. Fascists don’t have concepts like leftists, he asserts. Rather, they have “attitudes. . . distinctive responses to war, depression and backwardness” (p.159). Without the threat of Bolshevikism, there would have been “far less space for fascists to offer themselves as a guarantee of traditional order” (p.163).

          Judt also argues that Nazism differed from Fascism in that it was purely German, based upon a “set of claims which made Germans unique,” whereas there was an outward looking side of fascism, in which fascist intellectuals often believed that they were “espousing universal truths and categories” (p.104). In some senses, fascism captured the early 20th century notion of distinctly European values:

The European idea, as we tend to forget, was then a right-wing idea. It was counter to Bolshevism, obviously, but also to Americanization, to the coming of industrial America with its ‘materialist values’ and its heartless and ostensibly Jewish-dominated finance capitalism (p.177).

           Judt saw no serious prospect for contemporary fascism. With the “coming of television (and a fortitori the internet), the masses disaggregate into ever-smaller units. Consequently, for all its demagogic and populist appeal, traditional fascism has been handicapped: the one thing that fascists do supremely well – transforming angry minorities into large groups, and large groups into crowds – is now extra ordinarily difficult to accomplish” (p.166).

            Judt considered the 20th century’s struggles — between democracy and fascism, communism and capitalism, freedom and totalitarianism — as, at bottom, “implicit or explicit debates over the rise of the state. What sort of state did free people want? What are they willing to pay for it and what purposes did they wish it to serve?” (p.386). Judt found his own answers in the rise of social democracies in much of Northern and Western Europe — democratic governments which tax at relatively high rates, provide significant welfare benefits, embrace capitalism and maintain free but extensively regulated markets, while respecting individual rights and the rule of law (my definition, not Judt’s). For Judt, social democracies refute the hypothesis of the economist Friedrich Hayek, who argued in his famous 1944 work, “The Road to Serfdom,” that any attempt to intervene in the natural processes of the free market is “guaranteed to produce authoritarian political outcomes” (p.343). Judt contends that European social democracies are “among the wealthiest societies in the world today, and not one of them has moved remotely in the direction of anything resembling a return to the German-style authoritarianism that Hayek saw as the price they would pay for handing initiative to the state” (p.383; Hayek, it’s worth pointing out, retains significant appeal in conservative and Republican circles in the United States).

           Interspersed with these macro-reflections on 20th century Europe are Judt’s micro-reflections on his personal life, his academic wanderings, and his two failed marriages — he gets in some digs against his ex-spouses, for instance. The macro and micro come together as he describes the movement of his own intellectual center of gravity from France and Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Particularly through two key Polish thinkers, Leszak Kolakowski and Jan Gross, Eastern Europe in the 1980s offered Judt a “fresh start” (p.207). Kolakowski was expelled from Warsaw University in 1968 for the flagrantly heretical view that Marxism itself, not simply the way it was practiced in Soviet regimes, was “bereft of political prospects or moral value” (p.197), a view which Judt ultimately adopted as his own. Gross was a contemporary of Judt. The two met in the mid-1980s when both were teaching in the United States. Through Gross, Eastern Europe began to offer Judt “an alternative social life” at a time of “renewed and redirected intellectual existence” (p.201). At the apex of Judt’s career, Eastern Europe “ceased to be just a place; its history was now for me a direct and personal frame of reference” (p.204).

           Judt made his reputation through studies addressing the very French notion of a “public intellectual,” a macro, big picture thinker who analyzes and comments upon public affairs, while standing outside of official structures (again, my definition, not Judt’s). One of his first works to gain widespread public attention, “The Burden of Responsibility,” was a treatment of three French intellectuals, Léon Blum, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, whom he describes as “genuinely independent thinkers in a time and a place where being independent placed you in real danger, as well as consigning you to the margins of your community and to the disdain of your fellow intellectuals” (p.330).

           Thus, it was ironic that Judt became, during his time in New York, somewhat of an American public intellectual of the type he had written about. Judt contended that “no scholar, historian or anyone else is – merely by being a scholar – ethically excused from their own circumstances. We are also participants in our own time and place and cannot retreat from it” (p.285). After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Judt became “increasingly and polemically engaged in American public affairs” (p.286), in particular as a vociferous and highly-visible critic of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war and Israel’s Palestinian policies.

           This dialogue between two exceptionally sharp minds has a rambling quality. Like good dinner table conversation, the two shift ground frequently and often suddenly, and themes do not always follow one another with Cartesian or other logic. But having a last look into Tony Judt’s prodigious mind is an opportunity to be seized. We may not see such nimble and versatile thinking on Europe’s grotesquely unthinkable 20th century any time soon.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
July 30, 2013


Filed under European History, Intellectual History